Tag Archives: devotional life

How to Stay Christian in Seminary

"When I first contemplated seminary back in college, I felt like the kids in Jerry Seinfeld's bit when they learn of Halloween. I didn't have a category for something so spectacular. Who wouldn't jump at the chance to live in a theological Disneyland?"

When I wrote those words in my final semester of seminary, I was weary, and the Disney delusion had long since vanished. Seminary, I had learned, is a rigorous and perilous place.

In their excellent new book, How to Stay Christian in Seminary (Crossway) [review], David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell impart wisdom from Scripture and experience to help prospective and current students survive—even thrive—during the seminary years. Despite its challenges, Mathis and Parnell are glad they went to seminary. I am too. The experience was invaluable. I just wish this little book had been available when I started.

I spoke with these two staff members at Desiring God about the dangers of seminary, whether to go, which one to attend, and more.

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It may be easy from the outside to assume seminary is a sort of theological Disneyland. You're clear from the outset, though, that "seminary is dangerous." What do you mean?

You're right, confessional seminaries are generally festive institutions that abound with great teaching and God-honoring faculty. Stepping foot onto such a campus and thumbing through its academic catalog can leave us happily wide-eyed. But this response is precisely why it's dangerous—not because of the school itself, but because of us. The accessibility of great teaching can fool us into believing seminary is more about acquiring knowledge than getting equipped for gospel ministry. We can begin to chomp down on all the information without letting it take full effect in our hearts.

This problem isn't new. Helmut Thielicke addresses it in his short book A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, written in 1962. He explains that intellectual accessibility transcends our spiritual capacity. That is, our heads can pick up faster and take in more than our hearts and lives. This problem can easily turn us into that guy who carelessly talks more than he lives, which doesn't make for a healthy pastor or church.

As a matter of fact, that guy may not even reach the character-oriented qualifications of an elder in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Theological knowledge certainly matters to Paul ("He must hold firm to the trustworthy word" [Titus 1:9]), but according to these qualifications, pastoral ministry is less about what you know and more about the kind of man you are.

What's the most common misconception about life and ministry you perceive among those first entering seminary?

I wouldn't know how to gauge the most common misconception, but I could raise a flag about one danger—what we might call a messianic view of the ministry, where we feel like our lives need to be worthy of written Gospel accounts. It's a dramatized view of the Christian ministry, which subtly influences us to think that every step in life and ministry needs to be sensational and feel historic. Perhaps it's only a temptation in the overachievers, who want to be top-of-the-class in all they do—and now ministry is the thing. Or perhaps because we love Christian biography, and still have a sizable portion of unmortified pride, we suspect people may write and read biographies about us someday.

When and if such a thought comes, do your level best to dispel it right away. Don't let a dramatized view of the ministry—with everything having to feel big and immediately significant—lead you to miss the seemingly little things in which God typically does what is most significant.

How can seminarians practically work to keep their hearts warm toward Christ amid all the rigors of study and the demands of life?

There's nothing profound here. The most practical way to keep your heart warm toward Christ is to go deeper in your devotional disciplines. That means Bible intake and prayer, which might mean reading passages that don't have any overlap with your assignments, or praying with your keyboard and an open doc, or praying with a group from church, or listening to your favorite expositor, or memorizing Romans 8, or singing along (by yourself) with music from Shane and Shane, or digging up an old devotional work like John Flavel's Keeping the Heart.

So, in short, don't neglect the feast of the ordinary means God has given us, in view of becoming more alive to God's grace.

How should someone go about deciding whether to attend seminary? 

I better not pretend as if I can answer this question in a way that meets every potential seminarian where they are. But I can give a few principles for what I gather covers most situations. Take it or leave it.

Seminary is not a decision to be made all at once and all by yourself. If God is stirring in you some burgeoning desire for vocational ministry, don't rush to change your current major or abandon your present job. Test the desire over some weeks, even months, sometimes even years. Make it a matter of regular prayer. Stay engaged in ministry in your local church and make your investment there go even deeper. See whether the aspiration for vocational ministry deepens and grows. Draw others in, especially your close friends who know you well and share your love for Jesus and his church. Seek their counsel. And look for confirmation from other adults, not just your friends, as you serve and minister in the church. Look for objective confirmation in others about the subjective calling God seems to be putting on your heart, and then look for God's open door in terms of timing and place. There's usually no need to rush the process. Move deliberately, but keep moving forward.

It's much easier when you're younger and single. If you're married and have children, there are more factors to take into account, and complexities multiply in terms of how to provide for the family during such a season of educational focus. If you're married and have children, remember your calling to be a husband and father is more objective and sure than any perceived call to ministry you might be feeling. Resolve not to sacrifice your family on the altar of vocational ministry. Don't deny the faith and prove "worse than an unbeliever" by failing to provide "especially for the members of [your] household" (1 Tim. 5:8).

How should someone go about deciding which seminary to attend?

There are so many factors, but I'd say make the first one, and most important, the theology and ministry philosophy of the school. It need not be the only factor, but I'd counsel you to make it the weightiest. Typically that philosophy will be embodied in certain individuals, administrators, and especially professors, maybe some you know from hearing them speak, or reading their books, or seeing their names in footnotes. Considering particular professors whom you'd be energized to learn from is a good gauge.

