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)

John Webster’s 2007 Lectures (Remastered)

Update: Per an original publishing agreement with John Webster, the remastered and downloadable mp3s must be removed from the site. I believe the Henry Center will be replacing their streaming audio files with my versions here. In light of this request, the publisher tells me they remain hopeful that these lectures will emerge in published form. This morning they tell me: “Eerdmans had a contract with Prof. Webster to publish the lectures, was in touch with him about revisions prior to his passing, and hopes to be able to bring the book out within a couple of years.”


The inaugural Kantzer Lectures, delivered by theologian John Webster between September 11–17, 2007 at the Carl F. H. Henry Center — are now legendary. Two close friends who attended the week tell me it was unforgettable.

The lectures, “Perfection & Presence: God with Us, According to the Christian Confession,” were to be edited into a final book form. But when Dr. Webster suddenly passed away two years ago, a little under a month shy of his 61st birthday, his ministry came to an end, and the hopes of the 2007 lectures becoming a book seemed to die, too.

What remains are the recordings.

The official description for the event states:

In the inauguration of the Kantzer Lectures series, distinguished Professor John Webster delivers a rich reflection upon the perfections and presence of God. The question at the center of this lectures series is the nature of human fellowship with God. The Investigation of the nature of this fellowship entails for Webster, a comprehension of the divine perfections and their relation to the Trinitarian relations and missions. From the nature of God, the Trinitarian relations and the nature of Divine presence more generally, it can then be understood more clearly what scripture means when it speaks of the Word becoming flesh. Webster offers, therefore, an extensive reflection upon the human history of the divine Word and the nature of his presence in the flesh. Finally, Webster moves to discuss the nature of the resurrected and exalted Lord’s presence, a presence manifest in his Lordship over his creatures and in the practices and Sacraments of the holy church.

Each lecture, and the preceding chapel message, have been remastered. Volume levels (which were a mess, and progressively became worse as the series progressed), have been fixed and amplified. The traveling microphone during open Q&As, sometimes used and sometimes ignored, created another host of audio leveling problems, all fixed and leveled out.

Here are the remastered MP3s:

0: Chapel Message on Mercy
1: Introduction
2: God’s Perfect Life
3: God Is Everywhere but Not Only Everywhere
4: Immanuel
5: The Presence of Christ Exalted
6: He Will Be With Them

 

Religious Atheism

Psalm 14:1 —

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is none who does good.

James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (1994), pages 81–82:

The sentence seems to say that atheists are silly and atheism is frivolous. We know that in our culture that is not so. The denial of the existence of God is made by serious and honest people. In the society that this psalm describes, however, nabal does not mean things like dumb, inept, silly, clown, buffoon. Rather, the term designates a person who decides and acts on the basis of the wrong assumption. . . . A nabal is a person who, whether shrewd or powerful, makes a mistake about reality.

The “foolishness” with which the psalm is concerned is to say in one’s heart there is no God. That may sound as though the psalmist lived in a secular society and endured atheists who denied the existence of God. But the rest of the psalm makes it clear that the problem is not a reasoned intellectual argument against the existence of God but conduct based on the private assumption that human beings are not held accountable by God.

The psalmist reasons from the way people act to the way they think.

If people enact life in corrupt and perverse ways (vv. 1–3), do not pray to God in their need but live by preying on others (v. 4), then they are denying the reality of the LORD, the God of exodus and the covenant and the prophets. . . . It does not address, therefore, the phenomenon of modern atheism directly. But the “atheism” it does uncover is more dangerous, insidious, and general because it is a reasoning that can be found, as the prophets and Jesus insisted, in the hearts of the religious as well as the secular.

The psalm is not concerned with the question of whether people accept the existence of a supreme being. It is concerned with whether people acknowledge the reality of the LORD, the God of Israel, by calling on the LORD in need and seeking the LORD in the decisions of life.

Indeed, this “no God” as “no culpability” line of thinking is more flagrantly connected in Psalm 10:4,13.

