Category: Book Reviews


There are many books I believe are essential in a pastor’s library beyond a sturdy, leather-bound Bible.  There are the classic works such as The Pilgrim’s Progress, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and Paradise Lost.  Along with these, a good Hebrew and Greek lexicon or two will help immensely in sermon preparation.  I would also recommend sermons from great preachers throughout the history of the church.  I now must recommend another book that will be an incalculable benefit to any pastor (and layperson), and it is Desiring God:  Meditations of a Christian Hedonist by John Piper.

The current book under review is the revised edition.  It is in fact a 25TH anniversary printing of the book.  A book with so many years under its belt that continues to have the impact and energy to stir the heart is a rarity.

Piper approaches his material from a thematic angle, seizing upon the various aspects of the Christian life to support his main thesis of Christian hedonism.  Important areas such as worship, prayer, marriage, and missions are addressed to build Piper’s proposal that Christians must pursue their pleasure in God.  Such a premise may sound odd to many Christians who believe they do seek their joy in God as an important component of their daily life.  However, Piper does not present this pursuit of joy as a component, but the very foundation upon which the Christian life is built.

The chapters include:

1.     The Happiness of God:  Foundation of Christian Hedonism

2.     Conversion:  The Creation of Christian Hedonism

3.     Worship:  The Feast of Christian Hedonism

4.     Love:  The Labor of Christian Hedonism

5.     Scripture:  Kindling for Christian Hedonism

6.     Prayer:  The Power of Christian Hedonism

7.     Money:  The Currency of Christian Hedonism

8.     Marriage:  A Matrix for Christian Hedonism

9.     Missions:  The Battle Cry for Christian Hedonism

10.     Suffering:  The Sacrifice of Christian Hedonism

These chapters are supplemented with a few supplementary chapters as well as a study guide for personal devotions or group studies.  Also in the supplementary material, Piper takes the time to answer why he wrote the book and why he chose the title “Christian hedonist.”  For those that have read previous editions of the Desiring God, there are a few new portions to consider.  The section on suffering is a new addition.  In the preface, Piper states that his reason for adding the chapter, “partly biblical, partly global, and partly autobiographical.”

There are elements of exegesis in the book that Piper develops to show that he is not throwing an obscure theory against the wall and hoping it sticks.  He is a competent exegete, but Piper’s true strength lies in his usage of historical works.  He introduces the reader to an assorted gallery of classic Christian authors, philosophers, and pastors.  Anyone familiar with church history will know many of the names, yet Piper sheds new light on their personal theologies and writings.  The writings of powerful figures such as Jonathan Edwards and C. S. Lewis are used with great efficiency.  Piper also shows a familiarity with the early church fathers, a familiarity that is often lacking with modern Christian writers.

The most compelling characteristic of the book is its embrace of the true Christian life.  Piper does not expound upon deep truths as an ideologue addressing a crowd of sycophants.  Nor does he take an exclusively pastoral approach that reeks of “preachiness” and judgment.  Piper exhibits himself in his full humanity.  This only makes Desiring God more approachable as a reader and certainly made me more open to thinking upon Piper’s presentation.

I highly recommend this book.  It will be a great resource for anyone with any level involvement in ministry.  This revised edition includes a study guide for personal use or in small groups.  It is a wonderful resource for a Bible teacher.  Its utility extends beyond classroom usage.  Desiring God will make a great personal devotion study as well.  Piper’s pastoral spirit comes through nicely, and while the subject matter is profound, the work never comes across as pretentious.

Piper has built his many years of ministry upon the foundations he establishes in Desiring God.  It is a carefully executed and wonderfully written piece of literature.  Having read dozens of missional and personal theologies through the years, I believe Desiring God will be in service by the church for many years to come.  In fact, when it celebrates its next twenty-five year anniversary, I quite expect it to have reached “classic Christian literature” status though I believe it is certainly deserving of the title today.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Waterbrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review through their Blogging for Books program.

Trials are a part of life to which every one of us can relate.  Trials run the gamut of small, everyday problems to huge and life-altering.  Trials are not respecters of persons either, showing no favoritism to rich or poor, men or women, young or old.  It is with that reality in mind that I read Ron Carpenter, Jr.’s The Necessity of an Enemy.  Since I face trials every day, or “enemies” as Carpenter is going to designate them, I looked forward to reading the book for some fresh perspective on how I can approach my trials with an eye towards the positive outcome they can produce.  Carpenter (or more likely the book’s marketing team) makes this promise in the synopsis when he states, “Human nature tells us to flee our enemies, but Ron Carpenter will challenge you to embrace them.”

Carpenter divides The Necessity of an Enemy into eight parts.  The first six sections center upon Carpenter’s philosophy intermingled with personal illustrations from the author’s life.  Most of the personal illustrations center upon one event, but I will deal that later in this review.  There is a nice flow to the book as Carpenter seeks to develop his overall theme of facing the trials of life.

