My “Journal Books”: A Reading List

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Some books on my shelf function like journals.  I can remember who recommended it, where I read certain sections of it, and how it changed specific aspects of my life.  The best books I have read are books that read me.  They inform my thoughts, change my feelings, and adjust my actions.  God has used many authors and many books in my life, but these are the ones that have had the “journal-effect” from middle-school onward.  

Middle School

Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis.  I believe I was in 8th grade when I read this book for the first time, and reread every year I was in high school.  This was the book God used to help me begin to “own” my faith, and grow in my confidence that the Christian faith isn’t just good, but also true – which is what makes it the most beautiful news any person can hear.  This book also is what inspired me to begin writing.  Lewis’ clarity, beauty, and depth are remarkable and inspired me to want to give my life to sharing this faith that Lewis communicated so beautifully.  

High School

Don’t Waste Your Life – John Piper.  This book had an explosive impact on my life my freshman year of high school.  Piper gave me an all-encompassing vision of the Christian life and an all-satisfying vision of Jesus Christ that changed me forever.  Like many, his chapter “Boasting Only In the Cross” wrecked me in the best way – I can still quote sentences from it.

Jesus Among Other Gods – Ravi Zacharias.  I was first introduced to Ravi Zacharias through his preaching ministry, and was deeply struck by his ability to communicate the truth of Christ with conviction and compassion.  He knew when to be sharp, and knew when to be gentle.  This book contained that same flavor that first attracted me to him, and informed the way I did evangelism in my relationships.

The Screwtape Letters – C.S. Lewis.  This is a strange book, which is what made it so memorable and compelling for me.  It opened my eyes to the reality that spiritual warfare is not primarily a reality of hobgoblins and goosebumps, but rather a war for our thoughts, desires, and loyalties that happen when we gossip with friends, indulge in anger, and immerse ourselves in worldliness.  This book will make you vigilant over your soul and sensitive to the serpents schemes.  

College

Future Grace – John Piper.  When I was in college, I almost walked away from the Christian faith as a result of severe depression and doubt.  God used this book to anchor me to his Word, refine me, and give me a deeper trust in his promises.  This book changed and shaped the way I view the process of sanctification in the Christian life, and daily influences the way I fight sin and strive for holiness.  

Total Truth – Nancy Pearcey.  If I am asked what is the best book on apologetics, I say this book instantly.  Pearcey argues for the Christian worldview as a comprehensive one that gives reasonable and compelling answers to all the objections the world brings its way.  She demonstrates a confidence in God’s Word that I want to mark my ministry and life.  

The Things of Earth – Joe Rigney.  Ever since I read Don’t Waste Your Life, I struggled to find the balance of living a radical life for Christ and resisting worldliness, while still enjoying things like ice cream, laughing with friends, and going on vacation.  Joe Rigney calls them “the things of earth”  This book expanded my view of what it means to live faithfully toward God while also enjoying his gifts.  If you read Don’t Waste Your Life, read this book right after it.  

Do More Better – Tim Challies.  I love thinking about and practicing the best productivity methods.  I read Matt Perman’s “What’s Best Next?” and loved it, but found it difficult to recommend to busy Mom’s, men with full-time jobs, and even college students.  Challies’ “Do More Better” explains basic productivity methods from a God-centered lens – and he does it in under 100 pages!  I’d recommend this to any student beginning college or to a man at the beginning of marriage.  

This Summer

The Reason for God – Tim Keller.  I have been hearing about this book for years, and finally picked up an old copy and am reading a few pages before bed every night.  I’m about halfway through and have found this book compelling, creative, and winsome.  Keller is clear and profound and, in my opinion, very convincing.  I would give this book to any skeptic I know to begin conversations about spiritual things.  Keller speaks the language of our culture.

A Pastor’s Sketches – Icabod Spencer.  I’m finding that this book has not been widely read by many pastor’s today, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it.  Icabod Spencer was a pastor in Brooklyn in the 1800s and has recorded two volumes of his conversations with people inquiring about the Christian faith.  Spencer’s sensitivity to people, commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture, and pastoral concern for others is imitable.  

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, 1874-1965.  I’m almost finished listening to the second volume of William Manchester’s magisterial portrait of Churchill.  All the leaders I respect have been influenced in some way by Churchill.  Obviously, Churchill is a very flawed man, but his influence in WWII and his vision, foresight, and courage in the face of evil is remarkable and inspiring.


Spencer Harmon is the Senior Pastor at Vine Street Baptist Church and the co-author of Letters to a Romantic: On Dating and Letters to a Romantic: On Engagement (P&R, 2017).

