2015 marks my tenth year choosing the best books of the year, and it was the most difficult of them all. Non-fiction Christian book publishing churned out a daunting amount of very good new titles, more than I’ve ever seen.
Overall, 2015 produced several strong Bible commentaries, but with a remarkably new interest in integrating biblical theology into those commentaries (as you will see). Bible production was strong again. From our Reformed circles, I’ve never seen more books on engaging political issues or speaking grace into our secularizing western culture. Books by female authors seemed to slow a little from 2014, while offerings for children seemed stronger.
What follows are all my favorite books from the year, lumped together in one list and ordered by my scientifically subjective algorithm of intuition about what books I think (1) are most unique, (2) most succeed at their aim, and (3) are most likely to endure in service to the church in the years ahead.
Top 15 Books of 2015
1 — Randy Alcorn, Happiness (Tyndale). Alcorn’s new book is an encyclopedic, nearly 200,000-word survey of everything the Bible explicitly has to say about the theme of joy/happiness. Happiness is a survey that pulls in dozens of Greek and Hebrew words, and hundreds of quotes from the most important preachers and theologians in church history. Alcorn is like a prosecuting attorney, stacking evidence to prove the essential role of happiness in the Christian life (and to disprove the longstanding joy/happiness dichotomy). Not everyone will enjoy such an encyclopedic ride, but I do, and I find this to be the most compelling book of 2015. For readers who want the brief version, see this shorter summary. • Honorable mention on the affections: David Murray, The Happy Christian.
2 — D. A. Carson, editor, NIV Zondervan Study Bible (Zondervan). The new Study Bible from Zondervan will draw immediate comparison to the ESV Study Bible, my 2008 book of the year. In a side-by-side comparison of hardcovers, the Bibles are nearly identical in trim size, thickness, and page count. But the NIVZSB is strikingly heavier (76oz compared to 67oz), and the notes are a bit more extensive (1.87m words compared to 1.63m). For this project, Don Carson assembled a team of the greatest minds in the field of biblical theology to create an unprecedented Bible that focuses on key themes in biblical theology as they develop from Genesis to Revelation, culminating in 28 thematic essays in the back. The book does not neglect book outlines and introductions and verse-by-verse comments that you would expect in any good study Bible, but the real value is for readers who want to watch certain themes unfold, a value that may be a little less obvious for readers of the printed Bible. (The Logos digital version seems superior because readers can search the notes on targeted themes — like messiah, temple, sonship — and read the Bible canonically from note to note.) I cannot imagine this Bible will surpass the ESVSB for most general readers, especially for fellow ESV-onlyists, but it is a worthy second Study Bible if you have the shelf space, and an unprecedented work if your interest is biblical theology. • Notable mention in Bibles: The ESV Men’s Devotional Bible.
3 — John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (P&R). This 900-page summary is the fruit of John Frame’s decades of service to the church as a Christian philosopher. This is a seminary-level survey of the most influential thinkers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Locke, Edwards, Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Barth, Lewis, Kuyper, Van Til, and many others. John Frame writes in the preface: “You won’t find in this book many (if any) new interpretations of the philosophers and theologians. I have followed, for the most part, the consensus interpretations, because I want to mainly assess the impact that each thinker has had on the consensus. But in this book there will be many evaluations of thinkers that I suspect will be found unconventional. My whole idea is to expose the fact that the history of philosophy and theology is nothing less than spiritual warfare in the life of the mind” (xxvi). The study of philosophy, for the Christian, is not a game, and Frame knows it. The entire book is written in the earnest vigor of a battle between truth and falsehood. This book is mind-girding.
4 — Thomas Schreiner, Commentary on Hebrews (Holman). Bible commentators are becoming skilled at moving from the micro-lens to the macro-lens — from small details of exegetical precision to broader conclusions of biblical theology — in order to show how a particular book contributes to the development of key themes in redemptive history. In 2015, this move even appeared in one established commentary series that previously overlooked biblical theology (see the new NIGTC volume on Romans). Now arrives the inaugural volume in a groundbreaking new series from B&H: The Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation Commentary. Schreiner, whose whole-Bible biblical theology was my book of the year in 2013, is exactly the right man for this inaugural volume on Hebrews. Here is a careful commentary that zooms in and then pans out very naturally, and concludes with 60 pages of rich theological conclusions. On every level, this is a wonderful new Bible commentary in a series that promises to light a new path forward in rethinking the genre. • Honorable mention commentaries from the year: Longenecker on Romans, Harris on John, Harmon on Philippians, Edwards on Luke, Boda on Zechariah, Guthrie on 2 Corinthians, Seifried on 2 Corinthians, and Block on Ruth and Obadiah.
