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Best Books of 2019

It’s time once again for my selection of the best books released in 2019. I’ll list them from 10 to 1. By the way, there were a couple of ties along the way.

(10) Matthew Barrett, editor, The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton: Crossway), 912 pages.

With the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017 there were numerous books devoted to related themes. This massive volume was originally intended to be released in 2017 but didn’t see the light of day until early 2019. When I say massive, I mean it. It is 912 pages long, with 26 chapters devoted entirely to the subject of justification by faith. I had the privilege of writing the final chapter, entitled, “The Ground on Which We Stand: The Necessity of Justification for Pastoral Ministry.” There is hardly a question about justification that this volume doesn’t answer. It will undoubtedly be the standard treatment for generations to come.

(9) David A. Croteau and Gary E. Yates, Urban Legends of the Old Testament: 40 Common Misconceptions (Nashville: B&H Academic), 272 pages.

This is the sequel to an earlier volume devoted to describing urban legends of the New Testament. Among the many misunderstood topics addressed include: the “gap theory” of Genesis 1:1-2, homosexuality in the OT, tithing, putting out a fleece to determine God’s will (Judges 6), appealing to 2 Chronicles 7:14 for the idea that God will bless America if we repent, dinosaurs (Job 40-41), and whether or not Isaiah 9 contains a prophecy against post 9/11 America. There are 40 of these “urban legends” and each one is fascinating and instructive. You will truly enjoy this book, as well as the one on the NT.

(8) Chris Bruno, Paul vs. James: What we’ve been missing in the Faith and Works Debate (Chicago: Moody Publishers), 156 pages.

Bruno, who teaches at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has done an excellent job in demonstrating that Paul and James are not in conflict when it comes to justification by faith and the role of works in the Christian life. He writes:

“James and Paul were dealing with different challenges to faith, works, and justification. James was explaining the difference between phony faith – faith that only gives lip service – and real, saving faith. When Paul talks about faith, he always refers to true saving faith. While James contrasts genuine faith and fake faith, Paul does the same with works. What he calls ‘works of the law’ are what we can call phony works. They are works that try to win favor with God and gain us a place in His covenant people. The problem is these don’t actually do us any good. When James talks about works, he always refers to works that flow from faith and fulfill our righteous status.

So then, when James and Paul talk about justification, they are looking at different points in a believer’s life, using Abraham as the model. For James, justification is God’s declaration that we are declared righteous. Our righteous status is given through faith (Gen. 15:6). However, James also insists that if this status is authentic, it will be ‘fulfilled’ by our works. He emphasizes our good works that flow from true saving faith.

Paul agrees, but he tends to emphasize God’s initial declaration when we first believe. However, he does not hesitate to teach that our righteous status will be demonstrated or proved through our faithful good works, which then declare our status on the day of judgment” (108-09).

(7) Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Wheaton: Crossway), 238 pages.

I’ve seen numerous best book lists that have this as their number one choice. McLaughlin addresses such issues as whether Christianity destroys diversity, hinders morality, causes violence, denigrates women, and is homophobic. She also asks and answers such questions as, “How Can You Take the Bible Literally?”, “Hasn’t Science Disproved Christianity?”, “Doesn’t the Bible Condone Slavery?”, “How Could a Loving God Allow So Much Suffering?”, and “How Could a Loving God Send People to Hell?”

(6) D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books), 295 pages (1987).

You may wonder why I’ve included a book that was first published in 1987. The reason is that it has been released in a new edition in 2019. I can’t begin to describe how helpful Carson’s book was back in 1987 when I first read it. He brought clarity and insight to Paul’s treatment of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14, and greatly helped me when I first began to explore this controversial topic. Every Christian should read it.

(5) Craig S. Keener, Galatians: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 848 pages; and G. K. Beale, Colossians and Philemon: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 514 pages.

My good friend Craig Keener continues to produce massive commentaries on the NT. In the wake of his two-volume commentary on John and his four-volume commentary on Acts, Craig has now given us a wonderful treatment of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This isn’t for bedtime reading. It is detailed and scholarly, but well worth the effort if you want to discern Paul’s teaching in this critically important NT epistle.

Yet another close friend, Greg Beale, released his new commentary on Colossians and Philemon. Greg’s commentary on Revelation, the best ever, in my opinion, is now followed by this superb treatment of Paul’s letter to the Colossians and his personal treatise to Philemon. I only wish I had this in hand when I preached through Colossians last year!

(4) Lee Strobel, The Case for Miracles: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for the Supernatural (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 391 pages (2018).

Yes, I know this book was released in 2018, but I didn’t get around to reading it until 2019. Strobel, known for this “The Case For . . .” series of books, has done a wonderful job of addressing the issue of miracles. Craig Keener’s two-volume work, Miracles (Baker), is substantially larger and more detailed, but Strobel’s treatment is an excellent place for the uninitiated to start. He interviews scientists, theologians, average lay folk, pastors, and a variety of others who describe their experience of the supernatural. You will love this book and you will be greatly encouraged and built up in your faith by reading it. I was.

(3) Andrew K. Gabriel, Simply Spirit-Filled: Experiencing God in the Presence and Power of the Holy Spirit (Nashville: Emanate Books), 186 pages.

