(August 2004 – Volume 10, Issue 8)
I entered the ministry 31 years ago at the age of 22 with many dreams and goals, most of which were of a nebulous and general nature (e.g. to remain faithful, teach the Word, be devoted to prayer, build a church). I desired to be a diligent student of Scripture, Christian living and the world in which we live. The one specific, measurable goal that I set for myself was to read on average one book per week for the rest of my life. I have made it my habit to spend the first 2 to 3 hours of every day in serious reading, and I seldom go anywhere without a book tucked under my arm. It is surprising how much a person can read while they wait for doctors and such. As a result, by God’s grace, I have been able to come within a whisker of that goal. Having read over 1500 books during this time, I thought I might produce, for my own pleasure if for no one else’s, my list of “must read” books.
This list begins with some caveats. It is not a compilation of the most significant or important books of all times. Luther’s Bondage of the Will is in this category, but I would not recommend it to most of my readers due to its heaviness and antiquated language. Theologians, pastors and Bible students should read such books, even if they do not agree, but most Christians would find it extremely burdensome to wade through this type of literature (my opinion). On my list will be books of significance, but books readable to most Christians who are serious about God.
Also on my list will obviously be books with which I make no claim to be in total agreement. I am a dispensationalist, for example, but most of the best books have not been written by dispensationalists. Most dispensationalists who write at all today either write fiction (e.g. The Left Behind series) or on eschatological issues. Few, sadly, are writing commentaries, theology, or serious works on the Christian life. John MacArthur would be an exception to this; however, MacArthur is a “leaky dispensationalist” who does not fall neatly into either dispensational or Reformed camps. As a result, many of my favorites are from the pens of those holding to Reformed theology. I am in total agreement with these authors in most areas of theology but would differ with them on some points, especially in the realm of eschatology and ecclesiology. That does not, however, negate my appreciation for their insights into Scripture and godly living. And I absolutely applaud their understanding of the sovereignty and greatness of God, and their emphasis on grace and truth.
One more disclaimer: while I may recommend a book by a particular author that does not mean that I am supportive of everything they have written on other subjects. J. I. Packer’s Knowing God, for example, is a classic that should be read by every believer. Even as I encourage the study of Knowing God, I would strongly warn against many of Packer’s ecumenical writings, especially as related to the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” issues. Does the fact that I believe Packer to be in serious error on some matters have to negate the impact of Knowing God? I don’t believe so. But as with all human literature the reader must always use discernment. Only the Bible is without error, which means of course that the Bible should be first and foremost on the reading list of all believers. By the way, on this same subject, I would recommend the writings of A. W. Tozer, especially The Knowledge of the Holy. But Tozer, who has become almost an untouchable today, (I have heard repeatedly by strong Calvinists that Tozer was the one “good” Arminian) had his flaws as we all do. He cut his doctrinal eyeteeth on the Catholic mystics, and this logically has to have an affect on his views – and does. But again this must not distract us from the power of his message. Great profit is found in Tozer’s writings, but again discernment is always necessary.
In recent years I have written reviews on most of the books I have read. These can be found on our website for those who are interested. Now here are a few of my favorites in a variety of categories. Forgive me if I leave out your most beloved books. I may simply have never read them and, of course, all such lists are subjective.
I truly enjoy reading about the lives of past notables. At the top of my list are these:
- Walking with the Giants and Listening to the Giants by Warren Wiersbe. Wiersbe offers short biographies on a number of the great preachers of the past, principally in the 19th century. While I am not always in agreement with Wiersbe’s assessment of these men, I find these sketches invaluable.
- The Shadow of the Almighty by Elisabeth Elliot is a frank, honest account of the life of her famous husband, Jim. Many personal letters and diary entries are included.
- Martin Luther Had a Wife; Harriet Beecher Stowe Had a Husband and C. S. Lewis Had a Wife, all written by William J. Petersen provides us not only with fascinating insights into the lives of 15 Christian leaders, but also opens the curtain on their marriages as well. I don’t know where else you could find all this information.
- The Diary of David Brainerd was written by his famous (almost) father-in-law, Jonathan Edwards, in 1749. It has been considered a classic ever since, chronicling Brainerd’s missionary activity among the American Indians, as well as his personal struggles to know and do God’s will.
