Book Review – Jan Karon’s Mitford Years: The First Five Novels

Finally – All Together in One Volume!

 I first read this series of books about a decade ago while I was (at that time) a solo pastor in a setting much like the central character in the series – “Father Tim.” Father Tim is the beloved rector of an Episcopal church in the small town of Mitford. In the series you are introduced to wonderful characters that you will recognize with different names from your own life. It’s sort of a “Pollyanna” type setting that will bring you to joy, laughter, sadness, and tears, and will take you on a journey where you are whisked into the arms of your loving Savior.

I would say that this is definitely my favorite series of novels by far. Jan Karon has a way of writing that takes your imagination away into Mitford and allows you to experience the stories as if you were really there. I recommend that you read this series while on vacation if possible, but if you can’t get away – you will feel like you are on vacation when you read this series. I think that Karon has a very good grasp of grace and redemption and conveys these great theological truths in the characters of these books in a wonderful way. Reading Karon will enlarge your view of God’s love, and how He sovereignly works in the lives of individuals to carry out His purposes. You will have a greater appreciation of the “church” and an enlarged worldview of all things theological via reading these books.

The best compliment I can give of Karon’s Mitford series is that in reading them you will be relaxed by her stories. She has a way of writing that calms and takes away your anxiety. You are truly able to bask in the realities of a world that truly is controlled by a loving God – even when you don’t see or understand it. These books are filled with stories that soothe the soul and bring hope into how you can make a difference in the lives of those around you for the sake of Christ and His glory.

Book Review – Step by Step: Divine Guidance for Ordinary Christians by James C. Petty

Good Pastoral Wisdom For Biblical Decision Making

If you are looking for a non-charismatic, non-traditional, presentation of the wisdom view articulated in a more condensed format than Gary Friesen’s book – “Decision Making and the Will of God” – this book is an excellent choice. Even if you disagree with some of Petty’s conclusions, his understanding of God’s sovereignty and providential working in the Bible, history, and our individual lives is very insightful and exegetically sound.

Some of the helpful statements Petty makes on divine guidance are as follows:

“I believe that guidance comes when you learn to apply the Word of God to your life in the wisdom provided by the Holy Spirit.”

“Knowing God’s will is the fruit of a transformed mind.”

“God, I believe, does far more than reveal his general purposes and then leave us to link ourselves to them or pragmatically calculate the most edifying outcomes”

“Guidance is given by God when he gives us insight into issues and choices so that we make the decisions with divinely inspired wisdom. Guidance comes, in short, by God making us wise.”

“He chooses to guide mediately because of the illuminating power of that Spirit.”

“The Bible, properly understood and applied by the Holy Spirit, is completely sufficient for the guidance of the believer.”

“Guidance is knowledge of the will of God, which comes by wisdom and understanding.”

One of the most helpful sections in the book is in part four where he delineates seven ways to apply biblical wisdom in the process of decision-making. There is a very solid emphasis on obeying the delineated moral will of God, and when you do that – it’s much easier to narrow our choices and decide. He gives some very practical illustrations of how to handle real life decisions that we all have to make. Petty is very pastoral, and comes across as a wise counselor himself in this book. I highly recommend that you make this one of your top reads as you seek to be wiser in the process of seeking God’s guidance and direction in your life – especially in the “hard” decisions you need to make.

Book Review: Why Men Hate Going to Church by David Murrow

Weak Theologically, Decent Practically

From the time I started this book, until the time I finished it – I read and reviewed 25 other books. I just couldn’t get into it at all. I think it’s because though the subject is important – Why do more women than men go and participate in church? I think the theological underpinnings of the book were so weak that the book just couldn’t hold my interest. I think he actually totally missed the point of why men don’t go to church, and it’s the same reason why women, or even teenagers don’t go to church – the Bible calls it “idolatry.”

In this book the author spends most of the time giving statistics, talking about the feminization of the church, and issues related to gender, masculinity, and men’s needs.

The book is one that I think most Christians or marketers could have written, and Murrow has capitalized on it. However, I don’t think that he has really given foundational solutions. The solution isn’t just about growing churches by giving men what they want; it’s focusing on the gospel and loving men by applying the gospel to men’s idolatries – what they really need. It’s offering what Jesus offered men and women in the New Testament – the abundant life in Him that’s better than anything the world has to offer. In other words, what difference does it make if you have a lot of men coming to church, but they aren’t being told to repent and have faith in Christ – change from the inside out. You don’t get men into church by feeding their idolatries, but by giving them the gospel and showing how Jesus is better than their idolatries.

