Significant Books for Pastors in 2017

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“Real reading of real books, reading designed to augment the reader’s creative strength, never loses it power.” Wise words from David Mikics, who wrote Slow Reading In a Hurried Age to help us slow down and reap the rewards that careful reading brings. My focus in this post is “real books” for pastors—not necessarily “best books” (best for what?), but significant books published in 2017 that pastors should at least be aware of and, if possible, read.

Three criteria guide these selections. Since different books make different kinds of contributions, I try to include a range of genres and topics. Second, I include books that, whatever their topic, are well-grounded theologically since they are the ones most likely to endure. Finally, I look for books that benefit not only the pastor but those they serve—some may become go-to recommendations or book table options. The list goes light on practical and devotional books, not because they’re unimportant but because their relevance and benefit can differ so widely for different people. I make no attempt to rank these books, although I do think the first book stands out for its excellence and importance.

This is the fifth year for a post that has become a habit, and I hope the following recommendations will benefit you as much as they have me.

Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture, John Piper.

This book, the second in a trilogy that began with last year’s A Peculiar Glory, reminds me of the quote that opened this blog: “real reading of real books.” Dr. Piper wrote this book to help us read well the best book. And because pastors are called to specialize in that book, this book should be on every pastor’s list. This is so much here. Piper first inspires us for the task by proposing just what the goal of reading the Bible is. He then excites faith by exploring the necessarily supernatural nature of Bible-reading. Finally, he equips us to do real reading—looking long and hard at the Bible, deeply dependent upon the Spirit, to see what’s really there. If your passion for the Bible has cooled, throw fresh logs on the fire by working your way through this book.

Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, eds. J.P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem.

Forced to breathe the air of naturalistic relativism, many Christians have a sneaking suspicion that maybe Darwin was right, and so they’re tempted to make peace with the culture through the hybrid of theistic evolution. This book reveals the folly of that compromise: it is neither legitimate nor necessary. Theistic Evolution includes substantial scientific essays that reveal, from multiple angles and in a very accessible manner, the failure of neo-Darwinism as a theory. Other essays explore the philosophical nature of theistic evolution and the illegitimacy of naturalism as a scientific methodology. Finally, the book shows the incompatibility of theistic evolution with Scripture and Christian theology. This book will be a vital reference point for pastors and an invaluable resource for believers and questioners alike. A pastor recently asked me to recommend “books on evolution.” This is now the book with which to begin.

Mickey Connelly

Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, ed. Matthew Barrett.

2017 brought many books celebrating the Reformation’s 500th anniversary, and this is one of the most valuable. For all of its ethical, social, and political effects, the Reformation was at its heart a theological movement, and at the center of its concerns was the gospel of Jesus Christ. This impressive collection of essays by theologians and church historians seeks to rearticulate the theology of the Reformation, that it might again effect reformation in Christ’s church. Unlike other books, e.g., Timothy George’s (also excellent) Theology of the Reformers, this volume is arranged by systematic theological categories, and therefore provides an overall sketch of the theological framework that emerged in these critical years. It’s all too easy for us to take our theology for granted. This book helps to remedy that, placing the hard-won doctrinal breakthroughs of the Reformation in historical context and thus in clear relief. For the pastor wanting a refresher on the Reformation and a deeper grasp of our theological heritage and convictions, working through this book would provide both (one should also note the bibliography of both primary and secondary sources that accompanies each chapter).

How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology, Jason S. DeRouchie, and How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology, Andrew David Naselli.

I will deal with these two counterpart volumes together, although I’m tempted to say much about each of them individually. About them both I’ll simply say: I know of no other book that more clearly, comprehensively, and winsomely lays out the steps of interpretation from exegesis to theology and application than these books do for the OT and NT, respectively. When I first read through Andy’s book, I kept saying to myself, “That’s exactly how I would say that!” (which I hope is no criticism to Andy)—and I immediately assigned his book for my exegesis course. Jason’s book struck me the same way, especially in the biblical-theological framework in which his OT study is set. What particularly sets these volumes apart from similar books is their utility for readers at virtually any level, from the student doing (or the pastor brushing up on) original language study or the normal reader wanting to do serious Bible study. It’s difficult to think of how these could be improved: a depth of learning, clearly explained, abundantly illustrated, personally applied. Simply superb.

The Benedict Option, Rob Dreher.