Other factors include proximity—how close you already live to the seminary—cost, and, if you have a family, what employment options become available. And a hugely underrated factor, which I'd love to see prospective students consider more often, and with more consequence, is the local church. In which church will you be a committed, accountable member while at the seminary?

The goal of seminary, you contend, is to grow while remaining weak. Why is this counterintuitive distinction so crucial to grasp?

Yes, seminary is meant to train servants of Christ so that we might be equipped, not get strong (2 Tim. 3:17). Understanding the difference here has everything to do with how we understand our message. It doesn't matter how mature our skills become, the fact never changes that what we believe and proclaim is utter foolishness to the world.

I fear that mistaking our learning as strength training can easily slip into a bid for the world's respect when, more often than not, our neighbors won't care how well we conjugate verbs or where we earned our MDiv. They need our good news more than our good grades. The framework of getting strong and growing in power might work on Wall Street but not on the Calvary Road—not when our labor is about love instead of prestige.

Reading Togther

Discipling Your Kids Is More than Family Devotions

A couple of months ago I was in the kitchen preparing lunch and caught a familiar tune wafting from the living room. My son was singing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" along with an interactive Christmas book. Particularly delightful was his substituting "morning" for "glory" and mumbling incoherently the "peace on earth" section. He didn't have any trouble with the following phrase: "God and sinners reconciled," my 3-year-old bellowed with joy. As I laughed to myself and squeezed mustard onto a slice of wheat bread, my wife—ever ready to seize on teachable moments—turned immediately to the living room. "Do you know what reconciliation means, Colton?" After he indicated he didn't understand the significance of what he'd yelled across the house, she proceeded to explain, in simple terms, the nature of our relationship with God and our need for a Savior.

But wait: hadn't Colton heard these things before? Wasn't he familiar with the idea of sin and holiness and the need to be right with God? Ever since bringing him home from Ethiopia two and a half years ago we'd incorporated family worship into his nightly routine. We'd read The Jesus Storybook Bible several times and talked a good deal about God, Christ, and the cross during our nightly treks through Scripture. Wasn't that enough?

Reading Togther

Compartmental Discipleship

Despite my wife's remarkably keen gift to capture moments of educational opportunity, I failed that afternoon to capitalize on Colton's singing. It's easy for me to disciple my son the way I organize my office. Each item in, on, and around my desk is guarded from foreign objects with a carefully crafted and regularly updated system. Why such care? Because the essence of organization lies in having a place for everything, and daily productivity largely depends on ready and reliable access to the right item at the right time.

But let this passion for organization dominate my strategy for nurturing our child and I might soon find myself in the dreaded mire of Christian compartmentalization. So long as I've completed the formal time of Bible reading, prayer, and singing, all the other aspects of discipleship will shake out, right? Let's not let fun activities interfere with serious Bible reading, nor spiritual discussion spill over into bath time. Remember: everything in its place.

The potential danger in this kind of thinking is obvious. If we talk to our children about spiritual things only during our nightly routines or on Sundays after church, we're gradually teaching them to isolate their faith to a few small sections of the day and week. Spiritual realities meant to permeate life like sugar in a cup of tea get relegated to small parts of the day, and we wonder why our kids cannot think or act Christianly—with any authenticity, at least—except for a few formalized moments here and there. As they grow into young adults, it'll feel increasingly out of place to talk about God's holiness while enjoying a baseball game or to discuss Scripture while shooting hoops.

The problem here lies not in the regular practice of family devotional time. Rather, it's found in relying on such formal instruction to fulfill our responsibility to train our children in the fear of the Lord. Is it wise to set aside time each day for family worship, prayer, and Bible reading? Absolutely. But we should apply the same diligence we expend to find the best devotional literature to seeking unexpected opportunities for teaching all day long. The call God places on me to disciple my son is far more comprehensive than what a few minutes of family worship can afford. Scripture portrays an all-inclusive approach to discipleship that resists compartmentalization.

Moses and Proverbs: All-Day Discipleship

Moses, for example, instructed Israelite parents to speak regularly of the Lord to their children, carefully weaving spiritual discussion throughout daily activities: "You shall teach [these commandments] diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise" (Deut. 6:7). Parents couldn't seal off biblical instruction from the natural rhythm of the day or quarantine it to a brief devotional time before bed. Moses envisioned a kind of walk-and-teach discipleship amid life's ordinary events.

The book of Proverbs informs this kind of parent-to-child discipleship in at least two ways.

First, the structure of the Proverbs jolts parents out of a compartmental mindset. One notices, for example, that the Proverbs traverse a wide range of topics without following a discernible outline. One verse may speak about gaining wisdom by listening to instruction (10:8), while the next mentions the value of integrity (10:9), only to return a few verses later to wisdom (10:17). Verses extolling the diligent man and chiding the sluggard (12:11) are flanked by statements on caring for animals (12:10) and the danger of covetousness (12:12). Why such a meandering method of instruction? Because Solomon knew life rarely comes at us in carefully organized chunks. It's an example of patience right after your son spills a cup of milk onto the newly mopped floor; it's a reminder to your child how desperately she needs Jesus immediately after throwing her doll at her brother in anger.

Second, the Proverbs portray a father walking and talking with his kids, creatively using examples from everyday life to instruct in the way of wisdom. "Look here," says the perceptive parent, "see how the ant works hard without anyone motivating her?" (Prov. 6:6-8) Or as they pass a soldier the dad might say, "Here is a strong and courageous man. But someone who guards his tongue is even mightier" (16:32). This parent isn't waiting until 15 minutes before bedtime to start spiritual conversations; she's taking opportunity throughout the day to instill in her child a vision of God as Lord of everything, even the ant and the soldier.

