Volume 28, Issue 2, February 2022
Much of my life and ministry has been devoted to reading and study. Fortunately, the Lord has instilled in me a great love for such endeavors although, to be honest, I have managed to put undue pressure on myself to meet self-imposed goals which often rob me of some of the joys of reading. For example, no one required me, on the first day of full-time pastoral ministry, to make it my aim to read, on the average, one book per week for the rest of my life. And no one, some twenty years ago, asked me to write reviews of most of these books as I read them. But looking back over the 2,500+ books read and the approximately 800 Christian books reviewed, I am glad that I made such an effort. I trust my reading a wide range of topics, excellent books and heretical ones, some filled with heavy theology, others simple, some practical, others mind-stretching, some edifying and insightful, others destructive and deceptive, has broadened my understanding of truth and sharpened my discernment skills. And, if some of the feedback from the reviews is accurate, I have guided a few others toward excellent literature and sounded the alarm concerning writings that are harmful.
Since a number of my reviews challenge at least some of the ideas found in many Christian books today, I decided years ago to list some of my favorite books, grouping them by subject. Since that time, I have written six articles highlighting these works. However, a young man in my church challenged me to showcase the dozen or so most influential books that I have ever read. At first that seemed like an overwhelming task, especially since I have read so many excellent books over the years on a variety of topics. It is almost akin to identifying which of your children you love the most. But as I was involved in other pursuits, I would occasionally jot down a book or two as they came to mind that certainly had to be in the top twelve. Then I went back over the books I have read since entering ministry (I keep the titles in an old notebook I have had for 50 years, which my sons will one day toss in the dumpster), to see if any others should be included. For better or worse, below are my favorite non-fiction books of all time (all of them I have read several times). These are books I would encourage everyone to read at some point in their life. Each of them I would consider a classic, which l trust will be read by Christians centuries from now if the Lord tarries.
Best of the Best
Starting with the subject of God Himself, two books will stand the test of time: A.W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy and J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. Both volumes explore in very readable and honorable fashion, the nature and attributes of God. Tozer’s opening line sets the pace, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” A few sentences later he writes, “We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God… I believe there is scarcely an erroring doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.”
Packer claims, “The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God.” Knowing God is structured around five basic truths about God:
- God has spoken to man in His Word which is given to us to make us wise unto salvation.
- God is Lord and King over His world.
- God is Savior.
- God is Triune.
- Godliness means responding to God’s revelation in truth and obedience, faith and worship, prayer and praise, submission and service.
The next category is Christian Living, and a good link between the study of God and the Christian life is my favorite Jerry Bridges’ book, Trusting God. Bridges teaches that our suffering has meaning and purpose in God’s eternal plan, and He brings or allows only that which is for His glory and our good to come into our lives. In God’s wisdom, He always knows what is best, and in His sovereignty He has power to accomplish His will. Living in a fallen world provides many opportunities for the child of God to apply these great truths to our lives.
Holiness by J.C. Ryle heads my list of books on the Christian life. As the title suggests, the subject is the holiness of God’s people. It includes twenty-one chapters on topics that vary from biblical character to sin, from sanctification to the unsearchable riches of Christ. While written in response to the errors of the 19th century Higher Life movement, Ryle’s teachings are timeless. Ryle’s message is pointed and some will resist it; for he brooks no separation between conversion and consecration, doubting whether “we have any warrant for saying a man can possibly be converted without being consecrated to God.” While never denying the Christian’s struggle with sin, Ryle believes we are called to holy living and a significant measure of holiness is possible through the Lord’s provisions: “If men have no likeness to the Father in heaven, it is vain to talk of their being His ‘sons’” but, “to reach the holiday of glory, we must pass through the training school of grace.”
My favorite C.S. Lewis book is The Screwtape Letters. Lewis’ theology is often questionable, and he must be read with discernment, but no one could turn a phrase or be more insightful about the Christian life. The Screwtape Letters reveals Lewis at his best as he imagines how an accomplished demon (Screwtape) would train an apprentice (Wormwood) to tempt and deceive a believer. The reader can relate to every trick and manipulation Lewis unpacks, and in the process his audience is better able to defend against sinful temptations.
John Bunyan wrote many useful books, but he will be immortalized for his allegories, The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Holy War. I cannot decouple these two works as they essentially address the same issues: Christians battling their way through life as they head toward the Celestial City. In The Pilgrim’s Progress the main character, Christian, successfully travels through Bunyan’s imaginary world filled with dangers on every hand, while in The Holy War, Bunyan reveals the internal struggles every believer faces. No human will ever know how many saints have benefited from these two volumes.
