December is a month for making lists, and my favorite annual list to make is top books of the year. I check this list more than twice, however — because each year the choosing becomes more challenging.
My list focuses on non-fiction Christian books published in the last calendar year, and sixteen titles rose to the top.
But first, a couple of overall comments on the year. Compared to last year, 2016 saw fewer big commentary releases and fewer biblical theology titles, but more narrative-driven books by historians and journalists. Books on personal suffering were prominent in 2016, with at least eight noteworthy titles. Led by Crossway’s aggressive creativity, Bible production was especially strong. Books by female authors, strong in 2014 and a little weaker in 2015, picked up steam in 2016.
Probably the most noticeable improvement in Christian publishing this year was the upgrade in aesthetic design. The marketing and design of books and Bibles (covers and interiors) has noticeably improved with all of the major evangelical publishers. But the design improvements are not just window dressing, because the overall content and substance of the books have not declined.
I love assembling this list each year for many reasons. For one, it reminds me of the breadth of content — the diversity of genres that are serving readers and the collection of writers who are serving the church today. Writing Christian non-fiction is hard work, and it’s often not lucrative — and I am grateful for the writers and for the publishers and the editors and the designers who tirelessly labor behind each of these titles. We live in the golden age of publishing, and reading — like writing — is a way of serving. Reading opens our lives to benefit from a range of content, and prepares us to serve others by linking helpful books to the needs and interests of those around us.
With those connections in mind, here is my list of the year’s best books, all lumped together and ranked by my scientifically subjective algorithm of intuition about what books I think (1) are most unique in their category, (2) are most successful in their intended aims, and (3) are most likely to endure in service to the church in the years ahead.
Top 16 Books of 2016
1 — The six-volume ESV Reader’s Bible, cloth over board with permanent slipcase (Crossway). Each year, Crossway seems to find a new way to help us rethink our Bible reading habits — and what could be more valuable? Traditionally speaking, all Bibles look similar: the text is scrunched into an unnatural, two-column layout; scads of tiny cross-references and numbers and superscript letters are stuffed in the middle; and additions are scattered throughout, including section headings, book introductions, study notes, images, graphs, call-out boxes, concordances, and maps. Part of why our Bibles today seem so cluttered and so densely populated with characters and notes is because the length of the Bible is squeezed into a single volume. What would happen if you un-scrunched the Bible, allowed traditional publishing etiquette lead the way, and let the length of the Bible naturally dictate its own physical size? In 2014, Crossway released a de-cluttered one-volume Reader’s Bible which was a great step in the right direction. In 2016 the move toward a natural Bible was fully delivered in this six-volume form. And it’s beautiful. The size and simplicity of the text will make you read the Bible in new ways. The format will force you to orient yourself in the text, rather than in the structures around the text. I explored more implications of Bible formatting in my interview with Bible design expert Glenn Paauw, “A Short History of Bible Clutter.” • Notable mentions in Bibles: The Joe Carter Study Bible of Lifehacks (NIV), and The Gospel Project Bible (HCSB). This year, B&H announced the release of the Christian Standard Bible (CSB), a revision of the HCSB, arriving this spring.
2 — Rankin Wilbourne, Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God (David C. Cook). Before 2016, we had no readable survey of union with Christ for lay readers — a book that is theologically robust, but not too heavy, well-illustrated, and also well-applied to the demands of everyday life. That’s because such an approachable feat is nearly impossible. But in 2016, Rankin Wilbourne, a pastor in Los Angeles, pulled it off. In the words of Tim Keller, “This is simply the best book for laypeople on this subject. It is grounded in exegesis and theology and yet is lucid and supremely practical.” What I find most impressive about this book is the balance between celebrating the truth of our union and calling us to feed off this glorious reality in our labors toward holiness. “Union with Christ is the song we need to recover and hear today as the heart of the gospel,” Wilbourne writes. “The song of grace without union with Christ becomes impersonal, a cold calculus that can leave you cynical. The song of discipleship without union with Christ becomes joyless duty, a never-ending hill that can leave you exhausted. . . . Union with Christ holds together what so many of us are struggling to hold together. It allows us to sing of a grace that asks nothing of us to love us — amazing grace — but at the same time, demands everything from us — my soul, my life, my all” (78).
