Recently Read: January 2019

Here are some books I’ve read or listened to over the summer. And for what it’s worth there are some brief comments about them too.

1. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield

This is the incredible story of Rosaria herself. At one point she was a tenured professor, thought of with high regard for her LGBT and feminist views. After conversion to the Christian faith she understood herself differently; giving up her lesbian lifestyle and in time marrying a Presbyterian minister. This is a great book and well worth the read. I listened to it with Rosaria narrating. An astounding and excellent memoir.

2. Why The Reformation Still Matters by Michael Reeves

Again, I listened to this via audio book. The final three chapters move the book up in any sort of rating. However, because the first nine chapters aren’t particularly practical, which I expected they would be, then I didn’t find this book appealing or interesting. Not really worth the read.

3. Wisdom in Leadership by Craig Hamilton

It may have taken me 2.5 years from opening to closing this book but it was still a good one. There is something like 78 chapters, each about five pages long. It provides great practical advice for Christian leaders. Anything from how to lead a team to how to lead a meeting to how to build trust to how to deal with conflict. There are good chapters for those who are main leaders or those who volunteer under other leadership. Again, worth the read but don’t expect to read it through in one hit. It’s also worth noting that the author is Australian.

4. Without Warning by David Rosenfelt

A novel based around a murderer and his son seeking to get revenge on the Chief of Police. It moves quickly, involves a good amount of mystery, and is a fun read/listen.

5. Martin Luther by Eric Metaxas

There are plenty of Martin Luther biographies to read. Some are dry and academic but Metaxas’ one certainly isn’t. Like all good Metaxas books it is reasonably fast-paced and with great little side stories about what is going on in wider culture. I tend to read quickly to the halfway point and then slow down when reading Metaxas and this happened here too. It could have been shorter but is still a valuable and fun read on the life of one of the more significant people in world history and church history. You’re in for a humorous treat on page 334 too.

6. Reset: Living a Grace-paced Life in a Burnout Culture by David Murray

Easily the best book on this list. It may have been because of the time of year I read this one, or because I was feeling tired after 2018. Whatever it was, this book gives great theology that moves into great practice for rest, sleep, work, identity, sin and temptation, eating, exercise, and numerous other factors that can cause us to deplete our energy and lead us to burnout. Again, focused on Christian leaders but really gives good wisdom for a grace-paced life for all believers. I listened by audio, I’ll make sure I pick up a hard copy in due course. I think it’ll be useful for a small group study or course too.

7. Act of Treason by Vince Flynn

A fast-paced novel (ironic given the last book mentioned) about the attempt to take down the President and the US government. A typical thriller involving the CIA, the Russians, terrorists, and sleazy politicians.

8. How To Be A Christian: Your Comprehensive Growth to Flawless Spiritual Living by The Babylon Bee

The Babylon Bee. Enough said.

The whole book is satire. It’s mostly amusing but perhaps they do their best work in short blog posts, rather than 150-page books.

9. The Hand of Justice by Susanna Gregory

This is volume 10 in the Matthew Bartholomew series. I’ve grown to love the main characters of this series and the setting of medieval Cambridge is fascinating. There are always far too many murders to be anything realistic but it’s great fun when you’re into it. It is a holiday read as the writing is slow, nothing happens quickly. But, I liked this volume more than some of the recent ones I’d read.

10. The Prophet by Gibran Kahlil

A famous spiritualistic work by the admired Lebanese poet and writer Kahlil Gibran. I’ve known of this book since I lived in Lebanon over 10 years ago, he’s very famous and well regarded. The Prophet is about a prophet (obviously) who gives wisdom on the human condition and what it means to be human in relation to love, marriage, work, death, beauty, and other such topics. I was happy to have read this for the first time.

I hope you’ve had a good time reading so far in 2019 too.

6 Reasons Not To Buy Books In 2019

On my bookshelves sit over 800 books. On my Kindle sits around 250. I haven’t read them all.

Granted, some of these books are more reference material for when required. I have plenty of commentaries and Bible dictionaries that help in Bible study or preaching preparation. However, I also have a lot of books related to the Christian faith which I haven’t read. Last year I went through a spate of buying a number of books but knew I wouldn’t be able to read them for another few months.

So this year is the year of not buying books. Instead, I have given myself a goal of reading the many books on my shelves that are unread. Yes, that’s right, I’m not going to buy a single book this year.

For some people this might be easy, very easy. It would help if one didn’t read. But, for someone like me who enjoys perusing secondhand book stores, or picking up a bargain from the Christian bookstore, then it is a significant challenge.

6 reasons not to buy books in 2019

This personal challenge is exactly that, a personal challenge. I’m not here to rope anyone else into this challenge. I just know I have enough books on my shelves that can and ought to be read. In contemplating this challenge, however, I have six reasons why I won’t be buying a book in 2019.

First, I have enough books to read without having to buy any for 12 months. 

I did just say this. I know, I can’t believe I said this myself.

There are books on my shelf that I haven’t read. They should be read. They’re good books, recommended by others or bought for a particular purpose. At some point it is worth saying, “I have enough”. I have enough books to keep me reading and achieve my goals for 2019. With this being the case there isn’t a need to buy more from a pragmatic point of view. I have books to read, this will be sufficient.

Second, I don’t want to waste money. 

Books cost money. I have a finite supply of money. Spending money on books that I don’t need right now because I have enough reading material for the moment seems logical. I don’t want to waste my money on books that I won’t read for a number of months, or possibly years!