On a positive note I do think Murrow gives some good practical suggestions and statistics to spark discussion among pastors or church staffs that are seeking to be effective in their outreach and discipleship of men. Over this book I would recommend the following books for men and reaching men: “Disciplines of a Godly Man” by R. Kent Hughes, “Tender Warrior” by Stu Weber, “No Man Left Behind” and “The Man in the Mirror” by Patrick Morley (anything by Morley on or for Men), “The Masculine Mandate” by Richard D. Phillips, or “Men of God” edited by Trevor Archer and Tim Thornborough.

I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I am under no compulsion to write a positive or negative review of this book. The opinions expressed are exclusively my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

 

Book Review: The Holy Trinity by Robert Letham

The Complex Made Simpler

One of the long standing “cardinal” doctrines of Orthodox Christianity is the teaching that God is one in essence and three in person, and yet it is one of the most difficult of doctrines to comprehend of the whole lot. Robert Letham writes, “For the vast majority of Christians, including most ministers and theological students, the Trinity is still a mathematical conundrum, full of imposing philosophical jargon, relegated to an obscure alcove, remote from daily life.”

However, due to this lack of understanding and grappling with the ramifications of this doctrine most Christians view God in the abstract and as a result have a detached and almost deistic relationship with the God of the Bible who is actually transcendent and immanent in our world. In this book the author seeks to bring about a new revitalization to the church and its witness to the world by having a deeper understanding of the Triune God as revealed in the Scriptures.

In this very cogent book Dr. Letham seeks to give a broad overview of the Triune doctrine by canvassing the Scriptures, church history, modern discussions with contemporary theologians of the past few centuries (their orthodox and unorthodox views), and Critical Issues – including the incarnation, worship, prayer, missions, and union with Christ.

This book is a challenging read, but I think Dr. Letham maintains a good balance between the scholarly aspects of the discussion and its practical applications – which ultimately lead us to worship. Many of the chapters end in prayer and focus on actually worshipping God, not just discussing Him. Two excellent articles reviewing books by Gilbert Bilezikian and Kevin Giles on the Trinity conclude the work as appendixes. A helpful glossary and bibliography conclude the work.

I am grateful to the Triune God of Scripture for Dr. Letham’s excellent contribution to theological reflection in this book. It is a readable and comprehensive study of the doctrine of the Trinity in the unfolding revelation of the Bible, in its breadth of reflection from church history, amid the loci of influential systematic theologians, and in the life and application of the evangelical community. I think anyone will benefit from reading this book. It will definitely sharpen your understanding of the Triune God we worship and inform and influence the way you relate to Him in your daily life.

Book Review: The Elements of Preaching by Warren W. Wiersbe and David Wiersbe

Very Helpful Primer on the Basics of Preaching

 This helpful handbook by father and son preaching veterans – Warren and David Wiersbe is divided into two sections. There are twenty-six preaching principles and fourteen preaching prohibitions that are developed. Each chapter is only one to two pages in length. They really pack this book in with great quotes, wisdom, and the type of advice that you can only get from preachers that have put a lot of mileage in the pulpit.

In the preaching principles section the Wiersbe’s remind us  “Methods are many, principles are few. Methods always change, Principles never do.” Here are just ten of the twenty-six topics they develop:

Preaching is the communicating of God’s truth by God’s servant to meet the needs of people.

The Preacher is a part of the message.

Preaching is an act of worship.

A sermon must have both intent and content if it is to be effective.

The sermon should be based on the essentials of the text and not the accidentals of the translation you are using.

Build your outline on the unique features of the text.

Keep your preaching within the bounds of what the text says and what the people can receive.

Preach to express, not to impress.

Sermons preached as part of a series must be independent and yet related.

Speak the truth in love.

Never be satisfied with your preaching.

At the end of the book they include a very helpful checklist for “Taking Inventory of the Message:”

  1. Is the message solidly based on Scripture?
  2. Does it exalt the Person and work of Jesus Christ?
  3. Will it meet the needs of the people?
  4. Is the theme a timeless truth worth talking about?
  5. Is the message organized so that I can preach it clearly and the people understand it easily? Is there a concise and clear statement of purpose? Is there a clear plan of development? Is there practical application that makes the message personal?
  6. Are all Scripture references and historical facts accurate?
  7. Is the message real to me personally so that I may make it real to others?
  8. Does the message fit into the total “preaching plan” for this church and into the context of the church’s ministry at this time?
  9. Does the message fit into the ministry of the Church at large and Christ’s concern to save a lost world?
  10. Is the message worth preaching again?

