Books I read in 2018, part 1.
As I did a couple of years ago, I thought I’d collect the books I read this past year and provide a brief comment or two on each one. The list is maintained alphabetically (according to the author’s last name), as I am trying to refrain from “ranking” them as opposed to recommending them in general. Each of these volumes were practical and beneficial in their own way and I’d advocate for their careful meditation as you have the opportunity.
The Sinner’s Justifying Righteousness by John Beart.
It isn’t all that groundbreaking to say that to understand the doctrine of justification is to understand the life of a Christian. Indeed, we might uphold the truth that a Christian’s life is best summed up in a divine sense of losing oneself in his justification. The fruits of sanctification are borne out of the deep roots of justification. To mistake this is to mistake the essence of the gospel. Such is why volumes like John Beart’s The Sinner’s Justifying Righteousness are so essential. In this little work, Beart takes you through the doctrines of both God’s eternal law and God’s eternal gospel, delineating how they work in harmony to bring about God’s purposes in redemption. “The gospel,” Beart writes, “[does not] come commanding and calling for a righteousness for justification, but revealing a righteousness already wrought out . . . it is not by ascending or descending, by fulfilling the law, and satisfying justice ourselves, but by believing in what another has done.”1 This work, though not widely read or regarded, is splendid and would be well worth your careful perusal.
Your God Is Too Glorious by Chad Bird.
We all have expectations for God. Even if we don’t admit them verbally, each of us operations with specific standards we expect God to meet, ways we determine he will or should work. But, as is always the case, those expectations are dashed when the truth of the gospel is read and studied. The God of the gospel is a God who constantly works and wills in ways we’d never predict, with people we’d never presume he’d spend time with, in places we’d never hope to fine him. “He is a God who turns our every expectation insight out,” writes Chad Bird in his marvelous Your God Is Too Glorious.2 I’ve become infatuated with Chad’s writing. The honest, sincere perspective on grace and forgiveness from which he writes is a constant refreshment to my soul. In Your God Is Too Glorious, Chad endeavors to explore the mysterious ways and places which are touched by the glorious Creator himself — ways and places which always surprise us. “The mystery of where God is found in our world,” Chad writes, “is that he’s not where he’s supposed to be.”3 You would be incredibly uplifted if you made this book part of your library — part of your life.
Man: His Religion and His World by Horatius Bonar.
I am extraordinarily grateful to be able to read the works of Horatius Bonar. He is the most-beloved theological writer I’ve studied, one whose pages I constantly frequent. I return to Bonar’s The Story of Grace quite often, and I imagine I will do the same with Man: His Religion and His World as well, the latter of which is a rather unconventional treatise in its presentation. It doesn’t contain a large, sweeping biblical narrative, but is actually an investigation into the contrasting and counterfeit truths that mankind purports as authentic and self-evident. Man operates on an unsustainable system of tit-for-tat, in which attempts to pay off God through his perceived goodness. “Man tries, by endless instalments,” writes Bonar, “to pay the eternal debt which has cast him into prison, and made him an alien from his Creator.” But, in contrast to that failing system, “God comes forth, and in one sum pays the infinite debt, and the prisoner goes free.”4 Man, in trying to pay back God for the debt of sin he owes, actually robs God of the glory of his grace. And yet, despite this act of cosmic thievery and heavenly treason, “there is no case,” continues Bonar, “of any one on this side of hell too bad for cure, or too vile for pardon.”5 This is the truth of the gospel — a truth which blasts all the counterfeits options of manmade conjuring into oblivion. Because Man: His Religion and His World deals with the heart of man, it remains a surprisingly relevant volume worthy of more present attention.
The Rent Veil by Horatius Bonar.
There are many reasons I adore the writings of Horatius Bonar, but chief among them the astute manner in which he expounds and explains the good news of Jesus Christ living, dying, and rising again for sinners. Such is what you’ll find in The Rent Veil, which is a masterful inquiry into the glories of the gospel as found in the epistle to the Hebrews. As the title suggests, Dr. Bonar is particularly intrigued with reflecting on the wonder of access to the Father as is made possible by the blood of the Son. This access is nothing but a miracle of grace. “We are saved by a dying Christ,” Bonar writes. By dying, he dooms death to death. “He conquers it by being conquered by it; he slays it by allowing himself to be slain by it. He crucifies it, kills it, buries it forever.”6 What a thought that the Son of God crucifies sin by being crucified himself! That he buries the curse by becoming a curse on behalf of those who are cursed! This, indeed, is the paradoxical glory of the gospel of the cross — a gospel that declares everything finished. “That which saves the sinner is done,” Bonar writes. “Another has done it all. Messiah has done it all; and our gospel is not a command to do, but simply to take what another has done.”7 Despite being a shorter work, The Rent Veil is nonetheless permeating with breathtaking views of Jesus’s gracious work on the cross.
It was from the cross of Golgotha that the cradle of Bethlehem derived all its value and its virtue . . . It was the cross of Christ that rent the veil; overthrew the cold statutes of symbolic service; consecrated the new and living way into the holiest; supplanted the ritualistic with the real and the true; and substituted for lifeless performances the living worship of the living God.8
A Commentary on Ecclesiastes by Charles Bridges.
