Significant Books for Pastors in 2016
As another year draws to a close, it’s worth reflecting upon moments with the potential to shape minds, lives, and ministries—in this case, the publication of books during 2016. There is no shortage of “best books” lists, and any such list by definition reflects one’s personal preferences and biases. But the goal of this list is once again to identify “significant books for pastors” released this year. My choices are guided by three criteria: (1) since different books make different kinds of contributions, I seek to include a range of genres and topics; (2) in addition to books immediately relevant to pastors, I also have in mind those that benefit the people they serve, whether the pastor includes them in sermons, recommendations, or on book tables; (3) I go light on devotional and ministry-practice books since their relevance and utility vary so widely for different people. I realize that few pastors will want to read all of these, but I do think they’re all worth being aware of.
Finally, although I usually refrain from ranking the books, this year I’ll identify two (the first two on the list) that in my opinion particularly stand out among the others.
1. The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D.A. Carson This book was long in the making, and its arrival is an important milestone in the church’s ongoing responsibility to contend for the truth of the Scriptures. The essays in this volume are especially important for pastors, who are often unaware of how challenges to Scripture’s authority (and defenses of it) have changed since their seminary days. Moreover, continuing to learn and grow is one of the pastor’s prime responsibilities (2 Tim 2:15), and few topics warrant continuing sharpening more than one’s doctrine of Scripture. Although every essay will not equally satisfy everyone, this massive book (1,100+ pp.) leaves few stones unturned, addressing issues historical, biblical, theological, and philosophical. Even if you don’t read this through, it should be one you at least have available to you.
2. The Whole Christ, Sinclair Ferguson If the above book deals with the formal principle of evangelicalism (Scripture), this book deals with its material principle—the gospel. As I noted in my blurb of this book, it’s hard to imagine a more important book written by a more dependable guide. In exploring the “Marrow Controversy” of the 18th century, Ferguson brings needed clarity on perhaps the two most important aspects of pastoral ministry: the nature of the gospel and its implications for the Christian life. And beyond rich doctrinal reflection and insightful pastoral wisdom, you will come away from this book savoring the beauty of Christ who comes to us, as Calvin put it so beautifully, “clothed with his gospel.”
3. Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification, Sinclair Ferguson Surely one of the most lucid, succinct treatments of sanctification I’ve ever read is Ferguson’s essay in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification (IVP Academic, 1989). In Devoted to God, we are treated to a book-length treatment aiming to provide, as the author describes it, “a manual of biblical teaching on holiness,” in the form of extended expositions of key biblical texts on sanctification (“Appendix 5” in the back of the book lists all of the treated texts). Besides the gospel itself, few areas of biblical teaching are more important for the pastor to understand than sanctification, and few books will provide as faithful—and warm—an overview of this area than Ferguson’s latest.
4. A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness, John Piper Yet another important book on the Bible. If Piper’s books were music, they would form the soundtrack of many evangelicals’ spiritual lives. However, I’m not sure any of them surpasses this one in importance. This book takes the historic Reformed view of Scripture (which, I should note, is strangely foreign to many evangelicals) and unpacks and imbues it with Piper’s characteristic sharpness of analysis and God-exalting joy.
5. God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ, Stephen J. Wellum For some time I have needed to piece together assignments to cover the bible’s teaching on Christology—Wellum’s book now provides the best current one-stop treatment I’m aware of. It’s a remarkable book, firmly built upon a biblical epistemology (Part 1), grounded in the biblical storyline (Part 2), deeply informed historically (Part 3), and blending classical Christology with perceptive treatment of new ideas and trends (Part 4). His accessible treatment on the backdrop, terminology, and developments surrounding Nicaea and Chalcedon is critical reading for anyone confused by (or bored with) orthodoxy. As Wellum says in his introduction, “we cannot afford to get Christology wrong.” Indeed—and this book is an outstanding tool to guard us against that fate.
6. Good and Angry, David Powlison The best material on a universally relevant topic by the best thinker on that topic. Reading Powlison on the human heart is like listening to a master jazz improviser—brilliant, insightful, surprising. Like virtually anything that he writes, this book is biblically rich, theologically faithful, culturally aware, and pastorally relevant. Good and Angry should be digested by every pastor even as its content should be shared with every church member.
7. A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, ed. Miles V. Van Pelt, and A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament, ed. Michael J. Kruger These two books are quite the accomplishment, bringing together in single volumes what is often separated in other reference works. While covering issues of “special introduction” (author, audience, date, etc.), these volumes focus more on the message of the biblical books, both individually and in terms of their biblical-theological contribution. All of this is accomplished in an accessible, pastorally sensitive manner and from a consistently Reformed perspective (all of the authors are professors at RTS). It’s as if each author was seeking to answer the question, “I want to teach this book of the bible—what do I need to know to begin?” Pastors will want to review these before tackling a new sermon series and to recommend them to people in their congregation.
8. Theologians You Should Know, Michael Reeves A general ignorance of our theological heritage is a handicap of many a pastor, and I know of no better recent book to begin to remedy that handicap than this introduction to giants of church history. Reeves writes with an excited eloquence that makes past centuries bristle with current relevance. In your reading plan for 2017, consider a modest step: take a chapter a month to work your way through highpoints of historical theology. Even better, supplement this with some of Reeves’s suggestions on diving into the original sources of each theologian that conclude each chapter.
9. A Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 3 (90-150), Allen P. Ross This list always includes a commentary, and this year I’m happy to recommend Ross’s work on the Psalms, which concludes this excellent three volume series. My sense is that this commentary has not been as visible as it deserves. Ross is well versed in issues of Psalms scholarship but, unlike some commentaries, he doesn’t allow discussions of, say, Mowinckel’s enthronement festival, to eclipse his exposition of the text. Pastors will also appreciate the format of the commentary, which provides for each psalm comments on textual issues, an exegetical summary, an expository outline, and a summary of the psalm’s message and application. I think it’s the most helpful commentary on the Psalms available to a pastor.
