The Past Year’s Top Ten Books for Preachers

Early on, human beings seemed to discover that one animal, above all others, can take a liking to us. For that reason, we often speak of the fact that a dog is a man’s best friend. 

At some point, preachers discovered that the same is true of a book. Books may not be so eagerly affectionate as a dog, but they are the preacher’s friend, and, in their own way, they can be incredibly loyal. Almost every preacher can point to a handful of books that have made a determinative impact in his life, even over decades. 

Each year, an avalanche of books seems to appear. We should never take this for granted, for two different predictions must fail for this to be true. The first is the decline of interest in preaching and the second is the decline of interest in books. Gladly, neither of these threats has materialized. Wherever you find a Christian church, you will find preaching. Wherever you find preachers, you will find books. 

Out of the multitude of worthy books published in the last year, I choose ten to commend for the preacher’s consideration. These are only hints of the riches released over the course of the last several months, but each of us must choose the limited number of books we will be able to read in a year – or a lifetime. 

1. Geoffrey Chang, Spurgeon the Pastor: Recovering a Biblical and Theological Vision for Ministry (B&H Publishing). 

Geoffrey Chang serves as assistant professor of church history and historical theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. He also serves as curator of the Spurgeon Library on that campus. In itself, the Spurgeon Library represents a contradiction of another modern prophecy: that the famous preachers of the 19th century would recede into distant memory. This is certainly not the case, and especially not the case with Charles Spurgeon. 

If anything, there is even more interest in Charles Spurgeon today than there was at the time of his own death. In this book, Chang offers a biographical treatment of Charles Spurgeon, which is thematic rather than explicitly chronological. He focuses upon Charles Spurgeon the pastor and, of course, gives attention to Spurgeon the creature. This book is immediately accessible, not overly long, and directly relevant on virtually every page to the pastor’s work. 

“Simplicity in preaching was especially emphasized in the Pastor’s College. To cultivate this, Spurgeon urged them not to lose contact with the realities and challenges of life. Though traditional colleges tended to remove students from natural settings, Spurgeon’s students lived with families, remained active in church, interacted with people from all walks of life, and actively ministered while they studied. All of this was part of their education. The last thing Spurgeon wanted was to breed an artificiality in his students’ preaching.” 

2. Robert Elmer, ed., Fount of Heaven: Prayers of the Early Church (Lexham Press) 

As a young Christian in the free church tradition, I was taught that written prayers were formalized and impersonal. Spontaneity was considered the mark of appropriate prayer. I still believe in spontaneous prayer, but I also believe in the importance of writing prayers in order to achieve precision and reading prayers in order to be enriched by the saints of old. Throughout Christian history, prayers have been preserved, honored, and even translated into multiple languages. The New Testament itself contains prayers, of course, but the early centuries of the church also provide riches of devotional, theological, and instructional substance and encouragement. 

This book will be of particular interest to preachers, and for a dual purpose. First of all, the preacher’s own soul will be fed by reading these prayers, and by praying them. The reader will be drawn into the experience of prayer even by reading these prayers. Secondly, our preaching, as well as our praying, is enriched by following the flow of thought of Christians of old as they bring their prayers and praise to Christ for intercession before the throne of God. 

One of the happy developments in evangelicalism over the last several years is the recovery of interest in the biblical commentaries, sermons, and prayers of the early church. Robert Elmer has collected and assembled by theme many of these prayers for our inspiration and edification. 

“I am convinced the original authors would have been pleased to have us borrow their words for our own prayers. After all, these are not just a window into the distant past, but a reminder of First Things. And these prayers are recording what really matters. If it were possible, we would thank our earliest brothers and sisters for the way they held firmly to faith, and to our Savior, even in the worst of days. Perhaps we can do a measure of the same dedication as we pray once more the prayers they prayed.” 

