Books of the Year 2018

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For thirteen years, I have compiled a list of the best Christian books across multiple publishers and genres. Reading books is a priority for me, so I make time to read a wide variety of Christian books throughout the year. Here’s a list of my top 10 favorite non-fiction Christian books of 2018.

1. Jonathan King, The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics (Lexham). Without debate this is the best book I read in 2018. At the center of our faith is not merely believing — but also tasting and seeing the beauty of God. How do we quantify the beauty of God? “Beauty is a quality of God’s glory and thus the display of God’s glory is always beautiful, always fitting, always entails an aesthetic dimension to it” (326). Or, to put it another way, “everything God does is beautiful in its God-glorifying nature” (298). King’s book is one of the most expansive and ambitious theological achievements that I’ve ever come across, a rare book which offers a treasured doctrine of Reformed theology in fresh articulation on every page. Not merely the best Reformed definition of aesthetics (long overdue and sorely needed), this is Reformed theology at its beautiful best. … King’s book is part of an impressive series from Lexham: Studies in Historical & Systematic Theology. See also Timothy Padgett’s Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937–1973, an engaging look at how Evangelical writers and columnists processed WW2 and then Vietnam.

2. John Piper, Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship (Crossway). What makes John Piper the preacher tick? This is the answer. Piper applies Christian Hedonism to the task of preaching, and adds a uniquely valuable book in the suite of Piper offerings. Expository Exultation is the third in a trilogy that covers how we can trust the Bible (A Peculiar Glory) and how to read the Bible (Reading the Bible Supernaturally). … Also noteworthy is Joel Beeke’s book on preaching: Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of His People, a book that builds off Piper’s “expository exultation.” Says Beeke: “We might add that it is expository admiration for God, expository adoration of God, expository affection toward God, and expository subjection unto God. Indeed, sometimes it is expository lamentation over our sins against this beautiful and holy God. But real preaching is always a flame of worship arising from the wick of the preacher’s soul immersed in the oil of the Spirit in the lamp of Scripture.”

3. Russell Moore, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home (B&H). Throughout your life, you will disappoint your family, and your family will disappoint you. But throughout the disappointment, the gospel remains. “In reality, every family is, to some degree or other, a broken family.” But you are not your family. “You are not your genealogy. You are not your family tree. You are not your family. After all, if you are in Christ, you are a new creation. You are not doomed to carry on the dark family traditions that would harm you or drive you away from God or other people.” This latest book from Dr. Moore will serve families in every stage of life.

4. Jackie Hill Perry, Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been (B&H). We all know that Jackie can write lyrics. Her memoir proves that she can write prose. It is a magnificent first book of what I hope will be many more to come in the future. It’s relevant for those who are same-sex attracted and those who are not. “This is a book with a lot of me in it but with a whole lot more of God,” she says. “He is what the soul needs for rest and what the mind needs for peace. He is the Creator God, the King of Glory, the one who, in love, sent the Christ to pay the penalty for and become the sin that we are all born with. It is the words from and about this resurrected Lamb of God that I hope will lift off the page and into the heart. This book is a lifted hand, a glad praise, a necessary hymn, a hallelujah overheard and not kept quiet.”

5. Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos). I really enjoyed Karen’s previous work, Booked, and this book was a fitting follow up. Karen helps sharpen our appreciation for fictional literature, highlighting the virtuous themes in a dozen great works which advance one main virtue: cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, justice, courage); theological virtues (faith, hope, love); and heavenly virtues (chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility). Spanning from Bunyan to Austin to Cormac, this book is a literary feast!

6. Joe Rigney, Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God (Crossway). As we expect from Joe, this book is a careful reading of Lewis and application of his wisdom to the questions of today. Another gem!

7. Richard P. Belcher Jr., Finding Favour in the Sight of God: A Theology of Wisdom Literature (IVP Academic). An engaging and illuminating theology of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, I will return to this book over and over.

8. N. T. Wright, Paul: A Biography (HarperOne). Wright has problems, but he remains one of the most engaging, theologically-driven writers of our generation. His books are a model of form and his style is especially suited for biography. As to be expected, Wright returns to his work of attempting to undermine the Reformers on justification, and this emerges in the final chapter (15: The Challenge of Paul). But the discerning reader will pick up loads of interesting gems about the life and ministry of Paul in this volume. … For a better look at justification, see Michael Horton’s two-volume masterpiece (here and here). … And for an anticipated volume on Paul’s life and ministry, be watching for John Piper’s Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons, due out in January (Crossway).