I am confident, therefore, that as we steep ourselves in Scripture and allow God to broaden our view of discipleship to encompass the entire day, our capacity to perceive and leverage timely opportunities will become the natural outflow of our lives. As a result, our children may find faith that is utterly pervasive and a Savior who really does change everything, not just bedtime.

A Bible Reading Plan for Readers

With the new year approaching, prepare yourself for the onslaught of Bible reading advice. "Slow down." "Savor the Scripture." "Whatever your plan, stick to it for the whole year."

Such advice sounds good for those who prefer Peter Jackson to J. R. R. Tolkien or who would choose a locally anaesthetized lobotomy over any sort of reading assignment. Non-readers show courageous faith when they commit to regular patterns of Bible reading at predictable intervals, and I laud their desire to draw closer to the Lord.

But what about those of us who enjoy reading? Why limit ourselves to a few chapters (or a few verses) 10 minutes a day?

Perhaps you were one of the geniuses who devoured Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows within two weeks of its publication. Maybe a Kindle deal puts a spring in your step. You always have one or more books going, and you have to set boundaries so blogs don't take over your life.

You, like the non-readers mentioned above, love the Bible as God's Word. And you think following Jesus is more than a passing fad. You love to read, and the Bible is a book.

Here's my advice: Read the Bible.

Go for It

Just go for it. Read all of it. Read the Bible like you would watch the Olympics. Delightfully. Astoundingly. In large doses over a few weeks. As though your hope of world peace depends on it. With an eye to the spectacular drama.

I dare you to read the entire Bible this year, and to read it as fast as you can.

I've done it for three years now, and I plan to keep doing it. My practice has been to drop all recreational reading (fiction, non-fiction, magazines) on January 1, at which point I read nothing but the Bible until I've finished it. My goal is to finish more quickly than I finished the previous year, or by all means to beat the first day of spring. (After that point, I don't set the Bible aside but reinstitute a more measured pace and reintroduce other books into my literary diet.)

For each year's sprint, I've read a different translation. I've used a different reading sequence (chronological, historical, canonical). I use a mobile-compatible app—I like YouVersion—so I can read anywhere at any time and be able to pick up where I left off.

To be clear, the kind of reading I suggest is not mindless but voluminous, and for a season. The Bible expects us to read meditatively (Pss. 1:2, 119:97, etc.), and while meditation may involve a small chunk of text read at a slow pace, it doesn't have to. Just as we can meditate on nibbles, so we can meditate on gobbles.

For example, upon reading Deuteronomy in one or two sittings I'm floored by the absolute necessity but innate impossibility of worshiping Yahweh as the only true God. This theme saturates the entire book, and for months after reading it I'm driven to meditate on both my need for a new heart and also my hope of glory, Christ in me (Col. 1:27).

Happier with Him

I don't perform this annual romp through Scripture to make God any happier with me; I do it because it makes me happier with him. It does this in a number of ways.

1. It helps me grasp the overall story of the Bible. Though the Bible contains 66 books written by numerous human authors, it's also one book with one divine author. The story begins well, declines quickly, and builds tension through the Old Testament. It climaxes in Jesus and resolves with much hope. Consuming the whole Bible in a short period of time keeps the big picture prominent.

2. It reminds me the Bible is a work of literature. All year long, I get plenty of time to analyze short passages of Scripture in detail. But for this short season, I loosen my literary inhibitions and succumb to the glory of the most influential book on the market. I saturate myself in the biblical text, frolicking through it like a well-fed dolphin in open water. I learn to see the Bible more as a collection of books than a collection of chapters, and the rhetorical intent of each human author comes alive.

3. It gets me through the difficult parts more easily. Ridiculing books like Leviticus and Chronicles is pretty hip these days. But with a speedy reading plan, they go by quickly and make more sense in light of the whole. Chronicles tells humanity's epic tale from creation to Israel's restoration from exile, and it empowers a new generation to rebuild the nation and re-engage with the Lord. Leviticus shows the wilderness generation how to draw near to God and live in community. A rapid reading plan helps us not to belabor the minutiae, so the "boring" parts of the Bible aren't all that boring.

4. It heightens my anticipation for Christ. When I consume the Old Testament in large gulps, my spirits rise and fall with the fortunes of God's people. And there's more falling than rising, especially in the prophetic books, where oracle upon oracle yields darker condemnation and more violent opposition to the people's social injustice, rebellion, and idolatry. But the promise of a dawning light pushes me on. When I finally hit the transition from "lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction" (Mal. 4:6) to "the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1)—I'm not exaggerating to say my heart sings. The four Gospels blaze pure light like a God-man on a mountaintop, and I delight anew in the hottest piece of work on the planet. There's a reason it's called "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

If you like to read, you won't find a better book than the Holy Bible, the unbreakable Scriptures, the sword of the Spirit, the living and abiding Word of God. Take it for a test drive this year, and see if you don't have the time of your life.

