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In the interest of “something is better than nothing,” here are a few blurbs and comments on some books I’ve recently completed reading:

Title: Bringing the Gospel Home:  Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well

Author: Randy Newman

Publisher:  Crossway, 2011, 216 pp., $14.99

Recommendation (4-star scale):  4-stars

Summary: Newman not only tackles the difficult and guilt-producing topic of evangelism, but he specifically addresses the topic of how to evangelize those to whom you are closest — family members.

Rather than addressing how to approach the kinds of potential unbelievers in our lives (e.g., parents, children, extended family, spouses, etc…), Newman instead addresses character and spiritual attributes that will help every kind of witnessing scenario.  So he has chapters on grace, truth, love, humility, time, and eternity.

He is honest in his own difficulties and failures in evangelizing, and hopeful with the suggestions he makes about becoming better evangelists.  As he notes, the quest to be a better evangelist is not about finding a better “tool,” but in becoming transformed and changed spiritually so that evangelism more naturally flows out from our hearts.

It’s only January, but this may be the best book I read this year.  For a topic that produces guilt in most Christians, I found this book to be refreshing and helpful.

Representative quotes:

“I do believe that life is difficult, and I also believe that evangelism is difficult, and I especially believe that evangelizing family members is very difficult. But just realizing that does not reduce the difficulty. It only helps us tackle a problem with the depth of effort it needs. When you know the difficulty of running a marathon, you train for it, eat the right foods, get proper rest, etc. If you think it’s going to be easy, you’ll probably drop out of the race early on. And indeed many Christians do drop out of the race of witnessing (to family or anyone else) because they thought it was going to be easy.” [pp. 43-44]

“We need to love people simply because they are people, fashioned by God in his image; we should not show them love just as a way to evangelize them. Surely, we can find traits, common ground, unique gifts, personality nuances, and experiences we can affirm and, better still, enjoy. But we must not love them merely as a manipulative prelude to preach at them. They’ll smell such nonlove miles away. Instead, we must ask God to enable us to love them. Period. No strings attached. If they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop—a shoe in the form of a gospel presentation—they won’t feel loved by us because, in fact, they’re not.” [p. 119]

Read this book if you want to be encouraged and helped in your attempts to be more effective in evangelism.

Title:  John MacArthur:  Servant of the Word and Flock

Author:  Iain Murray

Publisher:  Banner of Truth Trust, 2011; 264 pp., $26.00

Recommendation (4-star scale):  4-stars

Summary:  This biography is somewhat unusual in that it is written prior to the subject’s death.  In fact, Murray has admitted that this biography was somewhat different and difficult for him to write because it was the first time his subject was still alive.

The value of this biography is that it provides a glimpse into one of America’s most well-known and influential pastors. Yet the book is not just a story of a man, but the story of a church that grew and developed in a remarkable way.  To understand John MacArthur’s story is to also understand how Grace Community Church was able to grow in the way it did.

The book also deals with the controversies that have surrounded MacArthur and his ministry.  The background to a pair of the larger of those controversies — the Lordship Salvation question and his book, The Charismatics — provide insight to MacArthur’s thinking in entering into those battles and encourage a deeper appreciation for his involvement in those issues.

However, this volume is not and will not be the definitive biography of MacArthur.  While Murray is a very good researcher, he refused to interview his subject directly, not wanting to have his perspective from his research inordinately influenced.  In fact, he not only did not interview MacArthur, he did not interview several other key men who spent years in close relationship with MacArthur.  The book suffers from the lack of those perspectives.

And the book also could have been helped if Murray had not injected his personal opinions (theological disagreements) into the narrative.  It is understood that he disagrees with dispensationalism, but this wasn’t the forum to voice those thoughts.

Overall, however, the book is interesting and provides insight into the man, John MacArthur, and the motives and influences that continue to compel him in life and ministry.  Even with my reservations about Murray’s research and his writing style, the book is well worth the investment of hours it will take to read this book.

