Ten books to recommend to a new Christian

Have you ever wished you had something to give a new Christian to read alongside the Bible, to encourage them in their faith and help them begin to live for Christ from a Christ-centred Biblical worldview? Over the years I have recommended countless good books 1:1 or from the pulpit, but I thought it was about time to be more intentional about this habit, for my own sake, and that of our church members. Maybe what follows will help you too.

The idea of a “top ten” list (yes, I realise that such a thing is usually shameless marketing) came from a visit to Tim Keller’s Redeemer Church in Manhattan two years ago during a sabbatical. The service was thoughtful and deeply Christ-honouring, but one of my main take-homes came afterwards, over coffee a couple of floors up from the worship auditorium. An unremarkable folding table was set out to one side of the room, with a selection of books for sale,  a couple of signs, and a friendly church member on hand.

What was the stroke of genius? A simple guideline as to which books to read, and in what order. The books were arranged into three groups, not by the usual categories, “Bible”, “Christian living”, “Prayer” etc, but as “Read first”, “Read next”, and “After those”  (maybe not the precise titles, but you get the idea). Keller had written a short explanation of the book-recommendation policy he had followed,

“instead of a bookstore for the whole community, we offer a book table carrying “next step” reading for worshippers at Redeemer…the order in which you read books has a big impact on the kind of believer you become…That is why many people will ask me – “Is this a good book to read?” and my answer is, ‘Yes – eventually, later, in the right place – but not now’.”

Keller had thought hard about the best books to start young believers with, and those to recommend later. I think that is incredibly good pastoral care, and am planning to introduce this wise approach when we move to pastor our new church in Norwich in the summer.

So here are my ten “Read First” books, copies of which I’d have always on hand to give away or to sell. The order doesn’t mean much. In future posts I will suggest my “Read next” and “After those” selections.

Read First (Top Ten):

Knowing God (J.I. Packer)

The Prodigal God (Tim Keller)

How to read the Bible for all its Worth (Gordon Fee/Douglas Stuart)

The Freedom of a Christian (Martin Luther)

Just do Something (Kevin DeYoung)

Discipling (Mark Dever)

How to Walk into Church (Tony Payne/Colin Marshall)

God’s Big Picture (Vaughan Roberts)

The Cross of Christ (John Stott)

Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis)

 

I hope this gets you asking what you would recommend to a new believer – and what you’d agree they should read, but only later. Let me know what you think.

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Revolution needed in ‘faith at work’ shibboleths

I’ve just read ‘Revolutionary Work’ by William Taylor available from  10ofThose.com . As you’d expect from William, this is a nourishing read which faithfully affirms the place of work in human life without rose-tinted specs. There is a thorough and clear Biblical overview of how Scripture paints a picture of work that is God-given, fractured by sin, yet to be done with integrity, as serving Christ (Ephesians 6:6-7).

Where this book is unusual is in the way William then boldly challenges some of the shibboleths of recent years which (he argues) go beyond Biblical teaching about vocation, excellence and purpose in this present creation. He points out that “calling” in Scripture is usually that to faith in Christ, and when the word (once) refers to station in life, in 1 Corinthians 7:17, it is to urge believers to faithful living where they are, whatever their current situation. He concludes that gospel-sharing ministry (and not therefore just “doing your job well as a Christian”) is the true “work of God” (John 4), whatever our employment. He challenges the (admittedly, comforting) notion that much (or some?) of our work done in this creation will appear in the next as, at best, unproven from Scripture, and at worst a distraction from telling our colleagues the gospel about Jesus.

As a pastor often told that churches “rarely if ever teach about work” I found this book a helpful pushback. The Bible does say a lot about work, at least in general terms as covered by this book, and there is indeed a need to push the ‘sacred’ across the sacred-secular divide and do all our work as “for the Lord”; but Scripture also claims less for secular work than some would have us believe.

Revolutionary Work would be great to give/recommend to workers, and not just those in 9-5 offices. Inevitably (having been preached first as sermons for St Helen’s in London) the book reads on the whole as especially good for office 9-5 (or is that 8-late?) types.It’s nice therefore that William has included an appendix, by musician Dave Bignell, for artists, whose understanding of the place of work may differ from those in the business or services world, but for whom the Bible teaching holds the same.

If you want to be helped to connect your faith with your work, read this book – but not if you don’t want to be challenged to think through what the work of the Lord really is!

How Holiness Happens

Do you know the story by Revd W Awdry of little Toby the tram engine being asked to help push the train over the mountain when Gordon (a much bigger engine who had earlier scornfully told Toby that he was no use) is unable to do so? He puffs up the steep incline with his friend Thomas the Tank Engine’s words echoing in his ears “You can (puff) do it, you can (puff) do it…”. He slows to a near standstill as the hill becomes harder, sheer grit carrying him forward, until at last they reach the summit. He did it.

