I probably don’t need to tell you how much I love books in general, and Christian books in particular. One of my favorite times to be a reader is in mid-December when people begin to share their picks for the top books of the year. I usually collect a good number of these lists and scour them to see if there is any consensus. I have done that over the past few weeks and am ready to share the results.
A few years ago it always seemed simple to find a few consensus picks. Over the past years, for one reason or another, it has become far more difficult. So while I scour as many lists as ever, it is rare for a single book to appear on more than a handful of them. With that in mind, here are the ones that appeared repeatedly and, in a more subjective sense, seemed to generate the most positive buzz throughout the year.
- Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture by Christopher Watkin. This book also appeared in last year’s roundup, but I think because it was large, dense, and released late in 2022, many readers only got to it this year. Notably, Christianity Today declared it their book of the year.
- The Lord of Psalm 23: Jesus Our Shepherd, Companion, and Host by David Gibson. I read many positive reviews of this one throughout the year and also spotted it on several of the year-end roundups.
- Pastor, Jesus Is Enough: Hope for the Weary, the Burned Out, and the Broken by Jeremy Writebol. This book is obviously geared to pastors and will primarily appeal to them. Many seemed to find it a source of deep encouragement.
- A Quiet Mind to Suffer With: Mental Illness, Trauma, and the Death of Christ by John Andrew Bryant. A number of avid readers mentioned that this book was an especially helpful volume on mental illness and the nearness of Christ to those who suffer from it.
- Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation by Collin Hansen. This biography, which focuses primarily on intellectual and spiritual influences, was timed providentially so it was released very close to the time Keller went to be with the Lord. Many readers appreciated coming to know him better through it.
Here is an incomplete list of the various awards and roundups I consulted. (I feel compelled to note that both Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition base their awards on paid submissions—publishers must submit their books and pay a fee for them to be considered which makes their process and criteria a little different.)
Let me add a word about methodology. The only lists I include are the ones that are published by people I follow anyway. I follow perhaps 250 to 300 blogs and sites, so that provides a significant group to draw from. That said, I tend to follow people with whom I have broad doctrinal alignment, so I suppose there’s a pretty significant bias involved. So be it!
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By Tim Challies — 12 months ago
The revival at Asbury has already come to an end. What began as a brief and simple chapel service turned into a weeks-long worship event that drew tens of thousands of participants and elicited tens of millions of opinions. Only now have I gathered my thoughts and bundled them into this “cold take.” I trust you won’t mind that I’ve chosen to share it as a series of short thoughts rather than a single essay.
Some things may be wrong or misguided, but not particularly dangerous. A small revival (or purported revival if you prefer) at a small college far away does not necessarily demand a great deal of scrutiny by those who have no connection to it. While it is good to have “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14) there is usually little need to put the effort into what does not intersect your life and what is unlikely to cause anyone any great harm. Those biblical calls to discernment ought to be considered alongside the exhortations about meddling in affairs that are not your own.
Revival is not a clear biblical category like, for example, deacon or baptize. It’s not a word we find in the New Testament, and it does not tell us to try to generate revivals or be on watch for them. It doesn’t even instruct us to pray for them, though that may be a very good thing to do. It’s clear that God sometimes chooses to work in ways that we choose to label revival, but God’s greatest and most consistent work is through the ordinary means of grace within the local church. Because the Bible does not define revival, it may be difficult to know exactly what one is and exactly when one is happening. It may describe a range of circumstances and experiences.
The New Dictionary of Theology offers a helpful definition of revival: “God’s quickening visitation of his people, touching their hearts and deepening his work of grace in their lives. It is essentially a corporate occurrence, an enlivening of individuals not in isolation but together.” If this is an appropriate definition, then examples abound in Scripture and church history. And if this is an appropriate definition it does not set the bar all that high—where we see God quickening a number of people all at once, touching their hearts and deepening his work of grace, there we may have a revival. A revival does not need to sweep over the globe or impact millions to be genuine.