Suffering and Singing: A Conversation with Joni

I recently had the opportunity to have a conversation with Joni Eareckson Tada and her husband Ken. Joni is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Joni and Friends International Disability Center. A diving accident in 1967 left Joni Eareckson, then 17, a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. She shares her story on the podcast, discusses how to love people affected by disabilities, and provides insight about how she deals biblically with chronic pain and suffering.

Joni is one of the godliest people I have ever met. She is genuine, sincere, and full of love. I don’t think it is possible to feel awkward around her. If you are nearby, she welcomes you like Jesus Christ would welcome you. I want to be like Joni and exude with the Holy Spirit’s love. I’m confident that meeting her for this podcast is one of the highest honors of my life.

I hope you enjoy this 45 minute interview that is personal, encouraging, and challenging. Personally, my favorite part of the podcast is when she sings a few stanzas in response to one of the questions.

 

Early Marriage | Are you ready?

In this new 10 minute podcast, I (Spencer) talk with Sean about why he chose to marry Jenny early.
Questions discussed in this podcast:
  • You had many years to live as a single person. Why would you get married so young?
  • How did you know you were ready to get married?
  • Does the Bible allow for young people to get married early?
  • What are some of the indicators that you are ready for marriage?
  • How much money do you need in the bank before marriage?
This is the second unspokenblog podcast. The first podcast was Intro to the Bible, Dating, and Courtship

Intro to Dating, Courtship, and the Bible | New Podcast

I (Sean) sat down one night in the Harmon home to have an informal conversation about dating, courtship, and the Bible. We recorded several podcasts in Spencer’s upstairs loft. This conversation was impromptu and unscripted.

This 10 minute podcast includes questions such as:

  • What does the Bible have to do with dating?
  • Are you against courtship?
  • Should couples feel pressure when dating?
  • What should a first date look like?
  • Where did you and Taylor go on your first date?

We plan on releasing several more of these conversations in the months ahead. You can subscribe to the new “Unspokenblog” podcast on iTunes or listen via SoundCloud. As always, if you have any questions you want us to discuss, we would love to hear them.

What is Godliness?

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by Spencer Harmon

It’s a prerequisite for Christian leadership. It’s championed in Christian literature. It’s absence is a red light in romantic relationships.   It’s heralded in thousands of churches every Sunday.  It motivates accountability groups, is commended by Christians around the world, and is summarized in one word:

Godliness.   

But godliness is dangerous.  Not because you may be persecuted if you pursue it – although you may.  Not because Satan will oppose you at every turn of your striving towards it – although he will.  Not because your sinful flesh will roar in resistance as you reach for it – although it will.  No, godliness is dangerous for a much more subtle reason.  

Godliness is dangerous because we use the word so much.  And where words are used often, assumption follows closely behind.  As we continually use this word without defining it from God’s Word, vague definitions take root.  As a result, people who should be pricked are comforted, people who should be freed are burdened, and at worst a culture of shallow holiness implants itself in our Christian communities.  

When something is precious and being threatened, you guard it from multiple sides.  The same is true with godliness.  We not only need to know what godliness is, but also what it isn’t.  

WHAT GODLINESS ISN’T

Godliness is not gifting.  God gives his church gifts, but we should not equate them with godliness.  The Corinthians excelled in spiritual gifts, but at the same time were rebuked for heinous sin (1 Corinthians 5; 11:17-22).  Preaching, teaching, counseling, music, writing, leadership, persuasiveness, hospitality – all of these things can be included in godliness, but are not godliness in and of themselves.

Godliness is not personality.  Godliness is not politeness, an easy going attitude, or diplomacy. Jesus was not perceived as polite by the money-changers when he turned over their tables and called them robbers.  He wasn’t perceived as diplomatic when he called the Pharisees whitewashed tombs.  He wasn’t perceived as easy-going when he rebuked his disciples.  Paul rebukes Peter for not eating with Gentiles.  James rebukes the rich.  All of these men were godly, and one of these men was God himself.  

Godliness is not knowledge.  A robust knowledge of theology, a nuanced understanding of the human heart, and sharp apologetical skills does not make us godly.  Knowing things makes us accountable for them.  The Pharisees were men of astute knowledge, but Jesus tells them they are blind to spiritual reality (John 9:40).    

Godliness is not a leadership position.  The greatest cause of trembling for me as a young pastor is that I would begin equating godliness with my position rather than my character.  Just because we lead a discussion group or Sunday school does not make us the godliest person in the room.  Being a pastor does not automatically mean you become the holiest person in the church.  No, the Bible assumes this principle: the higher the leadership, the deeper the character (1 Timothy 3:1-7).  And the higher you get without deeper character the more likely you are to fall.  