6 Reasons to Dig Into Calvin's Commentaries

Reading John Calvin's Institutes after seminary, in the midst of some trials, was easily one of the most theologically formative seasons in my life. Finally encountering the titan's thought face to face (so to speak) after years of only encountering the stray quote, paean of praise, or jeremiad of condemnation was eye-opening as well as spiritually comforting as he pointed me, page after page, to the goodwill of my fatherly God in Christ. At a less personal level, the four books of the Institutes impressed me in terms of their economy, depth, clarity, scope, scriptural insight, and continual pastoral relevance. I'm probably preaching to the choir here.

But Calvin fans, old and new, don't always appreciate that the Institutes form a relatively small portion of his corpus. A brilliant systematician and teacher, he was first and foremost a biblical commentator who produced nearly verse-by-verse commentaries on the majority of the books of the Bible.

Recently, I've set myself to the task of slowly reading through some of Calvin's commentaries as part of my devotional time, commenting on them week by week. After a few months, I've become convinced it would be a tragedy if these texts were neglected, especially by younger newcomers to the Reformed tradition like myself. They are a treasure trove for the life and ministry of the pastor as well as the lay believer.
Tim Keller gave us a few reasons to read through the Institutes a few months ago, and I couldn't have agreed more. I'd like to simply piggy-back off of that and offer six reasons why you ought to dig into Calvin's commentaries as well.

1. Calvin wants you to.

Calvin didn't intend for the Institutes to stand alone. He meant it to be a guide to the main message of Scripture as well as the place where he could enter into sustained discussion or engaged polemics over specific doctrinal issues. This focus enabled him to avoid bogging down his commentaries with such issues. In that sense they can stand alone.
That said, as many times as he edited and reworked them, the Institutes don't exhaust his thought on any subject, or certainly on any text cited. For instance, if you think you're getting "Calvin on the Decalogue" by only reading the Institutes, you're missing out on the expanded treatments he gives to each command in his "Harmony of the Law." Or for Calvin's most beautiful meditations on the uniqueness and sufficiency of Christ, yes, the Institutes have some fabulous sections, but try engaging his work on the Christ hymn in Colossians 1:15-20 or on the Johannine discourses.

2. They're still good (and free).

Although characterized as a cold, logical systematician, Calvin was a humanist scholar trained in the classics. He heard the Renaissance cry "Ad Fontes!" and had a sensitive eye for literary and textual interpretive issues, making comments on the Greek and Hebrew text that are still academically useful. While historical scholarship has moved forward quite a bit since the 16th century, if you're in a pinch and looking for some scholarly resources on the text for cheap (and by cheap I mean free online), Calvin can offer plenty of help. His approach is especially helpful in light of renewed academic focus on the way literary and rhetorical form shapes the theology of, say, a Pauline epistle.

3They're theological.

Speaking of the academy, before pure "exegetes" took over, people actually tried to get some theology done in their reading and commenting on Scripture. But for many years now that approach has been deemed quaint, unscholarly, and to be avoided as much as possible. Thankfully, renegades like Kevin Vanhoozer and J. Todd Billings have been leading the way back to such use of the text in recent years. They suggest we recover our ability to see the text through theological eyes by engaging with the great virtuoso commentators of the past such as Augustine, Aquinas, or Chrysostom. Calvin can stand toe to toe with any of them, in part because he was a good student of the Fathers. Again, watching Calvin at work with trinitarian and Chalcedonian issues in the Johannine discourses is a model of responsible, theological interpretation of Scripture.

4. They're pastoral.

Beyond their scholarly usefulness, Calvin's commentaries are actually pastoral. Nowadays you might find a commentary with all of the scholarly graces of precision, text-critical apparatus, and exhaustive documentation of various theories on offer without the slightest hint that these texts might actually be used in a pulpit someday. As a doctor of the church of Geneva involved in the weekly teaching and preaching duties of the pastorate, Calvin was keenly aware of the needs of pastors on the front lines. While he may have eyed key debates raging in the intellectual world, this view was never divorced from a churchly context. As one of the theological resources of the burgeoning movement of reform, he sought to produce commentaries that would edify the body, not earn academic accolades. All of that means his commentaries are actually useful for preaching and teaching, not just for writing grad papers in seminary.

5. They're "devotional."

As mentioned, I've been reading the commentaries partially for my own devotional time. I don't know about you, but seminary took a toll on my ability to read the Scriptures devotionally. What's more, many devotional materials lack depth of insight. Calvin's commentary on the biblical text, however, is usually broken up into helpful, two-to-four-page chunks that can be studied bit by bit, morning by morning. I can testify that watching Calvin closely examine the texts and wring every bit of doxological value out of them has been helpful—not just for my preaching and teaching, but for my own soul.

6. They're catholic.

The commentaries are, in the best sense, little-c catholic. While the commentaries still have plenty of sections explaining the deficiencies of a "papist" interpretation of a given text, the Institutes are by nature a little more difficult to stomach for the non-Reformed. And let's be honest, do Reformed types really need any more encouragement to be polemical? The commentaries, on the other hand, have broader appeal. I've had numerous non-Reformed friends comment on posts involving Calvin's scriptural insights along the lines of, "Aside from his views on predestination, he's got some really good stuff." Exactly. That's what we've been saying.

I could say more, but I'll leave my final commendation to Jacob Arminius, who famously wrote about Calvin:

After the Holy Scriptures, I exhort the students to read the Commentaries of Calvin. . . . I tell them that he is incomparable in the interpretation of Scripture; and that his Commentaries ought to be held in greater estimation than all that is delivered to us in the writings of the ancient Christian Fathers: so that, in a certain eminent spirit of prophecy, I give the preeminence to him beyond most others, indeed beyond them all. I add that, with regard to what belongs to common places, his Institutes must be read after the Catechism, as a more ample interpretation. But to all this I subjoin the remark, that they must be perused with cautious choice, like all other human compositions.