Erotic, Agapeic, Plerotic? Understanding the Creator’s Relationship to Creation

Models of God’s relationship to creation have led to endless debates over the centuries, important debates we must get right because our knowledge of God is directly informed (or de-formed) by our conclusions here. In fact, how we explain this to our kids will have implications on what they think God needs from us, or what he’s trying to give us.

So I was thrilled to hear Michael J. McClymond employed his brilliant mind and research skills to the often ignored problem of Christian universalism (the idea, found among professing Christians, that everyone will be saved in the end). Because how we understand God’s relationship to creation is directly bound to whether we accept or reject the heresy of universalism.

McClymond brings the theme to a boil near the end of his new, two-volume work: The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism (Baker Academic; June 5, 2018).

There he introduces three key Greek terms. The erotic (self-fulfillment sought in another), the agapeic (an overflow of free love), and the plerotic (an overflow of abounding fullness).

First, the plerotic

Rather than adopting a logic of deficiency and lack, Christian thinkers in approaching God might instead be guided by a logic of plenitude and sufficiency. … In a “plerotic” view, the stress would lie not on metaphysical deficiency but on the fullness, completeness, and overflow of the Father’s existence in the existence of the Son and of the Spirit. Within the intra-trinitarian life of God — so far as we understand it — there is no competition, no give-and-take, no fixed sum of available deity. The language of the Nicene Creed might suggest a plerotic interpretation: “The only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made.” Where here is the tug-of-war? Where is the competitive relation of Father and Son? These are non-Nicene notions of God. Do we not instead see in the creed a beautiful picture of the Son as the overflow or fullness (plērōma) of the Father’s being? “For in him the whole fullness [plērōma] of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). (1,024)

Later he builds from the plerotic (an overflow of abounding fulness) to the agapeic (an overflow of free love) in contrast to the erotic (self-fulfillment sought in another) —

The universalist problem with grace is intimately connected to the universalist problem with God. Philosophers Leszak Kolakowski and William Desmond both distinguished “erotic” from “agapeic” conceptions of God. Kolakowski captures the basic idea and the basic problem of an “erotic” deity in this way: “God brought the Universe into being so that He might grow in its body. . . . He needs His alienated creatures to complete His perfection. The growth of the universe . . . involves God himself in the historical process. Consequently God himself becomes historical. At the culmination of cosmic evolution He is not what He was ‘in the beginning.’ He creates the world and in reabsorbing it enriches Himself.”

When God is conceived of “erotically” rather than “agapeistically,” God remains in what a psychologist might call a codependent relationship with the world. For this reason God cannot love in a free, full, or independent way. Grace in the biblical sense becomes impossible, not because of an impediment on the human side but because of an inherent limitation or flaw within God.

According to the “erotic” model, God is initially deficient in himself and then seeks to complete what is lacking in himself. The emergence and development of the cosmos is a process in which God is developing toward completion, so that the world fulfills God just as God fulfills the world. One might call this a philosophical hieros gamos (sacred marriage). God and the world are “married.”

The God-concept in Böhme, Hegel, Whitehead, process thought, and much of current kenotic-relational theology is based on the “erotic” rather than the “agapeic” model. God needs the world. God becomes complete through relating to the world. But the biblical idea of free grace is ruled out in erotic conceptions of God. (1,032)

He concludes —

The God-concept of historic Christianity, which is “agapeic,” holds that God created the world out of a sufficiency or even a surplus of being, happiness, and goodness. As Augustine wrote, “We exist because God is good.” The world is an overflow of divine goodness, yet God does not “need” the world. This viewpoint, connected with the foundational Christian teaching on creation from nothing, makes it possible to conceive that God is genuinely gracious and that God loves the world freely and unconditionally. (1,032)

God’s purpose for creation must be explained in ways that affirm that the Creator is not served by human hands, “as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:25). He needs nothing. In him is fullness. We cannot add to him. And yet he created, created freely, created a world for the overflow of his person, his joy, his grace, a place where the abundance of his love would flow freely to us. Only a God who doesn’t need you can be the God who endlessly satisfies you (Ps. 147:10–11). These are profound connections worthy of deep reflection and lifelong worship, and words appropriate for even our children to grasp.

