Watts’ Top Books in 2021

W. Jackson Watts

For the last two years I’ve set a goal of reading 52 books during the year. It’s ambitious, and admittedly, arbitrary. One book per week sounds like a plan, but when we consider the fact that some books can be read in an afternoon, while some require weeks, a goal of 52 is more indicative of a love of reading as well as the number of books that seem worthy of reading (And no, I won’t quite reach my goal this year!). I’ll reserve reading advice for another post as that is a topic unto itself.

I’d like to call attention to a few titles that were especially edifying throughout this past year. When I say “edifying,” I mean a combination of “serious,” “well-written,” and “enjoyable.” I add this caveat simply because if I constructed this list based on importance, personal enjoyment, or another single description, it would have probably been slightly different.


First, Andrew Walker’s Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age (Brazos Press, 2021) was one of my three favorite books this year. I’m apparently not alone. As I write this, I’ve just noticed that the Gospel Coalition has made Walker’s work a 2021 Book Award Winner in the category of Public Theology and Current Events. They summarize the book’s content nicely:

“Andrew Walker has provided a treatment of religious liberty that is deeply and profoundly biblical, gospel-framed, and helpfully applied to our society’s maladies. Walker offers a biblical and theological defense of religious liberty and its importance for not only Christian freedom of conscience, but also the common good. While many books have been written on religious liberty, this is one of the only extended defenses of religious liberty from a biblical and theological perspective to have been published in recent decades.”

Walker’s book is timely, unique, and thoughtful. Its timeliness is self-evident given our current political environment and all the appeals to religious freedom—legitimate and otherwise—that many evangelical Christians make or hear. It’s one thing to value something; it’s another to understand it.

The uniqueness of this book lies in its theological sophistication and reasoning. Rarely do we see a serious attempt to wed biblical anthropology, eschatology, and missiology to account for the nature and function of religious liberty. I simply cannot think of another book like it—and from a baptistic perspective, too. Finally, while the book’s thoughtfulness is reflected in its uniqueness, I also use this word to let readers know that this won’t be one of those “afternoon reads.” It’s not an especially long book, but it will require careful reading to digest its argument. I wouldn’t say it’s technical, but it is providing an argument that roots religious liberty in a much more biblical-theological framework. Of course, I think this is part of the genius of the book. Rather than be swept up in libertarian-populist rationales for individual freedom, Christians should be grounded in God’s truth. This book helps do this.

My second favorite book from 2021 is John Piper’s Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship (Crossway, 2018). For all my concerns about Piper’s approach to God’s sovereignty, it would be a mistake for us to ignore the great gift his writings have been to the church. In recent years he has authored three volumes on Scripture, including this gem. Some Free Will Baptists in Missouri read it this year for our state book club. Like Walker’s book, this one requires attentiveness. However, the chapters are brief, and the argument is clear. Piper calls readers to the fundamentals: What is Christian worship? What is the purpose of preaching? And how does preaching uniquely fit the context of Christian worship? In a little over 300 pages, Piper answers these questions and describes what he calls the “miracle of Christian preaching” and how it awakens worship in the life of God’s people. I’ve had to pause often to think about and marvel in what God intends to do through my meager preaching. The book combines both academic and devotional qualities, which I think is indicative of much of Piper’s work through the years as a pastor-theologian.

The final book I found most edifying this year was Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us about Surviving and Thriving (IVP Books, 2013). This book was the fruit of field research conducted by Bob Burns, Tasha Chapmans, and Donald Guthrie on the experiences of pastors and their spouses. I’d heard of the book some time ago, but finally read it as part of a Rekindle Coaching Cohort that the National Executive Office is overseeing. Frankly, it’s one of those books that every other page you’re thinking, “Yep, that’s exactly how that feels!” I have increasingly felt that a greater focus in pastoral training needs to be placed on themes we may sometimes take for granted. The authors of Resilient Ministry capture this partly in their five key themes that they found promoted healthy, sustainable ministry: spiritual formation, self-care, emotional and cultural intelligence, marriage and family, and leadership and management. Each section should be read carefully, reflected on, and then discussed with one’s spouse, fellow pastors, as well as local church leaders. I’ve already commended this title to at least five different pastors and church leaders elsewhere. I commend it to readers of this site also.

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):

Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

Francis James Grimké, Meditations on Preaching

J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership

Dane Ortlund, Gently and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers

Rod Dreher, Live Not By Lies

Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods

J.K. Rowling, The Entire Harry Potter Series

Glen Jeansonne, Herbert Hoover