Israel’s wisest King once said that there was no end to the making of books. Truer words have never been spoken, certainly in reference to publishing! Our five Commission members do our best to choose books wisely and read them profitably and critically. In this year-end post, we want to highlight those titles which we read this year and enjoyed the most.
Suggesting favorite recent books usually involves too much internal wrangling and often ends with a much too-long list. Instead, the book that currently has my attention is Christ and Calamity: Grace and Gratitude in the Darkest Valley by Harold L. Senkbeil (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020). (He also wrote The Care of Souls – highly recommended.)
Senkbeil says, “this is a book about God’s faithfulness in the face of uncertainty.” He follows the pattern of presenting a difficulty (When You ______, Christ is/does _______.) Each chapter is full of Scripture and pastoral warmth. While books on suffering and hope are plentiful, I particularly appreciate his exegetical grounding. As he works his way through various situations in each chapter, he then marches the reader to Jesus Christ.
In the dark valleys of life you don’t need platitudes. You need Jesus…
In times of calamity we need the unvarnished truth. Tribulation will occur in this world. Jesus said so. But it’s also true that he has overcome the world.
And in his cross and resurrection there’s hope for you.
Christ and Calamity extols the sufficiency of Christ and scripture in a warm-hearted pastoral style that I highly commend to your library.
Other books I am currently working through and enjoying are Whosoever Will (edited by David L. Allen and Steve W Lemke), Spurgeon the Pastor: Recovering a Biblical & Theological Vision for Ministry (Geoffrey Chang), God in Eternity and Time: A New Case for Human Freedom (Robert Picirilli), and 40 Questions about Arminianism (J. Matthew Pinson).
My two favorite books of 2022 were both written by Free Will Baptists, and both provide a wonderful treatment of theological ideas from a Reformed Arminian perspective. The first of these, Dr. J. Matthew Pinson’s 40 Questions on Arminianism (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2022), serves as a wonderful introduction to Reformed Arminianism and is suitable for both an entry-level introduction to Reformed Arminianism or for more robust theological study on soteriology. The “40 Question” series format was designed by Kregel to allow experts in the field to speak succinctly but clearly on the most relevant questions in a field of study.
In this work, Pinson outlines Reformed Arminianism, deftly navigating the space between Reformed Calvinism and Wesleyan Arminianism. Throughout, the reader is guided by clear distinctions and helpful definitions. Pinson begins by developing the historical context of James Arminius and shows that he considered himself to be a faithful representative of the Reformed tradition, agreeing with the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism. The rest of the work examines specific soteriological questions on topics such atonement, justification, free will, grace, election, regeneration, and apostasy. Pinson includes a helpful argument for unlimited atonement in the free offer of salvation and plows new ground in his discussion of prevenient grace which still awaits complete definition in Reformed Arminianism.
My second favorite book of 2022 was the latest volume by Dr. Robert E. Picirilli, God in Eternity and Time: A New Case for Human Freedom (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2022). Throughout, Picirilli reminds the reader that theology must always be biblically driven. He argues that although the ontological nature of God is ultimately inscrutable and inexhaustible, God has revealed himself personally in space and time in his word. God is a relational God and whatever logical (or theological) precepts theologians develop about his nature, must respect this basic principle. Thus, the timeless, immaterial God created a material world in time. The unchanging God, entered into a relationship with taciturn humanity and ultimately condescended to become incarnate in space and time. These mysteries may be difficult to understand but God reveals them to be true in his word.
Similarly, the sovereign, omniscient God of the universe also endowed humanity with free will. This is the subject of part two of the work where Picirilli demonstrates how God’s knowledge of the future does not negate human free will. Picirilli engages with notable adherents of determinism, open theism, and Molinism and demonstrates how theology that begins with a careful, close reading of Scripture can reconcile both divine sovereignty and human freedom and maintain a traditional understanding of God’s relationship to knowledge (omniscience) and time (eternal now). While some questions remain, this work provides the fullest Reformed Arminian argument against Molinism to date. In part three, Picirilli concludes with an excursus on the hardening of Pharoah’s heart and a final reminder that what we know from God’s word and what we experience in relationship with Him now means that whatever is true of God “now” is and has been true of God in all eternity. There is no distinction between the God who acts now and the God who acts and exists in eternity.