5 — Joe Rigney, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts (Crossway). How do we enjoy God’s gifts rightly? In other words, how do we enjoy our gifts in order to enjoy God more? And how do we avoid making gifts and experiences into idols? These are age-old questions, and questions that often get a muted or unsatisfying answer in the Reformed heritage. Joe Rigney has stepped in to help us reconcile what appear to be competing themes in Scripture: between enjoying created gifts and enjoying God alone, apart from any gifts. This is the best theology of God’s gifts I have read, a true gem that ushers the reader into greater God-centered delight. • Honorable mention on celebrating God in our gifts: Jared Wilson’s The Story of Everything.
6 — Paul Tripp, Awe: Why It Matters for Everything We Think, Say, and Do (Crossway). One reason why the debate over God’s gifts has been so perplexing is the human tendency to make gifts into idols. Tripp admits this is one of his own personal struggles. The solution is awe. We must be captured by God’s wonder if we are going to use God’s gifts rightly. We are all engaged in a glory war. Selfish glory brawls against God’s glory, and God’s good gifts get tussled in selfish mix-up. On this glory war theme, Tripp hits the bull’s-eye every time, and in this book he fleshes it out in many various contexts of the Christian life. On parenting, for example, he writes: “Only awe of God has the power to defeat awe of self in my heart. It’s the glory of God that can protect our children from the seductive draw of self-glory. If awe doesn’t rule my child’s heart, God’s law won’t control my child’s behavior. The great battle of parenting is not the battle of behavior; it’s the battle for what kind of awe will rule children’s hearts” (165–66). The implications are huge, and no part of life is excluded. This is Christian Hedonism for the trenches of life.
7 — Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (B&H). This summer and fall proved demanding for Christian ethicists in America, who found themselves responding to a racially motivated church shooting, then to Confederate flags, then to ongoing racial tensions between communities and local police departments, then to a landmark SCOTUS decision redefining marriage, then to abortion funding, then to ISIS terrorism, and now to a refugee crisis in the midst of a presidential race. It is clear that Christians must be engaged on these issues. The question is, how? Christians increasingly offer a minority voice, and we need tact, we need a prophetic voice, and we need to keep our eyes on the gospel. Russell Moore, a man for the times, has given us the field manual for what he does. Onward is one of the most treasured books of 2015, published (providentially) just in time. • Honorable mentions on engaging culture: David Platt’s Counter Culture, Albert Mohler’s We Cannot Be Silent, and Owen Strachan’s The Colson Way.
8 — Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (IVP). Full news cycles call for a Christian response to moment-by-moment burgeoning public issues, and we need gifted men like Russell Moore to respond nationally and publically (see previous book). However, there are huge new opportunities for every Christian to engage in these issues, too. We are all apologists now, says Guinness, and he’s right. Thanks to social media, particularly Facebook, each of us can speak to a larger immediate audience than any generation in human history. This is a book to help all of us learn the important skill of Christian persuasion inside a pantheon of political conversations. Os Guinness helps us speak, not to convince people toward our ideology, but to move sinners in the direction of the Savior. This is a wonderful book. • Honorable mention in apologetic methods: Scott Sauls’s Jesus Outside the Lines and Voddie Baucham’s Expository Apologetics.
9 — Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Banner of Truth). This is the book J.I. Packer never got around to writing. After his overwhelming success with Knowing God, Packer always intended to write a Christ-centered follow-up, Knowing Christ, but it never happened. The task fell to Mark Jones in 2015, and the book does not disappoint. As Packer notes in the preface, this book is thoroughly rooted in the rich Puritan tradition and from that tradition, Jones has produced a precious book that will ravish our eyes of faith with more of the glories of Christ. • Honorable mention on Christology: Michael Reeves, Rejoicing in Christ, a book released in the States in 2015, but featured in my 2014 list, based on the British release date.
10 — Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History (Oxford). I love the way Kidd thinks and writes. He has quickly become one of my favorite church historians, and his new history of the Baptists in America is proof again why. This book by Kidd (and co-authored by Barry Hankins) is thoroughly researched, illustrated with poignant personal vignettes from history, and filled with thoughtful implications. Simply put, the Baptist tradition has shaped the America we live in, and this book tells the story from the founding of the colonies all the way to Albert Mohler’s remaking of Southern Seminary. It was a rich year for those of us interested in the story of Baptists in America, and this book tops the list. • Honorable mention in Baptists studies: The Baptist Story and Baptist Foundations.
11 — Rosaria Butterfield, Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ (Crown & Covenant). It is incredible to see how richly the Reformed tradition has prepared the church to deal with complex cultural issues, like homosexuality. I think you could subtitle this book: How one former lesbian found freedom and repentance in the rich Puritan tradition of mortification and union with Christ. Butterfield’s book is new, but her founding principles are not. Tied to the Puritans and to the best of Reformed theology, she calls for a way forward by following old paths. This is a fittingly excellent follow-up to her 2012 bestselling memoir, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. • Honorable mention: See Kevin DeYoung’s excellent book, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?.