3. Benjamin L. Gladd, From the Manger to the Throne: A Theology of Luke (Crossway). 

Another of the most promising developments in modern evangelical life is a resurgence of interest in biblical theology. As a seminary president and professor, I can assure you that today’s students’ training for the pastorate are absolutely astounded to understand that biblical theology was not a part of the intellectual equipment used by evangelical pastors throughout most of the 20th century. This is to our shame, and the recovery of biblical theology has been a sign, not only of academic recovery, but of a renaissance of biblical preaching in the pulpit. 

Furthermore, evangelicals are now served by a growing array of scholars who present Old Testament theology, New Testament theology, and the larger context of biblical theology with aplomb. We’ve now reached the point where we are in a third or fourth generation of biblical theologians and scholars among evangelicals, and this has spawned a burgeoning array of titles in biblical theology. There are few arenas of theological contribution that are more directly helpful to pastors in the task of preaching the word of God. 

Benjamin L. Gladd, who teaches New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, offers a helpful understanding of Luke and brings biblical theology into a distillation of less than 200 pages. Now let’s be honest, most pastors would aspire to read 500 pages of biblical theology considering the Gospel of Luke. But, by the same honesty, a 200-page volume is actually much more accessible, helpful, and likely to be read. A book of this length tends to get to the point rather quickly, and assistance arrives early. 

This book comes in a most helpful series edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Brian S. Rosner. Other recent releases in the series include Benjamin L. Merkle, United to Christ, Walking in the Spirit: a Theology of Ephesians; Patrick Schreiner, The Mission of the Triune God: A Theology of Acts; and Peter Orr, The Beginnings of the Gospel: A Theology of Mark. Every one of these volumes will be incredibly helpful to the active preacher. 

“Believers are spiritually renewed and await Christ’s return when God will fashion them into his Son’s restored image. How can we as Christians today apply these insights to our daily lives? Though Christians still struggle with indwelling sin, and will continue to do so until the resurrection, we must recognize our status as a new creation. The Spirit’s presence in our hearts empowers us to conquer sin and please God and all of life. God also assures us that we have begun to participate in the new heavens and earth. Our life on this earth is tied to our future existence in the new eternal state. We should fall into the rhythm of the new creation here and now, so that when we arrive in the new heavens and earth, we will continue to love God and one another but in a greater, more profound way.” 

4. James Hamilton, Jr., Typology: Understanding the Bible’s Promise-Shaped Patterns (Zondervan) 

It is humbling to know that the Christian church has struggled for nearly two millennia to know exactly how we are to preach the Old Testament. To be a Christian is to understand that we find the hope of our redemption in a new covenant, but the New Testament can only be understood and appreciated as the fulfillment of the covenant of old. The New Testament offers us ample evidence of how the apostles preached the Old Testament, and even how Jesus applied the Old Testament to himself and to His followers. And, to raise the issue of the New Testament use of the Old Testament, is to address the question of typology. 

At this point, we have to understand that evangelicalism in the last half of the 20th century was largely divided between those who gave themselves to typological exegesis with abandon and those who were alarmed at the effort, as they saw it, to turn every punctuation mark in the Old Testament into a type of Christ. Gladly, we are now on safer and saner terrain. Much of this is due to a larger theological recovery among evangelicals which has led to a far more biblical understanding of the biblical concept of covenant itself. 

Furthermore, the plain fact is that the inspired New Testament authors often understood themselves to be pointing to Old Testament types of Christ, and thus it would be a rejection of biblical inspiration and apostolic authority to deny typology as a major category for biblical interpretation. 

Into this conversation arrives James M. Hamilton, Jr. and his new book. This is one of the most significant books on biblical typology to emerge in decades. Any conversation about typology among evangelicals must now reckon with this book. James Hamilton is a very careful biblical scholar, and he is careful and passionate about introducing Christians to the riches of what he calls a “promised-shaped typology.” Every preacher will be enriched by engaging this book and deepening our understanding of the glory of Christ as anticipated in the Old Testament. 

“When the biblical authors compose their writings, they intended to signal to their audiences the presence of the promised-shaped patterns. Thus, even if they did not fully 

understand the significance of the pattern and/or how the promise would’ve been fulfilled, the Old Testament authors intended to draw attention to the recurring sequences of events, and they did so with the view to the future. Because these sequences of events had themselves been shaped by the promises, the promises were reinforced by each new installation in the pattern of events, and the growing sense of the significance of both promise and pattern developed.” 