The other side of this is all the money I have already spent. The sunk cost of the books I have on my shelves. If I don’t read them and they just sit there then this is also wasted money. The financial drivers of the reading endeavour do play into this decision of not buying a book in 2019.

Third, I want to know what I need and what I don’t.

There are books on my shelves that have sat there for years. One would think that if they haven’t been read by now, like 10 years unread, then it might be worth giving them to charity. However, I’m sure there are gems on my shelf that I’m unaware of. It would benefit me to read them, no doubt. There are also some terrible books on my shelf, no doubt. These don’t need to be read as thoroughly as others but they still need to be taken off the shelf and evaluated.

In essence, I don’t know what is in some of these books and I would like to know what’s in them so that I can use them, learn from them, grow in some capacity or make the decision to get rid of them. I want to know what I need to keep and what I don’t need anymore.

Fourth, I need to make space.

Another practical reason for reading the books I already have is that I need to make space for others. While I won’t add to them this year, my bookcases are packed. There is little room for new books. Therefore, in reading more of my own books, and deciding to part with some of them, I will help my bookcases by freeing up space. Of course, doing something for a bookcase is not really truthful, it is so I can buy more in coming years. There are ulterior motives.

Fifth, I can bless others with books I don’t need. 

I know a few avid readers and a number of theological students who could benefit from some of the books I don’t need. Giving books away to people I know, with books that I believe would benefit them, helps them as much as it helps me. And while saying good-bye to some books sounds like a sad proposition, if it helps others then that’s great.

Sixth, of many books there is no end. 

As the write of Ecclesiastes reminds us, and all good students, at the end of his book of wisdom,

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

There will always be books, and in coming years I will no doubt buy more. And while being surrounded by books somehow makes me feel more intelligent than I really am there can be a weariness that comes from it. Although, apparently it is a good thing to be surrounded by more books than you can ever read. In any case, I’ll keep reading, and learn to be a little less precious about my own collection and learn to enjoy them for what they are.

10 Tips For Reading In 2019

Taking the time to read can be a discipline, but it should also be a joy. Like anything goal-orientated, reading can require planning, persistence, patience, and purpose. There are many ways to approach reading, and there’s no rules about it, except those you make yourself.

For me, I have an annual goal of reading 26 books. Which means, as I’m sure you can work out, I aim to average one book every two weeks by the end of the year. I’ve had this goal since 2005, which again I’m sure you can work out as being 14 years, and read 361 books in that time. Go me.

How do I know that’s how many books I’ve read during this time? Well, I’m kinda nerdy with my books and have listed them all in a spreadsheet. Yeah, I’m like that.

10 Tips For Reading In 2019

But, at no time has anyone told me what rules I am to put into place to do this. That’s because there are no rules. You can read anything you like! It’s not like your English teacher is breathing fire down your back as you choose which book you want to read, or how to read it. There’s no set textbooks in life like there are in school. Just read what you like!

But of course, some people like rules, and without any rules chaos reigns or no reading gets done as you’re stuck on where to start.

So with this said, and for what it’s worth, here are 10 tips to influence your reading this coming year.

1. Don’t worry about how you read. 

There are so many ways to read these days. Whatever your reading goal, whether it be one book this coming year or 100, there are a variety of different ways to achieve this. To achieve my goal of 26 I count everything from physical form, to digital form, to even audio form. Yes, even audio form! Deal with it. While I might not be able to retain as much as I would in physical form they still count in my book (see what I did there). And, in reality, the books I listen to rarely make it into my “Top Books” posts at the end of the year (see: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, and 2014).

2. Think about when reading might be best for you

I’ve worked out that there are certain periods in the year where reading probably won’t happen. At the moment my summer holidays are usually chockablock with reading but I know that come April this will have dropped off significantly. Due to life circumstance and busyness reading can fall by the wayside. I know when this happens I’m either reading really slowly or simply not at all. But, it is helpful to think about when is the best time in the day, the week, the month, or the year for reading. My audiobooks are great in the car commute and while doing the dishes at home. The evenings, if I don’t have anything on, are also a good time for reading.

One of the biggest distractions to reading is the phone. I think this needs to be dealt with in a significant way for anyone who wants to read purposefully and regularly.

3. Choose books you think you will like

There are a lot of different books out there and in many different genres. Read whatever tickles you. I’d still encourage stretching yourself in another genre or area of knowledge, but to begin with and to get yourself going, just pick something you think you’ll enjoy. I know for myself, a good thriller or mystery will do me wonders during holidays times and in-between non-fiction reads. They’re often trashy quick reads, but I still enjoy them. The other area that I’ve found myself reading more is that of biography; finding out someone else’s story can be a learning experience but also just enjoyable. Pick something you think you’d like and begin.

4. If reading a non-fiction book, read with a pencil in hand

I read a lot of non-fiction. Things regarding theology and Christian living are more prominent on my list than anything else. And when I read these books I usually read with a pencil in hand. Books are there to be used and so underlining, writing in the margins, and even dog-earring pages are all acceptable uses of books. If you don’t like that you need to get over yourself. Don’t be so precious about your books, they’re there to be used and learnt from.

5. Make sure you read a fiction book every so often

I make sure I read or listen to fiction books reasonably regularly. At least a third of my list this year was fiction. I find too much non-fiction doesn’t give my brain a break. We need to remember that reading books is only one aspect of our daily and weekly reading. Add to this the emails, texts, documents, and articles and there becomes a lot more reading than we perhaps realise. Give the brain a break and read some fiction.