Arminius gets it. What are you waiting for?

When You're Too Busy to Be Godly

Are you a little bored, undercommitted, struggling to find stuff to do? Yeah, me neither.

In a less awkward interview than with Justin Taylor, Kevin DeYoung sat down with Mark Mellinger to discuss the perennially relevant topic of his new book, Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book about a (Really) Big Problem (Crossway).

So how do we know when we're too busy? One telling sign, DeYoung suggests, is when we no longer carve out unhurried time to do the one thing for which Jesus commends Mary—resting at his feet (Luke 10:42). To be sure, the pastor of University Reformed Church admits, life is packed with responsibilities, and the antidote to busyness certainly isn't laziness. But how often do we cross the line from owning our time to our time owning us, without even realizing it?

Without a lucid sense of our priorities, we'll repeatedly sacrifice what is best on the altar of what is good. As DeYoung puts it, "Until we know the things we won't do, we won't actually do the things we say we should do."

The threat of busyness is no light thing, DeYoung warns, for such a lifestyle can lead to spiritual damage. Not only do we cease caring for our soul, we forget we even have a soul. In fact, he suspects, "Busyness has killed more Christians than bullets have."

Watch the nine-minute video to hear DeYoung discuss the snare of screen addiction, the labor to rest, blended and blurred boundaries, and more.

Fighting Busyness from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Nancy Guthrie

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scences glimpse into their lives as readers.

I corresponded with Nancy Guthrie, prolific author and prominent conference speaker, about what's on her nightstand, what she's learning, her favorite biographies, and more. You can learn from Guthrie as a plenary speaker at The Gospel Coalition 2014 National Women's Conference.

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What's on your nightstand right now? 

Since I've been working on a five-book series, I've had a next chapter needing to be written for the past four years, which has profoundly shaped my reading. But I finished writing the series this summer, so August was my month to read some things I've just wanted to for the pleasure of it. I went to the bookstore (yes, an actual brick-and-mortar bookstore) to look for some fiction. But I've realized I enjoy memoir more than fiction and so, with the promise of Ralph from the behind the counter that I wouldn't be able to put it down, I bought Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber. He was right. With my appreciation for the biblical theology of people like Vaughan Roberts, and as a regular watcher of Inspector Lewis, a trip to Oxford is on my wish list. Weber took me there through the pages of her book. More than that, she invited me into the heart and mind of a skeptic who allowed me to see Christ and Christianity and Christians in a fresh way. The openness, humor, honesty, and integrity of her coming-to-Christ journey drew me in.

Then last week I ran into my friend, Ashley Cleveland, at the park where we both like to walk, and she pulled a hot-off-the-press copy of her memoir, Little Black Sheep, out of her Jeep and gave it to me. As an accomplished songwriter, Ashley has a way with words. Even more, she figured out how to write a book that's all about herself and yet reflects personal insight more than inflated ego. The way she writes with grace and acceptance about the imperfect people in her life made me want to extend that kind of grace and acceptance to imperfect people in my life. And the way she writes about her Shepherd made me grateful he's my Shepherd, too.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

In the last couple of weeks, I've read a couple of books in preparation for interviewing the authors for the Christ the Center podcast. Amie Byrd's Housewife Theologian is a winsome call to women to be thinking Christians. And reading Barbara Duguid's Extravagant Grace, in which she works from the writings of John Newton to deal with sin and guilt, is like lingering over lunch with a wise friend willing to confess her own embarrassing struggles with sin, making you not feel so alone. I'm still thinking through the implications of Barbara's book in regard to God's sovereignty over the sin in my life, and pondering statements like this: "At this very moment, you are exactly as holy and mature in your faith as God wants you to be."

It thrills me that as I'm working my way ever-so-slowly through classes at Covenant Theological Seminary, mostly through distance education, the reading continually calls me to worship and wonder at the salvation I've inherited and the Savior to whom I'm united. Perhaps my favorite book from my latest class was Jesus: Lord and Savior by F. F. Bruce. The book expanded my understanding of the person, ministry, and words of Jesus by placing them in the social, political, and religious state of Palestine under the Roman Empire in the first century. Anthony Hoekema's Saved by Grace deepened my understanding of aspects of salvation including regeneration, conversion, justification, sanctification, and perseverance. I'm grateful a full understanding of this miracle wasn't required when I was brought from spiritual death to life, and that even now I don't have to grasp it perfectly to enjoy full confidence in its benefit.

What are some books you regularly re-read and why?

There are several books I tend to pull off my shelf over and over again as I work on writing projects and correspond with people who write me. I go back to Michael Williams's Far as the Curse Is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption to find words to explain the purpose of things like the failed kings in the Old Testament and the healing ministry of Jesus in the New. My copy of The Goldsworthy Trilogy has proved to be worth more than its weight in gold in providing the framework that runs through Scripture of "God's people in God's place under God's rule," understanding the importance of order and disorder in the Wisdom Literature, and the way God speaks and guides. I pulled out Wayne Grudem's Bible Doctrines again this week to look for verbiage to respond to some readers of my Genesis study who wrote to me struggling with the suggestion that God chooses who will be his.

