If you step out the doors of Capitol Hill Baptist Church
, walk across the parking lot, and hike up a long hallway of stairs, you’ll arrive in the office of my good friend Mark Dever. There his massive study claims the entire second story of his home, the walls hidden by bookshelves.
But Mark’s study is more unusual than you think.
Entering Mark’s office, you immediately become aware of people. Mark is rarely alone in his study, and it appears he likes it that way. His sermon preparation is unlike anything I’ve seen as he enjoys interacting with the flurry of staff and interns buzzing around his desk. And on more than one occasion, Mark has prepared entire sermons in the church parking lot—not to avoid people, but to better tap into the stream of staff, interns, and church members cutting between the church and his study! But when the parking lot is not ideal for sermon prep, Mark moves back into the study, where the stream of staff and interns continues. Mark’s (quite unusual) study arrangement makes a loud statement about his care for people, his desire to train others, and his love of friendship.
The second thing you notice about his study is the books. Books are everywhere, floor to ceiling. Though his study is large and his walls are hidden by bookshelves, I would guess Mark’s collection of books exceeded the shelf space in the mid-1990s. When the shelf space was exhausted, the books kept coming, the horizontal arrangement stopped, and vertical piles of books began to accumulate. Though there must be some organization to the maze of books, I cannot tell you what system it follows (probably only Mark knows).
Third, you will notice his love of music. There is always some form of music playing in his study, which is not unusual for a study. But his eclectic musical interests are bizarre and distracting. You could hear classical music followed by a Maranatha! worship chorus from the early ’70s, then a singing nun (no joke!), Keith Green, opera, and jazz. Often when I’m in his study I ask him to turn the music down or to change it to something, well, less annoying and distracting.
On June 6, 2007, I joined the staff and interns at 9Marks in Mark’s study. We sat among the books and silenced the music, and I turned the microphone on Mark to hear about his life and ministry. We were scheduled to talk for one hour but extended it to another hour (and could have gone a third without any problem). The full interview recording can be downloaded from the 9Marks website here
Although I had explored many of the topics in the interview with Mark before, the Q&A uncovered a stream of information I had never heard before. I commend the entire interview, but I especially wanted to highlight a few excerpts here for pastors.
The god of Options
This first excerpt reminds me of the many pastors I have met who are distracted from serving joyfully in the present by thinking continuously about future options. These pastors are often unaware of how their consideration of the future affects their souls each day.
In answering a question about his future at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Mark’s response included the phrase “the god of options,” which I found wise, and have since used (when appropriate) to care for other pastors. I think as pastors read the rest of his response, this phrase will remind them that, regardless of God’s will for your future, and without eliminating the real possibility of future transition, you can be certain that God’s will for you this day (and in the foreseeable future) is to serve him with gladness right where you are.
: Do you plan on staying at Capitol Hill Baptist Church?
: Lord willing.
: Lord willing what?
: The rest of my life.
: As a member of the pulpit committee, Matt Schmucker remembers a particular statement you made in that regard. You said to Connie, “The next place we go, we’re buying...
: …cemetery plots.” Because we had been moving around and wherever we lived my heart got entangled with the people. I just hated moving and it was just horrendous for me. I had been studying the Puritans and realized that the basic model was to just stay someplace—like a marriage to a congregation. It is not exactly the same, it is not sin to leave it necessarily, but you don’t assume churches are a career ladder you are climbing. You are at one church for two years to work on some skills and when you run out of your bag of tricks you move to another church for three years, they hear all six of your sermons and then you move someplace else. No, I would like to know their children and their grandchildren. So I made clear when we were talking to the pulpit search committee that if I came I was intending, Lord willing, to stay. I had no further plans and actually planned to have no further plans.…
I remember, during a Wednesday night church potluck very early during my time here, I got my food and sat down. An older woman (probably in her mid-70s, late 70s at the time) who had been at the church for decades gets her meal and sits down right next to me. She looks at me and says, “I don’t like young preachers.”
: And you are probably 33 years old?
: Thirty-two or 33. And I just looked at her. I said, “Really?” She said, “Yep. Of course I’ll make an exception in your case.”
: Did you ask for an explanation why?
: I just started eating my food and then I said, “I guess you expect to outlast him at the church, don’t you?” She said, “Yep. Always have.”
And then I took some more food and then said, “Well, I think you may have met your match.”
: Oh, outstanding.…Thank you for the compelling example you provide of a commitment to this church, and provoking other pastors to follow that similar attitude and approach. You introduced me to the description of Puritan pastors, that they were “looking for a place to settle.”