6. Don’t forget the reading of Scripture

With all the Christian reading available to us it is a temptation to believe our devotional life with God can be sustained through them. This is not so. There is no substitute for Scripture. It is through Scripture God speaks, it is through Scripture we learn of God’s instruction, it is through Scripture the Spirit works within us to shape us and convict us. If we’ve got a goal for our ‘normal reading’ then it would also be worth having a plan for our Bible reading too. I’ve written about that previously, here and here and here.

7. Try books outside your interests or current knowledge

I can’t say reading any deep philosophy or sociology or psychology grabs me. I think it would be terribly boring. The same goes for apologetics or Creation-science or marriage books in the Christian world. Yet, I know that it would be good for me to do so. Every now and then I try to read something that I wouldn’t normally read and it is usually beneficial. If you don’t think you’ll like history then read some. If you don’t think you’ll like science fiction then read some. If you don’t think you’ll like sport biographies then read some (they’re awesome). I’ll try to do that too.

8. Be willing to not finish a book

You don’t have to finish every book you start. You really don’t. I know the English teacher said you did, but you really don’t. They’re disposable. If you’re not getting anything out of it, or it’s gone boring, stop wasting your time and give it to the op-shop.

9. Join Goodreads or write down what you read

I am on Goodreads, which is like a social media platform for book lovers. I record the books I read on here, give them a rating, see what my ‘friends’ are reading, and offer the odd review. It’s pretty good and I enjoy looking at the stats page every so often. It can calculate how many books I’ve read, how many pages, when they were published and so on.

I mean, the other thing to do here is start a spreadsheet. Did I mention that before? It’s nerdy but it’s awesome.

Or, just use a pen and a notebook.

Whatever way you decide to go, I think the writing down of books read helps you know what you’ve read so you won’t pick it up again. But the biggest advantage I find is that it encourages you to keep reading.

10. The world will not end if you don’t meet your goal

Hey, if you don’t get to the goal you set this coming year don’t worry. The world is not ending, you can always try next year. What is more important is just giving it a go. You never know, you may learn something interesting, you may learn something that impacts your life, you may even find that you enjoy reading.

However you do it I hope you have a great reading year in 2019. Thanks for reading this.

My Top Books of 2018

At this stage of the year every pretentious writer worth their while comes out with the most arrogant of posts. Knowing they’ve read more than most of their friends they willingly share this information in a list, highlighting their favourites reads of the year just gone. Adding to this pretentiousness I offer my not-so-humble addition for the fifth year running (for previous years see: 201420152016, 2017 ).

Without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my top books for 2018.

Enjoy.

My Top Books of 2018

This is one of the books I used in preparation for preaching a series on Ruth. I think it is fantastic.

It’s more of a devotional commentary and gives good insight into the book. It teaches the meta-narrative themes of Ruth and provides devotional material to personally ponder. It’s very helpful in understanding the book of Ruth, who God is, and the implications of the story. It’s also helpful in teaching how to read Old Testament scripture in narrative form.

I preached through the book of Ruth in February and March. This was the main commentary I used, which was excellent.

Ruth: The King Is Coming by Daniel Block is part of the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament series. This particular commentary gives a good outline of all the textual, cultural, and literary issues of the book. It walks the reader through the text and its structure in a accessible way. It raises the theological issues and conclusions of the book too. It was very helpful in thinking through the book of Ruth and and a useful preaching tool.

The writer, Jason Lloyd, has been an NBA beat journalist for years. He was the Cleveland beat writer during the time of LeBron’s coming, going, and return to the Cavs. He gives a fascinating insight into the way the club operated during this time and how the club dealt with the superstar.

While there is biographical material of LeBron himself, the real insight of the book comes in the form of team strategy. That is, the management of an NBA team and what strategic moves the back office uses to build a winning team.

This was a great book, worth reading, and some good sports writing.

This is one of the best modern Christian books you’ll ever read.

I rate it highly. So highly that I made it the first book in our church internship program.

The Prodigal God is a short book that takes the reader through the parable of The Prodigal Son. Each chapter not only reveals the content of the parable in a fresh way but is powerfully mind-blowing and heart-convicting for your soul.

If you’re looking for a great read and something that will encourage you in your Christian faith then this is well worth getting your hands on. It’s short too.

I re-read this book this year and found it helpful again. This is 25 chapters of leadership thinking by the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The cover of the book is pretty crass, like any leadership book with the authors picture on the front. But inside it’s worth a look and a read. I find Mohler particularly clear and insightful when it comes to wrestling with leadership as a Christian and as a Christian leader.

I hadn’t read anything by the late RC Sproul until I read this book. I know he’s been around for many many years and very highly regarded. I was blown away by the content in this book, now over 30 years old. From start to finish Sproul outlines the holiness of God. He moves from creation to mystery, from the Old Testament to the New. He shows just how large an impact God’s holiness has in the relationship he has with his creatures, and just how patient, gracious, and merciful he is.

For a more comprehensive review you can go here.

I have no way near the experience of suffering as Cole or other friends of mine have. Yet, as a pastor, and someone who is now reaching the stage of life where hearing of death and divorce has become more regular, I have found this book quite amazing. It is so comprehensive in understanding the pain of suffering and grief and so deep and rich in biblical truth. This is a pastoral book, an encouraging book, and a helpful book for anyone who is, has, and will suffer in this life (read: all of us). No wonder it won World Magazine’s Accessible Theology Book of the Year.

Thanks for reading along, hope you find something in there to read in the coming 12 months. If you’d like to read more about what I’ve read you can do so here.

Martin Luther On Complete Forgiveness In Christ

In recent weeks I’ve found myself reading more about Martin Luther, the great reformer of the sixteenth century.