3 — George Marsden, C. S. Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’: A Biography (Princeton). Published in Princeton’s pioneering series “Lives of Great Religious Books,” Marsden has written a biography about a book. And if that sounds boring, it’s not — at least not in this case. When it comes to Amazon’s bestselling books in Christian apologetics, Mere Christianity has been in the top spot for as long as I can remember. The book was originally the product of a series of short, eight- to fifteen-minute talks broadcast on BBC radio by Lewis during World War II. Delivered to a British culture that was becoming increasingly post-Christian, Lewis’s talks served an audience that lived under perpetual fear of night bombing raids. He pulled the addresses off with great skill and imagination, but the talks were met with mixed reviews. Marsden retells the amazing story of how God used one intellectual believer (Lewis), who also was a novice apologist and lay theologian, to invest in the immediate medium at his disposal (BBC radio), in a dire time in world history (WWII). These talks became three separate books, then one book, that spread globally in the 1950s, that were largely forgotten during the sexual revolution in the 1960s (except at Wheaton College under the key influence of Clyde Kilby), surged in popularity in the late 1960s, and took on new life in the 1970s — largely by word-of-mouth. The swell of posthumous sales and popularity eventually led the book to Amazon’s top spot. Marsden has written not only one of the most fascinating stories in Christian publishing history, but also a riveting story of Christian faithfulness during a world war. • Notable mentions in narrative, history, and journalism: Taunton on Hitchens, Belz on ISIS, Murray on Ryle, Gordon on Calvin’s Institutes (in this same Princeton series), Ferguson on the Marrow Controversy, Gribben on Owen, Hamilton on missionary and Olympian Eric Liddell, Guretzki on Barth, Severance on hundreds of women, Haykin on eight women, Reeves on thirteen theologians, Noll on the Bible in the thirteen Colonies, and Kidd on the clashing faiths of the Colonies.
4 — John Piper, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness (Crossway). Rationalistic believers and skeptics ask questions like, Who confirms the message of the Bible? Who can authenticate its words as true words from the mouth of God himself? John Piper provides answers in this very important 2016 book. As Piper explains, one of the most significant truths in the world is that the Bible is autopistic — that is, self-credible, self-attesting, and self-authenticating — and each of these truths are driven by the glory of God shining in the Bible’s pages. Of this new book, theologian Michael Reeves perhaps said it best, in my interview with him earlier this year: “I don’t think since John Owen wrote his works (in the 1670s), any other serious, book-length theologically robust treatment of the self-evidencing nature of Scripture has been written. We have gone through all the period of Enlightenment, and there has been very little to help struggling rationalistic believers on this issue. So to have experienced this doubt for myself — Is Scripture reliable and true? — and now to see Peculiar Glory in print, I am utterly thrilled.” Peculiar Glory is a preliminary work to Piper’s anticipated 2017 release Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture. • Notable mentions on Scripture: Don Carson’s huge book of essays, Vanhoozer’s Biblical Authority after Babel, Poythress’s Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God, and Barrett’s God’s Word Alone.
5 — Nabeel Qureshi, No God but One: Allah or Jesus? A Former Muslim Investigates the Evidence for Islam and Christianity (Zondervan). Qureshi serves the Islamic community with a winsome and compelling onramp into the Christian faith. The boldness of his call to Christ is matched by his sobriety over the high cost of what it means to leave a Muslim family heritage for Christ. In his own words, “Every year, millions are faced with this dilemma: to follow Islam or Christianity, to worship Allah or Jesus. Unless the seeker lives in a nominal or secular environment, the stakes are high: It can cost a seeker her family, her friends, her job, and potentially her life. For such seekers, it is not simply a matter of believing whatever seems right. They need to be sure, and they need to be sure it is worth the sacrifice. For me, it has been a decade since I decided to leave Islam, and fallout of my decision haunts me every day. I knew it would, well before I ever converted, but I also knew that I was sure. I was sure that Islam and Christianity are not just two paths that lead to the same God, but two very different paths that lead very different ways” (20). Into such a heavy decision, Nabeel speaks with bold insight and careful pastoral prudence.