: A great example of that is when John Cotton, I think it was when John Cotton died, their church needed a pastor and began negotiating with the First Congregational Church up in Ipswich. Both churches entered a season of prayer for their pastor, John Norton, coming down to Boston. So it was not at all a kind of cloak-and-dagger secret committee goes and attends, tries to scout out the talent, and then steals them away. It’s two families, two congregations, praying about where would this brother be best used—which is a great way to approach it.
: What are the unique joys of pastoring?
: Well, for me, that would include that specific decision to stay here. It was a great opportunity to destroy the “god of options,” which I think young men and women who are successful in our culture tend to be addicted to.
I watch young people in this church when they are 25 and they don’t want to do anything that closes any options. At 27, 31, 33, the same thing. At some point life begins forcing itself on you and you have a wife and kids and some options just close. But I think the young folks in our culture who are doing OK by the world’s standards are enslaved to worshiping at the altar of this god of options.
So by saying I wasn’t interested in going anyplace else, I meant to send out a wide signal to say, “Please don’t tempt me by asking me about other options, because this is going to be slow, hard work and it’s worthy of a life.”
The Sovereign Grace Leadership Interviews feature a roundtable discussion among C.J. Mahaney (president of Sovereign Grace Ministries), Jeff Purswell (dean of our Pastors College), and Joshua Harris (senior pastor of Covenant Life Church). The three gather on a regular basis to discuss a wide array of theological and practical leadership issues.
In the second episode, the topic turns to care for the pastor’s own soul. Harris’ opening question sets the stage:
Pastors are obviously called to care for the souls of others, and yet today we want to turn the focus and ask: How does a pastor make sure that he is caring for his own soul? What does it look like for a man to pursue his own personal relationship with God and make sure he is growing spiritually?
The full hourlong podcast, “The Pastor and His Soul,” can be downloaded here.
Gauging from the emails, the first Sovereign Grace Leadership Interview podcast—“The Pastor and His Reading”
—was a hit. The second episode is set for release this Tuesday, March 18. In anticipation of the podcast, this week we pull a few excerpts from the upcoming episode, “The Pastor and His Soul.”
In today’s excerpt, Joshua and C.J. address how a pastor monitors the health of his own soul.
Pastors are obviously called to care for the souls of others, and yet today we want to turn the focus and ask: How does a pastor
make sure that he is caring for his own soul? What does it look like for a man to pursue his own personal relationship with God and make sure he is growing spiritually?
C.J., this is a subject you take so much time to talk about with pastors and those in the Pastors College. Why is this important to you?
Well, Josh, I think it would be difficult, if not impossible, to exaggerate the importance of this topic for the pastor. So I am very eager for us to talk about this and hope that we can serve all pastors. It’s all too easy and all too common for a pastor, in caring for others, to neglect his own soul.
Today we want to address that, and hopefully provide some helpful recommendations so that a pastor avoids the neglect of his own soul as he executes his responsibility to care for a growing church.
I can imagine a guy listening and thinking, “OK. They’re going to talk about studying the Bible and praying. I am doing those things.” If you were to try to get that guy’s attention and talk about what are some of the signs that (even if those things are in place) maybe his soul is not being cared for, is not flourishing as it should, what are some warning signs that something is out of place?
Yes, excellent question. If I had the privilege to sit across from someone in pastoral ministry, one of the questions I would ask him is: How goes it with your soul? And I would do my best to draw him out, particularly about the presence or absence of affections for the Savior. So I wouldn’t want to begin with discussing the particulars of pastoral ministry or the skills involved for the effective execution of pastoral ministry. What I would want to talk to each and every pastor [about] first and foremost is: How is it with your soul?
And I would ask if they are weary
of soul. There is a difference between being tired
. If I am tired, then sleep will bring appropriate refreshment and restore my strength. But if I am weary, sleep will be insufficient.
It is all too easy to slowly and subtly grow weary as a pastor, and we must guard against that which is, I think, one of the reasons a verse like Proverbs 4:23 is so relevant to all of us, but pastors in particular. “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (ESV).
So we must pay close attention to our hearts. We must study our hearts. We must monitor the condition of our hearts, and ultimately we must work by the grace of God and employ the means of grace to “keep our hearts with all vigilance.”
So if I was interacting with a pastor, I would want to draw him out about the present state of his soul, the presence or absence of affections and passion for the Savior. And I would want to talk to him about whether ministry is a joy for him at present, or a burden. Is his soul glad, or is his soul weighed down and weary?