When revival breaks out, we need to guard against treating it as something that has an almost mystical or mythical quality to it. God’s plan for the world is centered around the church, so we should be careful not to inadvertently disparage his “Plan A” which is—and always will be—the church. Of course we should also hesitate to treat revival as if it is nothing or to speak ill of what God may be using for his glory.
It seems to me that news of an outbreak of revival is best met with a guarded optimism. We don’t need to be naive but also don’t need to be incredulous. And if that revival begins in a tradition very different from our own (though of course one that acknowledges the gospel) we should perhaps be especially glad and hopeful, for it is good to be reminded that God is at work in many different places and through many different people. Speaking personally, I would like my first instinct to be “Praise God” rather than “Fat chance!” (Jim Elliff: “How do you respond to a pastor friend who says that the youth in his church have experienced repentance and brokenness and restored relationships in spontaneous youth-led gatherings which are less than perfect. Do you immediately tell him how skeptical you are, or do you rejoice?”)
A revival that emerges in a Wesleyan school led by Wesleyan faculty within the Wesleyan tradition is likely to manifest itself in ways that are distinctly Wesleyan. It is therefore unlikely to feature Presbyterian worship or Baptist doctrine. And that’s okay. We could perhaps imagine genuine revival breaking out simultaneously at a very good Anglican Church in Australia and a very good Reformed Baptist church in Zambia. I doubt many of us would be shocked or dismayed if they looked quite a bit different from one another even as we rejoiced in them both. I doubt many of us would be shocked or dismayed if we were drawn far more to one of them than the other. We should not demand, then, that a revival arising from a different Christian tradition look just like our church. For reasons that are his own, God sees fit to work through many different theological streams or traditions.
Jonathan Edwards once made some good and helpful observations about the distinguishing marks of revival, but his observations are not authoritative. He, after all, lived at a particular time and in a certain place and within a distinct context. And, of course, he was a sinful, finite, limited human being like you and me. So yes, when we hear whispers of revival, by all means, we should look up his work on the subject. But even as we appreciate his insights, we should be cautious about demanding that a revival looks exactly like his description or about disparaging one that doesn’t perfectly match it. All of which is simply to say that we should avoid using Edwards as a kind of trump card.
The internet in general and social media in particular demand the constant creation of content. Many people crave hot takes from their favored content creators and this means that much of the material that gets generated during curious or controversial events is not particularly thoughtful or useful. In fact, much of it is created to generate income, to satisfy existing subscribers, or to draw new ones. Don’t doubt that there’s money to be made and platform to be gained by having opinions on even something as good as revival. Thus it’s important to distinguish between creators who really have something to contribute and those who are merely in it for themselves, usually through relentless negativity. After all, cynicism and controversy are still the easiest ways to gain a following.
Any revival is likely to encounter not only opposition but competition. There will be people on one side who refuse to acknowledge that it is (or even may be) revival and who try to discern it out of existence. God may not snuff out a smoldering wick, but many of his people will gladly do so. Meanwhile, there will be people on the other side who want to turn it into a complete circus. If one group is determined to make it far less than it is the other is determined to make it far more. Both are essentially just wanting to use it for their own ends. This seems to have been the tension at Asbury and I think we should all respect the school’s administration for being aware of this and for working hard to prevent excesses. I did not envy them their task.
You don’t need to care about everything. You don’t need to take an interest in everything. You don’t need to have an opinion on everything. You certainly don’t need to voice your opinion on everything. If a situation like that at Asbury doesn’t intersect your life in any way, you can pray for it or you can just never give it another thought—both perfectly valid responses under the circumstances.
By Tim Challies — 8 months ago
Another month has come and gone. For readers, that means that publishers have released another batch of books. I am in the happy position of receiving most of them, so sorted through the various stacks to arrive at this list of new and notables. In each case, I’ve included the editorial description so you can get a sense of what the book is all about. I hope there’s something here that stands out to you!
