A Guide to Reading

Dear congregation,

Some time ago, I issued a challenge for all of us to take up the practice of regular and systematic reading. The challenge was to be reading a book, non-fiction and pertaining to some biblical study, church history, or topic in theology and to do this regularly and consistently.  After making this challenge, several of you asked for book suggestions.  I am happy to do this, but let me start with a few thoughts:

First, my hope is that as a congregation, we learn to talk to each other about what we’re reading. The advantage of this is that we can recommend books to each other. I can certainly make recommendations, but let’s face it, I really don’t live in your shoes.  This makes it difficult for me to know exactly what book might bless you in your current place in life. There will undoubtedly be others, however, who are better positioned to know you and who can make better recommendations.  In this way, we can all sharpen each other.

Second, I want to say this. If you find yourself regretting your choice of a book, please don’t feel like you need to push through it to the end. There are so many wonderful books available that you don’t need to drag yourself through a book that is doing you no good.  If the book isn’t what you thought, lay it aside and find another.  Sometimes I cringe when I see the books people have chosen to read because I know they are going to be disappointed and discouraged.  Now, of course, we all know that a measure of self-discipline is required for any project we take up and reading is no different.  You can be the judge of when you just need to buckle down and do the hard work of reading or when it’s time to strike out on a new path and find another title.

At any rate, let me proceed with my suggestions.

History

First, let me recommend to you the reading of biographies. The story of a person’s life can teach us so much. For this purpose, I would point you to the books published by Ywam publishers and written by Geoff & Janet Benge.  These biographies are so interesting and yet are simple enough for children. They are available in both print and audio formats.  I cannot recommend these highly enough; I have both laughed and wept in the reading of these books.  I so wish that our children and young people would read these accounts and see what God has done in the lives of ordinary people.

Let children thus learn from history’s light;
to hope in our God and walk in His sight;
the God of their fathers to fear and obey,
and ne’er like their fathers to turn from His way.  PH149

Second, are the biographies by Iain Murray.  Murray is a Scottish historian and writes biographies in such a way that the reader ends up learning a good deal of theology along the way.  He never avoids the controversies in which his subject entered.  His books are more difficult than the Benge biographies which I recommended above but more theologically robust and deep.

Third, are the biographies of Faith Cook. I have not personally read any of these myself, but they come highly recommended by my wife. Faith has written biographies of John Bunyan, William Grimshaw, Lady Jane Grey, and many others.

Finally, I can’t leave this section without recommending the Church History by Phillip Schaff. This book consists of eight large volumes which is enough to put many people off right at the start. I would encourage you, however, not to give in to this temptation.

  • First, Schaff’s volumes are neatly organized into concise sections. This means you do not need to feel any pressure to read every word of every volume. You can find the sections that interest you and read those.
  • Second, Schaff writes history from the perspective of a believer. His love for Christ is present on every page; it may sound strange, but this book is often devotional and leads one to worship. Apparently, Schaff’s work is now out of print but used copies are abundant. If you use the Kindle app, this entire set can be purchased for $1.99.

 


Theology

Let’s move to books of theology.  Here it’s important to begin by remembering that theology is unto holiness.  We don’t just study theology for its own sake; God uses our understanding of the truth to form us into His image.  Consider Jesus’ prayer: “Sanctify them in the truth, Thy word is truth.” (John 17:17)

The first author I’ll mention is R. C. Sproul.  Sproul was God’s gift to the Christian church.  This man had a remarkable ability to teach Reformed theology clearly and to inspire others to love it.  I do not claim to have read all his books, but all the ones I have read are excellent.  For sure, if you reckon yourself to be a beginner in theology, start with one of Sproul’s books.  You might consider one of the Crucial Questions series; these are all short, paperback books focusing on a specific question and written for those who have little background in theology. For this reason, they also make good books to distribute to non-Christians.

The second author is J. C. Ryle (1816 – 1900). You might not have expected to find an Anglican bishop on this list, but I would simply ask you to read one of his books.  Ryle has a unique style of writing that is very searching, very convicting, deeply personal, forceful, and that takes hold of you.  You might feel exhausted after reading Ryle!  His book Holiness is on my list of “Books that every Christian should read.”  Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels is my #1 recommended book for use in family worship times or just as a personal devotional book.

Systematic Theology

Sometimes, authors will write one book which aims to take all that the Bible teaches and to weave it together into one system of thought.  Usually these books end up being very large and have titles like “Systematic theology” or “Reformed Dogmatics”.  Because of their size, we don’t usually try to read them cover to cover, but rather use them as reference books to help us understand a specific topic.  These books are extremely valuable, however, because they take a global look at all that the Bible teaches on any subject.

  • The first book of this type I always recommend is Outlines of Theology by A. A. Hodge.  This book is unique for the simple reason that the entire book is written in Q&A (think of it as a giant FAQ).  Hodge will take you by the hand and direct you to the relevant Scriptures and help you think through all the topics of theology.  This book is not easy to read, but slow and patient study will take you farther than reading 100s of lesser books.
  • If you’ve never read a book of Systematic Theology before, then I would recommend starting with Sproul’s book Everyone’s a Theologian. This book is a good place to start.
  • If you would like to read a Systematic Theology from an author who lived centuries ago, consider The Christian’s Reasonable Service by Wilhelmus aBrakel or A Body of Divinity by Thomas Watson.