Obvious gifting, a dynamic personality, rigorous knowledge, and lofty leadership are wonderful.  They should be affirmed in the local church lifted up as worthy of pursuit.  But these qualities are not what the Bible defines as godliness.  Knowing this for myself is challenging and clarifying as I aspire towards greater Christ-likeness in daily life.

CHARACTERISTICS OF GODLINESS

Godliness believes the truth.  The fountainhead of godliness is knowing and believing the truth.  Trees need seeds, houses need foundations, cars need gasoline, and godliness stands on truth.  The man who follows a false map walks in the wrong direction.  False teaching in the New Testament warrants swift rebuke because it leads people to sin and death.  The apostle Paul calls the gospel itself the mystery of godliness (1 Timothy 3:16).  The apostle Peter says godliness comes through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence (2 Peter 1:3).  This is why every saint is called to speak the truth in love to one another. (Ephesians 4:15)

Godliness is dignified.  In 1 Timothy 2-3, dignity is a marker of the Christian community from the laity to the leadership.  We should pray for leaders so we can live dignified lives (2:2), pastors should lead their families with all dignity (3:4), and deacons are to be dignified (3:8, 11).

Dignity is the outward reputation of a godly heart.  Dignity doesn’t flow from trying to look dignified, but it’s the result of a heart that loves Christ and others.  The Bible calls this living worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27) or conducting yourself with fear (1 Peter 1:17).  It’s a life that appreciates that gravity of their salvation in Christ, and lives a life dripping with that gravitas.  

Godliness is marked by good works.  The person who spends all their time in a prayer closet but never loves their next door neighbor isn’t a godly person in the Bible.  Godliness is not just private piety, but public goodness.  Godliness is a light that is meant to be seen (Matthew 5:16).  Good works signify a godly person, and the nature of good works are to not remain hidden (1 Timothy 5:25).

Godliness is a fight and race.  Godly people are marked by fighting and fleeing, racing and pushing, practice and persistence.  Paul tells young Timothy to train himself for godliness (1 Timothy 4:7).  Training involves intentionality and vigilance that monitors the areas of life that propel you towards or away from your goal.  This means that godliness doesn’t come automatically to us, we must intentionally grow in it, practice it, and discipline ourselves for it.  

GODLINESS HAPPENS TO US

Two parallel truths meet when we talk about godliness.  The first truth is obvious from everything written above: godliness can’t be assumed. It must be understood, pursued, and intentionally fought for.  Godliness doesn’t just happen to us.  Yet, there is a second truth that undergirds the first truth: godliness does happen to us.  

The human heart does not thirst for godliness out of the formation of new habits, but from the transformation brought about by the new birth.  God’s Spirit transforms the human heart by cleansing it from sin and giving it a new nature that desires to grow in godliness (John 3:1-8).  The human soul becomes tender as the seed of the gospel breaks through cement-soil hearts.  May we grow in this grace that he might reap a fruitful harvest.  


Spencer Harmon is the Senior Pastor at Vine Street Baptist Church and the co-author of Letters to a Romantic: On Dating and Letters to a Romantic: On Engagement (P&R, 2017).

Two New Books: Letters to a Romantic

Dear Readers,

We have some exciting news.

We have been working on a project together over the past two years. We have been writing two books that are expanded versions of our Letters to a Young Engaged Man blog series. These books are being published by P&R and will release simultaneously in the Fall of this year.  

The books are called Letters to a Romantic: On Dating and Letters to a Romantic: On Engagement.

The book On Dating begins with topics related to singleness and then covers a wide range of topics such as breaking up, physical affection, early marriage, and discussing sexual history. Some chapter titles include:

  • Marriage vs. Singleness
  • First Date
  • Should We Be in a Relationship?
  • Do We Have a Bad Relationship?  
  • What if I am not a Virgin?
  • Should I Guard My Heart?

The book On Engagement walks couples from the time right before a proposal all the way to their wedding night. Some chapter titles include:

  • The Length of Engagement
  • Till Death Do Us Part
  • Loving Your New Parents
  • Should We Elope?
  • Handling Conflict
  • On Birth Control

The chapters are designed to be short and can be read individually or together as a couple. Even though we don’t know the specifics of your situation, we have made a concerted effort to make each chapter as practical as possible. It is our prayer that this content feels immediately helpful and comes from a refreshing peer-like voice.  Our wives have also contributed to many of the letters and provided their own warm touches throughout the books.

Our prayer is that your plans for dating and engagement would begin aligning with God’s plans to glorify his Son in the world.  We pray that these letters will tune your ears to hear God’s voice in his Word and that these letters will provoke many conversations between you, your partner, and godly mentors in your life.  

