Ten Authors for Your Soul


Audio Transcript

This week we’re talking with Pastor John about book reading. On Monday we looked at the seven ways books have impacted your life, Pastor John. You gave us a brief theology of reading as well, looking at that incredible text in Ephesians 3:4. As you were talking about those seven ways that books have changed your life, I could hear you eager to give specific recommendations. So, let’s do the who today. Whom do you read? That’s today’s question from a listener named Sam. “Hello, Pastor John and Tony! In a recent Solid Joys devotional I listened to, Pastor John, you mentioned the practice of reading ‘rich doctrinal books.’ What would you consider to be your top ten ‘rich doctrinal books’ that have helped you grow over the decades?”

Well, I have an awful time answering “top” questions, or “most” questions. But I can answer ten rich doctrinal books that have made a walloping impact on my life — whether I leave one out that’s in the top ten, my memory’s not good enough to say.

Here’s what C.S. Lewis said about our longing for the heart — our hearts — to sing with joy over what we see about God in our devotions. He said,

For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than devotional books. And I rather suspect that the same experience awaits others. I believe that many who find “nothing happens,” when they sit down or kneel down to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden when they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand. (“On the Reading of Old Books,” 223)

My response to that is, “Well, you can leave the pipe aside.” You don’t want to get mouth cancer on your way to devotions. Leave the pipe aside, but do pick up the pencil, and a doctrinally rich book, and see what happens. So, here are ten authors who have done this for me — made my heart sing because of what they showed me of God and his ways from the Bible.

1. Four Books from Jonathan Edwards

No historic theologian has shaped me more. I’ll mention four books: The End for Which God Created the World, Religious Affections, Essay on the Trinity, and Freedom of the Will. One of those showed me the nature of God as three in one. Another showed me the goal of God to glorify himself in all that he does. Another showed me that my affections are essential to the worship and obedience of God. And the fourth showed me the compatibility between God’s absolute sovereignty and my human accountability before him.

2. Three Books from John Owen

This little book The Mortification of Sin — eighty or ninety pages — takes us into the depths of how God overcomes sin in our lives. Communion with God shows us what it actually means to have fellowship with each member of the Trinity. And The Death of Death in the Death of Christ clarifies the glory of particular redemption — namely, that Christ really did secure the new covenant blessings for God’s elect.

3. Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God

Crossway just put out a brand-new double-volume edition of this. That book — that giant 1,500 pages in two volumes — sat on my bedside table for (I can’t remember exactly) a couple of years, and I soaked with just two or three pages at night before I went to bed. I soaked in God’s holiness, his eternity, his immutability, his patience, his goodness. Someone asked Bernard of Clairvaux in the Middle Ages, “Why don’t people love God more?” And he said, “Because they don’t know him.” Charnock is a great remedy for that ailment.

4. J.I. Packer, Knowing God

If you don’t want to start with a two-volume, 1,500-page book, then start with J.I. Packer, Knowing God (250 pages instead of 1,500). The first sentence goes like this: “As clowns yearn to play Hamlet, so I have wanted to write a treatise on God.” Packer knows God is infinite, and he’s finite. The chasm between him and God is wider than the universe. Packer is a good, humble guide. He’s not presumptuous, but he is profound in his own special, accessible way. So, start with Packer if Charnock sounds daunting.

5. John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied

I learned my Calvinism not from Calvin, but mainly from Romans, and Ephesians, and Philippians, and the Gospel of John. But at certain points along the way in my theological pilgrimage, a book would come along that put so many pieces together in a beautiful, coherent way that I found them extremely helpful.

“Even if you read these books in your chair, not on your knees, be kneeling in your heart.”

The very title Redemption Accomplished and Applied still functions for me like a bright light. God accomplished my redemption on the cross once for all, decisively. It’s over, it’s done, it’s finished, it’s accomplished: propitiation, redemption. And then he sovereignly, at age six, applies that to my life — justification, adoption, sanctification, glorification — by giving me faith, bringing me to himself.

So, after Packer, go to Murray.

6. John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress

You might not think that this interesting story, which children can enjoy, a fascinating allegory, is doctrinally rich, but it is. One of the things about an allegory is that you can read it at different levels. It’s just an interesting story with monsters and dangers — or you can read it at the profound level of how the Christian life really works under the sovereignty of God.

7. J.C. Ryle, Holiness

One of the great strengths of this book that makes it so doctrinally rich is that he keeps in clear view the difference between justification and sanctification, and how they relate to each other in the quest for holiness. It also has the hidden benefit of being 150 years old, so that we can see — I was just glancing at my notes yesterday — how some of the challenges to holiness that we face, and we think are new, are really not new or peculiar to our age.

8. D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God

This is only 84 pages, but it goes a long way to keep us from talking in sentimental nonsense about the love of God. Almost everybody in the post-Christian West thinks of God as more or less lenient and kind. They bring their conceptions to the Bible, and when the Bible says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8), they fill it up with meaning that they already had in their head, which may be completely wrong. Don Carson helps us see what God is really like in what he revealed about his love.

9. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Sermon on the Mount

This two-volume collection of sermons on Jesus’s most famous sermon opened my eyes in the summer of 1968 to how doctrinal preaching could set the heart on fire. When I read it, I was 22 years old, and I thought, “That’s how I’d like to preach someday.”

10. Two Books from George Ladd

I’ll mention George Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament and The Presence of the Future. Dr. Ladd was my New Testament professor in seminary and introduced a whole generation of American evangelicals to the fact that the New Testament is eschatological cover to cover, meaning that Israel’s long-awaited kingdom of God has already arrived and yet is not entirely here. He showed us that the “mystery of the kingdom” that you read about in the Gospels is fulfillment without consummation — that’s the mystery.

The kingdom of God is already here in some senses, and it is not yet here in other senses. And the tension between the already of the kingdom and the not yet of the kingdom affects everything in the Bible, everything in life. So, eschatology is not just a final chapter about end times in the systematic-theology textbook, but a pervasive reality touching everything in the New Testament and in life.

Read on Your Knees

Those are my ten suggested authors and some of their doctrinally rich books. Remember, as you read, to be like B.B. Warfield. When he was criticized that “ten minutes on your knees would give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours over your books,” he replied, “What! . . . Than ten hours over your books, on your knees?” Even if you read these books in your chair, not on your knees, be kneeling in your heart. And then the rich doctrine will make the heart sing.

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