9. Peter Leithart, The Gospel of Matthew Through New Eyes, Volume One: Jesus as Israel (Athanasius). Of interest to me is how a notable Bible teacher’s legacy gets passed along to the next generation, and here’s one answer. From the lineage of James Jordan comes a commentary series taking his vision of the Bible and working it out, text by text. Leithart has covered the epistles of John and now the first 12 chapters of Matthew. Readers won’t agree with everything, but as with all of Leithart’s commentaries, this book is a feast for the mind and heart. … In 2018 his Revelation commentary was finally released, in two volumes (chs 1–11 and 12–22). … And along this same James Jordan-inspired trajectory, see Alastair Roberts and Andrew Wilson’s Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption through Scripture (Crossway).

10. Hans Boersma, Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition (Eerdmans). A wonderful historical survey of the doctrine of the beatific vision in all its glory (and debate) over the centuries. We need more lively doctrinal surveys like this one.

Previous Books of the Year

2017: Herman Selderhuis, Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography (Crossway)
2016: The six-volume ESV Reader’s Bible (Crossway)
2015: Randy Alcorn, Happiness (Tyndale)
2014: Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Dutton)
2013: Tom Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Baker)
2012: Steve DeWitt, Eyes Wide Open: Enjoying God in Everything (Credo)
2011: Greg Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Baker)
2010: Don Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway) and The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (Baker)
2009: Bruce Gordon, Calvin (Yale)
2008: The ESV Study Bible (Crossway) and Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Baker)
2007: Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Zondervan)
2006: Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Reformation Heritage)

#IsaiahChristmas 2018

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Download the printable #IsaiahChristmas 2018 reading schedule here and join the conversation on Twitter beginning December 1.


Ever since biblical theology found a happy home in Handel’s Messiah, Christmas has taken its rightful place as one of the most precious seasons for reflection on God’s plan of redemption. And Advent itself has notoriously been targeted by publishers of devotionals and seasonal books for good reason. But as I’ve said over the years, I don’t read devotionals. I much prefer to find my way directly to the pages of Scripture myself, and whenever I can intentionally focus my attention on a section of Scripture for a seasonal purpose, I take advantage of the opportunity. And that’s why this Christmas, I plan to again invest in a slow read through the prophetic book of Isaiah.

Why Isaiah?

Isaiah is a book specifically dedicated to Israel’s history — their past redemption, present disobedience, and the future promises of God’s deliverance. This history is the background that unlocks the glories of Christmas. Isaiah is a stunning book, and not only is it essential to our faith — some calling it the fifth gospel — but it’s also a historically magnificent work to help return our redemptive gaze back to the highlights of God’s activity among his people. But it’s not an abstracted involvement. It gets very personal, as we’ll see in a moment.

If you thought our world was a mess of dissension and idolatry, enter the world of Isaiah. It’s (arguably) the darkest book in the OT and (inarguably) the second most concentrated book of “joy” mentions in the OT (only behind the Psalms), making it a perfect set-up read for Christmas, but one rooted deep in this broken world.

Immediately obvious are the important prophecies for the Christmas season — passages like Isaiah 7:14 and Isaiah 9:6 stand out. But the entire book offers key background that frames the majesty of Bethlehem. That’s why for the month leading up to Christmas I’m dedicating my devotional readings exclusively to the book of Isaiah. This is my fourth year.

What makes this opportunity so precious during advent is the reality that Isaiah separates into three sections, and each section develops around one particular character whom God promises to send. In the first 39 chapters, God promises a Davidic Ruler, a new king, will emerge. In the next 16 chapters, he promises a self-giving Servant will arrive. In the final 11 chapters, he promises a Messenger, a prophet of God’s redemption.

Breaking Isaiah into three sections is not unique; students of the Bible have been making these breaks for a long time. What’s unique is that the trio of sections is here studied with particular emphasis on the central character in each of the section breaks, making the overall reading experience more personal (literally).

The threefold distinction of these characters is illustrated in one handy chart:

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bookI pulled this helpful chart from Andrew Abernethy’s The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach. To this end I want to use the month leading up to Christmas to read through Isaiah, look for these three characters, and recognize all along that these three characters are not three people, but rather one Messiah — God’s incarnate Son.

I’ll give you the specifics of my reading schedule in just a moment, but first here are two important paragraphs from Abernathy’s book to set the stage for how Isaiah develops these three characters. Here Abernathy also provides a caution about what not to do in our reading, and instead what we should be looking for as we read Isaiah.