12 — Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion (IVP). To be a human is to be a moral creature, an immortal creature, and a creature who lives in an unfixed state of constant bend and perpetual change. We are always becoming like what we love, becoming like what we behold, and becoming like what we worship. The clay of our personhood molds to glory. This is true negatively (becoming like our idols) and it is true positively (becoming like Christ). Theologians like Greg Beale have done a great service to the church in explaining this point, but we have a long way to go in fully understanding the implications of this fundamental dynamic of change. Lints has taken a big step forward in this excellent book. I talked with him about his book in APJ episodes 674–678, and was impressed with the thoughtful way he approaches this important topic. • Honorable mentions in the field of biblical theology: Gentry and Wellum pruned, Goldsworthy on sonship, Boda on repentance, and Martin on the promised land.
13 — David Barshinger, Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms: A Redemptive-Historical Vision of Scripture (Oxford). Jonathan Edwards believed the Psalms were more than a hymnal and more than a devotional for individual spiritual reflection. He said the Psalms seem to “carry clear above and beyond the strain and pitch of the Old Testament, and almost brought up to the New.” In other words, the Psalms transcend out of the Old Testament to provide us with a hermeneutical key for putting together all of redemptive history. In fact, when Edwards wanted to understand how the testaments connected, he often sought answers in the theology of the Psalms. “The Psalms functioned for Edwards both as a progenitor and corroborator of doctrine” (87). Barshinger has delivered not only a groundbreaking work in Edwards’s studies; he has also delivered a groundbreaking concept for biblical theology. It will help us consider ways in which the Psalms should be consulted more seriously in our biblical theology. • Honorable mentions on the Psalms: Tim and Kathy Keller’s devotional, The Songs of Jesus, and James Johnston’s wonderful commentary, The Psalms (1–41). Honorable mention in Edwards studies: Douglas Sweeney, Edwards the Exegete.
14 — Gerald Bray, Augustine on the Christian Life: Transformed by the Power of God (Crossway). Full disclosure, I am an author in this series, and being in proximity to the series I am amazed at how many readers assume Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life is a series of short biographies. (It’s not.) Instead, the series gives voice to how certain theologians explain the flourishing Christian life. This volume, however, really is more biographical, making it, in my opinion, the most accessible single volume on the life and theology of Augustine I have read. Bray broadens the lens to capture the life and times of Augustine in a compelling way. Not quite like the other volumes in the series, but certainly not to be missed. • Noteworthy additions to the series in 2015: Bolt on Bavinck, Storms on Packer, Trueman on Luther, and Haykin and Barrett on Owen.
15 — Tim Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Viking). Tim Keller is one of our generation’s most widely embraced Christian speakers. He remains an incredibly broad voice outside of the church, and a widely respected preacher inside of the church. Here is a guidebook on how he balances it all. I cannot imagine any Christian communicator will allow this book from 2015 to pass unread. Moore, Guinness, and Keller are a mighty trio on helping the church find her gospel voice — her minority voice — in American culture today. • Other noteworthy books specifically on pastoral ministry: Thabiti Anyabwile’s Reviving the Black Church, Gloria Furman’s The Pastor’s Wife, J.D. Greear’s Gaining By Losing, Zack Eswine’s The Imperfect Pastor, Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan’s The Pastor as Public Theologian, and Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson’s The Pastor Theologian.
15 More Not to Miss from 2015
16 — Justin Holcomb and Lindsey Holcomb, God Made All of Me: A Book to Help Children Protect Their Bodies (New Growth).
17 — Rico Tice, Honest Evangelism (The Good Book Company).
18 — Andrew Wilson and Rachel Wilson, The Life You Never Expected: Thriving While Parenting Special Needs Children (IVP UK). This title is coming to America (via Crossway) in 2016.
19 — Matt Chandler, The Mingling of Souls: God’s Design for Love, Marriage, Sex, and Redemption (David C. Cook).
20 — Leland Ryken, J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Crossway).
21 — Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (IVP).
22 — Trillia Newbell, Fear and Faith: Finding the Peace Your Heart Craves (Moody).
23 — Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
24 — Kevin DeYoung and Don Clark, The Biggest Story: How the Snake Crusher Brings Us Back to the Garden (Crossway).
25 — Daniel Strange, Their Rock Is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Zondervan).
26 — Peter Leithart, Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience (Brazos).
27 — John Bolt, Bavinck on the Christian Life: Following Jesus in Faithful Service (Crossway).
28 — Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop, The Compelling Community: Where God’s Power Makes a Church Attractive (Crossway).
29 — Douglas Wilson, Writers to Read: Nine Names That Belong on Your Bookshelf (Crossway).
30 — Paul Heintzman, Leisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Perspectives (Baker).
Previous Book of the Year Winners
2014: Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Dutton).
2013: Tom Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Baker Academic).
2012: Steve DeWitt, Eyes Wide Open: Enjoying God in Everything (Credo).
2011: Greg Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Baker Academic).
2010: Don Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway) and Don Carson, The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (Baker).
2009: Bruce Gordon, Calvin (Yale).
2007: Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Zondervan).
2006: Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Reformation Heritage).