The Next Ten Books To Recommend to a growing Christian

In a previous post I outlined what next.jpgthe philosophy behind a pastor having a collection of ten “first” books to give or recommend to a young Christian, for which credit goes to Tim Keller’s ‘Redeemer’ Church in Manhattan. I also suggested which ten I would have on that “first read these” book table.

So what about the believer who has read most of them and is hungry for further spiritual encouragement?

I’d have the following “read next” books to hand, the intention being to give a young believer a taste of some older classics (and some more recent writers) in a range from Christian life, church history, doctrine, devotional, culture and ecclesiology.

The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Holiness – JC Ryle

Amazing Grace – John Pollock

Communion with God – John Owen

The Bruised Reed  – Richard Sibbes

Enchiridion – On Faith, Hope and Love – Augustine

A Simple way to Pray – Martin Luther

Generous Justice – Tim Keller

Christ and His People – Mark Ashton

The Universe Next Door – James Sire

It’s hard to know which popular-level book to recommend on the theory and practice of evangelism, a topic that none of these 20 “start here” or “read next” books cover; so I’ll explore that in a later post, but would love to hear your suggestions on that, or on any other area not listed above that you think essential for a growing Christian to be thinking through.



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!

Ten tips for being salt and light


Daily readings at home this month have included the early chapters of Matthew and majestic mountaintop experience of Jesus’ sermon in 5-7. Here, Jesus challenges his would-be disciples to be “salt and light”, and the sermon given at our church last week reminded me of this, with the invitation of Paul in Colossians 4:6 to “let your conversation be seasoned with salt”.

As commentators 1 note, the “salty” conversation image was common in the ancient world, and reminds us that our witness to Christ is not to be dull or predictable but alert and provocative.

So how do we cultivate a life in which we commend Jesus “in word and deed” (to use good Anglican terminology)?

Last Sunday’s preacher pointed us to the wisdom of “ten tips for evangelism” delivered by Tim Keller and recorded, best we can find, not in print but on Martin Salter’s blog. With the kind permission of that writer to repeat them, here they are:

  1. Let people around you know you are a Christian (in a natural, unforced way)
  2. Ask friends about their faith – and just listen!
  3. Listen to your friend’s problems – maybe offer to pray for them
  4. Share your problems with others – testify to how your faith helps you
  5. Give them a book to read
  6. Share your story
  7. Answer objections and questions
  8. Invite them to a church event
  9. Offer to read the Bible with them
  10. Take them to a discover/explore course

Why not save these tips somewhere useful for you as you pray for those you meet in daily life?

There are two useful additional notes about how to use this list so that God can use us to “pray, walk and speak” in sharing Christ’s message.

Firstly, the points become generally more challenging to us as we work down them. Some of us cannot imagine trying to answer objections to faith, or inviting someone to church, but for most of us making sure everyone we come into contact with in daily life knows we are a Christian is much easier. Try telling them how interesting your church service was, next time they ask how the weekend went – no more than that needs to be said!

Secondly, as we pray for our family, friends and daily contacts, we will find it may take some time to progress further down the points – we may need to repeat points 1-4 (the easier ones) several times before we find ourselves lending them a Christian book, or discussing why we think Jesus is the answer to our deepest needs. It’s about being patient with God’s timing, and recognising that although most  non-churchgoers have no objection to faith, they need a long time to start thinking it important for them.

1 See CFD Moule, “The Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon” (Cambridge, 1991) and NT Wright, “Colossians and Philemon” (IVP, 1986), comments on this verse

Make your next sermon your best: three tips

by Augustin Edouart, silhouette, 1828
Charles Simeon preaching by Augustin Edouart, silhouette, 1828

I recall the late Mark Ashton observing two things about young preachers. First (negative) that he would rather have a curate/assistant from a college which did not think itself theologically infallible; in his experience, colleagues from training institutions which thought they had it ‘nailed’ exhibited the same attitude to their own abilities. It was a way of Mark saying he looked for humility. Second (positive) that he wanted to encourage young preachers to keep humbly learning their craft: because there are in the modern world few arts where one needs basically the same skills for one’s entire “career”, but preaching is one of them.