Here’s the first important excerpt.

“Isaiah does not envision only one lead agent; instead, there are at least three distinct lead agents whom God will use in each of the major sections of the book: (1) the Davidic ruler (1–39), (2) the servant of the Lord (40–55), and (3) God’s messenger (56–66). While Christians profess that Jesus ultimately embodies what the book of Isaiah envisions for these lead agents, I am not certain that these agents are necessarily understood to be the same individual throughout Isaiah. The book of Isaiah contains a range of expectations pertaining to the various roles God would need his lead agents to fulfill in the course of time. Instead of forcing all of these lead agents into one mold, it is better to allow the uniqueness of each figure to emerge. The common denominator, however, between these lead agents is that they are the divine king’s agents and feature into his plans within his kingdom. In fact, God’s Spirit empowers all three of these agents for the task assigned to them. These agents, then, are distinct, but are also united under God as king and overlap to some extent due to shared participation in God’s mission” (120).

The royal, the prophetic, and the priestly — three characters in three persons in the Isaianic storyline. Before we run them together, based upon what we know from later revelation, we should first let the book of Isaiah develop the three characters individually in the full richness of the expectations of God’s people.

Here’s the second paragraph from the book I want you to see.

“The Davidic ruler, the servant, and the anointed messenger are distinct figures in the outlook of the book of Isaiah, for they have fairly distinct purposes and operate in differing contexts. The Davidic ruler will be God’s agent in maintaining justice within Israel in the aftermath of deliverance from their oppressors. The servant will be God’s instrument among the nations in reconciling Israel and the nations to God through his suffering so that they may dwell with God, the holy king, in his holy city. The anointed messenger will emerge on the brink of the eschatological in-breaking of God’s coming as the warrior king who will reign in Zion to declare the gospel to the disheartened faithful. It is not unexpected for Isaiah to envision multiple lead agents in the light of other prophetic literature. As Boda [another scholar] argues, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi envision royal, prophetic and priestly figures who will all play an important role in the establishment of God’s kingdom. The claim here also does not undermine the New Testament’s application of all three of Isaiah’s figures to Jesus; instead, it displays the grandeur of Jesus and the surprise of recognizing how one person, Jesus Christ, can take on the role of all three figures, while also being the very God of these agent figures” (169).

As we work through the three figures in Isaiah, and as we approach Christmas, the connections between them in Christ should become clearer and clearer. As we work from the details of our personal reading, and as we come together in Christmas worship, we will see all three strands, all three characters, come together in our magnificent Prophet-Priest-King born in Bethlehem.

Again, the schedule (download here), which you are free to print out and slide into your Bible. I divvied up the book into 24 readings, spanning from December 1 to December 24.

I would love for you to join me this year as we prepare for the birth of our Savior. May we together worship him in the full majesty of what his coming means for the world, and may we together praise him for his fulfillment of the multifaceted expectations of the prophetic anticipation.

Thank You, David Foster Wallace


David Foster Wallace died ten years ago today. He once joked that his midlife crisis at twenty didn’t bode well for his longevity, and he was right. He ended his life at forty-six. It was enough years to become a celebrated avant-garde novelist and postmodern experimentalist and to fill a 1,000-page reader. He seemed to compress life into fewer years.

A youth jock turned collegiate nerd, he took to math and philosophy, but could teach himself nearly anything. He taught others to read and write. He loved language, like his mom, who once reflected that “David seldom met a word he didn’t enjoy playing with, making it jump through flaming hoops and perform feats of derring-do.”

He had the presence of a soft-spoken, unshaven friend you’d binge a season of The X-Files with, at your place of course (his televisual addiction forced him to ban the TV from his own house). Surprisingly well, he seemed to balance the roles of jock and prof. With the makings of a cult hero, he was beloved by pop audiences who voiced their praise by spawning sales numbers in the millions, as he was simultaneously celebrated by lit critics who spoke sonorous laudations into public radio mics. He was a man of divergence.

I speak as if I knew him, but I didn’t. I never met him. He was gone before I ever read his mammoth novel Infinite Jest. Gone before I listened to hours of his audio and video interviews. Gone before I belly-laughed through his essay about traveling aboard a Caribbean luxury cruise liner for the first and last time. Gone before I came to appreciate his self-conscious awareness of a soul living in an age of American culture roughly similar to my own experience.