6 — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos). In many ways, Christian joy is the product of right patterns of discipline and behavior — never un-spiritual and never un-miraculous, but often the result of un-exciting disciplines. The habits of our lives train our affections, and that phenomenon is taken up by Smith in his excellent new book. Here you will not find a full exegesis or theology of the affections, but Smith excels in exposing the patterns of life that we don’t think about (but that effectively shape who we are). And these patterns are all around us; they are the liturgies of life that shape our loves and our affections. There’s a liturgy in the mall. Another in our homes. Another, of course, in our churches, however implicit or explicit. All of these liturgical phenomena, these habits, these patterns of behavior in our lives, are working to shape our loves, our longings, and our behaviors. This is both a frightening reality, as Smith shows in some of the most profound writing on the human longings that you will find. But it is also a powerful reality, one that holds untold potential for us to shape our habits to the desires and loves that we want to drive our lives.
7 — John Kilner, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Eerdmans). In a society with a loud secular left, and in a culture with constant reminders of our deep racial fragmentation, we must learn to celebrate human dignity. And who is better positioned to celebrate the dignity of man than those who take seriously the Creator? And yet, looking into the doctrine of the imago Dei reveals many complex questions. How can we move forward in our understanding so that we can preach with confidence the biblical doctrine? How can we articulate into this racially-charged culture the definition of humanity that is both compelling and constrained by biblical truth? Kilner has written an excellent book, and I have done my best to condense his core argument into one recent article at Desiring God. • Speaking of serious theological works, notable contributions this year include: Wellum on Christology, Sanders on the trinity, Abernethy on Isaiah, Hurtado on the cultural distinctives of the early Christians, Swain’s and Allen’s collected essays on Reformed theology, and Carson’s big book of essays on Scripture.
8 — Vaneetha Rendall Risner, The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Suffering (Desiring God). This year brought several books on personal suffering — for men, women, singles, couples, and parents. Every Christian suffers, and some Christians suffer inordinately, but very few have suffered like Vaneetha. In the words of John Newton, God sometimes sends extra suffering into the life of a saint, to provide a vision of God’s mercy to us all. Like a burning bush unconsumed, this saint suffers in ways unimaginable to most of us — but she survives the flame, offering us all fresh grace and hope for the various trials and suffering more normal to the ordinary Christian life. Born in India, she contracted polio as an infant, after it had been “eradicated,” due to a doctor’s error. Today she suffers from post-polio syndrome, a debilitating progressive disease, yet Veneetha is a woman unconsumed by the flame of pain in her body, in her children (she lost an infant son due to another doctor’s error), and in her relationships. I don’t think I’ve ever read a story of more diverse suffering. Vaneetha has faced irreparable loss and unfixable damage, but she presses on in hope and pursues her joy in Jesus Christ. Not only is her story riveting and heart-wrenching, it is also full of unflinching hope in God. Of all the books published on suffering this year, this is one you don’t want to miss. • But who am I to rank the stories of the suffering saints? Don’t let 2016 pass without looking over these notable books from the year on suffering: Dave Furman on personal suffering, masculinity, and lessons on loving the hurting, Andrew and Rachel Wilson on parenting special needs children, Nancy Guthrie on the pain of losing children and what not to say to the grieving, Joni Eareckson Tada with a daily application of grace to the lives of sufferers in her new devotional, Ann Voskamp on her own pain and the grace that meets us in our pain, Phil Ryken on preparing to meet inevitable suffering with courage and faith, and Betsy Howard on the pain of waiting.