We all who preach should want to keep learning – or as my first incumbent put it “always pray that your next sermon may be your best”.

So my first thought on keeping sharp as a preacher is from John Piper, who urges those who preach to pray more for themselves and their hearers, and prayer is without doubt as important as anything not just in discerning the truth of God in a text or topic, but in delivering it with authenticity and spiritual power.

Second: one of the ways to keep learning and growing in preaching is by listening to the wisdom of those who are respected as preachers and good at teaching its science and art to others. As so often, it can be more effective to watch a five-minute video interview on a topic like “evangelistic preaching” or “how to apply a text faithfully” than to plough through a long book on homiletics. In terms of expository preaching,  I’ve found the St Helen’s church youtube site has a number of really good items, especially this curiously inspiring one from William Taylor on “poor preaching“.

Third, having said that, there are numerous really helpful books on the theory and practice of preaching. I came across a masterful chapter by Peter Adam on Calvin’s expository preaching in the book “Engaging Calvin” edited by Mark D Thompson (Apollos, 2009) which in many ways says it all.

But for those wanting more, it is hard to better the following

John Stott “I believe in preaching”. Solid, systematic and surprisingly practical.

Bryan Chapell “Christ-centred preaching” – superb on the gospel-based reasons for having such things as a clear focus, coherent unity and application-driven introduction to a sermon.

Peter Adam “Speaking God’s Words” – one of the very few books to talk about the theory of preaching, not just the practice.

JW Alexander “Thoughts on Preaching” – practical old wisdom on keeping time for reflection and reading central to pastoral work, including a broadside on this from Luther verbatim, which is work the book in itself.

D Martin LloydJones “Preaching and preachers”. Logic on fire, in theory and practice.

I also loved the chapter on Jonathan Edwards as a preacher in John Piper’s “The Supremacy of God in preaching”.

For a more practical approach to assembling the nuts and bolts, I’d go to Andy Stanley “Communicating For A Change”. I’d never seen myself preaching as an HGV driver, but it kind of makes sense.

Just out and on my list to read is Tim Keller’s new book on “Preaching”.

Let me know any other suggestions!

How to pray: discipline and delight

woman praying_0

Whilst there is no “how to” for prayer which does justice to its depth and breadth, the “Lord’s Prayer” of Jesus, the Psalms, and the great prayers of others, are our best guide. A brief glance at these shows that healthy prayer holds three balancing truths in tension:

Conversation AND encounter

The writer of Psalm 1, which introduces the whole book of 150 Psalms, urges us to slow down and meditate – not to empty our minds, but to meditate on “his law day and night” and then respond. The slow reading of a passage or word of Scripture allows the truths God reveals there to inspire our praise, confession or intercession. This conversation with God enriches spiritual life enormously for anyone who takes the time (which may be a few minutes a day) to do it.

But prayer is also encounter –  when we pray we are neither mouthing empty words which bounce off the ceiling, nor going through the motion of being pious. We are in the presence of God. This is apparent in the prayer life of Jesus in the gospels, in his use of “Father” addressing God. But it is also apparent  in the wonderful prayers of Paul, about which DA Carson writes so helpfully in his book “A Call to Spiritual Reformation“. “For this reason” Paul says in Ephesians 3, “I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and earth derives its name”. To pray is to stand, or to kneel, in the presence of God, before saints and angels, beside the Son, filled with the Spirit.

Awe AND intimacy

The Lord’s prayer combines both.

First – I suspect intentionally – it teaches us to pray “hallowed be your name” before we pray “give us today our daily bread”. Jesus is teaching us a vital spiritual lesson. If we rush into asking about the things which make us anxious, we miss the peace and joy which come from praise and gratitude. How can the God who is so mighty and merciful not give us also all that we need?

