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Equip #31– The 5 Most Impactful Books

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In this episode of Equip, pastors Brad Merchant and Joe Bartemus share the five books that have been most impactful in their lives.


Brad Merchant:             I’m your host, Brad Merchant. Here with my good friend, Joe Bartemus, Pastor of Theological Development, and we’re here to talk about books.

Joe Bartemus:               Books.

Brad Merchant:             Joe, how many books do you own?

Joe Bartemus:               I’ve had a lot of people ask me that. I’m going to get my grandson or sons to count them someday. I’m going to guess maybe 2,000. Maybe. I’ve even got some digital books. Talk about contemporary.

Brad Merchant:             Okay, and then the question everyone asks, how many of those have you read?

Joe Bartemus:               I don’t … A lot of them are reference books. You don’t read reference books cover to cover, they’re for reference. I haven’t read all of them, but I’ve read a lot of them.

Brad Merchant:             What about the picture books?

Joe Bartemus:               Yeah, picture books, I’ve skimmed them.

Brad Merchant:             Joe, we’re going to talk about our conversation. This will be a lot of fun. We’re both going to talk about the five most impactful books we’ve ever read. I’m curious to hear what five made your list out of all the 2,000 and some that you’ve read. We’re going to start with number five. Top five books that have most impacted you, number five is?

Joe Bartemus:               When you asked me to prepare for this, I got my top five and it turned out to be 30. So, I’ve got to weed them down, you said. That’s the requirement. I’m just going to take a shot at it. Book number five, I would say, is “Turning Points.” It’s a book on church history by Mark Noll, who at that time was a professor at Wheaton and now is at Notre Dame, and he might be retired. Brilliant church historian. He did a Sunday school class in his church and he picked 12 events that marked church history. Like, the Council of Nicaea and the reformation. It’s very readable and gives you the heart of church history in a way that I’ve used in a lot of classes and have just loved it. So, I’ll make that number five.

Brad Merchant:             “Turning Points,” Mark Noll.

Joe Bartemus:               “Turning Points,” Mark Noll.

Brad Merchant:             That’s where you can get it. Number four.

Joe Bartemus:               Number four. I thought I ought to have a commentary in my series. Probably my favorite commentary writer is Don Carson, who also has been a THINK speaker twice. The only two time THINK speaker. I love his commentary on Matthew that has been around for a long time. And then, I might include his commentary on John, which I’m using even now in preparation. So, I’ve loved reading Don Carson.

Brad Merchant:             What’s most impactful to you about Don’s writing?

Joe Bartemus:               He’s an excellent exegete— thinks of the big picture of the Bible and the big picture of whatever the text is, and then he also could get into a minutia of dealing with Greek, in his case mostly New Testament stuff. And he does a nice job of applications. Like, so what difference does that make? And that, to me, is a good threefold. The big picture of the Bible, the specifics of this text, and then how that works in a person’s heart, and my heart’s been at times really just blessed by Carson in Matthew and John.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah, and he has a lot of other books, I’m sure, we could talk about that you would recommend.

Joe Bartemus:               He has a lot of books.

Brad Merchant:             Number three.

Joe Bartemus:               Number three, and you know, if you would’ve asked me this next week, I would’ve [inaudible 00:03:12], but number three is a book by Dane Ortlund on Jonathan Edwards and the Christian life.

Brad Merchant:             Great book.

Joe Bartemus:               I have tried to read Jonathan Edwards, and I read his Religious Affections, kind of. Made my way through it, and I know I’m supposed to be inspired by it, but when I read Dane Ortlund’s summary of Jonathan Edwards, then my heart just leaped. I used it with a Bible study group of guys, and we together in reading that just sensed a worshipful reality of God. So, in sort of a worship, spiritual formation, that’s been a really, really impactful book.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah, and that’s a great series people could read by Crossway, “Theologians on the Christian Life.” The one on C.S. Lewis is like one of my favorite books ever.

Joe Bartemus:               Just started reading that. Well, I’d started it before. Yeah, I agree with you.