Last summer, I tasked myself with navigating the uneasy theological waters of the book of Ecclesiastes with a company of teenagers in tow. At the outset, I honestly didn’t know what to expect by engaging a deep study of the book, but by the end of the series, I became adamant that Ecclesiastes is, perhaps, the most relevant biblical treatise in the canon. In it, we learn the categorical vanity of all things but the truth of God. Throughout all of the Preacher’s experiences and examinations of the wisdom “under the sun,” he can’t help but come to the conclusion that wasting one’s existence on earthly vices admits the beggarly nature of the soul without God. “Beggars we are,” writes Bridges, “with all the riches of the Indies, without him. He is the substitute for everything. Nothing can be a substitute for him.”9 This commentary by Bridges proved to be an invaluable resource in my study, directing and absorbing my thoughts in the gospel context of a book that has zero mention of the redemption. Yet, underneath all of the Preacher’s sentiments is a burgeoning tension between that which is and that which is to come. Bridges’ remarks serve to induce the reader into loosing his grip on the “dainties of the world.” “Whatever, therefore, else we may lose,” he writes, “let Christ be our heart’s treasure, and we are safe for eternity.”10 This was an outstanding encounter with Ecclesiastes and aided my study in more ways than I can relay.
When Mockingbird Ministries announced the printing of before-then “lost” manuscripts of their patron saint, Robert Capon, I, for one, was ecstatic. Capon possesses a dexterity with the written word that few contemporaries can even approach. He was resolute in his elucidation of grace in the biblical narrative, and for that, I am grateful. In More Theology & Less Heavy Cream, you’ll find a very different side of Capon’s writing, one that’s full of more whimsy, satire, and recipes than, perhaps, you’re used to. This little work is a collection of essays from the mind of Capon as he writes from the perspective of he and his wife’s alter-egos, Pietro and Madeleine, throughout which they debate the merits of dinner party menus and, occasionally, the meaning of grace. The “dash of theology” that’s thrown into this volume makes it worth the read. For instance, this passage near the end of the work, in which he expounds on the vast differences between religion and the gospel, is one of the finest you’ll ever encounter.
The Gospel is vastly, alarmingly, mind-numbingly simpler than the moralistic, judgment-loaded religion they’re selling . . . Religion always sells. You can get people to buy almost any version of salvation-by-toeing-the-line you want to dream up . . . The one thing you can never sell is grace. The human race would rather die than give houseroom to the outrage of free acceptance, while we are yet sinners. You can get people to buy acceptance after their sins are under control, or only when their disasters have been forestalled by proper behavior. But all the Gospel has to offer is acceptance now: in our sins and in our shipwrecks. And without condition. With no guilt left to be expiated and no good-deed lists asked for. You can always sell religion. But the Gospel of grace isn’t religion and therefore you can’t sell it for beans. Any gospel that sells is, by definition, not the Gospel.11
With More Theology & Less Heavy Cream, you’ll find playful insights into Capon’s kitchen balanced with just enough pops of theological banter to make for an intriguing and insightful read.
The Parables of Judgment by Robert Capon.
Of all Robert Capon’s writings, his treatment of the parables is undoubtedly his most popular. I am working my way through his comments on each of Jesus’s parables, having previously finished his Parables of Grace and now Parables of Judgment. (Next, Parables of the Kingdom.) In working his way through Christ’s parables of judgment, Capon treats each passage in a way you might not expect at first. And it’s precisely the unexpected manner in which grace is seen and found throughout the parables that make them so timelessly profitable for the Christian reader. As is the case in many of Capon’s writings, his insistence on free grace doesn’t give way. In fact, he doubles down on that exegesis with the following passage:
>Grace doesn’t sell; you can hardly even give it away, because it works only for losers and no one wants to stand in their line. The world of winners will buy case lots of moral advice, grosses of guilt-edge prohibitions, skids of self-improvement techniques, and whole truckloads of transcendental hot air. But it will not buy free forgiveness because that threatens to let the riffraff into the Supper of the Lamb.12
I have been profoundly enriched by reading Capon’s handling of the Gospels, and by being constantly reminded that “it’s the dead who are Jesus’ dish, not the living; nothing is all he needs—and all he will accept—for the making of anything, old creation or new.”13 This will be a work I return to often.
John Beart, The Sinner’s Justifying Righteousness: A Vindication of the Eternal Law and Everlasting Gospel (London: Seeley & Burnside, 1829), 122–23.
Chad Bird, Your God Is Too Glorious: Finding God in the Most Unexpected Places (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018), 18.
Horatius Bonar, Man: His Religion and His World (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1851), 50–51.
Horatius Bonar, The Rent Veil (Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 1999), 10, 22.
Charles Bridges, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009), xii.
Robert Capon, More Theology & Less Heavy Cream: The Domestic Life of Pietro and Madeleine (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2016), 123, 126.
Robert Capon, The Parables of Judgment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 41.