I began reading more of Luther, again, because I picked up Eric Metaxas’ recent biography of the man. My understanding is that Metaxas isn’t looked upon too fondly within the scholarship world because of his writings and perceived errors. But I have to say he does tell a good biography. I’m about 200 pages in right now and the way he writes keeps you in the story. While some of his inaccuracies are something I’ll search out a little more later on; for the moment I’m enjoying his mix of personal interpretation and the life of Luther quite evocative.

In reading this biography though I’ve now moved into reading Luther for himself. This, of course, if the best way to read anyone. So in going to the man himself I’m working through his commentary on the Letter to the Galatians as part of my devotions (for a PDF version of this go here). And let’s be honest, reading Luther is even more evocative than reading Metaxas. The language, the criticism, the insight, the forthrightness of Luther’s writings. Wow. How great.

Martin Luther on The Complete Forgiveness of Christ

But lest this simply be an exercise in reading and analysing his writing there are particular aspects to Luther’s writing that are extremely helpful for the Christian. In particular, this early reflections on chapter one, with the focus on sin being dealt with by the cross is simply stunning.

I’m sure I’m not the only one that battles with sin.

And I don’t just mean the battle with daily sin, behaviour or attitudes that we fall into. I mean the realisation my sin is so great that it raises the question of assurance of true forgiveness. How can God truly forgive the attitudes and behaviours I have acted upon for myself, let alone those things toward others!?

I’m sure I’m not the only person that knows the depths of their own heart, the depths of their own sinfulness, and the holding on of sin of the past, the sin that isn’t easily forgotten.

O how great a sinner we recognise ourselves to be in light of knowing the glorious nature and holiness of God! And how regretful, unassured, and doubtful we find ourselves when these things are brought to light through the Spirit.

And then at the same time we find ourselves neglecting the true grace that is given by the Lord Jesus. In our pursuit for holiness, and our disgust at sin, we become so self-centred about it that we hold on to it; just so we can feel bad and guilty about such sin. This could be for days or weeks or months or years. How many of us are holding on to sin that has been forgiven? How many of us are holding on to sin that grace has already dealt with!?

Well, for anyone that is dealing with sin, in dealing with a conscience of guilt because of sin, then I think Luther helps us tremendously. In fact, I don’t know whether I’ve read a better few pages that]n his reflections on this.

Below I copy much of what he says while reflecting on the phrase, “Who gave himself for our sins” in Galatians 1:4. I hope you are as edified as I was in reading this. It speaks to the person dealing wracked with guilt because of their continual stumbles into sin and temptation. And it provides great encouragement to get up off the mat and endure in the Christian life assured of every single sin, no matter how great or small, has been dealt with.

Enjoy.

Verse 4. ‘Who gave himself for our sins’.

Paul sticks to his theme. He never loses sight of the purpose of his epistle. He does not say, “Who received our works,” but “who gave.” Gave what? Not gold, or silver, or paschal lambs, or an angel, but Himself. What for? Not for a crown, or a kingdom, or our goodness, but for our sins. These words are like so many thunderclaps of protest from heaven against every kind and type of self-merit. Underscore these words, for they are full of comfort for sore consciences.

How may we obtain remission of our sins? Paul answers: “The man who is named Jesus Christ and the Son of God gave himself for our sins.” The heavy artillery of these words explodes papacy, works, merits, superstitions. For if our sins could be removed by our own efforts, what need was there for the Son of God to be given for them? Since Christ was given for our sins it stands to reason that they cannot be put away by our own efforts.

This sentence also defines our sins as great, so great, in fact, that the whole world could not make amends for a single sin. The greatness of the ransom, Christ, the Son of God, indicates this. The vicious character of sin is brought out by the words “who gave himself for our sins.” So vicious is sin that only the sacrifice of Christ could atone for sin. When we reflect that the one little word “sin” embraces the whole kingdom of Satan, and that it includes everything that is horrible, we have reason to tremble. But we are careless. We make light of sin. We think that by some little work or merit we can dismiss sin.

This passage, then, bears out the fact that all men are sold under sin. Sin is an exacting despot who can be vanquished by no created power, but by the sovereign power of Jesus Christ alone.

All this is of wonderful comfort to a conscience troubled by the enormity of sin. Sin cannot harm those who believe in Christ, because He has overcome sin by His death. Armed with this conviction, we are enlightened and may pass judgment upon the papists, monks, nuns, priests, Mohammedans, Anabaptists, and all who trust in their own merits, as wicked and destructive sects that rob God and Christ of the honour that belongs to them alone.

Note especially the pronoun “our” and its significance. You will readily grant that Christ gave Himself for the sins of Peter, Paul, and others who were worthy of such grace. But feeling low, you find it hard to believe that Christ gave Himself for your sins. Our feelings shy at a personal application of the pronoun “our,” and we refuse to have anything to do with God until we have made ourselves worthy by good deeds.

This attitude springs from a false conception of sin, the conception that sin is a small matter, easily taken care of by good works; that we must present ourselves unto God with a good conscience; that we must feel no sin before we may feel that Christ was given for our sins.

This attitude is universal and particularly developed in those who consider themselves better than others. Such readily confess that they are frequent sinners, but they regard their sins as of no such importance that they cannot easily be dissolved by some good action, or that they may not appear before the tribunal of Christ and demand the reward of eternal life for their righteousness. Meantime they pretend great humility and acknowledge a certain degree of sinfulness for which they soulfully join in the publican’s prayer, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” But the real significance and comfort of the words “for our sins” is lost upon them.