CS Lewis in his “Reflections on the Psalms” (in a chapter entitled “A Word About Praising”) points out that praising God (like praising a beautiful sunset or piece of music) comes naturally as part of the delight in Him. “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation”.

Second, intimacy. “Forgive us our sins”, continues Jesus. Prayer is the privilege of face-to-face encounter, so to speak, with God through his grace in Christ. Because of our sins, we would be prevented from drawing near, but the death of Christ our sacrifice has opened the way and removed the barrier. “Let us then draw near to God’s throne of grace with confidence” (Hebrews 4:16). Intimacy with God through knowing our sins forgiven is as essential as praise.

Discipline AND delight

One of the traditions of the Church is daily prayer (also called the Office). At its simplest it is the habit of spending a few minutes morning, noon and night in reading the Scriptures and in responsive prayers of praise, confession and intercession. It can become a dry formality – my experience at theological college was just that. Yet where evangelical piety has reduced in the last century to the “quiet time” defined as “read the Bible as just an intellectual exercise, and bring a list of prayer needs”, it might refresh us all through including reflection on Scripture which leads to praise and confession. At its best it trains us to encounter God through His Word and respond in praise, confession and intercession. As Tim Keller notes in the final chapter of “Prayer”, entitled “Daily Prayer”, both Luther and Calvin encouraged Christians to learn private prayer from public prayer with others, whether in midweek “services” or groups of believers gathered informally.

A second cornerstone of Anglican worship is the Collects written by Thomas Cranmer  (Archbishop of Canterbury under three Tudor monarchs and architect of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer). These prayers are widely regarded as some of the most Biblical and well-constructed in existence. The pattern they follow (noted by Tim Keller in chapter 12 of his book) is both elegant and deeply prayerful:

addressing God

expressing our need

requesting His help

affirming His glory.

The best are near-perfect expressions of faith in prayer. An example follows at the end.

Other godly Christians have written great prayers which deepen our faith. Those of Augustine (“Lord, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”), Francis of Assisi (“Master, grant that I may never seek so much as to be understood as to understand”), and Richard of Chichester (“to know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly”) are good examples, and many more are found in pocket collections like this one.

But at the same time prayer is a delight. We do not need to limit prayer to set times of the day or words of others, or feel that we can pray only at our bedside, and not at the kitchen table or on the commute to work. Discipline deepens us, but delight reminds us that through grace heaven is accessible at any moment. There may be times when prayer is dutiful, but as our faith deepens we will find that God becomes more and more beautiful to us, and prayer becomes more and more a delight in which we long to spend all our days.

Prayer – Collect for Easter Day (Cranmer) (now for “Fifth Sunday of Easter”, Common Worship)

Almighty God,
who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ
have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life:
grant that, as by your grace going before us
you put into our minds good desires,
so by your continual help
we may bring them to good effect;
through Jesus Christ our risen Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


Prayer: learning from Calvin

woman praying_0

In his excellent new book “Prayer”, Tim Keller (chapter 7) summarises John Calvin’s four “rules” of prayer. This inspired me to read the original chapter on prayer in the great French reformer’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, and I have not been disappointed. Calvin’s guidance is deep and heartwarming.

Calvin starts with the great question people ask “Why do we need to pray to God at all?” “Does he not know what our difficulties are, and what we need, until aroused by the sound of our voice?”

He replies that “those who argue thus forget the end for which our Lord taught us to pray. it was not so much for his sake as for ours…That our heart may be enflamed with love for and trust in him…that wrong desires may be kept from us as we learn to place our wishes in his sight…that we may be prepared to receive all good things with gratitude.”1

Calvin’s four “rules” for prayer follow, but they are not so much “rules” as attitudes of heart, without which prayer is impossible.

1. Reverence for God

(Psalm 25:1 “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul”.)