What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel? 

When I look back on the books that had the greatest effect on me at key points, I can't help but remember reading that big green Decision-Making and the Will of God by Gary Friesen and J. Robin Maxson in college. When I met my future husband, David, who had taken classes from Friesen at Multnomah School of the Bible and had also read the book, it was one of the places we immediately found common ground. More recently a book I've read and re-read on this issue is Guidance and the Voice of God by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne. It's much shorter and clearer, and I simply think everyone should read it. For example, I love this statement: "Many of our problems with guidance stem from precisely this: we ask the wrong questions, and then wonder why we cannot find answers. . . . We should ask the questions that God thinks are important, and these are the questions he has answered in the Bible."

Randy Alcorn's Money, Posessions, and Eternity is another book that's had a big effect on my husband and me. Randy's personal example in regard to ministry and money is challenging, as is his questioning of accepted practices concerning ministry fundraising, honorariums, and benefiting from money raised by lotteries.

I've read my share of books on grief and death, but the only one I've bought in bulk to provide to grieving couples we minister to through our Respite Retreats is Grieving, Hope, and Solace by Albert Martin, which uniquely offers comfort less in the intermediate state in God's presence and more in our confident hope of resurrection.

If I were to pick one book that's had the biggest effect on me personally and in how I minister to others, it would have to be John Piper's Desiring God. This volume brought about a seismic shift in my understanding of what God desires from me and for me.

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?

I recently re-read Corrie ten Boom's The Hiding Place and was reminded why it is such a significant book. I want to believe God will give me the grace to be faithful should I ever face anything like Corrie and Betsy did, but I admit it's hard to imagine. About 10 years ago, I worked with Gracia Burnham when she returned to the United States after having been held captive in the jungles of the Philippines and losing her husband in the battle from which she was rescued. She wrote about this tragedy in In the Presence of My Enemies. I rarely step into the hot shower in my comfortable house without thinking about what it was like for her to survive in the jungle all those months without the comforts of clean running water, soap, a shower, a toothbrush, privacy, and more than enough to eat.

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Also in the On My Shelf series: Jared WilsonKathy KellerTullian TchividjianJ. D. GreearKevin DeYoungKathleen NielsonThabiti AnyabwileCollin HansenFred Sanders, and Rosaria Butterfield.

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Rosaria Butterfield

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scences glimpse into their lives as readers.

I corresponded with Rosaria Butterfield, former tenured professor of English at Syracuse University and author of Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, about what's currently on her nightstand, what she's learning about following Jesus, her favorite fiction, and more. Butterfield will lead two workshops, including "You Are What You Read" and "Homosexuality and Christian Faith," next summer at The Gospel Coalition National Women's Conference in Orlando.

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What's on your nightstand right now? 

The Bible (NASB)

Voices from the Past: Puritan Devotional Readings, Richard Rushing, ed.

The Book of Psalms for Singing, Reformed Presbyterian Church of America

Jesus on Every Page, David Murray

How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home, Derek Thomas

The Christian in Complete Armour, William Gurnall

Joni and Ken: A Love Story, Ken and Joni Eareckson Tada

Essentials of the English Language, Leigh Bortins

Saxon Math 5/4 

Henle Latin

(You can see from the last three titles that my classical conversation home school co-op is in full swing!)

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

I am learning that doing things in my strength, even when I have the skill set to do them, is an act of traitorship against Christ.

I am learning that the hospitality that matters can never be recompensed.

I am learning that prayer must be constant and spontaneous.

I am learning that neighborhood prayer walks nurture community, care, mercy work, and God's holy name, refreshing me each time.

I am learning that I love more and more to pour myself into my children, my church, my marriage, my neighborhood, and my homeschooling co-op.

What are some books you regularly re-read and why?

The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs, because it exposes my sin of ungratefulness and impatience, and it gives me spiritual tools for contentment.

Overcoming Sin and Temptation: Three Classic Works by John Owen (this volume, edited by Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor, includes The Mortification of Sin, Of Temptation, and Indwelling Sin); and The Enemy Within by Kris Lundgaard. I re-read these books because my own sin and the bad habits I bring into my Christian life are insidious and benefit from the deep scrutiny of Owen.

Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, because hospitality under persecution teaches so much about the power of Christian fellowship as a means of grace.

What are your favorite fiction books?

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (I like the 1818 edition.)

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Also in the "On My Shelf" series: Jared WilsonKathy KellerTullian TchividjianJ. D. GreearKevin DeYoungKathleen NielsonThabiti AnyabwileCollin Hansen, and Fred Sanders.

Jesus on Every Page: 7 Reasons to Study Your Old Testament

On the basis of my less-than-scientific survey of Christians' Bible reading habits, I would estimate that the Old Testament forms less than 10 percent of most Christians' Bible reading. Remove the Psalms and Proverbs, and we're probably down to less than 5 percent.

"So what?" many say.

"No great loss, is there?" others shrug.

Let me suggest seven reasons to stop shrugging and start studying the other 60 percent of our Bibles.

1. The Old Testament reveals Christ.

The Old Testament doesn't just "point forward" to Christ; it reveals him. It isn't merely a series of signposts to Christ; his revealing shadow falls on every page, exciting faith and love in believing hearts.

But why linger in the Old Testament shadows when we have New Testament sunlight?

Have you never found it easier to read and be refreshed in shade? Have you never admired the unique and wondrous beauty of the dawn?

