I have a home full of books. There are bookshelves in every room. I suppose there must be around four thousand books in the house altogether. Some of them are general books – books of poetry, novels, history books. But most of them are, in some sense, “Christian”. They are books about the Bible (lots of commentaries), books about Christian doctrine, books about how to live as a Christian, books about church history – and lots more.
Sometimes visitors to the home ask me, “And have you read them all?” And of course I have to admit that I haven’t. I don’t suppose anyone reads his way through Bible dictionaries or concordances. But when I scan my shelves, I realise that I’ve never read many of the doctrinal books either, or the biographies, or the books of sermons, or the devotional books. Some I’ve never opened; some I’ve opened – and closed again very quickly! Some I bought because I was told that they would give me wonderful new insight into some doctrine. But when I started reading, I found it empty twaddle. Some I bought on impulse, because the title looked interesting. But when I had read the first few pages, I found them so boring I gave up. Some I bought because they were best-sellers. Everyone else was reading them, so I thought they must be worthwhile. But once I tried them for myself, I decided I’d been conned.
Deciding which books to buy and which to read is so difficult. Walk into a Christian bookshop and scan the shelves and you may well feel bewildered. Where do you begin? How do you know what to buy? Most of us have busy lives. In the few hours we snatch from other duties, most of us are only going to read a handful of books each year. But there are literally hundreds of thousands of “Christian” books in print. So which books are most worth reading? How can we make sure that we’re not wasting our time on trivia?
Well let me give you a short list of books – not a list of the best or the most important Christian books ever written – but simply a list of books that I wish every English-speaking Christian could read. This is a list for everyone. Not every Christian will have time to read exhaustive works of theology; not every Christian needs to have studied commentaries and works of philosophy. But I believe that the books in this list will benefit any Christian. They are all books that are true to the Bible, books that inform the mind and warm the heart, books which set a tone of serious godliness.
Where shall we begin? Well surely we need first of all to be sure that we are true Christians: that we are really converted. So let’s start with a book that spells out the true gospel and preaches it to our hearts. Charles Haddon Spurgeon was one of the greatest gospel preachers God ever raised up in our country. We have not seen his like in a hundred years. His sermons – and there are scores of volumes of them in print – are wonderful. But as a starting-point for our list, I’d recommend his book All of Grace. There are half a dozen different editions available including a Moody Classics version sold by Amazon for £3.99.
He himself had grown up in a Christian home. And yet for years he never understood the gospel. “I had heard the plan of salvation by the sacrifice of Jesus from my youth up; but I did not know any more about it in my innermost soul than if I had been born and bred a Hottentot…” Hence his huge concern to explain the gospel as plainly as it can be explained, and not just to explain it but to preach it. “Jesus has borne the death penalty on our behalf! Behold the wonder! There He hangs upon the cross! This is the greatest sight that you will ever see: Son of God and Son of man! There He hangs, bearing pains unutterable – the just for the unjust – that He might bring us to God. Oh, the glory of that sight! The Innocent, suffering! The Holy One, condemned! The Ever-blessed, made a curse! The Infinitely Glorious, put to a shameful death! The more I look at the sufferings of the Son of God, the more sure I am that they must meet my case… What is it to believe in Him? It is not merely to say, ‘He is God and the Saviour,’ but to trust Him wholly and entirely, and take Him for all your salvation from this time forth and forever – your Lord, your Master, your All. If you will have the Lord Jesus, He has you already…”
Where next? Spurgeon preaches the true gospel to us. Walter Chantry helps us to see how different that gospel is from the versions of the gospel that so many preach today. His book Today’s Gospel, Authentic or Synthetic (Banner of Truth) is only 93 pages long, but those pages clear up so many misunderstandings and equip us to share the gospel with others. “The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is a pearl worthy to be purchased at the cost of all else. Rise above deadening evangelical tradition and ‘earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints’ (Jude 2). Soli Deo Gloria.”
