“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!
MIDLOTHIAN, VA—This past Sunday C.J. traveled to Virginia to preach at KingsWay Community Church
. After the meeting, C.J. enjoyed lunch with the small-group leaders of the church, addressed them from 1 Corinthians, and fielded questions.
In light of 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
, C.J. encouraged the small-group leaders to identify evidences of God’s grace in those they love and serve, and provided a “starter’s kit” on how to accomplish it.
In part he said,
Most people are more aware of the absence of God than the presence of God. Most people are more aware of the presence of sin than evidences of grace. What a privilege and joy it is in pastoral ministry and small-group ministry to turn one’s attention to ways in which God is at work, because so often people are unaware of God’s work. And much of God’s work in our lives is quiet; it’s not “spectacular.” It’s rarely obvious to the individual, and normally it’s incremental and takes place over a lengthy period of time.
So, informed by Paul’s leadership I want to interact with everybody by identifying an evidence of grace, because if they are Christian I know God is at work in their lives. What a joy it is to discern where and how God is at work, draw people’s attention to it, and celebrate God’s grace in their lives! The fact that we get to do this—how cool is this?
And I also know this is critical preparation for any correction that genuinely needs to take place in their lives. Because identifying God’s work in their lives gives them faith for the correction they might be in need of, and they can consider that correction without collapsing under that correction being unaware that God is at work in their life.
See, Paul’s correction of the Corinthian church is effective because he has faith for this church. When we correct people, they can tell whether we have affection for them and faith for them. I sadly know what it’s like to correct somebody where I neither had affection for nor faith for—as if the correction alone was sufficient and most important. That is not true. This is not an expression of the character of God and that is not biblical leadership.
I would encourage all of us to restrain ourselves from correcting someone until we have developed, to some degree, affection for them and faith for them.
So how do we identify evidences of grace?
Here is the “starter’s kit” I recommend for recognizing evidences of grace. (It’s a “starter’s kit” but you will never outgrow or exhaust it.) Just take two categories, the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. Work from those two categories and lists, study those lists in the Bible, look up from studying those lists, and look at Christians around you. You will see God at work everywhere you look.
God is working. God is very busy. God, give us the eyes to see how you are at work so we can identify that, draw people’s attention to it, celebrate it, and assign all glory to God for that work!
-C.J. Mahaney, addressing the small-group leaders of KingsWay Community Church in Midlothian, VA (January 27, 2008).
Related: For more on this topic, see C.J.’s address “Grace and the Adventure of Leadership” delivered to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary chapel on January 24, 2006.
January 30, 2008 by Tony Reinke
George Offor is my homeboy.
It’s not a slogan you see printed on T-shirts, and for a good reason. Nobody really knows anything about George Offor. And that’s why he’s my homeboy.
For years this nineteenth-century scholar devoted his life to traveling England and Wales, picking through dusty attic boxes and stuffy old library archives. He spent his days reading, researching, recording, comparing, and editing the works of Puritan John Bunyan. Offor’s diligent labor concluded in 1854 with the printing of the three-volume, 2,800 page Works of John Bunyan. Now over a century and a half old, Offor’s final product remains the most popular definitive collection of Bunyan in print.
Each time I reach for one of these volumes, I’m thankful for the efforts of George Offer. I want to be like George.
C.J. will be uncomfortable with me drawing parallels between Bunyan and himself. I know. But there are noteworthy parallels. Neither enjoyed much in the way of formal education. Both were raised in blue-collar families, and neither bleached the blue collar. Both are monuments to the power of God’s sovereign grace. Both pastored souls. And just as Bunyan communicated to his age in a popular level, C.J. now communicates to his age on a popular level. Both apply orthodox theology to everyday life situations. Both delight themselves in the cross. Both earnestly plead with sinners to be reconciled to God.
For these reasons Bunyan’s popularity remains strong almost 380 years after his birth. This same concrete application of Scripture (and especially the cross) to daily life is why interest in C.J.’s ministry will likely extend long into the future.
For years C.J.’s counsel and wisdom has greatly influenced those surrounding him, as well as those who are a part of an increasingly diverse network of relationships. And those privileged souls close enough to C.J. to hear his counsel have been noticeably changed. But beyond the reach of his voice (which is surprisingly far), much of the wisdom and spiritual insights have passed unrecorded.
My job now focuses on gathering and collecting ministry wisdom and insights from C.J.’s life and passing these along to you, and (Lord willing) to generations of Christians whose grandparents are yet unborn. I’ll trek back into what C.J. has said in the past, document some of what he says currently, and develop these notes to pass them on to you. I’ll have the honor and privilege to sit in meetings, travel to conferences, and listen in on his coffee shop chats—catching the noteworthy, asking for clarity, developing thoughts, and providing his insights to serve your Christian life and ministry. My job is to be your eyes and ears into C.J.’s life and ministry. The blogosphere is a choice medium for the task ahead.
George Offor’s extensive collection of Bunyan was finally published in 1854, though I really know nothing of this editor’s life. He has no Wikipedia page. Very little of what he devoted his life towards contains anything about him personally. I only know him through his obviously diligent labors in highlighting the wisdom and preaching of John Bunyan.
I imagine if I could take George to Starbucks for a chat, he would not only voice excitement for this blog, but would affirm the privileged task of collecting and assembling the wisdom and teachings of those few exceptionally gifted men God raises in each generation of his church.
January 28, 2008 by C.J. Mahaney
Well, I guess I can’t postpone this any longer. Today brings to an official end the countless conversations and numerous meetings about possibly starting this blog. I’m committed now, at least for this week. Here is what you need to know about this new blog—this was not my idea! It has taken a very long time (we’re talking years) and a growing chorus of demanding friends in order to convince me (aren’t there enough blogs already?) that doing this would in some way serve you. In fact, it was that possibility, that I could somehow serve pastors, members of Sovereign Grace churches and anyone who wanted to listen in, that eventually persuaded me to begin this blog. So, I hope in some small way this does serve you and if not then we will simply close it down and I will hold my well-meaning friends responsible.
And it’s important for you to know that I am not doing this alone—I wouldn't want to do this alone, nor am I gifted enough to do so. But God has recently and kindly provided me with a very gifted assistant. And I am humbled by this man’s desire to serve me. So let me introduce my new friend and blog partner, Tony Reinke. And let me state from the outset that if this blog bombs I am holding Tony responsible as well! Actually, I think Tony is the primary reason this blog might be of service in some small way. This guy knows all about blogs. For years he has produced an impressive one called The Shepherd’s Scrapbook
. I would encourage you to check it out. I would argue that I should be assisting Tony!
Since he has arrived Tony has been following me around asking me questions, recording my answers (this can get annoying) and hoping that by God’s grace something I say will eventually transfer into a post. That’s not to say I have no area of expertise. However, to date it appears there might be a disproportionate number of posts on sports. Actually, on the other hand, I think you can anticipate a disproportionate number of posts on one topic, “Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2
), for that, by the grace of God, is what I am most passionate about. So here would be my hope for this blog, and for the handful of you that will join my family in reading it. If I can somehow draw your attention each week to the hill called Calvary and remind you of the Savior’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross for our sins, if I can draw your attention away from yourself and direct your affections to him, then this blog will have served your soul and made some small difference for the glory of God. I pray it does.