Books are important. They not only shape our theology and our thinking; they influence our expectations for ministry. I have confessed to many, and I will now confess publicly that I’ve read The Shack (2007)…twice. Despite its well-intentioned narrative and its warm characters, it led me astray in my early thinking about the Triune God. The way I thought about my Creator and my Redeemer was contrary to the portrait presented in Scripture. And that’s when books become dangerous. Thank God those effects weren’t irrevocable. Another book that I read that profoundly shaped my early theology was Thomas Merton’s No Man Is An Island (1955). I started reading this book because the author, a Trappist monk, founded a monastery not far from my house in Bardstown, Kentucky. It was a book that shaped my theology of prayer and of solitude in positive ways, from a Catholic no less. Today it still sits on my shelf, and every now and again I leaf through it. However, it’s not a book that I recommend to young believers due to the inherent mysticism of the author. Of the many morsels of wisdom I devoured so many years ago from that book, it’s one in which I exercise caution when I read it today. Because books matter. And what we read…we absorb. The following are five books that have shaped my ministry and my preaching perhaps more than all others. I would recommend these books to any Christian for the good of their souls and the good of their churches.
There aren’t many books I’ve read twice. This is one of those books. It was written the year I was born. Thankfully, I read the 20th anniversary edition many years ago and it changed the way I looked at the Gospel. In short, this book taught me to savor the centrality of the cross in everything. The Christian life never escapes the cross. Expiation, Propitiation, Substitution, Atonement, Adoption, you name it and Stott covers it. The depths and the effects of the cross are inexhaustible and eternal. In my preaching it has given me the mentality that I can never talk too much about what happened on Calvary. In an age when pulpits seems to talk about everything but the cross, preachers need to hear that. This is quite possibly the most Gospel-centered book I’ve ever read.
The 1980s gave us some legit theological literature. I’ve read this book with all four interns I’ve discipled at my church. It brings the believer face to face with God’s holiness in ways that many people – including myself – have never encountered. I believe we often think of holiness as “getting cleaned up for dinner” but it’s so much more. God is a consuming fire! Sproul weaves systematic theology with historical anecdotes about Luther and stories from his own life. It’s a great book. If someone from my church asks me about a book to read, and I know this person isn’t well-versed in theology, this book is my go-to suggestion. Conversely, if someone from my church asks me about a book to read, and I know they’re well-read in theology, I would still suggest this book! Sproul is one of the lions of orthodoxy of our time, and his writing is excellent. This book is both theological and practical. In an age where God’s love seems to be the exclusive attribute preachers wish to discuss, this book brings us back to his central attribute. God’s holiness encompasses every other category we have for him. If churches neglect his holiness, they’re abandoning the true God.
There’s a large difference between believing God is sovereign over all things and holding to a fatalistic worldview. This small book takes a look at the “antinomy” (a seeming contradiction that only appears as such) between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Every Christian can profit from this book. For those that lean toward a big view of God and his control over the universe, Packer’s wisdom on evangelism is wonderful and inspirational. For those who insist upon our duty as Christians to spread the good news of Christ and upon our “free will,” (however you define it) Packer asks thought-provoking questions like, “If God isn’t in absolute control over His creation, why do we pray for the salvation of others?” Practically, this book has made its way in to my ministry perhaps more than any other. Perhaps more than anything else, this book made me ask myself, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” Believing in a sovereign God and telling others about Him are essential to Christianity. Holding both in tension is the Christian walk.
Piper. Need I say more? “God is most satisfied in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” This is still profound, years after I first read this book. Our obedience and our joy are not at odds in the Christian life. This book made me ask, “Why do I worship God?” It completely destroys the idea that Christianity is boring and devoid of happiness. It also helped me to truly understand the New Covenant and the work that the Spirit performs personally in my heart. Christianity isn’t simply about law. It’s about finding the ultimate “end” of my life. And that’s Christ. He’s my goal. He’s my joy. It’s time to rid our churches of cold, hardened obedience that passes for faith. This book was able to capture the “aerial view” of theology – the big picture if you will. I believe so much of Christianity is simply rule-following performed begrudgingly and not worshipfully. This book is about the heart of true worship, and Piper’s language is, as usual, remarkable. This is a must-read for any church. Christian Hedonism isn’t a philosophy. It’s in the Bible. And Piper brings this theme out beautifully. If Christ isn’t the joy of our hearts, it’s not sincere faith.
I was first given this book just after I graduated from college in 2008. My mission coordinator handed it to me a month or so before I left for Africa for 5 months. In many ways, it’s the book that initiated my theological journey and my road to ministry. Before I read this book, I believed missions was simply about duty and calling. After I read this book, mission trips took on a whole other meaning. “Missions exist because worship doesn’t.” Those words have stuck with me all these years. In fact, this book was so inspirational and groundbreaking for me that I handed it out to my entire Honduras mission team last year. If our evangelism and our missions are simply from a sense of duty and not for a love of the lost, then they’re eternally empty before the Father (although, like me, He can use misguided, broken sinners). In other words, we go to the nations because we want the nations to worship Christ! It’s about worship. Missions is kingdom warfare with cosmic importance. This book is a must read for any missionary or any missions director. It helped to shape the way I look at evangelism and my service to others. It’s about more than philanthropy and even more than simple kindness. It’s our act of worship. Through the spoken word of Christ preached through His servants, Christ is reclaiming worship throughout the earth!