We need to understand the gospel. But we also need to understand the reason why the gospel is effective. We need to understand that salvation is all God’s work. So I’d suggest as my third title, A W Pink’s The Sovereignty of God (again Banner of Truth). This book had a tremendous impact on me as a teenager. It helped me to realise that God really is sovereign, that he controls everything, that he has planned the whole work of salvation from first to last. It’s clear, hard-hitting and every point is supported by Scripture. “From every pulpit in the land, it needs to be thundered forth that God still lives, that God still observes, that God still reigns… there is no fixed and sufficient resting-place for the heart and mind, but in the Throne of God.”
It’s a thrilling thing when we grasp the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God. But we may still be left with all sorts of puzzling questions. If God has already decided who will be saved, why should we evangelise? If God has planned that only certain people will come to Christ, can we freely invite every sinner to come to him? So my fourth choice is J I Packer’s little book – just 126 pages – Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (IVP) helps us think through such questions as these in a clear and thoroughly biblical way. “It is true that God has from all eternity chosen those whom he will save. It is true that Christ came specifically to save those whom the Father had given Him. But it is also true that Christ offers Himself freely to all men as their Saviour, and guarantees to bring to glory everyone who trusts in Him as such…” Packer shows us that believing in God’s sovereignty should make us more confident, more bold, more patient and more prayerful in our evangelism.
My fifth title needs no introduction or recommendation. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress remains the most wonderful portrayal ever written of Christian experience. The language of course is old-fashioned and may sound quaint in our ears. But time and again you’ll find yourself feeling that this is the most up-to-date book you’ve ever read. Bunyan pictures in the book a huge array of different characters. You’ll find yourself saying, “I know him!”, “I met her last week!” “He used to come to our church…” And as you trace Christian’s struggles and temptations and triumphs, you’ll find that Bunyan is describing your own experience with uncanny accuracy.
More doctrine now. We need a book that will survey the whole field of Christian doctrine. Well, there’s one obvious one for us. The 1689 Confession. Whether you read it in its modern English edition (A Faith to Confess, pub Carey Publications) or in the original 17th century language is up to you. Either way, you’ll be getting a wonderfully, clear succinct summary of the things we believe. That’s no. 6 in my list.
And then go on to read another classic by J I Packer: Knowing God. Packer is only concerned in this book with one question, “What does the Bible teach about God?” but in answering it, he touches on virtually every central Bible doctrine (though strangely no chapters on the Return of Christ or the World to Come). It’s longer than most of the books I’ve listed (my copy, published by Hodder, runs to 348 pages) and needs more concentration. But it’s wonderfully rewarding stuff. Heart-warming, practical and God-glorifying. So that’s my seventh title.
Number eight is another book on the Doctrine of God. D B Knox’s The Everlasting God (Evangelical Press) is much shorter at 178 pages than Packer’s book. It includes wonderful chapters on the doctrine of the Trinity, and on the Person and Work of Christ (the only weakness here is his insistence on a general atonement). When I first read the book, I began highlighting paragraphs that I found especially powerful, moving or thought-provoking – my copy has highlights on virtually every page! “The doctrine of the Trinity is the glory of the Christian religion. It tells us that ultimate reality is personal relationship…” “We do not by nature like the doctrine of predestination for it appears to make us puppets on the one hand and it appears unfair on the other. Yet it is a doctrine that is amply taught in Holy Scripture. It is based on the nature of God, who is sovereign and merciful; it is based on the nature of men, rebellious and dead in sin, and it is based on the character of salvation, which is a free gift”. “Our faith in Jesus, by which we are saved, is closely linked to His faith in God, which is the ground of our salvation. It is wonderful to think that by exercising faith in Christ we are walking in the footsteps of our Saviour…”
We still need to read something specifically on the Christian’s hope – the return of Christ, the new heavens and new earth. I’ve not myself read any modern book that really meets the need. There are many books that deal with the order of events before the return of the Lord Jesus, few that dwell on the eternal glories. So, rather hesitantly, I’m putting down as my ninth title, Richard Baxter’s Saints’ Rest (many editions). I hesitate for three reasons: because it’s quite long (around 350 pages); the language is old-fashioned and can be quite hardgoing; Baxter doesn’t always distinguish clearly between the joys that come to the believer after death and the joys that shall be when the Lord Jesus returns. But there are places in the book that have moved me to “joy unspeakable and full of glory”. I’m sure it will do the same for you. “Thou poor soul, who prayest for joy, waitest for joy, complainest for want of joy, longest for joy; why, then (ie in the world to come), thou shalt have full joy, as much as thou canst hold, and more than thou thoughtest on, or thy heart desired….”
