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Books I Read in 2020 You Should Read in 2021

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BY BENJAMIN R. LEE, Assistant Pastor of Oakwood Presbyterian  

     The old saying says we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, and if that’s the case, it certainly applies to the endorsements on the back of the cover. For some odd reason every single one would make you think that particular book is the best thing that ever happened to paper. Since my mental bandwidth is only so wide and I can’t read every book out there, I’ve learned to be more selective in the books I read. That’s why there’s not much I love more than a good book recommendation.

     At the beginning of the year many readers are prioritizing books we want to engage during the year. These are some the best and, I think, most significant books I read in the past year. Some of these are Christian books on discipleship and theology. Others are secular takes on important issues. Some are just for fun. I hope you’ll take them as worthwhile recommendations and add them to your list for 2021.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

 Tim Keller once said that he’s pretty much always reading The Lord of the Rings. That’s me, except with Harry Potter. I love this story. It’s filled with so much that Christians ought to appreciate in a good story; love, sacrifice, virtue – not to mention the triumph of good over evil.

Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World by Michael Horton

Do you ever feel like your faith is just too “ordinary” and that therefore it just might not be real? If so, this book is for you. I’ve never encountered a better book on living a normal, non-radical life to the glory of God like this one. This book helped me to find peace in being a non-extraordinary Christian.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport

Most of us exist in a state of digital overload. It might even be more of an issue currently with COVID pushing so much of our life online. For that reason, this is not a book you want to skip. Digital Minimalism forces us to ask hard questions about the ways we use technology and then to think through what technology is essential for our lives and what we could do without.

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

This was a book recommendation I received from my lovely wife, and to be honest, at first, I didn’t think I’d enjoy it much. I mean, who wants to read a book about education, right? But as usual, she was right. And holy cow was she right! Educated is Tara’s autobiography about growing up in an impoverished fundamentalist Mormon home in rural Idaho. This is one of those rags-to-riches page-turners you won’t want to put down.

Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortland

This is one of those books that seems like it’s going to stand the test of time. It’s a brilliant and pastoral look into the heart of Christ. If you’re needing encouragement in your walk with Jesus, especially in regards to how he feels about you in spite of all your remaining sin and weakness, this is one you’ll want to pick up.

John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger

I wasn’t expecting this but Unger took John Quincy Adams from a president I knew very little about to perhaps my favorite American. It’s a masterpiece.

      Okay, so I know I said these are recommendations, but from here on out I’m giving you what I consider to be required reading for Christians living in the 21st century. Ironically, only one of these was written by a Protestant, but these books deal with important issues on which Christians must educate themselves. 

Irreversible Damage; The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters by Abigail Shrier

The transgender phenomenon is wreaking havoc in our world, especially with young women. Shrier dissects the problem and points toward solutions. It’s not written from a Christian perspective, but you will search long and in vain for a more accessible look at what’s plaguing girls in our culture. If you have or work with teenage girls this is a must read.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self; Cultural Analysis, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl Truman

The lone contribution from Protestantism on the “required reading” portion of this list is by Carl Truman. The brilliance of this book is that rather than just explaining where our culture is at Truman helps us to see how we got here. Where did transgenderism, gay marriage, and the like come from? What ideologies led to our current cultural moment? If you’re looking for something to help you get your mind around what’s going on in the world, this is it.

Cynical Theories; How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity, and Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay

I rarely read the same book more than once in the same year, but I went through this one twice in 2020 and I just picked it up again. I’m revisiting it because (1) my small brain didn’t understand it all the first (or second) time, and (2) the contents of this book are massively important. The authors help us to understand how the postmodernism of the 60s and 70s (i.e. truth is what you want it to be) has influenced the world today. Those of you in secular academic settings would particularly benefit from Pluckrose and Lindsay’s work. If there is one book here that I’ll be begging people to read in 2021 it’s Cynical Theories.

Live Not by Lies; A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher

I included this one last for a reason. It is a fantastic read, but the primary reason is because while other writers help us to understand our world, Dreher (himself Eastern Orthodox) helps us learn to live as Christians in a world increasingly hostile to us. Dreher shows how the moral and political climate of our day resulting in this hostility eerily mirrors that experienced under the totalitarian Soviet bloc. Dreher is not a conspiracy theorist. His book is meant to be an eye opener that helps us to think critically and strategically about living for Christ in our day. I hope you’ll read it!

