Where to Start
Talk to almost any mature, vibrant Christians, and they will tell you about Christian books that have been instrumental in their lives. In fact, one of the best indications I’ve seen of the Spirit’s work in someone’s life is that he (or she) develops a newfound love of reading. Granted, many people throughout history have not had the opportunity to learn to read, nor have they had easy access to good books. But thankfully, that is not the predicament you and I are facing. When it comes to good Christian literature, especially written in English or translated into English, we have an embarrassment of riches. There are so many wonderful things to read. The question, for many Christians, then becomes: “Where do I start?”
The answer to that question is virtually endless. But since we have to start somewhere, and since we can’t read everything, it can be helpful to get some good recommendations. The list below is not a ranking of the best books in the history of the church. No doubt, the list reflects what influenced me as a young Christian. Thus, it veers heavily toward writers who wrote in English and books that are more oldish than truly old. Nevertheless, the twelve books listed are classics in the best sense of the word—classics not just because they are from another century (I’ve only listed books written by dead guys), but because they deal with topics that never go out of style and are written in a way that transcends their own time and culture.
One of the most important things we can do when we are young and our beliefs and opinions have not yet fully formed is to make sure we read good books. I hope the annotated bibliography below will help point you in the right direction. I’ve tried to pick books that are rich and deep, but also accessible and not overly long. For each book I’ve included the original publication date and a sentence or two of description. I haven’t given specific publishing information because most of these works can be easily found in a variety of formats.
1. Augustine, Confessions (c. 400)
There may be no more influential theologian in the history of the church than Augustine, the bishop of Hippo in North Africa. This autobiographical work traces Augustine’s spiritual journey toward Christ through unbelief, philosophical wandering, and sexual promiscuity.
2. John Calvin, Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life (1559)
This little book of devotion and discipleship comes out of Calvin’s much larger work The Institutes of the Christian Religion. The French theologian and Genevan Reformer provides a beautiful and stirring picture of true spirituality.
3. Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices (1652)
In this work by English preacher and author Thomas Brooks, we see the genius of the Puritans for clearheaded organization, heart-probing spiritual diagnosis, and gospel cure.
4. John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)
This is the most famous Christian allegory ever written and, by some accounts, the most widely distributed book in the world (after the Bible). Bunyan understood the trials and triumphs of the Christian life and presented the journey of faith in a way that has inspired millions of Christians.
5. J. C. Ryle, Holiness (1877)
Ryle, an Anglican bishop in Liverpool, combined a sharp theological mind with unusually crisp communication. This is the best book for understanding the doctrine of progressive sanctification and growing in practical godliness.
6. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908)
From theological treatises to biographies to detective stories, Chesterton was one of the greatest writers in the English language from the twentieth century. This is Chesterton’s witty and intellectually robust defense of the joys of Christian orthodoxy.
7. Herman Bavinck, The Christian Family (1908)
Bavinck is best known for his multi-volume Reformed Dogmatics, but this exploration of sex, marriage, and family life, though originally written in Dutch over a hundred years ago, remains incredibly relevant for our day.
8. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (1923)
It’s often been said that the most important word in this title is “and.” Machen, the Princeton Seminary professor who left to start Westminster Theological Seminary, argues persuasively that theological liberalism is not a different version of Christianity but a different religion altogether.
9. C. S. Lewis, Abolition of Man (1944)
While Lewis is better known for Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia, page for page this is one of the most important things Lewis ever wrote. Lewis argues that in forgetting the God-given natural order of morality, we have made “men without chests” who try to see through first principles and therefore no longer see.
10. John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (1955)
A Scottish-born pastor and professor, Murray originally wrote this book on the work of Christ and the doctrine of salvation as a series of articles for ordinary church members. You would be hard pressed to find a more succinct and readable theological exploration of the work of Christ and the salvation of sinners.
11. J. I. Packer, Knowing God (1973)
An Anglican clergyman, teacher, and writer, Packer was a master at making theological concepts understandable and explaining them with memorable prose. This book on the nature and character of God may be the most influential book of serious theology in the past fifty years.
12. R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (1985)
No one did more in recent decades to remind us of the bigness of God than R. C. Sproul. This book will make sure we who were created in God’s image do not recreate him in ours.
This article is adapted from Do Not Be True to Yourself: Countercultural Advice for the Rest of Your Life by Kevin DeYoung.
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