The full hourlong podcast, “The Pastor and His Soul,” will be available through this blog and iTunes
next Tuesday (18th).
“What books on the cross of Christ have affected you the most?”
I love answering this question (the challenge here will be brevity). But before I do, let me briefly describe why it’s so important to consistently read about the cross.
We awaken each day with a tendency to forget that which is most important: the gospel. All of us should assume this tendency and be aware of this tendency. Because of the Fall and due to the effects of remaining sin, we have a daily tendency and temptation to forget stuff in general and to forget that which is most important in particular.
Assuming this tendency, we must create practices that will enable us to remember what we must not forget—the cross. So each day I seek to spend time in a location where I am not distracted, unhurriedly reading and meditating on Scripture and finding my way in Scripture to a hill called Calvary to meditate each day on Christ and him crucified. Each day I need to remind myself of the gospel. I cannot live on yesterday’s recollection of the gospel. I need to review and rehearse the gospel each day or I will assume the gospel, forget the gospel, and prove vulnerable to all manner of temptation and sin.
Let me admit from the outset that this post extends longer than we want or anticipate in the future. But if ever a topic demanded a lengthy post, this list of books on the cross should be long one. Consider printing this out and reading over the course of a few days if necessary.
So here are some of the books I have read and re-read as a supplement to Scripture (providing insight into Scripture) that have been a means of grace to my soul and in pastoral ministry. As I read these books I am reminded of the gospel, I experience fresh affection for the Savior, and am freshly amazed by grace.
I’ve broken these down into the following categories: personal, pastoral, one recent title, and one forthcoming title.
(1) Personal: The Cross of Christ by John R.W. Stott
I’m not sure the opening line of a preface—not even the first chapter—of any other book I’ve read has affected me. This one did.
Stott opens by writing, “I count it an enormous privilege to have been invited by InterVarsity Press to write a book on that greatest and most glorious of all subjects, the cross of Christ.” If you looked in my book I have a check mark on the left, part of the sentence underlined (“that greatest and most glorious of all subjects”), and to the right of that is a star. These marks are my simple and feeble attempt to communicate on this book the immediate impact of this sentence upon my soul.
I can remember thinking for just a moment, Is that sentence just hyperbole? Is that well-meaning exaggeration from someone who has just finished writing a book on this topic? Quickly I realized this was not hyperbolic, not a well-meaning exaggeration, but from a man deeply affected by this topic.
This opening statement reflects the clear teaching of Scripture. The only question left unanswered was, does that statement reflect my heart? Does that statement reflect my heart personally and pastorally? Do I view the cross of Christ as “that greatest and most glorious of all subjects?”
I can certainly say that if I wasn’t fully convinced at the outset of this book, soon into it I was convinced.
For example, I was struck when Stott writes about how we must see our guilt in relation to the cross. First, he paints a brief historical overview of those historically responsible for the crucifixion, recounting the actual history as recorded in Scripture. But then he turns to address the reader with these sobering words:
If we were in their place, we would have done what they did. Indeed, we have done it. For whenever we turn away from Christ, we ‘are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace’ (Heb. 6:6).… ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ the old negro spiritual asks. And we must answer, ‘Yes, we were there.’ Not as spectators only but as participants, guilty participants, plotting, scheming, betraying, bargaining, and handing him over to be crucified. We may try to wash our hands of responsibility like Pilate. But our attempt will be as futile as his. For there is blood on our hands. Before we can begin to see the cross as something done for us (leading us to faith and worship), we have to see it as something done by us (leading us to repentance). Indeed, ‘only the man who is prepared to own his share in the guilt of the cross’, wrote Canon Peter Green, ‘may claim his share in its grace’. (59–60)
And then he transitions to this incredible hymn that’s really difficult (if not impossible) to read without being affected and moved to tears. Horatius Bonar writes,
‘Twas I that shed the sacred blood;
I nailed him to the tree;
I crucified the Christ of God;
I joined the mockery.
Of all that shouting multitude
I feel that I am one;
And in that din of voices rude
I recognize my own.
Around the cross the throng I see,
Mocking the Sufferer’s groan;
Yet still my voice is seems to be,
As if I mocked alone. (p. 60)
Do you hear your voice? This book will help you recognize your own voice among the shouting multitude.
Repeatedly I return to these words to be freshly affected by my role and responsibility for his death. And to be reminded of my role and responsibility and my sin and what my sin required in the Savior’s death—“in my place condemned he stood”—is to be freshly reminded of grace. In reading and re-reading this book, my personal life and pastoral ministry have changed.