Brad Merchant:             Great books.

Joe Bartemus:               It’s really good.

Brad Merchant:             Okay, number two.

Joe Bartemus:               Number two. Wow, I have a tie for about six different books. Here’s the one I picked for number two. It’s by a guy named Cornelius Plantinga. His brother is a well-known philosopher and he’s actually a very profound theologian. He wrote a book, “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be,” and it was called “A Breviary of Sin.” I had to look up breviary and I forget even what it means, but it’s like a short treatment of sin. I would think why would that be such an impactful book? He has this line at the beginning: “you can determine how desperate evil is by what it took to resolve the problem with evil, which was the death of God’s son, Jesus.” I’m like all right, so that’s how bad sin is. And then, he goes through the ways sin disguises itself in our lives. That was a really impactful book for me.

Brad Merchant:             It’s a great book. I think the residents all read that book a year ago.

Joe Bartemus:               Yeah.

Brad Merchant:             That was a great book. Okay, number one. Finale. If I could do a drum roll, I would. What made number one on Joe Bart’s top five books list?

Joe Bartemus:               You already know the answer to this one, because I just about always tell everybody if you have not read … By the way, the Bible is number one. That’s a given. After that given, then it’s James Packer, J.I. Packer, “Knowing God.” I read that back in the ’70s, and I did that with a group of guys this past summer. It was just a great study. So, now we reverse it, right?

Brad Merchant:             Flipping the tables.

Joe Bartemus:               There we go. So, Brad Merchant, how many books do you have?

Brad Merchant:             I use a thing called LibraryThing, which you should really use-

Joe Bartemus:               I should.

Brad Merchant:             … because it’s free, and last I checked I have 1,337 books.

Joe Bartemus:               All right.

Brad Merchant:             How many of those have I read? Not 1,300. That’s for sure. A few of those.

Joe Bartemus:               Number five.

Brad Merchant:             Number five.

Joe Bartemus:               Number five.

Brad Merchant:             A guy that we just had speak to our staff recently, Dr. Donald Whitney, “Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life.” Now, this is why this is so impactful for me. When I was an intern at a church I was at previously before College Park, I had no discipline in my life whatsoever, and that included on spiritual things. I didn’t understand that the way that we get under the fountain of God’s grace is by doing discipline. By reading our Bibles, by praying consistently, by fellowshipping with other believers, by learning. A whole slew of things that Dr. Whitney had talked about. That book was so impactful for me because I realized if I’m going to grow as a Christian, I have to discipline myself unto godliness, as Paul tells Timothy. So, that book was just really impactful for me. Just read it again couple months ago. It was just super helpful.

Joe Bartemus:               All right.

Brad Merchant:             Great book.

Joe Bartemus:               That’s five. Now, number four.

Brad Merchant:             Number four.

Joe Bartemus:               Number four.

Brad Merchant:             This might be a curve ball. I don’t know if you expect this one coming. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis.

Joe Bartemus:               I applaud that one.

Brad Merchant:             I love that book. In fact, I just read it last week again, and I felt like just a little kid at Christmastime when you open up that book. Part of the reason why I love it is because there’s so much allegory throughout the book that as you’re reading you’re trying to get into Lewis’s mind and thinking what was he thinking when he wrote this? What is he trying to communicate to me? Because it’s more than just a story. An example of this I wanted to bring out was you and some of our listeners might remember when Edmund betrays his brother and his sisters and Aslan himself and he unites with the White Witch, and he’s helping her conceive how she can kill Aslan, essentially, and kill the children. And there are a whole slew of things. You have to read the book. Edmund comes back to his brother and sisters, he reunites with Aslan, and the White Witch comes to meet with Aslan. You remember this? The White Witch, as she comes, Lewis says that she begins calling him a traitor, a liar, hurtling all these threats to him. And what I love is Lewis says that Edmund wasn’t ashamed because he kept his eyes on Aslan. Now, there’s just excellent implications for the Christian life in all this thing. And that’s just a small snippet, the whole book is full of it. I’d highly recommend it. That’s number four.