- Speaking of Jonathan Edwards, his biography, Jonathan Edwards, Pastor by Patricia J. Tracy is well worth reading. Of course there are many other worthy biographies on Edwards, including Iain Murray’s.
- Classic Christian Hymn-Writers by Elsie Houghton puts flesh and blood behind the hymns that have so impacted modern Christianity. Not exactly biographies, but along the same line, are two books written by Kenneth W. Osbeck: 101 Hymn Stories and 101 More Hymn Stories.
- For D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones fans you couldn’t do better than Iain Murray’s two volume set – that is if you have time to read 1200 pages.
- George Whitefield (2 volumes) by Arnold Dallimore is an absolute delight.
- Richard Belchon’s, Arthur W. Pink, Born to Write serves both as a good biography and a grave caution. And if you need a good warning about excesses in ministry read Marilee P. Dunker’s heartbreaking story of her father, Bob Pierce, in Days of Glory, Seasons of Night.
- The Life and Times of Cotton Mather by Kenneth Silverman relives the life of the most celebrated pastor during the American colony period. This book provides wonderful insight into life during early American history, including the Salem witch hunts.
- On the secular front, John McCullough’s biography on John Adams is hard to beat, and the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and Henry Adams are considered the best.
Christian fiction is not particular appealing to me. Most is insipid, boring, trite or worse. But some fiction deserves a place on our shelves and in our heart. Among those are:
- Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, in its uncut original form, is as much a story of a man coming face to face with himself and God as it is an adventure tale.
- No believer should go through life without reading John Bunyan’s classics, Pilgrim’s Progress and Holy War. If Bunyan’s 17th century English is too cumbersome, there are numerous modern editions.
- The Screwtape Letters is my favorite C. S. Lewis book. Lewis was confused on much of his theology, but few, if any, have been able to cut through the fog and present truth in such a wonderful way as him.
- Paradise Lost by John Milton is considered one of the three greatest of all story poems. . The other two are the classics by Dante and Homer. You owe it to yourself (or someone) to read it at least once. You might even like it.
- The other fictional books that I would mention are all written by secular authors but have something to contribute to the thinking of the Christian. They includedHawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter; Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth; Russian classics, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov; The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. Also, the existential novels by Albert Camus (The Fall) and Sartre (Nausea) will clearly show the hopeless plight of the lost individual.
- I love to read A. W. Tozer. If you have never done so you might start with The Best of A W. Tozer, edited by Warren Wiersbe. Next move to The Knowledge of the Holy, his classic. The Pursuit of God, Man the Dwelling Place of God, and That Incredible Christian are among his best.
- J. C. Ryle has also written a number of excellent books including How Readest Thou? and Holiness. Few today read Ryle – they don’t know what they are missing.
- A Call to Spiritual Reformation by D. A. Carson is probably the best book I have read on prayer, as Carson deals thoroughly with the New Testament prayers of the Apostle Paul.
- A Shepherd Looks at the Twenty-Third Psalm is a must read. Phillip Keller wrote a number of other books but this is the one that will endure the test of time.
- For the rest of the books mentioned under this heading I will take a shotgun approach. Here are some valuable volumes with a wide range of topics:
- Decision Making and the Will of God by Gary Friesen is an important work in this day of Christian mysticism. For a shorter, but similar study try Decisions, Decisions by Dave Swavely.
- How Long O Lord by D. A. Carson is excellent for the believer facing trial and pain.
- From Forgiven to Forgiveness by Jay Adams offers much needed balance and correction on the subject of forgiveness.
- You’re Richer Than You Think by Erwin Lutzer expounds on some of our great riches in Christ.
- Mastering Your Money by Ron Blue is the best of the Christian financial guides.
- The Disciplines of a Godly Man by Kent Hughes, would be helpful for any man to read.
- Our Sufficiency in Christ is my favorite book by John MacArthur.
- And if you just want a good laugh, read the satirical The Mantra of Jabez by Douglas M. Jones. Of course you can read my book “I Just Wanted More Land”, Jabez too, but it is not nearly as funny
In our next TOTT I will mention some of my favorite books in other categories.