5. John Calvin, Commentary on Romans, ed. Timothy George (B&H Academic). 

One of the most amazing facts of Christian publishing is that the commentaries of John Calvin have never been out of print for almost 500 years. To say the very least, few human authors in any arena of thought can claim such longevity. But when it comes to John Calvin’s commentaries, that consistent publication points, not only to longevity, but to sheer spiritual and homiletical profit as found in his commentaries. Interestingly, it is not uncommon to find preachers who do not consider themselves in any way to be Calvinist, to confess their indebtedness to John Calvin the expositor of Scripture. 

To be sure, John Calvin’s commentary on Romans did not appear in the last publishing year. What did appear is a new edited version of the commentary brought to us by Timothy George, one of the most significant Calvin scholars of our times. George’s purpose in this commentary series is to introduce Calvin and his commentaries to a new generation of preachers with translations and editing that render the commentaries more accessible to today’s preacher. 

Contemporary preachers will do well to consider the contribution found in commentaries that have stood the test of time. Calvin’s entire commentary series fits that description, and Timothy George makes Calvin all the more accessible to today’s preacher. In other words, you have one less excuse for failing to consult Calvin, along with other worthies, in your consideration of the text. 

“What is the heart of Calvin’s theology? Scholars have suggested various answers to this question: the sovereignty of God, union with Christ, sanctification, and the church is the body of Christ. However, Calvin was not a systematic theologian, and it is best not to impose any particular grid over his thought. In the Romans commentary, Calvin imposes no overarching pattern on the apostle but follows closely where Paul’s argument took him, again seeking the mind of the author.” 

6. William R. Edwards, John C. A. Ferguson, and Chad Van Dixhoorn , eds., Theology for Ministry: How Doctrine Affects Pastoral Life and Practice (P&R Publishing). 

Sinclair Ferguson is known as theologian, preacher, pastor and evangelical encourager. This volume began with the intention of honoring Sinclair Ferguson for his decades of faithful teaching and ministry. Frankly, many books that begin with that ambition end up honoring an individual but with forgettable content. What sets this volume apart is that the chapters brought together in this book will be found of prophet to preachers, not only in the present, but long into the future. In that sense, this was one of the greatest tributes the contributors and editors could make to Sinclair Ferguson. This volume takes theology seriously, the Bible seriously, and the role of the preacher with great seriousness. 

Unlike any such book published before, to my knowledge, this book takes as it structure individual doctrines as considered by the pastor and the preacher. That really does establish a different kind of substance to this book and ensures that it will be useful in at least two different ways. The book is tremendously useful as a compendium of essays concerning theology in the ministry. But, at the same time, it’s an incredibly helpful series of essays on individual theological doctrines and themes with application that the preacher will find immediate and lasting. The book is truly helpful, heartwarming, and inspiring–which are the very words I would use of Professor Sinclair Ferguson, colleague and teacher. 

“As we explore theology from ministry through these essays honoring a teacher and a friend, we are reminded that theology is important in its own right – in the queen of the sciences, as it has been called – because God himself is the one true and glorious King overall. Theology matters because ‘from him and through him and to him are all things’ (Romans 11:36). And for this very reason, theological reflection is absolutely essential for ministry. While much of this book will focus on how doctrine ought to impact ministry, we are also concerned to show that doctrine ought to impact ministers, especially in view of the many personal struggles as well as external difficulties pastors face.” 

7. Neil Shenvi, Why Believe? A Reasoned Approach to Christianity (Crossway) 

Neil Shenvi has served as a research scientist at universities including both Yale and Duke, and he is well qualified to speak for the intersection of modern research science and historic Christianity. In a very real sense, he is committed to both. But he is a deeply committed Christian who wants to assist other Christians in appreciating, embracing, and defending Christian truth in an age of increasing unbelief and intellectual hesitancy. Shenvi organizes this book around some of the major theological and apologetic questions of our day, effectively clustering many of these questions and issues in a way that is quite helpful. 