It has been good getting to know the missiologist E.D. Burns. Recently he sent me a copy of his newest book, Ancient Gospel, Brave New World: Jesus Still Saves Sinners in Cultures of Shame, Fear, Bondage, and Weakness (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2021). From his base in Southeast Asia, Burns directs the M.A. in Global Leadership program at Western Seminary, where he received his M.Div. He also received the B.A. from Moody Bible Institute, M.A. from Wheaton College, M.A. from Biola University, and Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he wrote his dissertation on Adoniram Judson, the nineteenth-century Baptist missionary to Burma.
Ancient Gospel, Brave New World is an insightful book on sharing the gospel cross-culturally. A much longer and more academic sequel to his earlier book, The Transcultural Gospel, this book explains Burns’ “transcultural model of gospel proclamation.” He explains four cultural orientations that correspond to four cultural value systems. The collectivistic orientation corresponds to the shame/honor value system. The spiritualistic orientation corresponds to the fear/peace value system. The individualistic orientation corresponds to the bondage/freedom value system. The materialistic orientation corresponds to the weakness/strength value system.
Burns argues that Christian faith and practice transcend these cultural orientations and value systems, and by this he specifically means the ancient biblical teachings rediscovered in the Protestant Reformation. Each of the values in the four cultural value systems overlap and is accounted for in Scripture’s forensic (judicial) account of God’s providing satisfaction for His justice in the atonement of Christ, faith in which declares the sinner righteous and no longer guilty.
Burns argues that the missionary’s task is to teach clearly the biblical gospel and how that gospel manifests itself in the faith and practice of healthy New Testament churches. This is the Bible’s way of multiplying Christ’s church and hence faithful disciples in all cultures.
Teaching and modeling the doctrines and practices of Christ and the apostles in a way that brings unity across cultures and generations is the biblical way, the apostolic way, of building Christ’s church. Burns argues that this transcultural New Testament model—not the packaging of Christian faith and practice in cultural trappings that will target just one type of people (what some missiologists have referred to as homogeneous cultural units)—truly brings about unity rather than balkanizing the church based on cultural backgrounds and preferences.
So, reiterating some of the themes of his earlier book The Missionary-Theologian: Sent into the World, Sanctified by the Word, he says that the cross-cultural proclaimer of the gospel must be “a theologian first and . . . a missiologist second.” Burns persuasively explains that Reformation teaching, which he sees as a revival of New Testament doctrine and practice, transcends the four cultural orientations and their corresponding value systems. These “transcultural and transgenerational truths” have “profoundly inspired and sustained missionaries for five centuries. They were not merely European missionaries but also Koreans, Brazilians, Filipinos, Zambians, Burmese, Russians, and so many others.”
Recently there has appeared a burgeoning of new theological thinking about missions that resists the dominance of the social sciences, especially secular cultural anthropology, on missiology and places theology back in the center. As a part of this movement, Burns is gently pushing back on some missiology that suggests, for example, that the theology of the Reformation is too Western-European and must adapt to other cultural orientations.
Instead, he advocates for a biblical-theological model of cross-cultural gospel proclamation and church planting and church health. That model, he effectively argues, is transcultural and can be applied sensitively across all four cultural orientations and their corresponding value systems.
In an increasingly post-Christian context, we all need to think more in missionary terms than we have sometimes been accustomed to doing when the culture in the West in which we were ministering was more influenced by a Christian worldview. We all need to become adept at cross-cultural gospel proclamation, and, Burns reminds us, that will begin and end with the biblical gospel that “still saves sinners in cultures of shame, fear, bondage, and weakness.”
Does the life that Jesus lived matter for salvation? According to Brandon Crowe in his two books The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017) and Why Did Jesus Live a Perfect Life? The Necessity of Christ’s Obedience for Our Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021) the answer is a resounding “yes.” Not only was Jesus’ death vicarious, but his life was vicarious as well. He didn’t just die for us, he also lived in perfect obedience before the Father for us. These two books have really shaped how I understand the life Jesus lived and helped me to read the Gospels more attentively.