The genius of Christianity takes the words of Paul “who gave himself for our sins” as true and efficacious. We are not to look upon our sins as insignificant trifles. On the other hand, we are not to regard them as so terrible that we must despair. Learn to believe that Christ was given, not for picayune and imaginary transgressions, but for mountainous sins; not for one or two, but for all; not for sins that can be discarded, but for sins that are stubbornly ingrained.

Practice this knowledge and fortify yourself against despair, particularly in the last hour, when the memory of past sins assails the conscience. Say with confidence: “Christ, the Son of God, was given not for the righteous, but for sinners. If I had no sin I should not need Christ. No, Satan, you cannot delude me into thinking I am holy. The truth is, I am all sin. My sins are not imaginary transgressions, but sins against the first table, unbelief, doubt, despair, contempt, hatred, ignorance of God, ingratitude towards Him, misuse of His name, neglect of His Word, etc.; and sins against the second table, dishonour of parents, disobedience of government, coveting of another’s possessions, etc. Granted that I have not committed murder, adultery, theft, and similar sins in deed, nevertheless I have committed them in the heart, and therefore I am a transgressor of all the commandments of God.

“Because my transgressions are multiplied and my own efforts at self-justification rather a hindrance than a furtherance, therefore Christ the Son of God gave Himself into death for my sins.” To believe this is to have eternal life.

Let us equip ourselves against the accusations of Satan with this and similar passages of Holy Scripture. If he says, “Thou shalt be damned,” you tell him: “No, for I fly to Christ who gave Himself for my sins. In accusing me of being a damnable sinner, you are cutting your own throat, Satan. You are reminding me of God’s fatherly goodness toward me, that He so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. In calling me a sinner, Satan, you really comfort me above measure.” With such heavenly cunning we are to meet the devil’s craft and put from us the memory of sin.

St. Paul also presents a true picture of Christ as the virgin-born Son of God, delivered into death for our sins. To entertain a true conception of Christ is important, for the devil describes Christ as an exacting and cruel judge who condemns and punishes men. Tell him that his definition of Christ is wrong, that Christ has given Himself for our sins, that by His sacrifice He has taken away the sins of the whole world.

Make ample use of this pronoun “our.” Be assured that Christ has canceled the sins, not of certain persons only, but your sins. Do not permit yourself to be robbed of this lovely conception of Christ. Christ is no Moses, no law-giver, no tyrant, but the Mediator for sins, the Giver of grace and life.

We know this. Yet in the actual conflict with the devil, when he scares us with the Law, when he frightens us with the very person of the Mediator, when he misquotes the words of Christ, and distorts for us our Saviour, we so easily lose sight of our sweet High-Priest.

For this reason I am so anxious for you to gain a true picture of Christ out of the words of Paul “who gave himself for our sins.” Obviously, Christ is no judge to condemn us, for He gave Himself for our sins. He does not trample the fallen but raises them. He comforts the broken-hearted. Otherwise Paul should lie when he writes “who gave himself for our sins.”

I do not bother my head with speculations about the nature of God. I simply attach myself to the human Christ, and I find joy and peace, and the wisdom of God in Him. These are not new truths. I am repeating what the apostles and all teachers of God have taught long ago. Would to God we could impregnate our hearts with these truths.

Wow. What a great word.

The Holiness of God by RC Sproul

The Holiness of God by RC Sproul is a well known and highly regarded book. Like Packer’s ‘Knowing God’ and Piper’s ‘Desiring God’, my understanding is that this is Sproul’s flagship book. The one that put him on the map at least. I can see why.

Sproul is terrific, from start to finish, in outlining the holiness of God. He starts by talking about God’s holiness in relation to his creation. He leaves us with dealing with the mystery of God’s holiness. He speaks of how the Old Testament shows so clearly that holiness is a huge factor in the way he relates to his creatures. And, by through understanding holiness more we see just how patient, gracious, and merciful he is to each one of us.

I found his chapters in dealing the the justice of God and holiness, and also his approach to some tough passages of the Bible very helpful. For example, he deals with how Aaron’s sons die when they offer the wrong fire to God. This is because of God’s holiness. He also tackles the passage where one of the Ark bearers seems to stop the Ark of the Covenant from falling. In touching the Ark the man dies. This is again because of holiness. In each of these chapters it was highlighted to me just how holy God is and just how unholy I am. Hence, the greater appreciation for God’s patience, graciousness and mercy.

I don’t think holiness is a theme or characteristic of God spoken of much these days. Nor is it applied very well either. Perhaps the only time we hear of holiness is when we are told to obey God’s ways, yet this is often heard as rules and regulations. There’s always a danger in trying to encourage people toward holiness and godliness because it can often be heard as works-righteousness. Sadly, this distorts the gospel and is a poor witness. While our faith may impact our lives we don’t pursue the holiness God requires of us.

And when I say, ‘of what God requires of us’, I want to make sure that we are clear on what I mean.

This is not saying that we need to be holy in order to attain salvation, in order to be made right with God. No, Christianity is not a works-based faith. It is a faith built on the ‘rightness’ of Jesus Christ, and the work he has done on the cross. As Sproul articulates so in the final chapters of his book,

“That a saint [a believer] is a sinner is obvious. How then can he be just? The saint is just because he has been justified. In and of himself he is not just. He is made just in the sight of God by the righteousness of Christ. This is what justification by faith is about. When we put our personal trust for our salvation in Christ and in Him alone, then God transfers to our account all the righteousness of Jesus. His justness becomes ours when we believe in Him. It is a legal transaction. The transfer of righteousness is like an accounting transaction where no real property is exchanged. That is, God puts Jesus’ righteousness in my account while I am still a sinner.” (p212)

The calling we have as believers is to follow Jesus and become more like him. An aspect of this, and as Sproul strongly prioritises as number one, is that of holiness. We are to become more holy as believers. We are seeking to do away with sin in our lives and continue to live lives that are transforming us into the likeness of Jesus. The likeness of God. Holiness is then sought as a sinner-saint. We continue to examine our own lives in light of God’s holiness and know we have a lot of work to do.