Preachers will find this volume to be particularly helpful because Shenvi offers an alternative to a dry and dispassionate consideration of urgent theological, apologetic, and moral questions. He writes as a committed Christian, but he treats challenges to Christianity with the intellectual respect that they are due, Shenvi understands that nothing less than the integrity of Christianity is at stake as we consider these apologetic questions. 

Many of the books dealing with similar questions and offering apologetic assistance are simply too massive to be helpful to pastors. This book is aimed directly at the thinking Christian, the college student or the university graduate student, and the preacher. 

“For me, the biggest obstacle to faith in Christ was the realization that it would mean complete and abject intellectual humiliation. Becoming a Christian would mean admitting that the most uneducated, backward, Bible-thumping Christian with a gun rack over his mantel piece and antlers on his pickup truck knew more about God than I did. It would mean that all my carefully constructed spiritual-but-not-religious beliefs would have to be abandoned and that I’d have to enter God’s presence like a little child. It was terrifying. But I remember telling God: ‘I don’t know who you are anymore. I don’t even know if Jesus is your Son. But if he is, I’m willing to follow him.’ Although I had a long, long way to go theologically, I think that’s the night I became a Christian.” 

8. Tim Challies, Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and the Comfort of God (Zondervan). 

For many years now, Tim Challies has been a trusted evangelical friend to the thousands who read his articles and are encouraged by his combination of devotional, theological, practical, and churchly concerns. To know Tim Challies is to know his heart to serve the church, to seek the glory of God, and to assist Christians toward faithfulness in our time. 

We can safely say that this was a book Tim Challies never expected to write. In it, he shares his joy and love as the father of a son who went to be with the Lord at what, to us, was a tragically young age. I had the joy of knowing Nick Challies as he was a student at Boyce College, and it was here in Louisville that Nick died, taken suddenly even as he was merely engaged in a game with college friends in a neighboring park. 

Tim Challies shares his experience of pain and loss and doubt and fear that came to him, to his wife, and to his entire family like a tidal surge. In this sweet, faithful, and thoughtful book, Tim Challies honors his son, shares his struggles with his Christian friends, and points to the power of God, the promise of everlasting life, and the assurance of faith. 

Regardless of the age, Christians have found grief and loss to be among the greatest struggles we face in our Christian life. In this generation, fewer parents are called to bear the grief of losing a son so young and so promising, so suddenly. As a young man, Nick was already known for his faithfulness, his passion for Christ, and his generosity as friend. This book will touch your heart, draw you into the gospel, and help you, as it helped me, to minister to those who in the blink of an eye find themselves facing such grief. 

“In the sky somewhere over Ohio, in the dim light of a darkened aircraft, I began to write. I’ve often said that I don’t know what I think or what I believe until I write about it. Writing is how I reflect, how I meditate, how I chart life’s every journey. And so when the sorrow was still new in my heart, when the tears were still fresh in my eyes, when I barely knew up from down and hear from there, I began to write. I had to write because I had to know what to think and what to believe, what to feel and what to do. I had to know whether to rage or to worship, whether to run or to bow, whether to give up or to go on. I had to know how to comfort my wife, how to console my daughters, how to shore up my own faith. I put fingers to keyboard and pen to paper to find out.” 

9. R. B. Jamieson and Tyler R. Wittman, Biblical Reasoning: Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis (Baker Academic). 

In one of his more infamous but revealing statements about scripture, the iconic liberal preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick once suggested that the Bible on the preacher’s desk was, more or less, a puzzle. To Fosdick, the Bible was clearly puzzling and so the famous liberal preacher tried to find something useful he could say about it. That, of course, was a recipe for (homiletical and theological) disaster. 