  • Part 1 – The Necessity
  • Part 2 – The Plan
  • Part 3 – The Target
  • Part 4 – The Enemy Within
  • Part 5 – Weapons of Mass Destruction
  • Part 6 – Prowling Your Neighborhood
  • Part 7 – How to Fight to Win
  • Part 8 – The Spoils of Victory

While the theme development of the book has a nice fluidity, it is hampered at times by too quick a pace.  The brevity in which he deals with some important topics detracts from the weighty subject matter Carpenter is attempting to tackle.  Too much of the book reads like a media sound bite that tastes great if swallowed alone, but begins to sour when read in the context of the whole book.  Obnoxiously at times, these bites are quarantined off from paragraphs and emphasized with bold lettering.

THE GOOD:

There were some reasonably good portions to this book.  One in particular is Part 5:  Weapons of Mass Destruction.  Carpenter discusses the various tactics the Enemy will use to tear down a Christian.  Carpenter’s shotgun-style writing simplifies the problems we all face without creating a logjam of ideas.  This section is poignant as it points out common deficiencies we all share and offers relevant Scripture passages with an eye towards improvement.

It should also be noted that Carpenter is a competent communicator.  I did find his language too brash at times, but there is clarity in his message too often missing from Christian literature.  This simple language makes the book more accessible to laypersons.  Selected passages may also be beneficial for adaption as devotional thoughts for small groups or other meetings.

THE BAD:

I am unsure where Carpenter attended college or his grounding in the Greek language, so keep that in mind as I make the following statements.  First, no one is ever going to accuse me of being a New Testament Greek scholar.  Second, Carpenter makes a statement early in the book (page 32) that struck me deaf and dumb for about five minutes.  He comments on the definition of glory in Scripture stating, “In New Testament terminology, glory actually means “likeness” and “to resemble.”

Actually, it means neither of those things.  According to reputable lexicons, the term means “opinion” or “judgment.”  Either Carpenter altered the meaning of glory to strengthen his argument or he is ignorant to the true meaning of glory as it is used in the New Testament.  Regardless of Carpenter’s reason, it is a serious breach of trust between author and reader.  If you are attempting to write a book for Christians and do not deal faithfully with the Word of God, how can one trust the entirety of the work?  Simply put, you cannot trust it.

I know nothing of Carpenter’s personal ministry apart from the information he writes in the book.  So, my source is firsthand from the author’s own pen.  From admissions in the book, coupled with the careless handling of God’s Word, I have a difficult time putting any level of trust in the material.  Incidents include, but are not limited to stealing air conditioning units from a rented property and allowing a practicing drunkard church membership.

By these accounts, Carpenter fails in two key areas as a credible pastoral source—handling of the Word and leadership.  Carpenter is so focused on the necessity of an enemy that he forgets the necessity of trust between author and reader.  These offenses colored my opinion toward the negative, more so than all the other problems with the book.

THE UGLY:

As mentioned in the introduction, Carpenter uses one particular event in his life and ministry as the glue that binds the whole book together.  Unfortunately, it is not very strong glue.  The worst offense The Necessity of an Enemy is committed blatantly by the author in every section of the book.  Ron Carpenter takes what had the potential to be an extremely helpful devotional book and turns it into a personal apologetic for a blunder in his own ministry.  I did not bother to research this scandal via the internet, so I do not know any of the details save those shared by Carpenter in the book.  Carpenter does claim this event prompted him to pen his book, so it is not a pointless inclusion.  Though peripherally relevant, it does feel at times that Carpenter is being heavy-handed with his recollections.

According to Carpenter, the incident never reaches the courtroom and is settled before trial by a convention of lawyers and other involved parties.  Carpenter has been defending his innocence throughout the book and the reader is led to believe there will be some closure as the climax approaches.  Sadly, the closure never comes and the reader is left once more questioning the integrity of the author.  While I know there is a distinct difference between a legal court and the court of public opinion, I came away from Carpenter’s recollections with my own opinions and they do not favor the author.

Apart from a few shining spots, I was disappointed with the book as a whole.  Carpenter starts with a great premise and promises much more than he delivers.  Even though Carpenter’s personal “trial” is a key motivator for the book, it dominates too much of the landscape, overshadowing the few good points Carpenter manages to make.  I am also wary of recommending this book to anyone based upon the blatant errors of character and biblical interpretation.

The Necessity of an Enemy is available here from Waterbrook Multnomah and here from Amazon.

FTC Disclaimer:  I received this book for free from Waterbrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review through their Blogging for Books program.  Opinions expressed in this review are mine and do not reflect the opinion(s) of Waterbrook Multnomah.