When it comes to prayer, two very different volumes stand out. Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation (originally titled simply, A Call to Spiritual Reformation) by D. A. Carson unpacks (one of Carson’s favorite words) the New Testament prayers of the great apostle. There is no better way to learn how to pray than to study the prayers of Scripture, and Carson does a masterful job of drawing profound truths from Paul’s prayers. The Valley of Vision by Arthur Bennett, on the other hand, is a collection of 200 short Puritan prayers, which represent how the Puritans viewed God, themselves, and life in general. Many of these selections are sublime as God is lifted up and magnified. Following the patterns of praying found in this short work will deepen one’s prayer life and enrich one’s soul.
While we are thinking about the Puritans I should mention my favorite Puritan books, The Rare Jewel of Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs, and The Art of Divine Contentment by Thomas Watson (I couldn’t decide). These men examine the causes or excuses for, the means to obtain, the excellence of, and commands that pertain to contentment. The perceptiveness and thoroughness of these two Puritans might just get you hooked on Puritan writings.
John MacArthur has hundreds of books to his credit, but my favorite is Our Sufficiency in Christ. In typical MacArthur style, he warns his readers as well as instructs. I have always felt that the title of this work would better represent the content if it was changed to The Sufficiency of the Scriptures, for biblical sufficiency is its primary burden. Some have voiced that the author’s exposition of Psalm 19 is one of the finest ever penned — perhaps they are right.
It is not uncommon for me to disagree with some of the teachings and conclusions of John R. W. Stott, but his The Cross of Christ is a masterpiece. It offers deep and practical guidance at every turn and does so in very readable form. Not only is it theologically sound, but the reader will repeatedly pause to worship the One who died for us. Stott’s dominant theme is that the cross reinforces three great truths: our sin must be extremely horrible; God’s love must be wonderful beyond comprehension; and salvation must be a free gift from God. This is surely one of the best books ever written on Christ’s cross-work.
A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 will never go out of print — and for good reason. Phillip Keller was a real shepherd, and he brings his wealth of knowledge to his exposition and application of Psalm 23. Reading the Psalm through the lens of Keller’s book unearths insights that most of us who know little-to-nothing about sheep and shepherds would never dig out for ourselves. This is a must read for everyone. However, if deeper exposition is desired, not only for this Psalm, but for all the Psalms, I could not recommend too highly A Commentary on the Psalms (3 volumes) by Allen Ross.
Many other books have had significant impact on my life, of course, and it would be best to catalogue them according to specific topics.
- Concerning Scripture: The Battle for the Bible by Harold Lindsell solidified for me, early in my ministry, that the Scriptures were under attack even within the evangelical community, and I must be willing to stand with tenacity to proclaim its truth.
- Books for pastors: Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson has shaped my understanding of expository preaching more than any other book I have read. Although it was written 40 years ago, the principles found within are still relevant. Many ministers have gained much insight on being a pastor through reading Richard Baxter’s, Reformed Pastor, and I am one of them. Though written long ago by a Puritan, the book still relates and guides men in the art of pastoring.
- Church history and biographies: This is one of my favorite subjects, and I could list dozens of important contributions, but Jonathan Edwards by Iain Murray and George Whitefield by Arnold Dallimore are two of the best biographies. Murray’s Revival and Revivalism supplements these two biographies and is most helpful. Our Legacy by John Hannah not only traces church history back to the beginning, but also shows the challenges and developments of theology for the last 2,000 years. God’s Forever Family is concerned with the alterations within the church beginning in the late 1960s. It is astounding to realize how the church was changed by the hippie movement and the Jesus people. You cannot really understand the modern Western church if you don’t know about the influence springing out of this era.
- Doctrine: Perhaps The Courage to be Protestant by David Wells is a good entry to this category. This is Wells’ fifth book in his series documenting the slide of evangelicalism into irrelevancy and compromise of the truth. Each of the volumes lays out a contemporary theology of sorts, which shows the mismatch of what many evangelicals profess to believe with what they apparently really believe, as shaped by culture. His point is that our theology is more often shaped by the world’s views and values than by Scripture. These books offer much truth and serious warning. The Greatness of the Kingdom by Alva J. McClain is the book to which all other books concerning the Kingdom of God is compared. Contemporary works by Andy Wood (The Coming Kingdom) and Michael Vlach (He Shall Reign) rival McClain but do not surpass him. Hand in Hand by Randy Alcorn is perhaps the most balanced work I have read on the sovereignty of God/responsibility of man issue. D. A. Carson’s The Sovereignty of God is more scholarly, but Alcorn’s is more readable and comes to the same conclusion. Decision Making and the Will of God by Gary Friesen slammed the door on the mystical approach to Christian living and finding the will of God. And Paul Little’s Know Why You Believe was my first apologetic read. It helped shaped my thinking in college and still has much value today.
Of course, I could add a couple of hundred books to this list (see my previous articles) but if you are looking for a good book, these have all had much valuable influence on my life. Enjoy!