Consider the unparalleled revelation of Christ's substitutionary atonement in Isaiah 53. And although the Gospels describe Christ's outer life, the messianic psalms disclose his mysterious inner life, the unfathomably deep emotional and mental struggles of his earthly suffering.

2. The Old Testament is a dictionary of Christian vocabulary.

How do we understand the theological words, phrases, and concepts of the New Testament? If we turn to a modern dictionary, we will import 21st-century Western meaning into ancient Eastern words. Greek lexicons will usually get us closer to the original meaning, but that still assumes the biblical authors were influenced exclusively by Greek culture.

Rather, when we come to a word, phrase, or concept in the New Testament, our first question should be, "What does the Old Testament say?" Remember, the New Testament was originally written by Jews, and much of it was written to Jews. It assumes knowledge of the Old Testament and builds upon it.

3. The Old Testament is a manual for Christian living.

While there is understandable debate over the continuing validity of a small percentage of Old Testament laws, there are 10 clear and unchanging moral principles that God applies in different ways in different contexts: to Israel in the wilderness (Exod. 20), to Israel about to enter the promised land (Deut. 5), and to Israel settled in the land (Proverbs). Jesus and the apostles continue this varied cultural application of these same 10 moral principles for their own generation (e.g. Matt. 5; Eph. 5). All these examples provide models for how to think about and apply these moral principles in our own day.

4. The Old Testament presents doctrine in story form.

God has not only given us laws; he's given us lives. He's incarnated his 10 moral principles in the lives of Old Testament characters, providing us with fascinating biographies to inspire and warn (1 Cor. 10:11; Luke 17:32).

We also see New Testament doctrines worked out in Old Testament believers' lives: through typology we learn most about Christ's priesthood from Aaron, kingship from David, and prophetic office from Moses. Abraham demonstrates justifying faith, Elijah portrays effectual and fervent prayer, Ruth and Naomi display the communion of saints, Job perseveres through the Lord's preservation, and David exhibits how forgiveness and chastisement often go together. And it's all in the vivid Technicolor and Dolby of flesh-and-blood humanity.

5. The Old Testament comforts and encourages us.

As we read the Old Testament narratives, we experience the beautiful comfort and hope that Paul promised would accompany such study (Rom. 15:4). We are comforted with God's sovereign love, majestic power, and covenant faithfulness in his relationship with Israel.

When we know the Old Testament backgrounds of the "Hall of Faithers" in Hebrews 11, we're encouraged to follow their Christ-focused faith and spirituality.

In the Psalms, we're given songs that have comforted and encouraged believers throughout the world and throughout the centuries.

And when we see the way that hundreds of Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled in Christ, our faith in God and his Word is strengthened.

6. The Old Testament saves souls.

The apostle Paul had the highest regard for the Old Testament's origin, nature, power, and purpose (2 Tim. 3:16-17). But the Old Testament wasn't only helpful for Christian living; it gave Christian life. When Paul assured Timothy that "the Holy Scriptures [are] able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus," he was speaking of the Old Testament (2 Tim. 3:15). Like the New Testament, the Old Testament also saved (and still saves) souls through faith in the Messiah.

7. The Old Testament makes you appreciate the New Testament more.

For all the Old Testament reveals of Jesus, and of Christian doctrine and experience, we must concede that it also conceals, that there's a lot of frustrating shadow, that there's unfulfilled longing and desire, that there's often something—or rather someone—missing. The more we read it, the more we long for and love the incarnate Christ of the New Testament. The dawn is beautiful, but the sunrise is stunning.

Editors' Note: Learn more about reading and applying the Old Testament from David Murray's new book, Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament (Thomas Nelson, 2013). Buy the book before August 31 and you will receive $100 of free Old Testament resources. Click here for more details.

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Kevin DeYoung

On My Shelf is a new feature designed to help you get to know various people through providing a behind-the-scences glimpse into their lives as readers.

I corresponded with Kevin DeYoung, senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, about what's currently on his nightstand, books he re-reads, his favorite fiction, and more.

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What's on your nightstand right now?

I usually keep my nightstand uncluttered, but downstairs I have a desk in the family room where my "fun" at-home books are stacked. Right now there are a dozen books on the desk. I just returned from a few days of travel so I was able to finish three of these books: O Come, Let Us Worship by Robert Rayburn, The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Cessation of Special Revelation by Garnet Milne, and a fascinating collection of essays in the book Engaging with Martyn Lloyd-Jones. There are several other books I'm reading for my doctoral studies: a biography of John Witherspoon (1723-1794), a collection of Witherspoon's sermons, a book on religious historiography, and a monograph on church and theology in Enlightenment Scotland.

Each morning I try to read at least five pages from some classic Christian work. Right now that book is The Church of Christ by James Bannerman. I'm also slowly working my way through Scott Manetsch's terrific book Calvin's Company of Pastors. I'm really enjoying Fateful Lightning, Allen Guelzo's book on the Civil War and reconstruction. I have two other books I haven't started yet: James Bratt's new biography of Abraham Kuyper and Rod Gragg's Covered with Glory on the 26th North Carolina infantry at Gettysburg. I like to read.

What are some books you regularly re-read and why?

I have re-read Calvin's Institutes more than any other work. I constantly find nourishment in Calvin for my head and my heart. I try to read Lloyd-Jones's Preaching and Preachers every couple of years just keep me energized for preaching. I also find encouragement from Spurgeon's Lectures to My Students.