In The Last Adam, Crowe argues for an “Adam Christology” in the Gospels to demonstrate that Christ is the federal head of his people. He further shows that as the last Adam, Jesus does what the first Adam failed to do: live in perfect obedience before God. This means that the authors of the Gospels are not just narrating the life of Jesus for information. They are showing how he saves by the life he lives. The saving work of Christ in the Gospels is “a unified obedience that entails both his life and death” (17). The Adam Christology motif in the Gospels presupposes a canonical reading or reading the Gospels as the church did in its earliest days, as one Gospel. Crowe demonstrates that the Adam Christology in the Gospels is far from novel, the Early Church Fathers, as early as Irenaeus, understood Jesus as the Last Adam in the Gospels. A significant portion of the book is given to Crowe exegeting the Gospels to demonstrate the Last Adam theme.
Why Did Jesus Live a Perfect Life? is not a companion volume to The Last Adam, but the themes overlap. Crowe focuses on Jesus’s perfect obedience as central to salvation. This accessible book is broader in scope by giving attention to the perfect obedience of Jesus not just in the Gospels, but in all the NT. The theological terminology typically used to describe Christ’s obedience is active and passive obedience. Passive obedience typically refers to the death of Jesus whereas active obedience refers to his life. Crowe believes that these two terms can present a false dichotomy. The NT emphasis is on the entire obedience of Christ. Passive obedience also includes the suffering of Jesus “throughout his entire life under the law of God. This period of life lived under the law–subject to sin, suffering, and death–is what theologians often call Jesus’s estate of humiliation” (21). And even in Jesus’s suffering on the cross, “it was active suffering,” Jesus persevered in faithful obedience to the very end of his life.
The entire obedience of Jesus, passive and active, is the grounds for justification. According to Crowe, the obedience of Christ is also necessary for sanctification. It is the obedience of Christ that leads to eternal life, yet the believer’s real obedience is important and necessary. Crowe shows how imperfect obedience is pleasing to God through Jesus’s perfect obedience. He further explains that one’s efforts toward holiness come from focusing on Christ as the model–”the truly obedient human being” (182).
The life of Jesus is more than stories. It is more than a model for our own obedience. Jesus lived in perfect obedience to save us. The last recorded words of J. Gresham Machen came via telegram as he lay dying in a hospital bed in North Dakota ring true: “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”
My two favorite books from 2022 happen to be ones which were also published this year. My top choice is Kelly Kapic’s You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design & Why That’s Good News (Brazos Press, 2022). Kapic, a Presbyterian theologian, always writes and speaks thoughtfully on all things theological and practical. I became acquainted with him a few years ago at ETS. He had been thinking about the subject of finitude for some time—a subject that interested me also. This book is the fruit of many years of reflection on the matter. Not surprisingly, I’ve seen this title pop up in many different settings over this past year. People realize that we need more than a doctrine of sin to help us think about limits. We need a proper understanding of creation, including the doctrine of man, to help us see limits as inherent to God’s good design.
Kapic’s book weaves together Scripture, voices from the Great Tradition, and real-life examples in a very satisfying treatment of this overlooked topic. For this reason, we’ve included this book in our Missouri FWB Book Club list for 2023. It has so much to offer not only pastors, but all believers trying to order their experience properly in God’s world.
Another book worthy of special mention is Glen Scrivener’s The Air We Breathe: How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality (The Good Book Company, 2022). I’ve been fascinated with the genesis and genealogy of ideas for a long time. Through the years I’ve turned to Larry Hurtado, Robert Louis Wilken, Peter Harrison, and others for greater understanding of early Christian religion, the development of the concept of religious liberty, and the relationship between science and religion. Scrivener’s popular-level book rest on the shoulders of thoughtful analysis of key ideas in Western civilization, such as freedom, progress, and equality. He turns the secular narrative on its head by showing how these notions (and more) have their origins in Christian categories, not Enlightenment ones. He specifically shows how Christian thought and practice—especially the organic, leavening effect of Christian community—created new standards and expectations for what constituted a well-ordered, desirable society in which to live.
Two other non-theological books that I enjoyed reading this year were Michelle Huneven’s, Search: A Novel (Penguin Press, 2022), which I wrote about here, and Robert Merry’s President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster, 2017). I am also currently finishing Paul Tripp’s excellent book on leadership, Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church, and Craig Troxel’s insightful book, With All Your Heart: Orienting Your Mind, Desires, and Will Toward Christ. Readers can see more of my general thoughts about reading and reading lists (including favorite books in 2022) at Churchatopia.com.