Reclaiming Masculinity: Seven Biblical Principles for Being the Man God Wants You to Be by Matt Fuller. “In a world where masculinity is often associated with toxicity, what does it mean to ‘be a man’? In a straightforward and empathetic way, Matt Fuller gets beyond cultural confusion and stereotypes as he examines what the Bible says is distinctive about being a man. He outlines a positive vision of biblical masculinity and shows what that might look like in real life today. Men will be encouraged to be sacrificial when leading, to work hard and to protect and invest in others. Whatever your personality and interests—whether you would rather skin a rabbit, read a book or remodel your house—this book will give you confidence and direction to be the man God wants you to be.” (Buy it at Amazon or Westminster Books)
The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church by Matthew Barrett. “In the sixteenth century Rome charged the Reformers with novelty, as if they were heretics departing from the catholic (universal) church. But the Reformers believed they were more catholic than Rome. Distinguishing themselves from Radicals, the Reformers were convinced they were retrieving the faith of the church fathers and the best of the medieval Scholastics. The Reformers saw themselves as faithful stewards of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church preserved across history, and they insisted on a restoration of true worship in their own day. By listening to the Reformers’ own voices, The Reformation as Renewal helps readers explore: The Reformation’s roots in patristic and medieval thought and its response to late medieval innovations; Key philosophical and theological differences between Scholasticism in the High Middle Ages and deviations in the Late Middle Ages; The many ways sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestant Scholastics critically appropriated Thomas Aquinas; The Reformation’s response to the charge of novelty by an appeal to the Augustinian tradition; Common caricatures that charge the Reformation with schism or assume the Reformation was the gateway to secularism; The spread of Reformation catholicity across Europe, as seen in first and second-generation leaders from Luther and Melanchthon in Wittenberg to Zwingli and Bullinger in Zurich to Bucer and Calvin in Strasbourg and Geneva to Tyndale, Cranmer, and Jewel in England, and many others; The theology of the Reformers, with special attention on their writings defending the catholicity of the Reformation.” (Buy it at Amazon or Westminster Books)
Clothed With Strength: Women Who Built the Church and Changed the World by Sarah Allen. “It’s easy to imagine that Christian women of the past were shrinking violets who were side-lined and excluded from making a difference in the church and in the world. The truth is that God has always raised up strong and courageous women to do his work. You might never have heard of Rebecca Protten, Hannah More, Ellen Raynard and Josephine Butler, but you’ll never forget how God used these four very different women to fight against injustice and poverty and to transform lives. These eighteenth and nineteenth century women worked in partnership with men to shape the evangelical church. Let their stories challenge you and fuel your faith today.” (Buy it at Amazon or Westminster Books)
Justification: An Introduction (Short Studies in Systematic Theology) by Thomas Schreiner. “When we see the fallenness of the world, it is often challenging to understand how sinners can stand before a holy God, but the gospel gives hope—justification that comes through Jesus Christ. This doctrine is essential to the gospel but has sparked countless academic and theological disagreements throughout church history, even contributing to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. In this addition to the Short Studies in Systematic Theology series, Thomas R. Schreiner examines the biblical and historical background of the doctrine of justification. Schreiner explores it throughout church history and analyzes both the Old and New Testament teachings. By examining the relationship between justification and other doctrines of salvation—such as redemption, reconciliation, adoption, and sanctification—Schreiner shows how it gives peace, assurance, and joy to sinners through Jesus and hope for life today.” (Buy it at Amazon or Westminster Books)
Elisabeth Elliot: A Life by Lucy S.R. Austen. “Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015) is one of the most widely known Christians of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. After the death of her husband, Jim, and four other missionaries at the hands of Waorani tribesmen in Ecuador, Elliot famously returned to live among the same people who had killed her husband. Her legacy, however, extends far beyond these events. In the years that followed, Elliot became a prolific writer and speaker, touching the lives of countless people around the world. In this single-volume biography, Lucy S. R. Austen takes readers on an in-depth journey through the life of Elisabeth Elliot—her birth to missionary parents, her courtship and marriage to Jim Elliot, her missions work in Ecuador, and her private life and public work after she returned to the United States. Through Elliot’s example of love for God and obedience to his commands, readers will ponder what it means to follow Jesus.” (Buy it at Amazon or Westminster Books)