Representative quotes:

“I use a system I call ‘planned neglect’:  I plan to neglect everything until my [sermon] study is done.” [MacArthur, p. 61]

“I have learned to embrace failure and criticism as probably the most productive work of God in my life.  I can exegete a passage, but what I cannot do is to refine myself.  I cannot crush my own pride.  So there is a sense in which the best things that have happened to me have been the disappointments and the misrepresentations.” [MacArthur, p. 61]

“My prayer is not unrealistic — not to reach large numbers, rather to have the teaching available for those who hunger and desire solid meat, and will be used to start a new movement of spiritual depth, strong commitment and doctrinal distinctness.” [MacArthur, p. 96]

Read this book if you want more insight into one of the most influential and godly pastors of the past century.

Title:  The Lord’s Supper

Author: Thomas Watson

Publisher:  Banner of Truth Trust (reprint), 2004, 86 pp., $7.00

Recommendation (4-star scale): 

Summary:  Puritan Thomas Watson offers a series of 11 brief meditations on the ordinance of communion.  Like many pastors and theologians of his day, Watson probably leans a little more towards mysticism in communion than most of us would embrace or affirm (though he does clearly reject trans-substantiation).

However, the sections where he is good, he is really good.  So this is a volume that will help one prepare his heart for partaking of communion.

I was nearing the end of the book and came upon one section that I particularly appreciated when someone came into my office.  And I joyously asserted to him that everyone should read at least one good Puritan paragraph each day.  This book will help you do that!

Representative quote:

“[Christ’s sacrifice] was a sacrifice of infinite merit.…It is man that sins; it is God that dies.  This is a sovereign cordial to believers.  Christ having poured out his blood, now God’s justice is completely satisfied.  God was infinitely more contented with Christ’s sufferings at mount Calvary than if we had lain in hell, and undergone his wrath for ever. The blood of Christ has quenched the flame of divine fury.  And now what should we fear?  All our enemies are either reconciled, or subdued; God is a reconciled enemy, and sin is a subdued enemy.

Read this book if you want some help preparing for communion worship.

Title:  The Bookends of the Christian Life

Author: Jerry Bridges and Bob Bevington

Publisher:  Crossway, 2009, 160 pp., $14.99

Recommendation (4-star scale):  4-stars

Summary: There are two great spiritual principles that provide “bookends” to the way Christians live; all the “books” (events and circumstances) of life lean against these principles, or the spiritual life will succumb to being lived out by the enemies of the gospel:  self-righteousness, persistent guilt, and self-reliance.

These two bookends are the righteousness of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.  For the believer to live free and liberated from guilt and self, he must live daily in recognition of the greatness of his sin, the wonder of Christ’s love that imputed righteousness despite his unworthiness, and the power of the Holy Spirit to daily sanctify and transform his life.

Of particular benefit to me was the chapter on the power of the Holy Spirit.  The author’s provide clear distinction between the Spirit’s synergistic work (the things the Spirit of God works in us in concert or synergy with our obedience) and Spirit’s monergistic work (the things He works in us apart from any cooperating work of ours).  This chapter does much to clarify the frequent questions of how the work of transformation takes place in the believer; they wisely balance the truths of obedience and the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit to produce change in terms that all readers would find understandable and helpful, making this a beneficial book to both the new Christian and the mature Christian.

Representative quote:

“As we practice [the spiritual] disciplines, it’s of paramount importance that we keep two truths in mind.  First, the disciplines themselves are not the source of spiritual power.  Only the Holy Spirit is.  The disciplines are his instruments to transmit his power.  Second, the practice of the disciplines doesn’t earn us favor with God or secure his blessings.  Christ has already done that through his sinless life and sin-bearing death for us.  That’s why the grace we need to live the Christian life is ‘in Christ Jesus.’  It bears repeating:  we must be on guard to avoid seeing the practice of the disciplines as either the source of power we need or the meritorious cause of receiving the power.” [pp. 99-100]

Read this book if you want to know more about and experience what it means to live by the gracious power of the Spirit.