“Everything rises and falls with leadership,” is a oft-quoted axiom that has taken hold of the modern world.   In both the secular and theological worlds, an emphasis has always existed upon the leadership.  The secular world has its managers and CEOs, while the Church turns to her pastors, elders, and deacons.  The Shepherd Leader (henceforth, TSL) by Timothy Z. Witmer, Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, attempts to strengthen those in the theological positions with an emphasis upon the shepherd metaphor from Scripture.  The first section, “Biblical and Historical Foundations,” is intended to serve as the underpinning upon which Witmer will build his case in the remainder of the book. He traces the historical development of the shepherd imagery beginning in the Old Testament at Genesis 48:15. He then focuses in upon two of Israel’s most prominent leaders, Moses and David, and presents them as shepherd leaders. He then shifts attention to Ezekiel 34 and explains the deficiencies that will often arise in human leadership. Witmer’s dealings with Ezekiel are more explanation than exegesis, but it leads him into his primary goal of presenting Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd, both figuratively and literally. To mirror his discussion of Moses and David in the Old Testament, Witmer discusses Peter and Paul from the New Testament. Jesus serves as the link between the old and new shepherds.

Moving into the second section, Witmer focuses upon explaining the responsibilities of the shepherd mingled with applications. He accomplishes this by focusing on what he calls the “macro” and the “micro.” It is with these Witmer see four key areas that fall under the shepherd’s ministry to the flock: knowing, feeding, leading, and protecting. These four chapters are essentially the heart of the book and Witmer covers his topics well. Each chapter concludes with a chart to summarize the “macro” and “micro” points, and Witmer helpfully implants suggestions for shepherds who might have trouble knowing where to begin with each key area. As the crux of the work, these particular chapters are packed with insightful concepts, quotes, and illustrations.

The final section of the book seeks to tie together all of the parts into one presentable piece while giving practical advice to shepherds on implementing Witmer’s concepts into the local church.  He first presents seven essential elements to a shepherding ministry.  This chapter is a collection of enumerated lists, but Witmer goes beyond the typical “step” approach and offers practical advice for getting started.  Witmer closes by discussing how the shepherd can prepare his leadership and congregation for a shepherding ministry in the local church.  Overall, the final section of the book is the practical application that develops from the propositional assertions of section two.

A key concept in understanding the book and a central element in the second section of the book is the “macro” and “micro” concept that Witmer uses.  The “macro” focuses upon the flock or congregation as a whole, while the “micro” addresses the individuals that make up the congregation.  This concept is simple, and Witmer does a good job in presenting it in the all-important second section.

While Witmer stands firmly upon the concept of a shepherd’s authority, he does not present them as infallible.  At the onset of the book, with his presentation of Moses and David, the author quickly notes that even these esteemed “shepherds of Israel” were flawed.  He continues this assertion as he moves into the New Testament with Peter and Paul.  I believe this simple observation alleviates the model of perfection so many other works of this type seek to establish.

Another great quality of the book is TSL is structured as a workbook with reproducible worksheets and charts at the conclusion of chapters.  This is a key feature that is missing from other works of the same genre, even though these books are advertising themselves as work manuals for pastors.

Many books have been written on the topic of leadership, even upon the narrower topic of the shepherd leader, as guides for pastors ministering to the people of God.  It is assumed on the part of the reader that an author will address such a topic upon the foundation of his [the author] theological presuppositions.  It can even arguably be assumed the author will present a historical progression of his theological position upon the subject matter without isolating the majority of readers.  It is in this category that TSL steps outside the normal anticipated and tolerated boundaries.
Witmer’s presentation of the material in the first section of the book is structured as an apologetic, yet its tone reads more like a passive-aggressive polemic against non-Presbyterian leadership models.  While he does interact with some Scripture in presenting his position, the main thrust of Witmer’s argument comes from confessional/historical sources with a heavy reliance and lengthy quotations from the Westminster Confession, John Calvin, and John Murray.  One could defend Witmer’s stance by noting his theological background, current academic position, and even the book’s publisher; however, these are still inadequate merely to give Witmer a free pass on his presentation.  It is possible for authors to present material to readers of different theological backgrounds and be helpful, encouraging, and edifying.  In fact, other Westminster faculty and alumni have excelled in crossing denominational boundaries and becoming relevant despite the variations, the most notable being Jay Adams.  Witmer stumbles in this area by choosing to use his platform for a defense of the Presbyterian position rather than an exercise of pastoral office.

The book is presented as a how-to source book for the pastor, yet there appears to be more emphasis upon the why rather than the how of leadership.  Nearly one hundred pages are devoted to the historical foundations of the pastor and more generally church leadership, yet the application is found wanting in the final section of the book.  Much of the application is linked with the explanation in the second section of the book. Since this is the case, the final section of seems unnecessary.

It would perhaps appear to many that I did not enjoy it; however, this assumption would be incorrect.  Despite a slow approach towards the runway, Witmer does a fine job landing the plane once he moves into the practical aspects of his work.   I did found many of Witmer’s insights simple, yet thought provoking.  It will be difficult for my congregation to test or implement many of Witmer’s suggestions because we do not practice a pure presbytery form of church government.  However, it is always beneficial to seek to apply works such as this by examining the principles behind the writing.  In this particular instance, those principles would be upon qualification and expectation of church leadership and the exercise of authority within the Body of Christ.

The Shepherd Leader:  Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church (240 Pages)

Timothy Z. Witmer, P&R Publishing, 2010

Price:  $17.99