This book garnered much attention earlier this year, and deservedly so. I include it here, not because I agree with all of Dreher’s ideas, but because of his penetrating analysis of our cultural moment. For evangelicals who can be at turns triumphalistic or insulated, the picture Dreher paints is both illuminating and sobering. I found two aspects of this picture particularly insightful. First, Dreher traces our culture’s slide from a largely Judeo-Christian understanding of the world to one where individual rights—and even feelings—reign supreme. Secondly, he provides a stark analysis of an American church landscape which has been taken captive by values our culture holds dear. As a result, our churches are left with few intellectual and spiritual resources with which to withstand, as he calls it, the current “cultural barbarism.” Although some judge Dreher to be overly pessimistic, the larger contours of his analysis are hard to deny. This is a thoughtful, thought-provoking read. Few will agree with all of Dreher’s suggestions, but we can hope that one enduring effect of the book will be that Christians place less confidence in the kingdoms of this world (including our own), and more confidence in the kingdom of Christ that has invaded this world, and which will never be conquered.

God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Actually Say about Gender Identity?, Andrew T. Walker.

A moment’s reflection reveals the transgender revolution to be unlike anything Christians have encountered for a very long time, calling into question as it does Scripture’s very definition of humanity as people—men and women—made in the image of God. The wake of this redefinition is deep and powerful, embracing politics and laws and language and, of course, pastoral ministry. There is no better book I’m aware of to acclimate and equip pastors on this issue than Walker’s. He explores the roots of this revolution, its terminology, a Biblical framework for evaluating it, and offers much wisdom for responding with clarity, courage, and compassion. If you’ve only engaged this issue superficially, you need to read this book. It provides a corrective not only to secular orthodoxy on this issue but also to the troubling influence of other voices in the evangelical world (e.g., Mark Yarhouse’s Understanding Gender Disphoria).

1-2 Timothy and Titus, Andreas J. Köstenberger.

This list always includes at least one commentary, and this year I’m happy to commend Köstenberger’s work on the Pastoral Epistles. The author has spent much time in these letters, having previously written on them in the revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary series (2006) and co-edited a monograph on 1 Timothy 2:9-15 entitled Women in the Church (orig. 1996; now in its 3rd edition). The work has all the marks one would expect from the author’s work: thorough treatment of exegetical details, even-handed judgments, and clear writing. Two things make this commentary especially useful for pastors. The format is user-friendly: each section contains comments on context, structure, specific exegesis, and then a biblical-theological summary. Most unique is the commentary’s detailed treatment (188 pages!) of the most prominent biblical and theological themes in the Pastoral Epistles. The pastor will also detect in the book’s comments and approach the burden of this series to serve those called to proclaim God’s word.

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How Does Sanctification Work?, and Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken, David Powlison.

Anything David Powlison writes should be required reading for pastors, and if he had penned a third book in 2017 it would have been included here also. Just to see the title How Does Sanctification Work? under David’s name is all that’s required to recommend this book. With clarifying wisdom and exquisite balance Powlison navigates the dynamics of life and change. He resists oversimplification because life and sin and change aren’t simple. What changes you—God? His truth? Wise people? Suffering and trial? Your own efforts? The answer is yes—as all of these factors interplay in different ways in different lives. In Making All Things New, David addresses those on both sides of the destructive equation of sexual sin, those who sin and those sinned against. As with everything he writes, this short book brims with insight, wisdom, clarity, and hope.

Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography, Herman Selderhuis.

This list typically includes a biography, and this book made for an easy selection, especially in this year celebrating the Reformation. For those who have yet to read a Luther biography, this is the perfect starting point. Selderhuis presents Luther’s life in ten chronological phases—“Child” “Student,” “Monk,” “Exegete,” “Theologian,” “Architect,” “Reformer,” “Father,” “Professor,” and “Prophet.” This structure enables the author both to recount Luther’s story and to insightfully unpack its significance. The book is rich in detail, wisely selective, nuanced in presentation, and engagingly written. This is a delightful read that will make you feel as if you knew Luther personally.

Descriptions and Prescriptions: A Biblical Perspective on Psychiatric Diagnoses & Medications, Michael R. Emlet.