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Without suggesting the Christian life is always an uphill slope,  that is not a bad picture of the path to holiness for God’s people. We have not yet arrived at the summit (perfect Christlikeness) – at least until we reach glory. And yet it is not beyond us. We can (puff) do it. We can become holy.

In fact we are holy already. We are God’s ‘holy’ (dedicated, or God-orientated) people from the moment we begin to follow Christ and are born anew. The Holy Spirit who unites us cannot make us anything else but holy.

And our lives please God.

Because that sentence may sound heretical, I will repeat it: our lives are pleasing to God. Surely, you say, we are all sinners equally in need of God’s forgiveness of our sins, undeserving of grace,  and everything we do is polluted by sin, every good deed is tainted by wickedness, our righteous acts are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6)? I’m as Protestant and Reformed as Luther, Calvin and Cranmer, and I sign up to all these statements of human fallenness and incapacity to save ourselves or please God fully.

Holiness: we can please God

Yet there is a strong and unmistakable theme in Scripture that God’s people are capable of being righteous and pleasing Him. We are not only expected to be holy , we are empowered to be holy! We can do it. There are plenty of examples of believers in the Bible who pleased God: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David (in his better moments), Job, Elizabeth, Mary. But also all Christian believers who serve, love and pray (see Romans 12:1; Colossians 3:20; 1 Timothy 2:3; Hebrews 13:21, etc). Supremely, Jesus at his baptism stands before God as the new Adam/king/Messiah, and the words “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased” come from heaven. In Jesus we are made anew to please God. “He will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17). Holiness is possible, and (without overlooking our many sins) God is pleased with his people.

This makes so much more sense of the imperative (“so do this…”) sections of the epistles, where we are told to keep in step with the Spirit, flee sexual immorality and greed, pursue kindness and patience, be reconciled to our enemies, and forgive each other. These commands only make sense if we have with the help of the Spirit (that’s the grace of the New Covenant) and the hope that obedience is possible (that’s the purpose of the New Covenant). Kevin DeYoung in his book “The Hole in our Holiness” puts it like this:

God does not expect our good deeds to be flawless in order for them to be good…There will always be elements of corruption in us. But by the power of the sanctifying Spirit in us, true believers will genuinely grow in grace. (p.67)

How does this happen?

As we’ve already hinted, holiness comes by the Holy Spirit in us. The Spirit empowers us to love God and neighbour, to fulfil the Law of Christ (Galatians 5:13-16) . The Spirit reveals our sins, and grieving Him prompts us to renounce them (Ephesians 4:30). The Spirit points us to Christ and transforms us as we gaze on his glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). That is not to say that we sit back and do nothing: holiness requires effort on our part – hard work, in fact – to collaborate with the Holy Spirit. We press forward (Philippians 3:12-14). We are not lazy but endure and persevere (Hebrews 6:12). We “make every effort” (2 Peter 1:5). But we can do it, because the Spirit in us does it with us.

There is a second way to look at how holiness happens. Theologians call it “union with Christ” and the New Testament calls it being “in Christ”. Jesus calls those connected to Him to “remain in me” (John 15:4). Ephesians 1:3 describes the spiritual blessings of election, redemption, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification, which all flow from our spiritual location “in Christ”. These two little words occur over 200 times in the New Testament. Although many occurrences do not carry a deep “incorporative” sense, but mean simply “in Christian matters” (eg 1 Corinthians 3:1), many clearly do imply that a profound change of metaphorical position has taken place through our relationship to Jesus (eg Romans 8:1) (see Moule Chapter 2, in ‘Further Reading’, on this). This makes me think this is not a marginal idea but a key way to understand where we sit as believers! We are spiritually no longer in the world, or in sin, but “in Christ”.

How does holiness work in practice?

By letting where we are in Christ change how we think in everyday life. We live in Christ’s kingdom, so sin has no power over us now. So Paul says “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). In sports imagery, we changed team, and now wear the bright colours of Jesus instead of the murky kit of sin. In baptism imagery, we died to the old life and rose to the new.  Holiness happens by acting in the light of the truth that I am “in Christ”. It starts in my mind. Become what you are.

How do we grow holy and close to God in mind and life?

Through the five key disciplines (yes, effort!) of prayer, Bible reading, Christian community, good use of the Sabbath rest principle, and holy communion. As we draw near to the throne of grace in prayer, meet Jesus in Scripture, experience the Spirit uniting us as “church”, set aside a day to remember God’s gifts of life and freedom, and encounter Christ through the symbols of bread and wine, we find sin ever more bitter, and Jesus ever more delightful.