Robert Penn Warren once said, “Any act of pure perception is a feat, and if you don’t believe it, try it sometime.” DFW tried it, he fell in love with it, and the perception he offered in both fiction and non-fiction was nothing sort of sublime. He lived with a sense of pure awareness of the visible world around himself. It was the gift he wielded and the curse he bore. He could see past facade into the hollow world of society and past self-protective Kevlar into the fleshy world of his heart with similar clarity. He was perceptive of addiction and depression, seeing brokenness with the kind of clarity and transparency that eventually becomes a crushing curse in the absence of a savior.

Wallace was one of the most sensitive souls of a generation raised on pop-TV, a man who could step back from his pure addiction to the screen to explain the corrosiveness of the habit on the soul. He came to see that a diet of sarcasm was a diet of poison, and that a whole generation raised on Letterman and the Simpsons and SNL (“that Athens of irreverent cynicism”) were toxified until everything in life was rendered down to the butt of an insider joke. In cynical culture, the beauty of nature disappears like a green screen.

Wallace could feel the sandpaper of sarcasm rubbing on his nerve endings, as he would say sometimes, a man with a super-sensitivity to pop media. Or perhaps, as I would prefer to say it, he felt the rub of mass commercial entertainment on the nerve endings of his soul. He warned us about TV’s “sheer ability to deliver pleasure in large doses.” And he called it a problem, a spiritual problem.

David Foster Wallace articulated, perhaps better than any Christian author or preacher, the challenges of life in the digital age. DFW is the Neil Postman for my generation, even if most Christians have never heard of him.

So when a publisher approached me to write a full-length book appreciation of Wallace, I knew that such a work would be incredibly fun (but I also knew that no one would read it). But DFW does inspire me to labor hard at perception in articulating the challenges of the media age he predicted long ago. In recent years, as my attention has turned to mass media and digital technology, Wallace feels like a cobelligerent in aims — not in the ultimate end (I don’t believe) of delighting the soul in God, but in the place of cobelligerents against the influence of excessive media on the soul.

In a real sense, the life and words of David Foster Wallace provided the genesis that later became my new book — Competing Spectacles (April 2019), about how the Christian soul best navigates the age of pervasive digital media. The spectacles of this age are so good, so thrilling, so captivating, that they threaten to take our eyes off eternal realities. By glutting our eyes, we starve our souls.

The new cover ties into my previous book, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You.

Wallace would snark. He’d call the cover “Kafka-esque” maybe, some realized nightmarish dream of eye-totalizing in an age of visual addictions, a life banned from sleep and blinking only to fill itself on the visual without end. I’d probably say his snarky observation was a good precursor for the book. I would try to convince him to say something like it on the back cover.

But as the new book goes through final edits this week, it prompts me to stop and thank God for a man who, no matter where he was as in his relationship with Christ (and his eternal state remains a mystery to me), was acutely and articulately sensitive to our media bombardment and its influence on the soul.

If DFW were alive today, I would write him a personal note to thank him myself — for what his writings and perceptions have meant for me, a man looking to others who have better articulated the weight of the media age on the undisciplined will. In many ways Wallace leads the way, not to the conclusion, but to a path out of the depths of the problems with a clear map of the costs and consequences of a world in which only a Savior could prove sufficiently redemptive.

On days like the ten-year anniversary of his passing, I am reminded of the great debt I owe to a man of my generation I never met but for whom I feel led again to say out loud: Thank you, David Foster Wallace.

Offline in August

For over a month I’ve been looking forward to “August Sabbath,” as my wife is calling it, a break from a lot of things. For the family it’s a break from a very busy season we’ve moved through. It feels like we’re finally able to breathe again. We’ll be traveling together a little and be hanging out more together and spending more time with friends. Personally, I’ll be taking a month-long break from online media consumption, personal email, and personal social media — an intensive media detox.

At the same time, I’ve had a lingering idea for a book that keeps percolating and coming back to me in the quiet moments of my days. It’s the kind of thing I want to just sit down and write, which I’m planning to do in August, with the aim of writing a draft of the first 10,000 words to see what emerges. Generally, it will again center on the inherent tensions we feel when we’re walking out our life in Christ and our nerve endings rub against the digital age and the technological advancements proliferating around us. It’s an amazing time to be alive, and it poses innumerable challenges to our souls. I was hoping by this point we would be inundated by authors capable of connecting biblical priorities into the challenges of the tech age, but I’m honestly not seeing them. So, I guess I’ll press into what I’m seeing myself. It may be the first book I write and scrap. Who knows? The Lord knows. What I DO know is that this type of writing is always therapeutic to me as I work out perplexing questions in my own life. I write to get things off my mind, and that will be the immediate fruit of the labor in August.