I have used this little book (approximately 100 pages) as a refresher, idea generator, and kick-starter for years. It’s well worth having for beginning, intermediate and experienced preachers of the Word. Perhaps the most important asset of this book is the encouragement it will give you from two men who have been faithfully delivering God-centered sermons in the trenches for years.

*Warren W. Wiersbe is the Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary, Warren Wiersbe is the author of more than 100 books. Billy Graham calls him “one of the greatest Bible expositors of our generation.” Interestingly, Warren’s earliest works had nothing to do with scriptural interpretation. His interest was in magic, and his first published title was Action with Cards (1944).

“It was sort of imbecilic for a fifteen-year-old amateur magician to have the audacity to write a book and send it to one of the nation’s leading magic houses,” Warren says. But having a total of three books published by the L.L. Ireland Magic Company—before the age of 20—gave him a surge of confidence. In later years, he applied his confidence and writing talent to the Youth for Christ (YFC) ministry.

Warren wrote many articles and guidebooks for YFC over a three-year period, but not all his manuscripts were seen by the public eye. One effort in particular, The Life I Now Live, based on Galations 2:20, was never published. The reason, Warren explains with his characteristic humor, is simple: it was “a terrible book…Whenever I want to aggravate my wife, all I have to say is, ‘I think I’ll get out that Galations 2:20 manuscript and work on it.’” Fortunately, Warren’s good manuscripts far outnumbered the “terrible” ones, and he was eventually hired by Moody Press to write three books.

The much-sought-after author then moved on to writing books for Calvary Baptist Church. It was during his ten years at Calvary that Expository Outlines on the New Testament and Expository Outlines on the Old Testament took shape. These two works later became the foundation of Warren’s widely popular Bible studies known as the Be series, featuring such titles as Be Loyal (a study on Matthew) and Be Delivered (a study on Exodus). Several of these books have been translated into Spanish.

His next avenue of ministry was Chicago’s Moody Memorial Church, where he served for seven years. He wrote nearly 20 books at Moody before moving to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he and his wife, Betty, now live. Prior to relocating, he had been the senior pastor of Moody Church, a teacher at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a producer of the Back to the Bible radio program.

During all these years of ministry, Warren held many more posts and took part in other projects too numerous to mention. His accomplishments are extensive, and his catalog of biblical works is indeed impressive and far-reaching (many of his books have been translated into other languages). But Warren has no intention of slowing down any time soon, as he readily explains: “I don’t like it when people ask me how I’m enjoying my ‘retirement,’ because I’m still a very busy person who is not yet living on Social Security or a pension. Since my leaving Back to the Bible, at least a dozen books have been published, and the Lord willing, more are on the way.”

Wiersbe’s recent books include Your Next MiracleThe 20 Essential Qualities of a Child of GodThe Bumps are What You Climb OnClassic Sermons on the Fruit of the SpiritClassic Sermons on Jesus the ShepherdKey Words of the Christian LifeLonely PeopleA Gallery of GraceReal Peace: Freedom and Conscience in the Christian Life, and On Being a Leader for God.

Book Review: Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons by Thabiti M. Anyabwile

A Useful Primer For Biblical Leadership in the Church

 In this book experienced pastor Thabiti Anyabwile writes three sections on how to find deacons, elders, and specify what their roles are in the church. Pastor Anyabwile gives the pertinent biblical requirements for deacons and elders, and gives numerous helps on biblical qualifications, traits to watch for, and questions and observations for examining whether or not those under consideration are wise choices for the respective offices of elder and deacon.

I think the best way to use this book is to use it as Thabiti Anyabwile intended it to be used:

 “First, use it prayerfully. Pray for pastors and elders as they shepherd and serve the sheep. Pray for more men to be raised up in the congregation for this important work. Pray that the Lord would pour out his grace on those serving these tasks. Pray that the members of the church would show genuine appreciation, love, and care for their shepherds. Pray that all the men in the church would grow in the qualities that elders should possess. Pray that men would have a godly desire to give their lives in serving the body of Christ as servant-leaders.

Second, use this book practically. The book does not delve into a lot of detailed argumentation, hoping instead to make application easily and quickly. I want the book to help in actually doing something—identifying and training elders—not just considering something. Put the suggestions into practice, and improve them with the experience and wisdom that come from your particular church setting and other faithful leaders.