     That’s my list. Pass along your recommendations! My prayer is that God will use your reading in 2021 to encourage and strengthen you in Christ.

Pastor Ben

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How I Became Reformed (And Why You Should Baptize Your Babies)

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BY BEN LEE, Youth Director of Oakwood Presbyterian Church

     Late last Fall the word began to spread around Oakwood that a former Baptist pastor was going to be the next youth pastor. I’m sure it had the same ring to it as those comments by early Christians who heard about Saul’s conversion; “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” Well, maybe it wasn’t quite that drastic, but it is certainly true that I – a son and great grandson of Baptist ministers – grew up a committed Baptist. As the name suggests believers-only baptism is a central tenant of Baptist theology, and I believed it. I whole-heartedly, passionately believed it. Ironically, it was my wife who first suggested in seminary that because I was a Calvinist, I should be a Presbyterian. But with a proud and defiant smirk I told her I would never baptize an infant! Never say never, right? Nearly ten years later here I am, a youth pastor seeking ordination in the PCA who on July 5 happily witnessed the baptisms of all three of his yet unregenerate (to my knowledge) sons marking them as members of the covenant community. What in the world happened?

     It’s a question I know many of you have been wondering, and since it’s a question I have been trying to wrap my head around for 18 months I thought I’d walk with you through what ultimately brought me fully into the Reformed faith.

     You might envision the Baptist doctrine of believers-only baptism as a glass orb suspended by a three-stranded chord. And you know what the Bible says about chords of three strands? Changing my mind wasn’t easy, but little by little those chords began to fray.

     The first chord is the nature of the covenants. Just like in Reformed theology, Baptist theology is ultimately grounded in its understanding of the relationship between the various covenants in the Bible. The main contention of Baptist theology is that there is radical discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, and particularly between the Old and New Covenant. Pointing to verses like Hebrews 8:13, Baptists suggest that since the Old Covenant is now obsolete what we have in the New Covenant is something entirely different than we find in the Old Testament. Yes, the New Covenant is foreshadowed in the Old Testament, but they are not the same. Reformed Baptists even speak of the New Covenant as the Covenant of Grace, but contrary to Reformed theology, they do not see the Covenant of Grace as having existed in the Old Testament. It was promised in the Old Testament, but Old Testament believers did not actually possess the Covenant of Grace.

     That was my position for many years, but as I began to study the covenants for myself, I came to the conclusion that rather than discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments there is evident continuity. I came to see that what we are given in the New Testament is no different in substance than what we find in the Old Testament. And the substance is Christ. Yes, the “old” covenant is now obsolete. But the author of Hebrews was not speaking about the entire Old Testament in 8:13, but specifically of the Mosaic Covenant. The Mosaic Covenant is indeed obsolete because the One to whom it pointed in types and shadows has now come as our Great High Priest and sacrificial lamb. The New Covenant is different not in the sense that its promises and blessings didn’t exist before, but in that we no longer need priests, temples, or sacrifices because the substance of the covenant has appeared in Jesus. I came to see that the same promise given to us in Christ was given by God to every believer throughout the ages. Paul taught that if we are in Christ, we are Abraham’s descendants and heirs according to the promise (Gal. 3:29). We are recipients of the same covenant promise given to Abraham that God would be God to us and to our children forever (Gen. 17:7, Rev. 21:3). The New Covenant is different and distinct and even new compared to the Mosaic Covenant, but not to God’s covenant with Abraham where the covenant of grace begins to be spelled out. What I came to see ultimately was that there is one covenant of grace stretching across the pages of Scripture that gives to all believers, both in the Old and New Testament, Christ and all his benefits.

     One of those benefits is the sacrament of baptism. This benefit was administered in the Old Testament through the sacrament of circumcision to believers and their children, not to believers only. In the New Covenant the sign has changed. We no longer circumcise, we baptize. But nowhere does the New Testament indicate that the recipients of the sign have changed. Just as it was in the Old Testament, so it is now that “the promise is for you and your children” (Acts 2:39).