What are your favorite fiction books?

I wish I read more fiction than I do. It would be good for me. My favorites are pretty ordinary. I love The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. I read Wangerin's The Book of the Dun Cow a couple of years ago and was very impressed. For sheer fun and brilliance of writing, there's nothing better than Jeeves and Wooster from P. G. Wodehouse.

What are your top five books on belonging to the body of Christ in the local church?

In no particular order, and off the top of my head, I'd recommend:

For the basics of being a church member: What Is a Healthy Church Member? (Thabiti Anyabwile)

For the importance of being a confessional church: The Creedal Imperative (Carl Trueman)

For thinking about corporate worship: Worship by the Book (edited by D. A. Carson) or Worship: Reformed According to Scripture (Hughes Oliphant Old)

For the importance of prayer: A Praying Life (Paul Miller)

For solid ecclesiology: The Church (Edmund Clowney) or The Church of Christ (James Bannerman)

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Also in this series: Jared WilsonKathy KellerTullian Tchividjian, J. D. Greear

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Tullian Tchividjian

On My Shelf is a new feature designed to help you get to know various people through providing a behind-the-scences glimpse into their lives as readers.

I corresponded with Tullian Tchividjian, senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, about what's currently on his nightstand, books he re-reads, his favorite fiction, and more.

What's on your nightstand right now?

My nightstand is a mess—the biggest eyesore in our bedroom (according to my wife). I have about 30 books piled up on top of each other. I'm constantly reading, and I'm always reading more than one book at a time. I have everything from books I've been asked to endorse to books I'm consulting for my current sermon series to books I'm reading for fun.

I'm also a curious reader, which means I'm always reading books by people just to find out how they write and what they say about certain things—which means I'm not simply reading books by people within my theological tradition. One of my concerns about some who would consider themselves "reformed" is that they only read books by other "reformed" people. This, in my opinion, is a big mistake. And when some do read books outside their own theological tradition, they only do so with an eye to critique instead of an eye to learn. At least this was my mistake for far too many years. I graduated from a well-known reformed seminary (and am unbelievably grateful for the education I received there), and I never heard of any of the books, theologians, or scholars I list below (except one). I have, therefore, greatly varied my reading over the past five years or so and am reading many more books by writers, thinkers, and scholars outside of my theological  tradition. Seven years ago I heard Tim Keller say, "When you read one thinker, you become a clone. Two thinkers, you become confused. Ten thinkers, you begin developing your own voice. Two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise."

So a few books on my nightstand right now include: Humble Orthodoxy by Joshua Harris, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought by Gerhard Ebeling, The Foolishness of Preaching by Robert Capon, On Being a Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard Forde, The Mockingbird Devotional by Ethan Richardson and Sean Norris (eds.), The Genius of Luther's Theology by Robert Kolb and Charles Arand, This American Gospel by Ethan Richardson, Between Noon and Three by Robert Capon, The Reconstruction of Morality by Karl Holl, Living by Faith by Oswald Bayer, Handling the Word of Truth by John Pless, and How to Talk So People Will Listen by Steve Brown.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

I'm learning, in the words of Eugene Peterson, that "discipleship is a process of paying more and more attention to God's righteousness and less and less attention to our own." The way many of us think about sanctification is, well, not very sanctified. In fact, it's terribly narcissistic. We spend too much time thinking about how we're doing, if we're growing, whether we're doing it right or not. We spend too much time pondering our spiritual failures and brooding over our spiritual successes. Somewhere along the way we've come to believe that the focus of the Christian faith is the life of the Christian.

Ironically, I've discovered that the more I focus on my need to get better, the worse I actually get—I become neurotic and self-absorbed. Preoccupation with our performance over Christ's performance for us actually hinders spiritual growth because it makes us increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective—the exact opposite of how the Bible describes what it means to be sanctified. Sanctification is forgetting about yourself. "He must increase but I must decrease" (John 3:30) properly describes the painful sanctification process. "Decreasing" is impossible for the one who keeps thinking about himself. As J. C. Kromsigt said, "The good seed cannot flourish when it is repeatedly dug up for the purpose of examining its growth." Thankfully, the focus of the Bible is not the work of the redeemed but the work of the Redeemer. The gospel frees us from ourselves. It announces that this whole thing is about Jesus and dependent on Jesus. The good news is the declaration of his victory for us, not our "victorious Christian life." The gospel asserts that God's final word over a Christian has already been spoken: "Paid in full."

What are some books you regularly re-read and why?

There are four books I've re-read a few times in the last two years: Living by Grace by William Hordern, The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz, Who Will Deliver Us? by Paul Zahl, and Sanctification by Harold Senkbeil. All four of those books have been extremely helpful to me personally and theologically. They've helped me better understand my sin, God's grace, and the distinction between the law and the gospel. They've guided me through deep and wide pastoral challenges and, I think, made me a better preacher, pastor, and counselor.

What are your favorite fiction books?

I'm not a huge reader of fiction. I consider that to be a weakness in my reading habits, not a strength. I would strongly encourage readers of theology to increase their reading of fiction. When our reading habits become one-dimensional, our thinking becomes one-dimensional. But three fiction books that have profoundly influenced me are Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz, and The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis.

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Also in this series: Jared Wilson and Kathy Keller.