Speaking of books, the cover for my next book is done and again it looks great (hat-tip to Josh Dennis at Crossway!). The new cover will tie in with iPhone Guy on the previous book. I think the pre-order page at Amazon will be up in September. This next book is specifically about the tensions we feel in our call to live Christ-centered lives in a very loud media-centered age. It’s my most heavily researched book, page-for-page, a 120-page essay that communicates a heavy burden I didn’t have time to address in 12Ways. The book is due out in April 2019. I’ll share more when I return.

Also, the second edition of The Joy Project is now out, too, a joint effort from DG and Cruciform. It’s now titled: The Joy Project: An Introduction to Calvinism (with Study Guide). The content and the narrative arc are identical to the original 2015 version, but the language has been sharpened from beginning to end. John Piper kindly put his foreword on it. New endorsements from J.I. Packer and others have been added. The subtitle has been made clearer, and the new study guide makes the whole thing more useful for personal meditation and also in Bible study groups, which is where the book has found a happy home. Key to this revision were the many pastors who purchased the book in bulk, and who reached out to help shape this new manifestation of the book to better fit how they were using it in their local churches, namely in getting started classes and information tables, church bookstores, and really anywhere were a short introduction to reformed soteriology was useful. For individual paperbacks, check Amazon. For single and bulk purchases, check Cruciform.

As always, I appreciate your prayers and support. I get to do what I do because so many of you support me, and I’m deeply grateful to God for each of you. Thank you!

Tony

The Inhumanity of Autonomy

John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (2016), 215, 223–224:

We are schooled by cultural convention to believe that freedom is self-determination. The convention is long-standing and pervasive. Its origins, largely hidden from us within our everyday dealings with the world until retrieved by critical historical reflection, lie in some deep mutations in the West’s traditions of religious, philosophical, and political thought and practice from the early modern period. Its presence is made known in a complex set of images of human selfhood which form our civic, economic, and moral accounts of ourselves.

Among its most enduring and culturally successful corollaries is the assumption that the existence of God and human freedom are necessarily antithetical. One of the primary tasks of a theology of evangelical freedom is to bring that cultural convention to consciousness, and to show that it is both contingent and inhumane. . . .

God’s triune freedom is the sovereign purposiveness with which he establishes fellowship. Human history is the ‘space’ — arena, setting — in which that fellowship is realized. For the Christian gospel, moreover, the history of God with us is definitive of what it means to be human. It is not a mere modulation or particular form of a more general human history, but is ontologically definitive: to be human is to be the reconciled creature of God pointed by God to perfection. Our freedom, therefore, is the capacity bestowed on us by God to take an active part in the history of fellowship with our creator, reconciler, and perfecter.

To understand this, we need to lay aside the assumption around which so much of our economic, political, and sexual identity is organized, namely the assumption that freedom is autonomy. Freedom is, rather, the capacity to realize what one is. What we are is reconciled creatures, those set free for true humanness by the work of the triune God. To be free is not to exercise the false freedom to invent myself by my actions, nor to be creator, reconciler, and perfecter to myself. Nor is it mere unrestricted will. It is, rather, to be what I have been made to be, to fulfill my vocation as a creature of God, and so (and only so) to exist in authenticity.

The Joy Project (v2)

My new book launches this week, thanks to the partnership of desiringGod.org and Cruciform Press. The book is an update of my book The Joy Project, now titled:

The Joy Project: An Introduction to Calvinism (with Study Guide)

What’s new?

The content and the narrative arc are identical to the original 2015 version, but the language has been sharpened from beginning to end. John Piper kindly put his foreword on it. New endorsements from J.I. Packer and others have been added. The subtitle has been made clearer, and the new study guide makes the whole thing more useful for personal meditation and also in Bible study groups, which is where the book has found a happy home.

Key to this revision were the many pastors who purchased the book in bulk, and who reached out to help shape this new manifestation of the book to better fit how they were using it in their local churches, namely in getting started classes and information tables, church bookstores, and really anywhere were a short introduction to reformed soteriology was useful.

Calvinism is not a piecemeal collection of sloganeered points. And it’s not detached from the pursuit of joy in our daily lives. I’ve updated my short book to better serve pastors and churches who agree and who want to join me in the happy work of persuading others.

For individual paperbacks, check Amazon (now).

For single and bulk purchases, check Cruciform (soon).