And now we need to move on to the Christian life and how it’s to be lived. God has used J C Ryle’s Holiness (again many editions) to shake many of us out of complacency, half-heartedness and worldliness. So that’s my no 10. The closing paragraph sums it all up: “Christ loves His people to lean on Him, to rest in Him, to call on Him, to abide in Him. Let us all learn and strive to do so more and more. Let us live on Christ. Let us live in Christ. Let us live with Christ. Let us live to Christ. So doing, we shall prove that we fully realize that ‘Christ is all’. So doing, we shall feel great peace, and attain more of that ‘holiness without which no man shall see the Lord.’ (Heb xii.14)”.
My eleventh choice, John White’s The Fight (IVP) is another book on Christian living, but very different from Ryle. It’s contemporary, racy, intensely practical. Each chapter deals with one aspect of Christian experience: prayer, Bible-study, witnessing, temptation, relationships, guidance. White deals with them all in a realistic, honest, and very moving way. In the last chapter, he talks about the experience of death and how we prepare for it. I can remember how moved I was when first I read that chapter thirty years ago. My life has been different because of what I learned then. “You may conquer death now. Let its fear no longer haunt you. Look at the years (who knows how many they may be?) that are left to you before death comes. What would you like to accomplish during that time, soldier? The Conqueror of death and hell has his arm around your shoulder”.
Perhaps the one aspect of the Christian life with which virtually all of us struggle is prayer. The most helpful book I know on the subject was written by an American presbyterian, Austin Phelps. The Still Hour or Communion with God (Banner of Truth) is only 91 pages long but within those pages he deals tenderly with all the problems I know so well in my own prayer-life. Instead of just telling me I need to pray longer and harder (I know that already) he helps me to understand why I struggle, why I’m reluctant to pray, why my prayers so often seem empty – and he gives me fresh hope that even I can become a man of prayer. If you’re satisfied with your praying, then don’t bother with this book. But if like me, you want to learn to pray, I recommend it wholeheartedly. Don’t be put off in the first few pages by the stiffly old-fashioned language: press on, and you’ll find that you’re reading a book that stirs you to pray. “Prayer… is an act of friendship… It is intercourse; an act of trust, of hope, of love – all prompting to interchange between the soul and an infinite, spiritual Friend. We all need prayer, if for no other purpose, for this which we so aptly call communion with God… we all need friendly converse with Him whom our souls love…”
That gives us twelve titles. And if you want something more to make it up to the baker’s dozen then I’d go for Life and Sermons of Edward Griffin (2 vols Banner of Truth). I’ve not included it in our list of twelve because I’ve tried to stick with affordable books that are available in paper-back. Griffin’s two volumes are bigger and more expensive choice than any of the others. But they are awesome. These are simply, to my mind, the finest sermons in print anywhere – the most thoughtful, powerful, searching sermons I know. Griffin makes every line count. He’s pressing home the Word to our conscience all the time. Over the years I’ve given away a dozen copies of this set. I wish I could afford to give one to every member of this congregation. But maybe we can at least buy some copies for the church library we want to start.