10. Habits of Grace, David Mathis I’m always on the lookout for books that will assist people in their practice of the spiritual disciplines—perhaps I’m not alone in needing regular reminders, fresh perspectives, and new insights in the pursuit of God. This brief, satisfying book is rooted in grace, aims at the heart, brims with practical suggestions, and—unlike many books of this genre—upholds the critical importance of the church in our spiritual growth. (Hint: don’t skip John Piper’s preface). An excellent book to commend to people in your church.
The number 10 is completely arbitrary, and there is no magic line separating the above titles from many others. So here are some additional books with their own significance that pastors will want to be aware of.
Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity, Kevin J. Vanhoozer Given the pressing demands of ministry, pastors need encouragement to read books that stimulate rather than just suggest, that force them to think more expansively about the familiar doctrines they preach. I found this book to be one of those. Vanhoozer suggests that the five Reformation solas, which he argues are essentially insights into dimensions of the gospel, contain the potential both to answer critiques of Protestantism and to address some of its weaknesses. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this book will provoke fresh thought (and, no doubt, some disagreement) on issues central to it, particularly the authority of Scripture, the unity of the church, and how the gospel relates to both.
The Love of God, ed. Christopher W. Morgan This is yet another excellent entry in Crossway’s “Theology in Community” series. A quick skim of the chapter titles reveals the wide relevance of this book (“Is the God of the Old Testament a God of Love?,” “What Does Jesus Teach about the Love of God?,” “How Does the Trinity’s Love Shape Our Love for One Another?,” “Does the Love of God Require Universalism?,” “How does God’s Love in Christ Relate to Islam?”), and a glance at the author list points to its quality (Carson, Ortlund, Köstenberger, Plummer, Morgan).
What about Free Will?, Scott Christensen A clear and thorough treatment of the knotty issue of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human choices. If you’ve only dabbled in this topic (e.g., a few paragraphs in a systematic theology), this is a helpful overview that not only deals with the complex issues but does so in a manner that produces gratitude and affection for the God of all grace. Take a week to read through it, and you’ll emerge sharpened in mind and refreshed in soul.
Calling on the Name of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Prayer, J. Gary Millar IVP’s New Studies in Biblical Theology (NSBT) series continues to deliver. This volume provides a foundational treatment of a topic of obvious personal and pastoral importance. Exploring prayer throughout the various corpora of Scripture, Millar’s insights are at times surprising and consistently motivating. I can’t think of a better starting point for a study or sermon series on prayer. Superb.
I should mention another recent entry in the NSBT series, God Has Spoken in His Son: A Biblical Theology of Hebrews by Peter T. O’Brien. This is an excellent and edifying companion to O’Brien’s outstanding commentary on Hebrews, providing detailed theological reflection not allowed by the confines of the Pillar series. If you’re preaching through Hebrews, you’ll benefit greatly from O’Brien’s theological reflection to deepen your exposition.
You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K.A. Smith By illuminating our habits and exposing what Smith calls the “cultural liturgies” in which we are immersed, the author eloquently helps us examine what we truly love and encourages us toward habits that bend our affections toward Christ. This book will give you new eyes to perceive what’s behind your daily routine.
Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical, Timothy Keller. With his typical winsome thoughtfulness, Keller has provided another wonderful resource to give to people with whom we are seeking to share Christ. This book begins a bit further back than The Reason for God by addressing many of the unspoken presuppositions non-believers hold that prevent them from exploring the gospel, to begin with.
No God But One: A Former Muslim Investigates the Evidence for Islam & Christianity, Nabeel Qureshi For the pastor who feels he must finally educate himself on Islam, this is a great starting point. Qureshi earlier shared his conversion in the New York Times bestselling Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. In this book, he examines the key differences between Islam and Christianity, providing the pastor a solid introduction as well as an excellent resource for sharing with those open to exploring the gospel.
The Christ-Centered Expositor: A Field Guide for Word-Driven Disciple Makers, Tony Merida. I often encourage those engaged in the regular preaching of God’s Word to stoke the fires of their heart by reading a new book on preaching each year. Merida has written an excellent one that addresses the heart, points consistently to Christ, and provides a practical overview of the preparation process. The author is a faithful practitioner who writes with a zeal for the task and an understanding of the challenges.
Going Deeper with New Testament Greek, Andreas Köstenberger, Benjamin Merkle, and Robert Plummer Yes, I’m placing a Greek grammar on this list. But this is no ordinary grammar. This is the book for moving beyond introductory Greek. The authors provide teachers an up-to-date, well-organized, and comprehensive intermediate text, and they provide students a user-friendly, clearly written well-illustrated guide. For the pastor whose Greek is in the past, working through this book will help you heed the seemingly impossible plea, “Hold onto your languages!”
Speaking of books, in John Piper’s When I Don’t Desire God, he makes this simple observation: “Many good things do not happen in our lives for the simple lack of planning.” Whether we’re catching up on books published this past year or snatching up new one's next year, they’ll do us little good if we don’t have a plan to make our way through them. And a pastor’s life is filled with urgencies that will dominate our time if we don’t plan for the important. So let’s resolve to make room for the gift of reading this year. Your life will be different on Dec. 31, 2017, if you do.
As Director of Theology and Training for Sovereign Grace, Jeff Purswell is the Dean of our Pastors College, leads our theological training, and helps develop theological resources. He is also an elder at Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville. He and his wife, Julie, have two sons.