How to Read and Understand the Psalms by Fred Zaspel and Bruce Waltke. “Written over the course of 1,000 years, the book of Psalms is a collection of religious poetry voicing a wide variety of human emotions expressed in different genres–imprecatory psalms, psalms of praise, and more. It has become one of the most popular books of the Bible, but most readers have only a surface level understanding of the Psalms and how it fits into the larger historical and scriptural context. In How to Read and Understand the Psalms, Bruce K. Waltke and Fred G. Zaspel give readers tools to learn how to properly interpret and internalize the Psalms. Developed primarily from decades of lectures by Waltke, they explain the various types of psalms, Hebrew poetry, rhetorical techniques, and more. Armed with these tools, believers will discover how the 150 psalms can further fuel their knowledge and love of God.” (Buy it at Amazon or Westminster Books)
Anxiety: Finding the Better Story (31-Day Devotionals for Teenagers) by Liz Edrington. “Have you ever stood in front of an ocean wave, put your hand out in front of you, and said, ‘Stop, wave!?’ That would be ridiculous! . . . But have you ever tried the same approach with your anxiety? ‘Stop, anxiety!’ It probably hasn’t worked either. Liz gets it. As a teenager, she was stressed out and trying to survive her anxiety each day. Now that she’s a mental health counselor, she wants to pass on what she’s learned to other teenagers. Just understanding what anxiety is makes a big difference, but what makes an even bigger difference is understanding what God has to say about it. With daily Scripture readings, breathing exercises, and additional mental-health resources, this little book offers you comfort and help in your anxiety. See how your anxiety fits into the big story of your life—and of the whole universe–and learn how Jesus can bring you peace.” (Buy it at Amazon or Westminster Books)
The Beginning and End of All Things: A Biblical Theology of Creation and New Creation by Edward Klink III. “Many Christians think of the doctrine of creation primarily as relating to the world’s origins. In The Beginning and End of All Things, Edward W. Klink III presents a more holistic understanding of creation–a story that is unfolded throughout all of Scripture and is at the core of the gospel itself. From beginning to end, the theme of creation and new creation not only directs the movement of the entire biblical story but also unifies its message. Klink explores the goodness of the physical world and how it will be perfected in the new creation of heaven and earth. Along with offering rich insights about God and his purposes for the world, a biblical theology of creation guides how we engage nature, culture, and life as embodied beings. Essential Studies in Biblical Theology (ESBT), edited by Benjamin L. Gladd, explore the central or essential themes of the Bible’s grand storyline. Taking cues from Genesis 1-3, authors trace the presence of these themes throughout the entire sweep of redemptive history. Written for students, church leaders, and laypeople, the ESBT offers an introduction to biblical theology.” (Buy it at Amazon or Westminster Books)
Reformed Worship by Jonty Rhodes. “Have you ever woken up on a Sunday morning and wondered if it was worth getting out of bed? Have you wondered why you should bother to attend corporate worship every week? Unfortunately, it can be easy to miss the excitement of corporate worship–but the excitement is there. Because God is all-sufficient, he commands worship for his glory but our gain! A Reformed view of worship is shaped by God’s Word and has the gospel as its context: God desires to meet with his people, and that meeting comes only in and through Christ, by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is our worship leader, and as our prophet, priest and king he teaches us what worship should look like. Writing with winsome enthusiasm, Jonty Rhodes celebrates the simplicity and freedom of Reformed worship and shows readers the joys of meeting with God in the means and manner he promises to bless.” (Buy it at Amazon or Westminster Books)
Sanctification as Set Apart and Growing in Christ by Margaret Elizabeth Köstenberger. “The entire biblical narrative declares the righteousness of God and the consecration of his people. In this book, Marny Köstenberger explores the topic of sanctification―being set apart by God for holiness. Surveying the Bible from beginning to end, Köstenberger shows that sanctification is grounded in the eternal holiness of God, who created humanity in his image. Now, in Christ, the Spirit sets believers apart and restores them to the original image. Sanctification often takes place in the midst of suffering and equips believers for their God-given mission.” (Buy it at Amazon or Westminster Books)