Again, the trouble with talking this way is often we find ourselves slipping into a regulated or rules based faith. Yet, we must constantly remind ourselves that the heart of the holiness transformation is for the joy of being with God, knowing God, and being made right by God.

In reading this book, and thinking about it further, I have found myself appreciating the impact it has on my heart and mind. I have particularly found myself thinking about the undeserved grace God gives to us in light of his holiness. Furthermore, it is his holiness that impacts so many areas of the biblical storyline. In fact, from Genesis 3 right through to the end of the New Testament this theme of holiness plays a significant role.

I think this book inspires a greater understanding of God. A deeper appreciation for his grace and mercy, a real understanding of our sin and sinful nature and the impact of that on our relationship with God and this world. And then, the way God’s justice plays out because of his holiness. There are so many aspects to our faith and theology that this book speaks into. And is so helpful in our personal walk with Jesus, and our own transformation toward holiness.

I couldn’t recommend it more.

Recently Read: April 2018

Here are some brief summaries of the books I’ve finished recently. There aren’t as many as last time, but range from bible commentaries to biography to sport.

Recently Read - April 2018

Ruth: The King Is Coming by Daniel I. Block

I preached through the book of Ruth in February and March. This was the main commentary I used, which was simply excellent.

Ruth: The King Is Coming by Daniel Block is part of the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament series. This particular commentary gives a good outline of all the textual, cultural, and literary issues of the book. It walks the reader through the text and its structure in a helpful way. It raises the theological issues and conclusions of the book too. It was very helpful in thinking through the book of Ruth and and a useful preaching tool.

The Message of Ruth by David J. Atkinson

This commentary is in the Bible Speaks Today series. It’s not a new commentary nor is it particularly academic. It raises some helpful thoughts regarding the book of Ruth, particularly focussed on applying the text to the reader. However, I found the application reasonably poor, and various theological aspects of the text are not dealt with at length or in needed depth.

The Blueprint: LeBron Jame, Cleveland’s Deliverance, and the Making of the modern NBA by Jason Lloyd

The writer, Jason Lloyd, has been an NBA beat journalist for years. He was the Cleveland beat writer during the time of LeBron’s coming, going, and return to the Cavs. He gives a fascinating insight into the way the club operated during this time and how the club dealt with the superstar.

While there is biographical material of LeBron himself, the real insight of the book comes in the form of team strategy. That is, the management of an NBA team and what strategic moves the back office uses to build a winning team.

This was a great book, worth reading, and great sports writing.

The Prodigal God by Tim Keller

This is one of the best modern Christian books you’ll ever read.

I rate it highly. So highly that I’ve made it the first book in our church internship program.

The Prodigal God is a short book that takes the reader through the parable of The Prodigal Son. Each chapter not only reveals the content of the parable in a fresh way but is powerfully mind-blowing and heart-convicting for your soul.

If you’re looking for a great read and something that will encourage you in your Christian faith then this is well worth getting your hands on.

Packer on The Christian Life by Sam Storms

J.I. Packer is essential reading for any Christian and has been highly influential for millions of believers around the world. His best known work is Knowing God, one of his 25+ books written or contributed to. Now at over 90 years old he is no longer writing and teaching theology has he has done, but continues to impact many in the Christian faith because of his writings.

Sam Storms has written a great biography of the man, which focusses more on the way he has thought about the Christian life than about his life itself. In this way The Christian Life series is a unique contribution and well worth reading.

Storms gives one chapter to the life of the man but then spends 11 chapters on working through his Christian thought on topics like the atonement, the role of the bible, holiness, sanctification, the battle with sin, the Holy Spirit, prayer, suffering, and discerning the will of God. Each chapter is excellent and I found the chapters on the bible, sanctification, and prayer most beneficial for myself.

One interesting element of this book was reading Sam Storms articulate and reflect upon Packer’s cessationism while being a contiunationist himself. This was helpful and encouraging to see, particularly the attempt to understand Packer’s position while disagreeing with it.

Another book worth reading.

Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book About A (Really) Big Problem by Kevin DeYoung

Most people I know live busy lives.

I live a busy life. I suspect you live a busy life.

When people ask how I’m doing I try to avoid saying, “I’m busy”.

Everyone is busy.

Everyone says they’re busy.

It’s part of life.

I could have added ‘these days’ to the end of that last sentence but I don’t think we’re living in an especially busy era. People of every age have been busy, it’s just a different type of busy. And that’s humbling. To know we’re not alone in our busyness, either in this era or another, makes us no different to anyone else. We’re ordinary, ordinarily busy.

In light of life’s busyness Kevin DeYoung has written another neat little book; this time describing his busyness journey while looking at this theme-at-large.

Crazy_Busy_Kevin_DeYoung_

In many ways he has written it for himself, and anyone else who will read it. It’s not a 10-point plan on how to get rid of busyness, but it is a 10-chapter book helping us understand more broadly why we’re busy and how to think about it.