The God Who Makes Jobs, Fills Jobs (Psalm 8)

Psalm 8:6–8 —

You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
   you have put all things under his feet,
     all sheep and oxen,
     and also the beasts of the field,
     the birds of the heavens,
     and the fish of the sea,
       whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Scattered across the globe are thickly dusted coal miners deep in the earth, sunburned farmers on top of the earth, chefs in kitchens, cattle ranchers, lawyers, politicians, horse tamers, teachers, brick masons, writers, auto mechanics, computer programmers, mothers managing kids and grocery store product price comparisons at the same time.

Countless occupations. And according to Psalm 8 all our legitimate jobs are traced back to God’s special design.

Along with its rich Christological truths, Psalm 8 paints a picture of humankind given dominion over God’s work of creation. And while the tone of the Psalm is one of awe, wonder, and joy at God, writes Ben Witherington, it is specifically awe, wonder, and joy over the majesty of God’s deep concern for us in his design of human nature and human vocation over creation.

“We are told that humankind is bequeathed both glory and the functions of God (though on a lesser scale), that is, to rule over all of creation,” he writes. “Notice that it is God who is the actor in all these actions (‘you made . . . you put’). We are not talking about human accomplishment or what humans deserve, but rather the plan and gift of God. We were meant and made to be rulers over all the works of God’s hands.”

God creates the planet, calls forth vocations, and then actively places and activates his image bearers in specific occupations. And what makes this point especially definite is the cultural contrast. “This stress on human dominion over creation was a revolutionary doctrine,” he writes. “Other ancient Near Eastern cultures saw the gods as part of nature, and all humans as slaves of the gods under the sway of the stars (hence the need for astrology). But it is not by recognizing nature as humankind’s mother, but rather God as its father, that human beings come to understand why they are here. Only by God’s special revelation through his word do humans learn of their true place and task in life.”

Our role in creation is not discovered or settled by astrological signs. Our callings are not simply the byproduct of nature’s latent possibilities. Each human occupation is the result of God’s unique calling for each life based on his design for the planet. Creation and vocation are linked by the command of God.

In other words, to see the earth full of vocationally called image-bearers leads us back to the awesome wonder of God. Browse a list of every available job on the planet, and then, if you have eyes to see divine glory, work backwards until you can see the God who calls each creation-serving vocation into being, and who fills each job opening with an image bearer of his, a vice regent of God’s rule over his creation.

Think like this long enough and eventually you must be overcome with the joy and wonder of beholding the evidence of God’s endless creativity over this planet, and all the particular callings and jobs he called into being. God’s care for us is this deep. He makes jobs and fills jobs. Such a sovereignly invested God must lead us to proclaim: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (v. 1).


Source: Ben Witherington III, Psalms Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics (2017), 52–54. An Arminian biblical theologian, one I disagree with regularly, BW3 offers marvelous insight in his new trilogy on intertextuality (i.e. the NT use of the OT) in Isaiah (2017), the Psalms (2017), and now finally the Torah (2018).

The Scent of Memory

I recently wrote about the nose and how smells evoke memory. In our ocularcentric age, the sense of smell gets sorely undervalued. Scents process more slowly than sights. But it is the nose that most often evokes powerful and concrete memories, even bad ones.

I was struck by this fact again while listening to a recent interview with Bill Cosby accuser and former guest star on “The Cosby Show,” Lili Bernard. She recounted her attendance in the latest trial, and her poise in Cosby’s presence. “Being in a courtroom with a rapist was difficult but at the same time I felt empowered,” she said confidently. “When Bill Cosby passed by me, within inches, I was really pleased in that my heart didn’t quiver, my breathing didn’t become short. When he passed by me I looked at him with disdain as if he were disempowered. Being just inches away from him, where I could literally put my hand out and touch him, and not feel my heart quicken, and not to begin to hyperventilate, and be able to stand firm and not even feel afraid — for me it was a really empowering moment of healing.”

“But his odor,” she transitioned, as her voice broke. “Oh, shoot I’m going to cry.” She does. “Every time he passed by me in that courthouse, I smelled the tobacco. I smelled his sweat. I smelled his cologne. And that took me right back, because I remember the smell.”