This is a remarkable little book. Few things are more daunting to a pastor than the world of psychiatric diagnoses and psychotropic medications. With medical expertise as a doctor and pastoral expertise as a counselor, Emlet is both discerning as to our psychologized, medicated culture as well as wise regarding the complexity of our humanity and sin. There is much packed into these 100 pages. He reveals the errors, limitations, and the potential value of psychiatric diagnoses. He provides a primer on psychoactive drugs and how they work. In short, Emlet provides both knowledge of this world and wisdom in navigating it, all to the end that pastors might care for others more wisely, biblically, and effectively.

I fear limiting these to a “top ten” risks minimizing a number of other important books. There is no clear line between the above entries and other books pastors will want to be aware of. Here are a few more:

A Reader’s Guide to the Major Writings of Jonathan Edwards, eds. Nathan A. Finn and Jeremy M. Kimble. I suspect that the knowledge many pastors have of Jonathan Edwards is acquired second-hand through the books and sermons of others. This collection of essays introduces the reader to some of Edwards’s most important works, providing historical context, summaries, and evaluations. This book is very well-conceived and provides a wonderful entry point for studying Edwards.

True Feelings: God’s Gracious and Glorious Purpose for Our Emotions, Carolyn Mahaney & Nicole Whitacre. I recommend this book, not because I know the authors and their husbands, but because its topic is universally relevant, its treatment is thoroughly biblical, its application practical, and its presentation clear and engaging. The authors place our emotions in a proper theological framework: they are gifts from God, distorted by sin, revealing of our hearts, and the objects of God’s redeeming grace. This book delivers compassion, insight, and hope—the kind of hope that only the gospel can provide. In a world where emotions define and govern us, here is a book to read and to give to others. Perfect for group and one-to-one studies.

Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness & Dating, Marshall Segal. In this wise and practical book, Segal helps the not-yet-married to think biblically about singleness, dating, and marriage. A remarkable range of topics are covered here, all with biblical clarity, compassion, realism, and faith.

Exodus, T. Desmond Alexander. I could just as easily have included this in the top ten books above. This massive commentary (almost 700 pp.) provides both exegetical detail and biblical-theological perspective. Superb—pastors can only hope for more commentaries like this on other OT books.

Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior, Stephen Wellum. This book is part of Zondervan’s “5 Solas” series in honor of the Reformation anniversary. In a wonderful blend of exegesis, systematics, and historical theology, Wellum establishes the doctrines of Christ’s person and work from Scripture, considers the Reformation’s teaching on these doctrines, and then examines their importance in the current cultural climate. For the pastor wanting to drink regularly from the fount of Christ and his work, Wellum’s book will be an excellent part of that diet.

Sanctification, Michael Allen. As the newest entry in the New Studies in Dogmatics series, Sanctification is an outstanding, and thorough, examination of a doctrine that lies at the heart of pastoral ministry. Allen provides a rich overview of sanctification within the framework of other key doctrines—e.g., God, creation, covenant—and in particular, in its connection with the person and work of Christ. As pastors know, it is easy to get sanctification wrong; slowly digesting this book would be an excellent way for a pastor to strengthen his foundations on this critical area of doctrine.

Preaching in the New Testament: An Exegetical and Biblical-Theological Study, Jonathan I. Griffiths. I am a big fan of the NSBT series, of which this book is the latest entry. I often encourage pastors—especially those heavily engaged in preaching—to read at least one book a year on this subject. Here is my recommendation for this year. Unlike most books on preaching that tend to be heavy on methodology but light on theology, this book provides a biblical-theological overview of the preaching task that will raise your eyes from the constant demands of sermon preparation to reflect upon just what it is you’re engaged in.

Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: Critical Questions and Answers, Jim Newheiser. Issues of divorce and remarriage present some of the biggest challenges in pastoral ministry, and Newheiser has provided pastors an excellent resource to help them navigate these often troubled waters. Arranged under the headings of 40 questions, the book is at once comprehensive and accessible, combining biblical teaching, wise advice, and helpful illustrations drawn from Newheiser’s counseling experience.

Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, ed. Collin Hansen. Despite the importance and influence of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I would imagine few pastors have been able to make time for it. The essays in this book introduce the reader to some of the major ideas in Taylor and interacts with them in light of the church and its mission. An important and thought-provoking book.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport. I’m not sure if I’ve included books from the business (or self-help) world on this list before, but I heartily recommend this one. The book’s thrust is not profound but it is timely—even urgent. In our proverbial world of distraction, we need convictions and corresponding habits to enable us to focus our attention for fruitfulness. This is an easy but convicting read, and a great book with which to begin the new year.


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.