9 — David Mathis, Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines (Crossway). Speaking of the habits of the affections, David Mathis wrote a wonderful survey of the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life. What separates his book from others is an unrelenting focus on the heart. For far too long, the spiritual disciplines have been developed as though joy and happiness were simply byproducts of doing the disciplines correctly. What Mathis shows in this book is that an appetite for joy in God is what must compel us into the disciplines in the first place. God’s invitation is to begin our days by making our souls as happy in Jesus as we can. That is exactly what this book sets out to help us accomplish. Uniquely affection-centered, tightly written, clearly illustrated, and sincerely motivated by a desire to help ordinary Christians develop healthy patterns of communion with God, this book is too important to pass up.
10 — Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Vine Project (Matthias). An important aspect of publishing is presenting new ideas into the public sphere, and encouraging dialogue and debate over those ideas. Those debates then give you fresh insight to go back and sharpen and revise and expand your entire proposal from beginning to end. Seven years ago, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne made a mark with their 2009 breakout book about church leadership and discipleship: The Trellis and the Vine. After publishing this book, they spent six years touring, leading conferences, and answering questions from church leaders about how to actually make this discipleship vision take hold in various church contexts. At the end of those six years, Marshall and Payne realized that another, more detailed book was in order to help flesh out the Trellis-and-Vine concept for ordinary local churches seeking to make discipleship part of the DNA of everything they do. Here is that book. It is a fuller and more detailed sequel that has functionally swallowed up the original work and produced a book-of-the-year achievement. • Notable mention in cultivating discipleship relationships: Scott Sauls on developing authentic friendships.
11 — John Piper, Living in the Light: Money, Sex, and Power (Good Book Co.). It has been said of C.S. Lewis that what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything. The same worldview consistency is true in John Piper. This little 150-page gem applies Christian Hedonism to three of the most potent areas of life — money, sex, and power — each a loaded gun, each packed with even more potential value than their self-destructive dangers. Originally prepared as a three-part series of messages delivered in London, the content was refined and extended by Piper and published for international print distribution. Perhaps what most stands out to me is that the book represents the longest and most sustained meditation to date from Piper on what it means to be made to reflect the beauty of God in our lives. Piper has only rarely addressed the imago Dei directly (one article from the 1970s and two paragraphs in a book foreword). This book is a profound study into three powerful forces in the world, and how Christians engage those forces with eternal purpose. By addressing the tensions Christians feel in this world with this trio of great influences, this book illustrates the deeper theology of John Piper in fresh and illuminating ways.
12 — Scott Christensen, What about Free Will?: Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty (P&R). The free-will debate is complex and requires a type of mastery to simplify everything at stake. It demands a theologian who is orthodox and who can invest serious attention to the heart. In explaining the bondage of the will, Christensen does not ignore the affections but rather follows the lead of Jonathan Edwards in using the affections as a decoder to understand the human will and the sovereignty of God. God, the sovereign, rules over human history — not as a puppet master moving strings of human dolls, and not as a fatalistic programmer in control of human robots. Through the human affections, the driving wants and desires and decisions of people, God mediates his complete sovereignty over everything in human behavior. In the case of a hardened sinner, like Pharaoh, “God’s sovereign dictation of the heart abrogates neither man’s freedom (i.e., voluntary actions) nor his responsibility” (119). And when it comes to regeneration, irresistible grace arrives so that “people truly believe in Christ because they want to believe, and they do so freely (voluntarily), without coercion. The grace that marks regeneration transforms the desires of recalcitrant sinners so that coming to Christ for salvation becomes the most appealing and compelling choice they could make — it is in their own best interest” (210). The free-will debate is one to be worked out in the wants and desires of the human heart, and this book, says Michael Horton, “breathes a spirit of wonder and gratitude before the face of a God who is not only all-powerful but good.”