Joe Bartemus:               That is number four. And I could pontificate a little bit on that, but I’m not going to because this is your thing.

Brad Merchant:             You’re fine.

Joe Bartemus:               Number three. Number three.

Brad Merchant:             Number three, “A Body of Divinity” by Thomas Watson. Now, there’s two things I know are true about Thomas Watson. Number one, every sentence is a metaphor. Now, that’s probably a hyperbole, but every sentence, nearly, is a metaphor. Number two, he just can strike the affections almost more than anyone can. I mean, even in all the puritans that I read. He just has a way of getting right to the heart. Here’s an example from that book. He says, “let a man who is thirsty be brought to Christ, an ocean of pure water, and he has enough to satisfy all of us.” And then, he says this, “and if there be enough in God to satisfy the angels, then sure there is enough to satisfy us.” Just don’t know anyone else who writes that way. The whole book is full of that. I highly recommend it.

Joe Bartemus:               Yeah, you convinced me to buy that, so that’s one of my 2,000.

Brad Merchant:             Yes. Adding to your book collection is my goal.

Joe Bartemus:               That’s true. So, number two. Next to the top.

Brad Merchant:             Number two, this is a popular one, “Future Grace” by John Piper. This is a book I read several years ago with my wife. “Future Grace” just kind of broke open categories in my theological library of a mind that I didn’t have before. Piper defines future grace as this way. He says, “future grace is God’s power, provision, mercy, and wisdom for everything we need in order to do what he wants us to do in five minutes, five weeks, five months, and five years from now.” So, “Future Grace” looks back on how God has given us grace for a specific circumstance in life and then looks at our present situation and it fuels our faith, knowing that God will give us future grace. Incredible book.

Joe Bartemus:               Yeah. He was a THINK speaker as well.

Brad Merchant:             He was? Almost all… Thomas Watson couldn’t be-

Joe Bartemus:               Yeah, he was not.

Brad Merchant:             … and C.S. Lewis. But, if they could be, they would.

Joe Bartemus:               We would be asking them. Number one on your list is …

Brad Merchant:             Number one, the book titled, “Holiness,” by J.C. Ryle. There’s a lot I could say about this book. Listeners that attend or members at College Park are familiar with this book. I think this is a book that was given out a couple years ago. “Holiness” is a book that is easy to read, but I think every Christian should read because it gives you a thirst for holiness that often we don’t have. It’s one of those books that serves as kind of an alarm clock for sleepy souls that forget about how important holiness is and how joy filled it can be. That book just serves to remind me every year why seeking after holiness actually fuels joy in the Christian life.

Joe Bartemus:               That is good. Good stuff.

Brad Merchant:             Well, Joe, we could talk about books forever.

Joe Bartemus:               We could.

Brad Merchant:             But, I want you to give, in the closing minutes here, an exhortation to people that might be listening to this who think reading is not for me. I’m not a reader. Reader is for smart guys, which if you’re listening to this, that totally is debunked because we’re not smart guys. What would you say to them? What encouragement do you have for people who don’t see themselves as readers?

Joe Bartemus:               I’ve had a lot of people say that to me, and I think they sincerely mean that and I’m sympathetic to that. My encouragement to them would be, again, I would probably say start with the Bible. But then, I would say and stretch yourself. Find somebody that you can read with. One of the things that’s motivated me to read is to have partners that I read with. Pick books that can start off on a level that maybe aren’t on the advanced level but that are impactful. There are just a number of volumes that you don’t have to be a person that reads a lot to be able to grasp. And be willing to take them a little bit at a time. You don’t have to conquer it all in one day. If you get a reading partner and you get a reasonable schedule and you’re willing to do that together, I’ve found that to be really, really helpful. And I would encourage people to not just give up. To say you can do it, so for the glory of God, do it.

Brad Merchant:             In the words of Augustine, “take up and read.”

Joe Bartemus:               Yeah.

Brad Merchant:             Thanks, Joe.

Joe Bartemus:               Yeah, this was good.

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