Finally, use the book pedagogically. That is, use it to teach and instruct. Perhaps a church needs to select its first elders after a period of planning and study. Pastors may wish to use these brief chapters to ‘flesh out’ for the average church member which qualities the congregation as a whole needs to be looking and praying for in their prospective elders. Examination and pastoral search committees may find similar help.”

Take it from my own experience in over twenty years of pastoring – you want to get all the help you can in the wise selection of, praying for, training of, and role implementation of your elders and deacons – because the church will ultimately rise to great heights or fall to low depths based on the quality, character, and biblical execution of it’s leaders.

I highly recommend this book for church planters, existing leadership teams, solo pastors, deacons, and elders. It serves as a concise handbook that you can use to strengthen your existing leadership, develop future leaders, and most certainly add health and value to Christ’s church as you seek to be a good steward of its most valuable resources.

Book Review: Four Views On The Spectrum of Evangelicalism – Edited by David Naselli and Collin Hansen

A Scintillating Dialogue on Evangelicalism Historically and in the Present

I love the format of the “Views” books in that they allow the reader to wrestle with and think about crucial issues that oftentimes divide Christians. Instead of having the bias of one author – you get to see an offensive and defensive articulation of each view and weigh the evidence based on the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence given by each author. This new offering in the “Views” series particularly addresses important aspects that unite and divide “evangelicals.” An evangelical is someone who holds to the “good news” as declared from the Scriptures. However, what is the good news? What are the uniting factors of the good news? And what are the boundaries required in disseminating the message, and uniting around the good news in order to penetrate society with the gospel?

The reason this book and the issues are so important is that what is at stake in all of this discussion is the heart of the gospel, and if there is no agreement on the gospel than unity is ultimately a vain pursuit, and the power of the gospel is squelched in isolated enclaves, rather than in a unified front.

In this book the panel of experts specifically focus on three areas in evaluating the spectrum of evangelicalism:

1) They evaluate their views on Christian cooperation with respect to Evangelicals and Catholics in evaluating the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement led by Charles Colson and the late John Neuhaus, which began in the 1990’s. Also, they address the more recent Manhattan Declaration in order to bring more clarity to cooperation among social and theological concerns.

2) They evaluate doctrinal boundaries – what are the “essentials” that make one a doctrinally sound evangelical – specifically with reference to the recent debates over “open” theism (does God know the future).

3) They explain their specific views on key issues related to the atonement with specific reference what it means that Christ took on God’s wrath meant for sinners.

The Four Distinct Views Presented Are:

View #1: Fundamentalism – Kevin T. Bauder (Research Professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minneapolis)

View #2: Confessional Evangelicalism – R. Albert Mohler Jr. (President and Joseph Emerson Brown Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville)

View #3: Generic Evangelicalism – John G. Stackhouse Jr. (Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada)

View #4: Postconservative Evangelicalism – Roger E. Olson (Professor of Theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University)

After each writer presents his view there is a response from each of the others with insightful commentary on the others’ views. I found this book to be historically enriching, doctrinally thought provoking, and challenging in its ecclesiological and sociological implications. I hope this book will summon a wide reading and will help balance the thinking, behavior, and unity of all who care about being an evangelical – and more importantly getting the gospel right so that we may speak it and live it boldly in a world that desperately needs to know Jesus and what it means to be a part of His body on earth.

Booklet Review: “Hope…The Best of Things” by Joni Eareckson Tada

Nobody earns the right to be heard more than those Christian saints who have been “refined in the fire.” In this little booklet Tada (a quadriplegic for the past four decades – who speaks, writes, and paints with a brush in her mouth) shares some encouraging words for those who are “in the fire” of suffering. I think that this little booklet is useful to read before, during, or after suffering as the thesis of Tada is centralized on the eventual glory we will experience because of the promises of Christ in the Scriptures.

The Four Chapters Are:

1)    Hope is Hard to Come By – Tada discusses her and our battle with suffering and our selfish nature that only God can deliver us from – “He [God] wanted me to reckon myself dead—dead to sin—because if God can raise the dead, you’d better believe he could raise me out of my hopelessness.”

2)    Meeting Suffering and Joy on God’s Terms – She writes, “To this you were called because Christ suffered for you, leaving you this kind of example that you should follow. He endured the cross for the joy that was set before him (Heb. 12:2). Should we expect to do less? So then, join me; boast in your afflictions. Delight in your infirmities. Glory in your weaknesses, for then you know that Christ’s power rests in you (2 Cor. 12:9).”