     Coming to the Reformed understanding of the Covenant of Grace was the first and largest domino that had to fall. Once I made that switch the other “chords” frayed with greater ease. The second chord supporting the glass orb of believers-only baptism is the Baptist understanding of the nature of the church. Baptist ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) flows directly from their doctrine of the covenants. Based upon the discontinuity they find between the Old and New Testaments Baptists developed the doctrine of regenerate church membership. Whereas in the Old Testament the people of God are always a mixed group of believers and unbelievers, Baptists believe this has changed in the New Covenant so that now only professing believers are considered members of the church. This is a crucial position for a Baptist pastor as the way in which you minister is directly tied to it. As you can imagine this doctrine has significant pastoral implications about who can be considered a member of the church and who are candidates for baptism.

     Regenerate church membership was a significant hurdle to overcome on my journey into the PCA. How could I baptize an infant who was not regenerate? How could unregenerate infants be received into membership?

     This is why grasping the Reformed view of the Covenant of Grace was so important. Once I saw the continuity between the Old and New Testaments it became clear, as I mentioned above, that the visible people of God on earth have always been a mixed body of believers and unbelievers. Consider that both of Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, were circumcised (thus recognized as visible members of the covenant community), though only Isaac was the child of promise. The visible church from Abraham until today has always been composed of believers and their children.

     So, I was two strands down. That shiny glass orb of believers-only baptism was starting to shake a little, but there was one significant chord left to snap. I could see the continuity between the covenants. I could see how that understanding could allow even infants to be considered part of the visible church. There was one problem left. What about baptism itself? Isn’t it a sign for believers? Isn’t baptism a testimony of faith? The last issue I had to work through was the nature of baptism.

     If you’ve attended a baptism in a Baptist church you’ve no doubt heard baptism referred to as an “ordinance,” not a sacrament. Perhaps that seems more like semantics than a real difference, but it’s significant. An ordinance is like a piece of legislation; it’s a command to follow. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (the statement of faith of the SBC) says that baptism is “an act of obedience” and a “testimony” of one’s faith. In other words, in Baptist theology baptism is the work of the believer that testifies to his commitment to Jesus. Of course, that definition implies a few things and chief among them is that the one being baptized must be a believer with sufficient fruit to ensure that he truly is regenerate.

     Now, so as not to be unfair to my Baptist friends, there are things in that definition that Reformed believers agree with. We are commanded to be baptized, and in the case of new adult converts we agree that they must be believers. But all of the Reformed confessions including the Westminster Standards categorically deny that Baptism is a mere ordinance. It is rather a real sacrament. That is to say, in baptism God does something. The Shorter Catechism teaches that in baptism “Christ and the benefits of the new covenant are represented, sealed, and applied to believers” (WSC, 92). This is clearly taught in the Scriptures. Abraham received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness he had by faith (Rom 4:11). So, here is the chief difference between the Baptist and Reformed understandings of baptism. In Baptist theology baptism is my work, my testimony of faith, my promise to be faithful to Jesus. In Reformed theology baptism is God’s work. Baptism is not something we do, but something God does. In it he testifies that he will be faithful to keep his promises and love us forever. Baptists administer the “ordinance” upon profession of faith. The Reformed administer the sacrament on the basis of God’s promise.

     That is why we can administer baptism to infants. They are members of covenant community, so we baptize them on the basis of God’s promise to be God to us and to our children. And as we baptize them, we hope and pray that God will give them in reality what has been signified to them in baptism, namely Christ and all his benefits.

     This final chord snapped last year when I ran across this quote from B.B. Warfield, the great 20th century Princeton theologian: “Every time we baptize an infant we bear witness that salvation is from God, that we cannot do any good thing to secure it, that we receive it from his hands as a sheer gift of his grace, and that we all enter the kingdom of heaven therefore as little children, who do not do, but are done for.”

     I read those words and wrote in my journal, “I think I just became a Presbyterian.” The glass orb shattered, and my days of “persecuting” baby-baptizers came to an end. My wife was right all along. Now, as Paul said, I want all men to become as I am. I want all believers to see in every baptism not a testimony of their commitment to God, but God promising that “as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly does his blood and Spirit wash away my soul’s impurity” (Heidelberg Catechism, 69). And I want believers to embrace the promise that God has given to his church to “be” God to us and to our children, and then to give their children the sign and seal of that covenant. Then parent, let that gospel promise signified in baptism stir up faith in the heart of your children that Christ might become truly theirs.