This is one book I pull from the shelf when I pull away for an extended period of time in order to survey the wondrous cross. Countless times, this is one of those books where I have read from and been deeply affected.
But I don’t assume everyone who reads this book will have the same experience. The important point is that we have a set of supplemental books that help us in our comprehension of the most important book (the Bible) and serve our souls in drawing our attention to Christ and him crucified. I would recommend that every Christian build a small library of books where that experience can take place and their hearts can be refreshed when necessary.
I really cannot turn a page of The Cross of Christ without wanting to read and quote. I think that in many ways you can locate the theological origin for my passion for the cross in this book.
(2) Pastoral: The Cross and Christian Ministry by D.A. Carson
Page after page, this book is marked up. Sentences are underlined, checked, bracketed, starred—all simple reminders of this book’s importance in my life.
Every page seems to contain a quote worthy of reflection. But since I need to choose, let’s center on this one:
Western evangelicalism tends to run through cycles of fads. At the moment, books are pouring off the presses telling us how to plan for success, how “vision” consists in clearly articulated “ministry goals,” how the knowledge of detailed profiles of our communities constitutes the key to successful outreach. I am not for a moment suggesting that there is nothing to be learned from such studies. But after a while one may perhaps be excused for marveling how many churches were planted by Paul and Whitefield and Wesley and Stanway and Judson without enjoying these advantages. Of course all of us need to understand the people to whom we minister, and all of us can benefit from small doses of such literature. But massive doses sooner or later dilute the gospel. Ever so subtly, we start to think that success more critically depends on thoughtful sociological analysis than on the gospel; Barna becomes more important than the Bible. We depend on plans, programs, vision statements—but somewhere along the way we have succumbed to the temptation to displace the foolishness of the cross with the wisdom of strategic planning.…Rather, I fear that the cross, without ever being disowned, is constantly in danger of being dismissed from the central place it must enjoy, by relatively peripheral insights that take on far too much weight. Whenever the periphery is in danger of displacing the center, we are not far removed from idolatry. (pp. 25–26)
As I read this quote I’m frightened. These words were written 15 years ago and yet appear as though they were written last week. This book is filled with discernment that we as pastors need to hear and must have. Dr. Carson’s fear was justifiable when he wrote this book. His fear is a continuing fear. I have now adopted this fear as my own. How about you? Does this fear reside in your soul?
From his exposition of 1 Corinthians chapters one through four, it’s clear the cross must occupy and enjoy the central place in my soul and in my pastoral ministry. But that cross is constantly in danger of being dismissed from the central place. And dismissed by what? “Relatively peripheral insights that take on far too much weight.”
Another classic quote from this book:
He [Paul] cannot long talk about Christian joy, or Christian ethics, or Christian fellowship, or the Christian doctrine of God, or anything else, without finally tying it to the cross. Paul is gospel-centered; he is cross-centered. (p. 38)
Every time I preach, every text I address, every topic I teach, must be derived from and related to the cross. And at some point in my sermon that must be obvious to those who are listening. And if it’s not obvious I have not truly preached the gospel or truly executed my unique pastoral role to serve them with the gospel. Dr. Carson goes on to discuss how this commitment to being cross-centered must shape not only our message but our style of ministry, too.
This whole book is peppered with choice wisdom to protect a pastor from assigning centrality and excessive authority to peripheral insights. As we devote ourselves to the centrality of the cross we are—by God’s grace—protected from idolatry.
To each pastor I interact with, I say this book is on the top of a short list of must-reads for them. What I’ve learned has been learned by review and repeated reading. So actually this book is not only a must-read, but also a must re-read.
In all book recommendations I must be careful in recommending books, but in no way am I cautious about recommending this one. The Cross and Christian Ministry defined (and still defines) pastoral ministry for me.
(3) Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach
Sadly, this book was needed because of distortions and criticisms of the doctrine of penal substitution. The book was designed to protect the church from errors that (to a surprising degree) have become popularized through those who are professing evangelicals. And Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution is a unique and recent gift to the church.
One is immediately struck by the pages of endorsements. I’m not sure I own another book with more endorsements. In fact, it may set the endorsement record. It sets the endorsement record in the number of endorsements, but then who endorsed this book is also something to read and marvel. Having been endorsed by the finest leaders in evangelicalism today makes a very loud statement about the importance of this book.
And it’s not just the number of endorsements or who endorsed it, but it’s also impressive from the content of their endorsements. I have received instruction about the content of the book just by reading through the endorsements of this book! Don’t skip over them too quickly.