Further reading

“The Hole in our Holiness”, Kevin DeYoung (Crossway, 2012)

“The Origin of Christology”, C.F.D. Moule (Cambridge University Press, 1977)

“Communion with God”, John Owen (abridged R.J.K. Law) (Banner of Truth, 1991)

“A Passion for Holiness”, J.I. Packer (Crossway, 1992)

“Christ our Life”, Michael Reeves (Paternoster, 2014)

 

Tim Keller on doubting our doubts

I have not yet read his new book Making Sense of God but saw this very helpful excerpt on The Gospel Coalition website in which Mr Keller tim-keller-making-sense-of-godsummarises some neat work by Michael Polanyi on exposing the wrong beliefs that sit underneath our sceptical questions. As I am preparing a sermon at the moment on Doubt, I liked the head-on confrontation of the big triggers which make us sceptical, such as unjust suffering, moral atheists, and religious hypocrisy, and the call Polanyi makes on us to see the “defeaters” or unchallenged beliefs which undermine the doubt each time. I look forward to reading the rest of Keller’s book!

A conversation with ‘The Hole in our Holiness’ (Kevin DeYoung): Part 1 of 3 (Chapters 1-4)

We are studying Exodus 19-40 as a church this autumn, and one of the key texts is the LORD’s words in 19:4-6

If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

The theme of holiness – God’s and ours – is central not just to Exodus but also to Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It’s also a missing theme in the evangelical church in the West (hence DeYoung’s title). That’s why we decided to enrich our vision of “holHoleinourholiness.jpginess” through this “Book of the Term”. As Kevin DeYoung claims in Chapter 2, holiness in God’s people is both the purpose and the necessary condition of our salvation. We are not saved by our holiness; but we are not saved without it either.

So what is holiness?

Holiness is not the same as niceness (appearing godly but with no love for Christ inside). Nor is it wistfulness (living like Christians in the past). Nor is it mindfulness (a version of our culture’s fad for being ‘spiritual but not religious’). (For even more angles on what holiness is not, see DeYoung, pages 33-38). Holiness has a shape given to it by God.

According to Exodus (and also, for instance, Isaiah)  God is Holy. In the New Testament too, God’s Holy presence is expressed through his Holy Spirit especially as he indwells Jesus, the “holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). The Hebrew word translated in English”holy” means “set apart”. It means not so much “separate” from the world as “different from” the world and from impure humanity. God is good and we are worldly. God is pure and we are sinful.

We are called to be holy because God is holy (Leviticus 19:2). Holiness is when we turn our hearts, minds and actions towards God instead of towards the world or ourselves, directed by  the Holy Spirit in us. As DeYoung says, that doesn’t mean we are to be miserable kill-joys who spurn anything pleasant. If anything it means the opposite: we delight in God’s goodness and all good things he has made, living distinctive lives of Christ-centred worship, selfless love, joyful self-restraint, consistent truthfulness and authentic kindness – holy lives. Holiness is being truly human, and truly happy.

So why does holiness matter?

It has become alarmingly characteristic of Christians in our culture to talk and act as if how we live does not matter to God or to others. “We are saved by grace not works”, we say, forgetting that we are not saved without good works! We are concerned to protect the truth that Jesus died for our sins to bring us to God, but forget that he also died to purify us and make us “holy” as His Bride (Ephesians 5:25-27). We talk a lot in our generation about “grace”, but have become nervous to talk about “duty”. So holiness matters, and DeYoung spells out why in his chapter “The Reason for Redemption” and in an impressive list of Bible verses which motivate Christ’s people to holiness, in Chapter 4.

Here are four key ways in which holiness matters…

Because it’s why God saves us. That is not to say that being holy is what saves us – grace alone does that in Christ! But Paul says that God “chose us in Christ…that we should be holy and blameless before Him” (Ephesians 1:3-4) and “saved us and called us to a holy calling not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy 1:8-9). He is reflecting the message of Exodus we saw earlier: God led his people to freedom in order to make us “a royal priesthood and holy nation” belonging to Him. Holiness is good news (gospel) as much as is forgiveness. It is what DeYoung calls “our glorious calling”.

Because it’s what God commands of us. As evangelical Christians we know that the Law of the Old Testament leads us to grace in Christ. But Biblically, grace equally leads us to the Law. Jesus says “if you love me, you will obey my commands”. In Exodus, God rescues his people from slavery and THEN gives them the Law. Anglican prayers reflect this double truth of grace AND Law, for instance in the Communion Service where it is our “duty and joy ” to give God thanks and praise (in word and action) “at all times and in all places”. Holiness is a joyful duty and command.