13 — Ajith Fernando, The Family Life of a Christian Leader (Crossway). At just 200 pages, and with over 300 mentions of joy and happiness and delight and rejoicing, Fernando may have written the most joy-saturated book of 2016. This is a book to cultivate a happy home for Christian leaders, but it is also essential reading for every Christian husband on the planet. We delight in God. We delight in our spouse. We delight in our children. This habitat of delight changes everything about our homes and where we lead them. • Notable mentions in marriage and family: Ray Ortlund on marriage, Paul Tripp on gospel parenting, Christopher Ash on engaged couples preparing for marriage, and Rebekah Merkle on wifehood and mothering. • Notable mentions in church leadership: Montgomery and Kennedy and Geiger and Peck.
14 — Jen Wilkin, None Like Him: 10 Ways God Is Different from Us (And Why That’s a Good Thing) (Crossway). Crisp life illustrations. Snappy prose style. Honesty at every turn. Awareness of the human heart and its tendencies. Theological insight. Mix it all up and you get a wonderfully fresh and edifying book about God — ten of his attributes brilliantly explained and celebrated in a way only Jen Wilkin could pull off. • Notable mention books by female writers: Rebekah Merkle on feminism, Gloria Furman on missional mothering, Trillia Newbell on enjoying God’s good gifts, and Diana Lynn Severance’s ambitious biographical devotional of important women in the church.
15 — Champ Thorton, The Radical Book for Kids: Exploring the Roots and Shoots of Faith (New Growth). As a parent, I love this kind of book. So often in life I want a book that I can just pick up and read to my kids for ten minutes — one that doesn’t need to be a part of an ongoing curriculum or a chapter in a larger story. I want a book I can just open and read aloud, with delight and edifying benefit. This book is a new direction for children’s publishing, in collecting many various themes — biblical, theological, ethical, historical — and merging them all together for kids as an introduction to the Christian faith. That’s what this book does so well in its content and in its beautiful illustrations. If I want to show my kids how the creation account is organized, if I want to show them the power of the cross, if I want to give them a short autobiography of Luther, or if I want to give them a brief synopsis of Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, I can go to this book. The Radical Book for Kids is a valuable way for me, as a dad, to redeem small fragments of time with my kids. • Notable mentions in children’s books: Machowski on Proverbs and Laferton’s and Echeverri’s illustrated Bible narrative.
16 — Sinclair Ferguson, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification (Banner of Truth). This is Ferguson at his best, dealing with progressive sanctification from a God-centered worldview. It is less a book about techniques to holiness and more of a biblical survey over the key New Testament passages that talk about how God works sanctification into our lives. Here Ferguson is more concerned with the indicative of grace than the imperatives of command. Of course, he knows that sanctification and mortification is the product of effort and resolve, but this book focuses on God, the architect of our salvation and the sovereign over our sanctification. And God’s blueprint over our lives is discovered in several key New Testament passages, as Ferguson explains. The cornerstone of the book is our union with Christ, and how necessary that is for us to grow in holiness. Ferguson skillfully shows us how God’s work in us is both for his glory and for our joy simultaneously, a central theme for us at Desiring God.
16 More Not to Miss from 2016
17 — Lecrae Moore, Unashamed (B&H).
18 — Tim Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (Viking).
19 — Don Carson (ed.), The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (Eerdmans).
20 — Kevin Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness, and Wisdom (IVP).
21 — Bob Cutillo, Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age (Crossway).
22 — Dave Furman, Being There: How to Love Those Who Are Hurting (Crossway).
23 — Scott Sauls, Befriend: Create Belonging in an Age of Judgment, Isolation, and Fear (Tyndale).
24 — Iain Murray, J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone (Banner of Truth).
25 — Tim Challies, Do More Better: A Practical Guide to Productivity (Cruciform Press).
26 — Andy Crouch, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk, and True Flourishing (IVP).
27 — Larry Taunton, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist (Thomas Nelson).
28 — Andy Naselli and J.D. Crowley, Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ (Crossway).
29 — David Powlison, Good and Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining, and Bitterness (New Growth).
30 — Paul David Tripp, Parenting: The 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family (Crossway).
31 — Mindy Belz, They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East (Tyndale).
32 — Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor).
Previous Books of the Year
2015: Randy Alcorn, Happiness (Tyndale).
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).
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).
2010: Don Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway) and 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).