There was a period of time there where I’d be chasing the latest productivity tool or app that would make me more effective in life and work. I think that is similar to others I know. But really, when you consider all the time wasted in fiddling around with these tools you begin to wonder whether it’s worthwhile.

I’ve found they’ve made me feel more busy that perhaps I really am.

And that’s a problem.

We sometimes believe we’re so busy when actually it is the case of having information overload and always being on the go. If we cut a couple of things out and didn’t input into our heads so much then we might find we’re not as busy as we thought.

But it’s the things that need to be cut that are the issue.

What do we prioritise? What’s important? What can’t go? What has to be prioritised?

These questions, and many more, including the issue of sleep, are thought through by DeYoung.

The final chapters really push home the point from a Christian perspective. The number one priority is our walk with the Lord.

Using the story of Mary and Martha the author outlines the main point; resting in God and at the feet of Jesus is the priority and from there our work and busyness is to flow.

He’s not being legalistic or prescriptive in how this is done. But, he certainly emphasises the good point that spending time with Jesus is important and has consequences now and in the future.

I’d highly recommend this book, particularly to anyone who finds themselves feeling busy (read: everyone). Again, it’s not a book that outlines a plan for how to get out of your busyness. It gives a broad framework for thinking through and understanding the topic and some good wisdom for stepping into that. This is one of the best parts of the book, it leaves me to make my own decisions about how to avoid over-busyness.

Here’s some quotes:

“Busyness does not mean you are a faithful or fruitful Christian. It only means you are busy, just like everyone else.” (p32)

“Jesus understood his mission. He was not driven by the needs of others, though he often stopped to help hurting people. He was not driven by the approval of others, though he cared deeply for the lost and the broken. Ultimately, Jesus was driven by the Spirit. He was driven by his God-given mission. He knew his priorities and did not let the many temptations of a busy life deter him from his task. For Jesus that meant itinerant preaching, with devoted times of prayer, on his way to the cross.” (p56)

“The person who never sets priorities is the person who does not believe in his own finitude.” (p57)

Peter Kreeft is right: “We want to complexify our lives. We don’t have to, we want to. We want to be harried and hassled and busy. Unconsciously, we want the very things we complain about. For if we had leisure, we would look at ourselves and listen to our hearts and see the great gaping hole in our hearts and be terrified, because that hole is so big that nothing but God can fill it.” (p83)

“The antidote to busyness of soul is not sloth and indifference. The antidote is rest, rhythm, death to pride, acceptance of our own finitude, and trust in the providence of God.” (p102)

Recently Read: March 2018

Well, reading wise, this year has started with a flurry. It seems I have completed 20 books at the time of this posting, which raises the question as to whether I can keep up the pace. The other question it raises is whether I’ll be able to retain anything I’ve read too. I’ve impressed myself with the amount of reading I’ve done.

I should clarify that about half of these books have been audiobooks, listened to at 2.0x speed, while on holiday. But that doesn’t really matter, it’s still 20 books! Who makes arbitrary rules about what can be counted and what cannot? Not me. They all count in my book. See what I did there?

Anyway, I present to you some of the fine and not so fine books I’ve reading recently.

Recently Read - March 2018

When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide To A Life Of Miracles by Bill Johnson

Is this standard pentecostal theology? If it is I’ll be happy to avoid it for the rest of my days.

Confusing, almost crazy, that’s my summary of this book.

There is a complete disregard for any consistent interpretation of Scripture, and if you do read this you will lose count of how many passages are used outside their context.

Overall I’ll be judging this one as pretty poor. Granted, I’d like to do a more comprehensive review of this book but I think I’m still recovering from reader whiplash. It is important to engage with Bill Johnson and the Bethel movement. They are a major player in world Christianity right now. Their influence is seen here in my context. But, as for this book, there is much talk of healings, miracles, the power of prayer, the power of self, reading signs, and an continual over-realised eschatology. It’s just not worth it.

A Summer of Discontent and A Killer In Winter by Susanna Gregory

If you’re looking for a fictional series set in the 14th century, with a doctor as the main character, who investigates a plethora of murders with his monk counterpart; then this series is for you.

These two books are numbers eight and nine in the series. It’s a murder mystery type series and I enjoy reading them.

12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke

This is a book about smartphone use from a Christian perspective.

I think it’s helpful, thought-provoking, and very practical.

It’s not one of those ‘depart from the evil smartphone’ kind of books you might expect. It affirms technology as a gift from God and something to be embraced, while also providing wisdom-like thoughts as to its usefulness. The book sets up some helpful frameworks to think through technology and smartphones and their ultimate purpose. At times there is some clear theological over-reach going on, quite often associated with books of this genre (read: a lot of Christian living books today). But, it’s certainly worth the read.

A Sweet And Bitter Providence: Sex, Race, And The Sovereignty Of God by John Piper

This is one of the books I used in preparation for preaching a series on Ruth at my church. I think it is fantastic.

It’s more of a devotional commentary and gives good insight into the book. It teaches the meta-narrative themes of Ruth and provides devotional material to personally ponder. It’s very helpful in understanding of the book of Ruth, who God is, and the implications of the story. It’s also helpful in teaching how to read Old Testament scripture in narrative form.

Embracing Grace: A Gospel For All Of Us by Scot McKnight

The emphasis of grace here is a great reminder of the gifts God has given each of us. This is quite an easy read, and a good book to work through devotionally.

McKnight seeks to remind us that the gospel is what can make us whole, restored, creatures of God. The various facets of the gospel were great to hear again. Evidently published at the height of the emergent church movement, there is subtle reference and use of examples from that period (circa late-90s to mid-00s). But unless you’re aware of this period and of its writings then it makes no difference upon reading. The gospel forms us and restores us as personal creatures, image-bearers of God, and the communities in which we live and serve. Good to read.