Because it’s how God assures us. Holiness as the sign and fruit of a genuinely converted heart and life is a necessary part of our salvation. With all our ongoing faults, followers of Christ are aware of the upward drag of the Holy Spirit renewing our thoughts and actions. “you were taught…to put off your old self which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires, to be made new in the attitude of your minds, and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:21-24)

Because it’s where God speaks to others through us. Holiness makes our witness credible. Those we pray for and speak to about Christ will not be impressed if they see nothing in us which is distinctively directed towards God (holy). Holiness strengthens our witness, but worldliness undermines it. “Let your light so shine before men and women that they see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Book of the Term Discussion

As you read our Book of the Term and reflect on the nature and necessity of holiness, questions will pop into your head, if you are anything  like me! Isn’t holiness an old-fashioned idea? Am I a Christian if I am not always very holy? Make a note of them, and bring them to our open book discussion on Sunday 27th November after our 6pm service!

Next time, we will continue this conversation with DeYoung’s book, chapters 5-8. We will discover a great truth: that by faith we are holy already. We may still be sinners, but our lives please God, right now and today!

Further reading

The Hole in our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung (2012, Crossway), is available from Christ Church resources desks at just £7 (RRP £10.99)

Holiness, J.C. Ryle (Evangelical Press reprint)   available at https://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/holiness

A Passion for Holiness, J.I. Packer (1992, Crossway) available at https://www.eden.co.uk/shop/a_passion_for_holiness_18675.html

The two-thirds Word?

Scrolls-2This month I had the privilege of leading two seminars for our church introducing the Old Testament. I started from the position that for most of us this is a largely closed book (barring Genesis 1-3 and Psalm 23), but that if it is 2/3 of the Bible, we cannot leave it that way.

The Bible after all tells of one covenant (albeit seen from different angles from Noah to Jeremiah) and one God (even if we caricature the God in each “testament” as at odds with that in the corresponding one). The New Testament writers have the Jewish Scriptures running through their veins and regard the two covenants as a continuity through Jesus, who of course lives and quotes “the Bible Jesus read” at all points in the gospels.

It was a rich experience to approach the Old (or better, “first”) Testament through Hebrew eyes in the threefold division of the Hebrew Bible. That is:

The Law (the first five books)

The Prophets (which include not only Isaiah and the others we think of here, but also many “historical” books such as Joshua and Kings, which are profoundly “prophetic”.

The Writings (perennial, proverbial and poetic works headed by Psalms and including Daniel, Ruth, Lamentations and Esther). It was a great exercise to come up with a summary title for each book: so Proverbs is “For when life is complicated” and Job “For when life is tough”.

The audios of the sessions are now on our church website here.

Recommended Books Introducing the Old Testament

I highly rate Alec Motyer’s “Loving the Old Testament” which is as pastoral as it is clear and brief. For heart-warming theology through evangelical but critical use of selected OT books I love Walter Moberley’s “Old Testament Theology”, but those who want a more detailed student-level introduction I’d point towards Dillard and  Longman, or the older and drier, but exemplary, Introduction by GW Anderson. Fee and Stuart’s “How to Read the Bible Book by Book” does the work of a study Bible excellently for those coming cold to, say,  Deuteronomy or Obadiah. For fine print on origins and documentary formation Georg Fohrer’s Introduction is a key reference a serious student can’t ignore, even if a very critical one.

How is Jesus still serving you today?

Forty days after the resurrection comes the ascension of Jesus. He was “declared Son of God” through his resurrection (Acts 13:33; Romans 1:4) and now he returned to God’s throne, having completed his work in atoning for our sins and giving his life to serve us (Mark 10:45).

Yet Jesus’ work for us does not end there. He  serves us still in his life in heaven, interceding for us (Hebrews 7:25), sending his Spirit to teach us the truth (John 14:26), and giving gifts to the church in the manner of a conquering king handing out treasures to his victorious people – except these gifts are not silver coins but spiritual roles in the Church (Ephesians 4:7-12).

The significance of Jesus’ ascension is not only that he reigns – now, today – over all things. This Sovereign also serves his people. Our risen Lord is still, wonderfully, our serving-without-sinking_3servant. He intercedes for us, teaches us, and equips us to serve Him.

In our book Of The Term “Serving without Sinking” (a unique gospel-shaped book about grace, not a guilt-inducing one about sacrifice) I have loved reading the three middle chapters which illustrate how Christ serves us.  His grace defines the nature of our serving Him in grateful response.

The three metaphors the author finds in the Bible for Christian life are all stunning privileges: we are not servants but friends of Jesus, not a self-justifying client but a forgiven bride of Christ, and not convenient slaves but forgiven sons of God. These chapters alone are worth the book price and worthy of reading over and over again.

Is Jesus serving you today? If you want to know more, “Serving without Sinking” is highly recommended.