But this book has immeasurable devotional value as well. And through this book and the passages they teach from, you will—by God’s grace—survey the wondrous cross where the Prince of Glory died and will be freshly amazed by grace.
Wisely, my friend Mark Dever has taken the primary Scripture passages addressed in this book and created a sermon series. The series is taught by Mark and the associate pastor Michael Lawrence at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (click here to listen). I would recommend that pastors not only listen to this series for the sake of their own souls, but also emulate the example of Mark and Michael and create a similar series at some point in the next year, where they can systematically teach from these important and most relevant passages related to the atonement. Your church will surely experience the affect of this series.
This book is necessary to help protect the gospel in the church, but also it’s a personal gift to Christians in their study of what Mr. Stott calls “that greatest and most glorious of all subjects, the cross of Christ.”
(4) In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement by J.I. Packer and Mark Dever
I love the title. It reduces me to tears. I would say it’s rare to come across a title that in itself arrests my attention and affects my soul. So from the first time I looked at this title to each time I have returned to this book I find myself pausing and allowing these six words to affect my soul–In My Place Condemned He Stood. I would encourage you to reflect on the title until it stirs your soul.
This book is also well endorsed. If it’s endorsements you want, endorsements you need, this book comes loaded.
The main contributors are J.I. Packer, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan. The foreword was a team effort among Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever, Albert Mohler, and me.
The origin of this book is described by Lig in his contribution to the foreword. He writes,
The cross of Christ is at the center of gospel proclamation, and thus a thorough, biblical grasp of this central truth is necessary for every gospel minister. Yet our day has seen (like ages before us) much confusion on this vital point of truth.…
The book that you are holding has a history. It exists, in part, because of the same friendships that brought us “Together for the Gospel.” It contains what have already been reckoned classic, contemporary, evangelical essays on the subject of the atoning work of Christ. Al, Mark, C.J. and I (Ligon) were talking late one night (as is typical for us), and remarking on how singularly useful is J.I. Packer’s introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ for articulating a robust, biblical view of salvation and for setting forth succinctly the Bible’s teaching on the intent of the atoning work of Christ.
After a suitable season of reflection on our own first encounter with that piece, and how often it had been used to clarify the minds of growing Christians on the comforting truth of God’s sovereignty in the salvation of sins, we began to muse on other choice, short pieces on the subject of the meaning and achievement of Christ’s death on the cross. Almost simultaneously we named another famous Packer essay, “The Logic of Penal Substitution,” given at Tyndale House many years ago. This essay is a little more academic than the Owen introduction, we all agreed, but it is solid gold, superb argument, sound, and edifying. Then one of us said, “Don’t forget ‘The Heart of the Gospel’ from Knowing God”—yet another Packer piece that had pierced our hearts and grown us in grace.
I think it was Mark who then blurted aloud a thought, an idea, a wish: “Wouldn’t it be great if all three of these were in one little book that you could give out to people who want to learn more about the atonement?” It was a stroke of genius, for all three of these short works are enormously helpful, devotionally powerful, and biblically faithful. We all hummed and nodded our agreement. “Yes, Yes.” But how would this happen?
It was agreed that Mark would call his old friend and senior colleague Jim Packer and inquire into his interest and willingness about such a project. Mark did. Dr. Packer graciously and enthusiastically consented, as did the good folks at Crossway. But Dr. Packer also suggested that Mark Dever’s brilliant piece from Christianity Today be included. Mark protested mightily. “It doesn’t remotely compare with the three works of yours, Jim.” But Professor Packer was having nothing of it. “I insist,” he said. (pp. 5–6)
Well it happened. And the content of this book is a gift to all Christians and pastors in particular.
The book is worth list price, not only for the pieces by Packer and Dever, but also for Ligon’s chapter titled “Books on the Cross of Christ” and a lengthy annotated bibliography (pp. 145–180). What he provides for us here is the largest breadth of recommendations related to books available on the cross of Christ and the atonement. With each book there is a paragraph description of the uniqueness and contribution of each volume. These valuable appendices alone make this book a unique gift to pastors.
I am so grateful to have the manuscript version of In My Place Condemned He Stood and I look forward to holding the actual book in my hands. I also look forward to the difference this book will make for pastors and for Christians.
I know this was not brief, but it’s my answer to the most common question I receive. Know that if you ask me this great question in person, I hope you’ll have a few hours to hear my lengthy answer.
What a joy to recommend these books, each with the potential to impact your life as you preach the gospel to yourself daily!