I thought seriously of making this number one. Andrew Gabriel has done the church a tremendous service by writing an easy-to-read and broadly accessible treatment of the more controversial issues related to our experience of the Holy Spirit. If you have questions about the legitimacy of people falling down “under the power,” or wonder about the meaning and role of tongues in the church, or any other question about spiritual gifts and the work of the third person of the Trinity, get this book. Andrew provides excellent and, in my opinion, persuasive answers to your most probing and perplexing questions. This isn’t intended for scholars but for the average Christian who has concerns with charismatic experience.

(2) As I said at the beginning, I had a couple of ties in this year’s list. I simply couldn’t choose between these two remarkable biographical studies. The two figures addressed in these books couldn’t be more different.

Grant Wacker has written an excellent biography of Billy Graham, One Soul at a Time: The Story of Billy Graham (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 322 pages. This isn’t Wacker’s first study of Graham, but he reminds us at the outset that “One Soul at a Time is not an abbreviated version of [his earlier book] America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation [2014]” (xiii). In this latter volume Wacker “focused on Graham’s relation to American culture” (xiii). In this more recent volume, his focus is “the man himself” (xiii). Wacker’s insights are captivating, although at times I wish he had focused less on Graham’s relationship to the many U.S. Presidents he knew (Wacker says Lyndon B. Johnson was one of Graham’s closest friends!) and more on this theology of evangelism. But this is a great read.

The other book that ties for number one on my list is Amy Collier Artman, The Miracle Lady: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Transformation of Charismatic Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 242 pages. Few today will remember Kuhlman (she died in 1976). Those who do will recall her as a flamboyant faith-healer (a label, by the way, that she rigorously rejected; God alone heals, she would often remind her followers). Whatever else you may think of healing today, I applaud Kuhlman for her courage and perseverance in praying for the sick.

I grew up in the days when Kuhlman was often seen on TV. She was not manipulative or given to hype, as is sadly the case with many today, but neither was her style the most appealing. But there can be no escaping the fact she had a major impact on the nature of charismatic Christianity in the 20th century. Artman explains:

“Kuhlman was a leader in the transformation of charismatic Christianity from a suspect form of religion to a respectable form of religiosity that was accepted and even celebrated by mainstream Christianity and culture by the end of the twentieth century. During the course of her life, 1907-1976, charismatic Christianity began to move from fringe to center, from questionable to respectable, even desirable, for a growing number of American Christians. I call this transformation gentrification” (5).

The research that Artman has done in producing this book is itself worthy of note. There are earlier and less accurate portrayals of Kuhlman’s life and ministry. I don’t recommend them. But Artman has done us all a service in bringing the truth of Kuhlman and her influence to light for the twenty-first century. This is biography at its best.

Read both Wacker and Artman and you will see what Christian biography is meant to be: honest, accurate, insightful, and unflinching in describing both the flaws and accomplishments of its focus.

(1) My choice for the best book of 2019 is quite unusual. I almost always select a book of theology or in some area of biblical studies. But this year I’m citing a remarkable book that I couldn’t put down. The best book of 2019 is Edward Snowden’s, Permanent Record (New York: Metropolitan Books), 339 pages.

What makes my choice somewhat controversial is that the U.S. government has charged Edward Snowden with violating the Espionage Act for providing journalists with details of the NSA's top- secret surveillance programs. He is widely regarded by most in the government and in the national security community as a traitor. He currently lives in exile in Moscow.

Please understand that I do not condone what Snowden did. If you aren’t familiar with his name, you should be. With only a GED to his credit, at the age of 29 he had worked for both the CIA and the NSA and had shown himself to be one of the more brilliant intelligence analysts on the scene. His expertise in the inner operations of the internet is simply remarkable. I’m not technologically educated, but his explanation of how the internet works and the threat it poses to the privacy and security of American citizens is breathtaking.

Why did Snowden choose to go public with information about the widespread surveillance of the American populace (indeed, the world populace)? He describes the challenge he faced:

“How was I to balance my contract of secrecy with the agencies that employed me [i.e., primarily the CIA and NSA] and the oath I’d sworn to my country’s founding principles? To whom, or what, did I owe the greater allegiance? At what point was I morally obliged to break the law?” (6).

This book is Snowden’s first attempt to explain how and why he arrived at an answer to that question. I’ve rarely read a non-Christian book that captivated my attention, page after page, as this one did. Put aside whatever you may think you know about how computers function and what the power of the internet might accomplish. This book will set you straight. And I must confess, it's not an encouraging, reassuring, or pretty picture.

The final seven chapters that describe how Snowden was able to sneak out the data that was eventually made public, together with his meticulous plans on how to escape arrest and imprisonment, are stunning, to say the least. This is espionage at its best, or worst, depending on your opinion of the moral and legal status of what Snowden chose to do.

The book is at times a bit too technical for someone like me who knows so little of the internal dynamics of computer technology, but that should not deter you from diving into this truly stunning portrayal of life in the modern digital age.

I can’t bring myself to endorse Snowden’s actions. But neither could I refrain from reading with rapt attention his description of his life and ultimately life-changing choices.

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