We are not relational gurus.  Quite the opposite.  We would be the first to admit to you that when we follow our own wisdom… we get lost.  We are sinners who are desperately in need of God’s illuminating Word in every facet of our lives.  We have simply tasted the goodness of God’s shepherding voice in our romances, and we want you to taste it too. We pray that you fall in love with hearing his voice in the Bible so that it guides you in singleness, dating, and engagement – and every other season after that.

In the meantime you can check out the recent Truth in Love podcast with Dr. Heath Lambert and Sean on the topic of Physical Boundaries Before Marriage that discusses a controversial portion of the dating book.

As we continue to write to you, we always want to hear your letters. Don’t hesitate to send us your feedback and share your story with us.

 

Until then,

Sean and Spencer

 

What You Should Know about “He Knew Her Not”

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By Sean Perron

Perhaps you are reading through an Advent devotional this Christmas season or focusing on the Gospel accounts of the Christmas story in Matthew and Luke. The Bible never ceases to amaze and there are always new insights to discover in old stories.

This year I was struck by a small unexpected sentence in Matthew 1:24-25. It reads:

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Mat 1:24-25 ESV)

This text teaches that Joseph obeyed God by marrying Mary (even though the child within her was not his offspring) but he did not have sex with her until after she gave birth to Jesus. The ESV uses the language of “but knew her not” as a euphemism for sex. There are other translations that read:

NAS  Matthew 1:25 and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. (Mat 1:25 NAS)

NLT  Matthew 1:25 But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus. (Mat 1:25 NLT)

There are several things to point out from these couple of verses.

First, this is a unique situation in redemptive history. The main point of this verse is not to communicate that you should avoid sex after your wedding. There are several factors that make this situation unique – not the least of which is that the Holy Spirit conceived a baby in the womb of a virgin. There are also other Scriptures that command regular sexual activity for married couples. (1 Corinthians 7:5)

Second, the Bible (and Joseph) wanted it to be crystal clear that Jesus was not the offspring of an earthly father. Jesus is God in the flesh. His birth was miraculous. Joseph and Mary had a wedding but did not consummate their marriage until after Jesus was born. They knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was not conceived by human relations. This was a divine act.

Third, this verse also teaches that Joseph and Mary had sex after Jesus was born. Mary was not a perpetual virgin. Joseph didn’t have sex with her until after she gave birth. There are also verses in the book of Matthew that talk about Jesus’ brothers and sisters. (See also Mark 6:3)

Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” (Mat 13:55-56 ESV)

These are all important things to point out from these verses, yet these were not the things that struck me this Christmas. What caught my attention was the self-control of Joseph.

Think about it. Joseph was a righteous man who followed the law (Matthew 1:19). He was presumably chaste and had no blemish on his record. He had waited his entire life to have sex until the proper context. He had been self-controlled because he wanted to obey God and follow the Old Testament law.

Then it comes out that Mary is pregnant with a baby that does not belong to him. He is told in a dream by an angel of the Lord that he should remain committed to Mary and take her as his wife. Joseph marries Mary… but still remains self-controlled.

He could have had sex with her and we have no indication that it would have been sinful. Yet, he chose to wait until after the birth of Jesus in order that it would be crystal clear that Jesus was not of earthly descent. Since he had a character of a righteous man and knew this was a unique divine circumstance, I conclude that he wanted to answer any possible claim that he was the earthly father of Jesus.

Joseph lived with Mary. He loved her. He saw her naked. He took care of her. He traveled with her to Bethlehem. And yet, he waited to have intercourse with her until after he helped her give birth to a child that was not his own.

Would you have been as self-controlled as Joseph? Would you have complained? Would you have grumbled? Would you have been bitter?

I don’t want to read more into the text than need be. Nor amy I trying to advocate for anything bizarre. I’m not advocating using Joseph as an example to refrain from intercourse within marriage. If you have followed my other blogs, you know I believe married couples should enjoy sex on a very regular basis.

I am saying that Joseph exerted a lot of self-control and truly loved well in a difficult and unprecedented situation.

Perhaps you need the grace of Jesus this Christmas to grow in the area of self-control. Are you single and struggling with pornography? Are you dating or engaged and struggling with purity? Are you married and having difficulty remaining sexually committed to your spouse? Use this Advent to ask God for the gift of control. Only the Holy Spirit who conceived Jesus can give us this spiritual fruit.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  (Gal 5:1 ESV)

The Holy Spirit did a miracle in the womb of Mary. The Holy Spirit did a miracle in the heart of Joseph. And I am more than confident that the Holy Spirit can do a miracle in our lives and enable us to replace any sinful desires with steadfast love.

 


Sean is the Chief of Staff at the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors and the author of Letters to a Romantic: On Engagement (P&R, 2017)