Those who engage in prayer do so only when they are “so impressed with the majesty of God that they do so free from all earthly cares and affections”2. We cannot “grovel in the mire” if we want to experience fellowship with God on High.

This also, says Calvin, sets us free from praying for the wrong things. Whilst God encourages us to pour out our hearts over what troubles us (in that sense, anything is on the agenda), prayer is not giving rein to unwise or selfish desires. Rather our respect for God’s glory and greatness means that we approach with his will and desires on our hearts, not our own. “This is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14).

At this point Calvin is making the same point as in the (Anglican) Homily 19 written around the same time, where we are urged to pray first for spiritual needs and then material ones (“seek first his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will  be given to you” Matthew 6:33).

2. Sense of need

(Psalm 50:15 “Call on me in the day of trouble”.)

Casually coming out with words, without a heartfelt desire to be heard and helped by God, is not prayer. Never enter God’s presence without a strong desire to obtain what you ask3, says Calvin. He is not saying that I always have to feel desperate to pray – we can equally pray when joyful, he notes (James 5:13 “Is any of you in trouble? Let them pray. Is any joyful? Let them sing psalms”). But prayer must come from a sense of empty-handedness before God.

We are told to pray “at all times” (Ephesians 6:18) and this reminds us that, even if we are rich and well-fed, we must constantly thank God for the rain, sun and harvests that have given us food to eat and clothing to wear.

Repentance is a vital aspect of sensing need. Approaching God as if we deserve to be given access to his throne is a sign of spiritual complacency often warned against in Scripture: “these people draw near to me with their mouth, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). But approaching with hearts desperate for forgiveness leads to confidence, “Whatever we ask, we receive from him, because we keep his commandments” (1 John 3:22).

3. Sense of unworthiness

(Daniel 9:18: “We do not present our requests because we are righteous, but because you are merciful.”)

The proud or “vain” heart thinks it approaches God as His equal, having a right to be heard because of my status or abilities. Calvin warns that this is a grave mistake, and gives an impressive number of examples of people of faith in the Bible who pray with humility at their own sinfulness or weakness, and yet are heard by God. Confidence in prayer increases as self-confidence decreases. His point is that we are heard not because we are clever or righteous, but because God is gracious and merciful. David says in Psalm 25:18 “Look upon my affliction and pain, and forgive my sins”.

4. Confidence of success

(Mark 11:24:”Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it shall be yours.”)

We may need to beware self-confidence when we pray, but we can be confident that God hears us.

Some say it is arrogant to be certain that God hears our prayers, that we should rely on the prayers of “saints” more holy that us, but this assurance in prayer, says Calvin, is simply Christian faith in action. Just as our confidence in being reconciled to God rests not on our moral uprightness but Christ’s death for us, our assurance of being heard rests not on our spiritual perfection but on Christ’s opening the way for us into God’s presence.

“So then let us approach the throne of grace boldly that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help us in our our time of need” (Hebrew 4:16). Jesus, our great high priest, intercedes for us (Hebrew 7:25). The Anglican Homily on Prayer  emphasizes the same point, that “Jesus Christ is the mediator between us and God” (quoting 1 Timothy 2:5, a key verse also to Calvin).

It is actually an act of defiance NOT to pray: Psalm 50:15 is an open invitation to anyone – “Call upon me in the day of trouble and I will deliver you”. We may feel embarrassed by our unworthiness to come into His presence, or inadequate to pray compared to “saints” we admire, but the door is open, and “it would be presumptuous to go forward into the presence of God, had he not anticipated us by his invitation”4.

How strange that we neglect prayer, and take its promises so coldly, when it is so openly and universally offered to us if we will just come in reverent, empty-handed humility. “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are saved” (Proverbs 18:10). “Ask and you will receive” (Matthew 7:7).