And yet, for reasons that have nothing to do with scripture and everything to do with a lack of thoughtful interpretation, the Bible actually can be a puzzle to many preachers. The problem is not in the Bible, but in the preacher’s lack of understanding of how rightly to read scripture in order rightly to preach that scripture to the people of God. The challenge of rightly dividing the word of truth is as old as the apostles and as current as next Sunday. For that reason, 

this new book by Bobby Jamieson and Tyler Wittman will be particularly helpful. Both are trained scholars who know the terrain in modern hermeneutics and contemporary thought. Both deeply love the church and want to serve pastors. It seems to be true that many high school students tend to shut down the moment math is renamed algebra. It is similarly true that many preachers shut down when the interpretation of scripture is suddenly called hermeneutics. 

The fact is that every preacher is engaged in hermeneutics, and constantly. The question is not whether we’re engaged in hermeneutics, but whether or not our biblical interpretation is faithful and fruitful. Jamieson and Wittman have assembled in this book what they call a “toolkit for biblical reasoning.” They get to the point very quickly: “The toolkit’s goal is to enable better exegesis. The goal of that exegesis is, ultimately, to see God.” The book is deeply theological, challenging, and accessible. 

“To behold the glory of the crucified Christ is to know now by faith what we will one day see in truth, with unveiled face: the glory that embraces us, purifies us, and raises us further up and further in to the radiant beauty of God. This is the end of Christian exegesis because it is the end of the Christian life. In making this end known, God grants us a token of our faithful future blessedness and glory and implants in us a confident longing to see him face-to-face. In the power of the Spirit, we cultivate this knowledge and longing by enacting in our lives the pattern of the Lord’s cruciform glory. We grow more glorious here and now by taking up our cross and following Christ so that our light shines before others to the glory of the Father. We read God’s glorious self-testimony in order to behold a glory that makes us glorious. This is the way Christians read Scripture. Christians read Scripture because it is the way Christians.” 

10. Samuel Emadi, From Prisoner to Prince: The Joseph Story in Biblical Theology (InterVarsity Press) 

Early in this article I mentioned the renaissance in biblical theology that has so enriched evangelical life. One of the most important contributors to that recovery is D. A. Carson. One of the towering figures of New Testament scholarship in our time. D. A. Carson is himself an exemplar of the recovery of biblical theology, and he serves as editor of this series, which has already produced so many fruitful volumes. To that long list is now added Samuel Emadi’s volume on the Joseph Story in Biblical Theology. 

One of the great advances of contemporary biblical theology is the consideration of particular themes throughout the entirety of the biblical text. When it comes to the account of Joseph, and the meaning of Joseph for the people of God, this account begins in the Old Testament and continues all the way through the scripture. Emadi sets out on a consideration of Joseph as man, as biblical character, and as biblical theme. In reading this short volume, the preacher is likely to wonder how it could have been possible that we had missed so much of the meaning of Joseph in the flow of biblical history. 

As Emadi understands, his book is itself an exercise in biblical theology. Hopefully, Emadi defines biblical theology as “faith seeking understanding of the redemptive-historical and literary unity in the Bible in its own terms, concepts, and context.” From that point onward, the reader is taken on a tour of scripture through tracing the Joseph theme and pointing to the gospel of Christ and the glory of the Triune God. Preachers will find this book to be of immediate interest and homiletical helpfulness. 

“For many Christians, Old Testament historical narrative remains a locked box–an enormous but enigmatic section of scripture regrettably ignored by both preachers and lay people. This work is a small effort in unlocking for the church just one aspect of the biblical-theological riches inherent in the Joseph story. I have sought to interpret the Joseph narrative according to the intent of the original author and according to the interpretive perspective of later biblical authors. I have also sought to interpret the Joseph’s story according to Scripture’s covenantal framework. Applying the same interpreter principles to other portions of the Old Testament, particularly the Old Testament historical narratives, would go a long way in constructing a truly ‘biblical theology’ for the benefit of Christ’s church.” 

These books are offered in the hope that they will be encouragement and edification for today’s preachers. One of the most amazing truths about books is that a good book almost always points to a succession of other good books. The committed preacher is an avid reader, so much so that it is sometimes simply true that the preacher dies with unread books on his desk. So be it.