Reading an entire Systematic Theology is a daunting task and not recommended for the reasons given above. A more realistic goal is to read books which focus on a specific topic of theology. Again, the options here are endless.

Apologetics:

Beginner:

Koukl. Tactics

This is a book on method.  The author shows Christians how to have conversations with non-Christians, how to ask good questions, and how to answer common argument.  The book is written for beginners and is easy to follow.

J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity

The author is a homicide detective who uses the tools of his work to investigate the truth of the Gospels.

Geisler & Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist

This is a good book for those who have no background in apologetics or theology.  It is written in a popular, easy-to-follow style and takes the reader step by step to Jesus.

 

Intermediate:

John Blanchard, Does God Believe in Atheists?

This book is 850 pages of material defending a Christian worldview.  Blanchard has a wonderful gift of making the complex simple.  The first part of the book can easily serve as an introduction to the teachings of the different philosophers and written more clearly than in any other book I’ve known.

Sproul, Defending Your Faith

A more challenging introduction to apologetics than the above.

 

Advanced:

Geisler, Christian Apologetics

This is a scholarly, rigorously argued defense of the Christian faith.  Not for the beginner.

Geisler, The Big Book of Christian Apologetics

This is an excellent encyclopedia of apologetics arranged in articles from A to Z.  Nearly every topic and thinker is covered here and with Geisler’s usual clear and concise way of explaining things.

Sproul & Mathison, Not a Chance

An apologetics book meant for scientists and physicists.

 

Scripture:

DeYoung, Taking God at His Word

An excellent introduction to what we believe about the Bible.

Sproul, Knowing Scripture

This book shows us how to read the Bible and how to use it especially in the area of interpreting and applying Scripture.

Geisler & Nix, From God to Us

A large book which clearly explains the inspiration of Scripture.  Part 2 shows how the books of the Bible came to be in the Bible.  Parts 3 and 4 explain how the Bible was originally written, how it was copied over the centuries, and how it came finally to be in English.  This book is a huge treasury of valuable information.

 

The Doctrine of God

The Existence of God

The books in the Apologetics list above will have sections dealing with God’s existence.

 

The Attributes of God

Sproul, Enjoying God

Sproul wrote this book for everyday Christians to help them know God better.

Pink, The Attributes of God

Arthur Pink was a Reformed baptist;  his writing style is unique.  He is a searching author who often asks questions of his readers.  Pink was a vigorous opponent of all easy-believism and superficial Christianity.

Winslow, Our God

Winslow was a deeply experiential author who wrote to edify and bless his readers.  His constant aim is to draw Christians closer to God.

 

 

Controversies

One of the ways to study theology is to study the disagreements that exist between Christians.  As long as we bear in mind James 1:19 and Proverbs 6:16, 19, controversies can be good opportunities to dive deeper into what we believe.

  • Of all the authors alive today, James White has distinguished himself in this regard. He is a Reformed Baptist and has books defending Calvinism, Scripture, and the Trinity. He also has written on Islam, LGBTQ, Bible translations, and Roman Catholicism.
  • John MacArthur’s books on the Lordship Salvation controversy are also recommended (The Gospel According to Jesus & The Gospel According to the Apostles).

 

Ethics

Ethics is the study of right and wrong.  The choices we make every day; how do we measure their rightness or wrongness?

Grudem, Christian Ethics

This book is over 1200 pages of thinking about ethical issues.  The book is organized around the ten commands which the author uses to discuss almost every conceivable moral issue that exists.  Grudem writes in a marvelously clear style and is thoroughly biblical in all his reasoning.  In addition to all the excellent material in this book pertaining to ethical questions, this book teaches us how to reason biblically about issues in our world.

Beckwith & Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air

This book is focused mostly on moral relativism but does consider other forms as well.  In chapter 7, the book gives seven fatal flaws of relativism.  The last sections of the book consider the effect of this teaching on education, political correctness, multiculturalism, same-sex marriage, physician-assisted suicide, and abortion.

Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World 

The authors have a high view of Scripture, and they bring every issue to the bar of Scripture.  The book was recently updated to take stock of the many advances in technology.

Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life

Another very large book (1100pgs) of reasoning on moral topics.  This book also uses the ten commands as an organizing principle.  It also includes sections on Christianity and Culture.  This book is more difficult than Grudem.

 

 


Bible Commentary

Another great source of books are those that directly explain Scripture. Here there is such a vast quantity of wonderful books it’s difficult to know where to start. If there is a specific book of the Bible in which you are interested, perhaps it would be best if you spoke to me directly. There is one caution here. Commentaries are not usually written with the idea that they will be read from cover to cover. Commentaries are generally used as reference works because we are looking for help on a specific verse. Thus, you want to be careful getting started on a commentary and then losing yourself in all the technicalities.

  • One exception to this is Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. This man was a doctor by training and was called into the ministry later in life. He never wrote a book; all his books are his preaching converted into print. This means that his books have a sermonic tone to them almost as if the good doctor were preaching directly to you. It also means that all his books are expositions of Scripture but not in the technical language of most commentaries. The tone is more conversational. For instance, Lloyd-Jones is the author of a book on marriage, but the book consists of his sermons on Ephesians 5.
  • One commentary that I especially want to bring to your attention is the old commentary by Matthew Henry. This is a classic work and much loved because of the wonderful way that Henry not only explains but also applies Scripture. My wife and I use Henry’s commentary in our own devotions.