Calvin’s caveat: “rules” are there to be broken

“We may not be as godly as patriarchs, prophets, or apostles” says Calvin. Our attitudes of heart may often be weak. We may pray with hearts that are at times worldly, self-reliant and proud. “But if we trust the promises of God”, he finishes, “we are in respect of the privilege of prayer their equals.”5


Read Psalm 25 slowly, making its praise of God and its cries to Him your own.

1 Calvin, Institutes III.20.3

2 Institutes III.20.5

3 Institutes III.20.6

4 Institutes III.20.13

5 Institutes III.20.14

What, exactly, is prayer?

woman praying_0

There are plenty of sermons preached and books written on “How to Pray”. I have a brilliant one with this title by nineteenth-century evangelist RA Torrey. His passion for constant, agonised and fervent intercession is a little daunting (I’d like to think prayer is about joy and thanksgiving too) but it is full of “how to pray” and “what to pray about” advice.

But there are few books on Christian shelves which start with the vital prior question: what is prayer? Surely, I would argue, we must ask this first, not only to be clear what we are doing when we “pray” but to make our expectations of what happens when we pray both realistic, and sufficiently high. We need to know what prayer really is if we are to gain confidence in experiencing the real thing.

O Hallesby’s classic, entitled “Prayer“, spends a brief chapter on this question but only really comes up with this definition: it is opening the door to God, or it is telling God how helpless we are. I can’t argue with either idea, but somehow I feel these are experiential definitions (what we do when we pray) and not theological ones (what prayer is).

Prayer is  not a general sense of the “spiritual”, of the kind which people describe when enjoying the peace of a garden or the beauty of a sunset – although these things may prompt prayers of praise and thanks to the Creator.

Prayer is not saying religious words. Jesus criticised those who thought that the more words they used, and the longer they went on speaking, the more likely God was to hear them. God knows what we need before we ask1.

Prayer is not an undirected cry to an unknown deity – or at least, Christian prayer is not that. All the prayers of the Bible are spoken in response to the God who has revealed Himself. Revelation from God leads to communication with God.

Moses prays to the LORD who caught his attention with a burning bush and then declared himself holy, the God of Moses’ fathers, compassionate, and named “I Am/I will be” or “The One Who is ” (Hebrew Yahweh or LORD)2. The Psalms cry out in praise, or desperation, to the God of Israel who created the earth, called His people, and redeemed them from slavery in Egypt. Paul prays to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus prays “Our Father in heaven”, a response both to the intimacy (“Abba” is a respectful word used by a child) and the majesty (“in heaven” means “in the high, infinite and eternal place where God is”) of God.

Prayer is therefore Trinitarian. We pray as Christians to the Father, through the atoning sacrifice and intercession of the Son, in the power of the Spirit within us by faith.

People often ask me two questions about prayer. First, which member of the Trinity do we pray to? The answer is in the above statement. Just as faith is coming to the Father through Jesus, and united by His Spirit, so is prayer. Second, what about praying to the saints? The Biblical pattern, again, is that through Christ, unworthy though we feel, we have the extraordinary privilege of direct access to “the throne of grace” (God) along with, not through, the great Christians who have lived before us.

Prayer is intelligent response to God as He has revealed Himself in the Bible.

John Calvin did believe that all of us have a sense of God’s presence (sensus divinatis) but he also taught that we need our image of God shaped all the time by the Bible’s picture of Who He is, or we create a false one. Of course, we may pray about matters not directly mentioned in the Bible, whether confessing sin, seeking guidance or interceding for the sick. Prayer is not limited to using or responding to words in the Bible. But it is only when we pray in response to God in the Bible that we know our prayers are God-centred, just as it is only when we read the Scriptures that we can be sure God is speaking to us.

In his book “Prayer“, which I am enjoying reading this Lent, Tim Keller uses this definition of prayer: a personal, communicative response to the knowledge of God. Comments?

Prayer for this week

Read Psalm 66 slowly, repeating each phrase in praise of God for the ways in which he has revealed himself.

1 Matthew 6:7-8

2 Exodus 3:1-15