Introduction to Early Church History: The First 500 Years by Perry Edwards. “As an introduction to early church history, this book is not intended to cover any subject exhaustively. Its goal is to provide an overview of the most significant leaders of the church while adding stories of ordinary Christians who remained faithful to the Lord in the face of persecution. It will introduce readers to how the church, in its first five centuries, sought to answer the primary theological questions of the day. This book is meant to whet the appetite of those who have never read early church history and refresh the minds of those who have. For some, the reading of this book will be the beginning of a journey that will lead to a deep and abiding love for the history of God’s sovereign working in the church and in the world.” (Buy it at Amazon)
The Character of Christ: The Fruit of the Spirit in the Life of Our Saviour by Jonathan Landry Cruse. “Most experienced Christians are familiar with the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians. Love, peace, patience, and so on are often considered both gracious marks of true Christian character and ideals to aim for. But what do they look like when lived to the fullest? This book answers this question by studying the fullness of the fruit of the Spirit in the life of Christ. In a warm and engaging style, Jonathan Landry Cruse examines these godly attributes in the Lord’s example, comparing them with our own faltering efforts at holiness, and shows that we can only bear true fruit for God by our union to the life-giving Vine. The work is God’s, not ours – and this is good news for all those who yearn for greater sanctification.” (Buy it at Amazon)
By Tim Challies — 6 months ago
I watched in fascination as the programmer wrote line after line of code, each word and each line forming part of an increasingly complex whole. His fingers were barely visible as they tapped out letter after letter and number after number. And then his work was done. With a smile and a flourish, he compiled the code and hit “play.” I marveled to see what he had created. And I thought “What a great keyboard! If only I had that same keyboard I could create a program as incredible as that!”
I gazed with rapt attention as the artist shaped his sculpture. With a shaping tool held deftly in his hand, he carved away large portions of the marble and then, as he progressed, carefully tapped out much smaller ones. Then he took his rasp and delicately smoothed and polished the surface. Bit by bit he worked at that block of marble until it began to reveal the wondrous figure that he had had the vision to know was hidden within. And I spoke it out loud: “I need that shaping tool! I need that rasp! Those tools are responsible for this sculpture. I need them for myself.”
I stared fixedly as the mechanic repaired the engine that had long since ceased to function. With wrench and ratchet and a number of tools I could not identify, he dismantled, then cleaned, then repaired, then reassembled. Finally, he sat in the driver’s seat, turned the key, and listened in satisfaction as the engine roared to life. And I cried, “Praise the tools! I need that wrench and I need that ratchet because then I, too, will be able to be an expert mechanic!”
None of this is true. And none of it is sane. It would be crazy to think that if only I had the right keyboard, the right rasp and shaping tool, the right wrench and ratchet then I would be able to create a game, shape a sculpture, or fix an engine. And it would be even more crazy to think that the creative or reparative genius resides in the tool instead of the one who wields it. It’s the programmer who deserves to be commended, not the keyboard; the sculptor who should have his name in the history books, not his implements; and the mechanic who should be applauded rather than the hardware he used.
And so it should be with us when it comes to preachers and preachers, to speakers and speaking, to writers and writing—tools he uses to accomplish his purposes. As I recently heard in a sermon, “We celebrate God, not the tool.” Or we are supposed to, anyway.
When we hear a sermon that stimulates our minds, we owe praise to God, not the preacher. When we hear a new song that provokes our hearts to worship, we ought to praise God long before the songwriter. When we receive the benefit of another person’s gifting we ought to express gratitude to God, not the one who merely made use of what God had generously bestowed upon him. We praise God, not the tool.
When we ourselves are the ones who have been used by God—when we have preached a sermon that has deeply affected those who heard it, when we have composed a song that moves hearts in worship and obedience, when we have written words that have stimulated others on to love and good deeds—our response should be “I am an undeserving servant; I have only done my duty.” It must be our desire to have them praise God, not the tool.
Of course, there will be times to encourage another person and express our gratitude to them, for God works through tools, not apart from them. And he most often works through tools that have submitted to his use and done their best to foster and strengthen it. But ultimately, it is always and ever God who deserves our praise, God who deserves our worship, God who deserves the honor. Always and ever we celebrate God far ahead of the tools he wields for our good and his glory.