Faith Formation In A Secular Age: Responding To The Church’s Obsession With Youthfulness by Andrew Root

This is one of the more dense and theologically heavy books I’ve read in a while. That’s probably why it took my a few months to get through.

In any case, it is a book of two halves. The first, focussing more on the rise of youth culture in Western society, particularly since World War II. This has had and emphasis on valuing authenticity, seeing it as a virtue to uphold. This section is a historical journey with clear implications for today, certainly in the church and its youth ministry. The second part of this book is focussed on faith formation in the secular age. It deals with how this could be done, albeit very briefly, while giving details of a more in depth analysis of what faith is and how to think through it biblically.

It was worth the read even if it did leave me rather unsatisfied with its conclusions.

I have written a more comprehensive review on The Gospel Coalition Australia website, and a further reflection on this blog.

Finish: Give Yourself The Gift Of Done by Jon Acuff

Here’s a helpful self-help book.

This is about helping those of us who start projects but never complete them. You know, we leave them half done, or complete day one of our goal but by day four we’ve already stopped because it’s hard and unenjoyable.

Acuff, with a significant amount of humour, really gives some great advice. The main issue being our dependency to seek perfection in everything we do, which results in us never completing the steps of a project in the first place. Some suggestions Acuff has for helping with this is by cutting goals in half, giving more time to projects or goals, actually saying ‘no’ to things that get in the way, do what’s fun, and also get rid of the secret rules we give ourselves with these types of things. Case in point, making an arbitrary rule about what can or cannot be counted as ‘read’ books. Audiobooks count. It’s OK. Why make rules around this? It’s just silly and stupid.

Anyway, excellent book.

Idea: Multiple Churches, One Youth Pastor

An enjoyable part of working within the #youthmin world is connecting with other youth pastors and youth ministry practitioners from across the globe. For a number of years I’ve been following a guy called James in the UK. He regularly blogs about youth work and ministry from a British perspective. I often find his posts helpful, and it really is just him vomiting his thoughts onto the page (or screen as it may be).

As it happens, James and I are reading the same book at the same time. Andrew Root’s latest work, “Faith Formation In A Secular Age: Responding To The Church’s Obsession With Youthfulness”. Yesterday, James had a few reflections on the beginnings of the book and I found it useful to engage with. You can read it here. In this post I’d simply like to engage with what he has written and add my two cents too.

Basically, James asks the question, after reading a chapter or two of the book, “Has the church embraced youthfulness – but given up on young people?”

James then outlines a few thoughts on how the church in the UK has been focussed on young people, and a lot of the time only young people, perhaps to the neglect of other generations. But, one of the key lines in this reflection from James is, “…I imagine that in the UK the drive to attract young people has less to do with authenticity, and more to do with survival.”

This is a key comment.

It is a key issue the church battles with today, and one that youth pastors and other church leaders know, feel, write about, and talk about a lot.

The first part of Andrew Root’s book is a fascinating look into the rise of youth culture in society, particularly American culture, and the effect this has had on our thinking. His contention, better argued than I will articulate here, is that the West, since the 1960’s, has had an obsession with ‘youth’, which filters into everything we see around us. So much so that whenever we think of something to do with ‘youth’ we believe it is authentic and cool. That which is authentic is generally that which is young, yip, and youthful.

In our churches we’ve seen this occur over the last 40-50 years through the strong rise in the youth ministry movement. Prior to the 1960’s, and the beginnings of student and youth orientated para-church organisations, the sole youth pastor within a local church community was not even a thing. Now, almost every church’s second staff appointment would be a youth pastor. To look after the ‘young people’ of course.

Furthermore, there has been a sharp rise in considering ‘youthfulness’ as being the epitome of church and church life. For a church to be authentic, happening, and growing, it needs to have the vibe that it is young, cool, and hip. When you look around Christendom currently, this sort of vibe is especially evident.

James talks about how many of the youth workers and pastors in his region have been given the flick because of financial restraints and the like. He talks about the decrease in specialist youth workers in his region regularly, it seems to be a major concern.

But this got me thinking about how many churches I know who have full-time youth and young adult pastors. Generally, it is only the ones who are large, perhaps with a Sunday morning attendance of 250+, that can afford such an expense. I am also aware that there are plenty of smaller churches who seek to employ a youth pastor (or similar) but can only afford to days per week at the most.

My question is, is the church of the future willing to work together in order to pay someone a full-time wage but have their youth work cross local church boundaries?

In other words, would two or three smaller churches in a particular area be willing to pay for one person to cover youth ministry in their region? 

I think this would be an interesting experiment for local churches to grapple with.

This would provide someone with full employment, paid through two or more churches, while giving broader scope for the churches than their own little patch. Some might call it kingdom thinking I suppose.

And this links back to the key comment James was making when he said, “…I imagine that in the UK the drive to attract young people has less to do with authenticity, and more to do with survival.”

Rather than actually think about survival (which I understand is a massive issue when the finances are barely paying the overheads), wouldn’t it be better to think more strategically and out-of-the-box in regard to youth ministry? When we’re solely thinking in terms of survival, looking to ‘attract young people’, then we’ve lost the plot.

What we need is a vision that understands the realities of what it is to work in faith-based youth ministry, but have that aligned with a larger vision of God being at work through his people, the Church. And, along the way it would be worth experimenting and working together with other churches for the spread of the gospel and work of his kingdom.