3)    Hope is Contagious – “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies. But we live in a dark, diseased world under the curse of sin. Hell is real. And God owes this utterly rebellious planet absolutely nothing. But aren’t you glad that he is a God of love, not wanting anyone to perish? And he is out to convince this unbelieving, sarcastic, skeptical world of his power to save, his abilities to sustain, and his desire to share his hope.”

4)    Misery May Love Company but Joy Craves a Crowd – “And one day I’m going to leave this wheelchair behind. I cannot wait. I may have suffered with Christ on earth, but one day in heaven I’m going to reign with him.”

In this little booklet Tada is honest about her struggles, encouraging in her attitude, and inspiring in her commitment for the cause of Christ in this world. Any Christian who reads this will be inspired –and any non-believer should want what Joni has – the hope of glory in Christ. Everyone has to learn how to suffer, but the Christian does not suffer as one who has no hope – and Joni is a great example of how to live in the midst of suffering for the glory of God in magnifying Christ.

Ten Books I Would Want Every Christian to Read – by Dr. David P. Craig

1)    The Holiness of God by R. C. Sproul – Why? Because we need to be exposed to the Majesty of God in a culture that deifies mankind and the creation above the Creator. Next to the Bible – no other book has influenced me more than this one. I could easily include several other works by Sproul in my top 10 – but I believe that if you start with this book – you will be hooked and read many of the other 50 plus books he’s written.

2)    Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Pete Scazzero – Why? Because this book goes to the depths of the soul to reveal how original and generational sin has impacted our natures to show us the depths of our sin, and our need of Christ to make us whole again.

3)    Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing by Peter Kreeft – Why? This is the most difficult read (for me, anyway) on the list, but well worth the effort. I think Kreeft does a masterful job of giving a fantastic apologetic for the afterlife, and in particular demonstrating that all that we long for in this life will be fulfilled in Christ for the rest of eternity.

4)    The Prodigal God by Tim Keller – Why? Tim Keller distills the gospel in a most eloquent manner by giving a masterful exposition of Luke 15:11-32. He shows how we have a tendency to err on the side of legalism and how to correct this by coming to a deeper understanding of the grace of God as revealed by Jesus – the Master story teller.

5)    The Reason For God by Tim Keller – Why? I debated on whether to have “Reason to Believe” by R.C. Sproul, or this book by Keller on my list. I chose this one, because it is better at tackling the post-modern objections that people have to believing in God, and more specifically – Christianity. Keller does a masterful job of making a compelling argument for the logic and cogency of believing in the God of the Bible.

6)    Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem – Why? Dr. Grudem is a humble and scholarly theologian who has given us his Magnum Opus in a readable, clear, an articulate fashion. He covers all the major doctrines of the Bible with thoroughness, balance, and grace. I would love for Christians to read more theology than they do, but if they only read one book of theology in their life time – I would want this to be it! God-centered, Christ-centered, and very relevant and practical with application questions for each chapter.

7)    Desiring God by John Piper – Why? I had to have something by Piper in here! I have to admit, that Piper is difficult for me to read. However, the thesis he develops in this book “God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in Him” is strongly and powerfully developed in this book. You can’t read this book without being more powerfully drawn into the glorious presence of our wonderful Maker and Sustainer of all the desires of our heart.

8)    Humility by C.J. Mahaney – Why? Because God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble! This is the shortest and easiest read on my list. However, that doesn’t minimize how important an understanding of Christ’s humility can radically change our lives for the greater good of the Kingdom. Too many Christians are prideful, fleshly, and live in a status quo state. Mahaney’s book is extremely enjoyable and Christ-centered.

9)    Spiritual Depression by David Martyn-Lloyd-Jones – Why? This book is one of many that I could have selected by the Welsh Medical Doctor turned Preacher. It consists of various sermons he preached and distills his mastery of Biblical exposition and combining that with his understanding of the human soul. It covers various topics (more than depression) and really the focus of the book is on how to have more joy because of the person and work of Jesus Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit in our soul.

10) Trusting God – by Jerry Bridges – Why? Because as a pastor – the issue I deal with more than any other is people dealing with worry, anxiety, fear (whatever you want to call it). Bottom-line many Christians live like atheists. They live as if God is NOT sovereign or good. Yet the Bible, and reality teach otherwise – if we view things from His perspective. This book is an excellent practical read that combines good theology with practical encouragement for those who struggle with doubting God’s goodness in their lives.

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