As anyone who knows me will know I love books, I love reading, and I love the mental conversation with authors that reading brings. This will hopefully develop into a short series of different book recommendations. The first set is books that influenced me profoundly between the ages of 17-26ish and that helped form some of my deepest convictions, and certainly set the direction of my growth. All of these listed here I would recommend heartily to others to read – I have re-read all of them, and though with some of them I might differ at certain details more than I might have previously, I think that all of them remain classics with the potential to benefit any who read them.
I got this as an award for regular attendance at Guildford Crusaders when I was 16, and I loved it. The target audience is students who have recently become Christians, but it is broad enough to be helpful to anyone. Each chapter covers a different aspect of the Christian life (prayer, bible study, telling others, work, guidance, holiness, etc.) There are study questions at the end of each chapter based on a relevant bible passage and I actually used them! This really helped me work out the practical implications of my faith.
I linked to this edition because of the biography included by JI Packer – I couldn’t see the edition of Holiness that I have that has a forward by JI Packer, but that forward resonated with me, and prepared me for a fantastic book. I read this at the first ever Word Alive when I was 17. Mum and Dad had bought it, and I devoured it. Ryle wrote as he preached, in direct, blunt style. This book is the spiritual equivalent of a cold shower, and is a great wake up call to slumbering Christians. I was blown away by Ryle’s chapter on Lot – not merely by the content, but by the amount he found to write on a rather minor bible character. Having just read the account of Lot in Genesis I think Ryle’s emphasis on taking Lot as a warning against lingering around sin seems spot on. At times Ryle writes against particular movements of his day that misinterpreted aspects of the Bible’s teaching on holiness – but those movements and attitudes have their direct equivalents today – and the warnings are just as needed now.
This was another book around the house when I was 17. I read it then, and have returned to it periodically ever since – it often has fresh challenges, and is a wonderful call back to Christ in the midst of the complexities of life, and also to honestly face those things in our life that hold us back from reality with Christ and others. Inside Out by Crabb is also well worth reading.
I read this on the train on the way up to an open day at Durham. If you only read one Christian book ever (other than the bible) this is the one. Packer is the sanest, wisest, godliest writer I have read. He has definite strong views, yet writes with respect and gentleness about others, and is willing to learn from all sorts of different people. Other good Packer books include Keeping in Step with the Spirit and Passion for Holiness (well worth it for the stick men diagrams!)
If you just read one book on the cross then this is it. A wonderful exposition of the cross – which combines a defence of “the self-substitution of God in Christ” as a penal sacrifice for our sins with fantastic chapters on the implications of the cross for church life and our witness and action in the world. All of Stott’s Bible Speaks Today commentaries are well worth having, and are mostly the best of that series.
I read this aged 18, at about the time of my A levels. Like the Fight this is a book that I did the study questions for. I loved it, and it really helped me see the Bible as one big story. This is a very useful overview of the Bible, well worth reading and pondering this or its smaller cousin “Gospel and kingdom”.
One of the best books on prayer I’ve read – based around Paul’s prayers, a great guide to fuel our prayers. Don’t let the title put you off. Most things Carson writes are well worth reading, and hearing him speak and preach is wonderful too. I love the way that his heart and devotion come through in what he writes and says.
I’ve read lots of books on guidance, and this ranks as the best. Full of wisdom from scripture and the past – I found this a real breath of fresh air – one of the pleasant surprises of applying to Regent was realising he was one of the professors there – and one regret of my time there was that I couldn’t fit a course from him in to my schedule – Roz did manage to audit several though.
I read Desiring God back in 1995 when I was at Durham, when no-one (other than the UCCF Staff worker who was selling the books) I knew had ever heard of John Piper, and devoured most things I could find by Piper from then on. At a time when especially in the Christian Union I was part of there was a huge division between those who emphasised the Word in a very cerebral way, and those who emphasised the Spirit in a very subjective way it was wonderful to read Piper bringing head and heart together, and showing that being a Christian is about more than just getting a set of beliefs together. I never really got on with his “strange” terminology (“Christian hedonism”, and dislike of “gratitude” in Future Grace) but I loved that when he put things in new ways it made me think. I really liked that I got to read his dissertation on Romans 9 for a paper at Regent – writing that paper helped me work out where I disagreed with Piper, and also where I fundamentally agree. I think I still agree on far more than I disagree, and I’m utterly convinced that we need to know that God is the centre of reality, and that we need to situate our lives around that reality. Christianity is not about “your best life now”, it’s about a life spent in worship of the Triune God – and in that worship and service is our truest joy and deepest satisfaction.
Jerry Bridges was my discovery immediately post Durham, on the Oxford International Outreach browsing the bookstore attached to St Ebbes. I came across this book just after someone had been raving about Jerry Bridges. I bought it, and was moved to tears the next morning reading of God’s amazing grace – I loved the reminder that God would bless us according to his goodness, not what we deserve. His Pursuit of Holiness is also fantastic – a kind of JC Ryle for the 20th century, and Practice of Godliness is also excellent.
This is a book that is representative of a whole genre – this time books about (or by) people from throughout Christian history. Going well with this would be JC Ryle’s Christian leaders of the 18th century, and Packer’s “Among God’s Giants” about the Puritans. I think the leaders of the 18th century revival (Wesley and Whitefield, and Edwards in the US) repay our study, as do those who worked with them and followed after them also. What God did through them in the UK was astonishing and nothing short of transformative in the nation. Not only did thousands have individual lives turned upside down, but those individual lives went on to transform society too: just think Wilberforce and the Slave Trade for just one example of this. These people were utterly rooted in the transforming grace of God, and even when they disagreed still managed (sometimes through a number of difficulties) to keep an essential unity.
I read lots of Eugene Peterson when I was in London doing a course learning all about preaching and teaching the Bible. I loved the refreshing way Peterson put things, the way he used language and the focus he had as a church leader on preaching, pastoring and praying – or, probably better, each of those things intertwined with the others. I’d recommend Peterson to anyone involved in Christian leadership as an antidote to the pragmatic business type models of growing churches that seem to be around so much these days. We need to be rooted in Scripture, we need to be saturated in prayer, we need our leaders to be people of the Book and people of prayer, and Peterson calls us back to that brilliantly.
I found Willard’s books tucked away in an obscure second hand bookshop in south east central London – just a couple of tube stops down from Borough High Street where the course I was doing was based. In the shop were three books by Dallas Willard: Hearing God, Spirit of the Disciplines and Divine Conspiracy. I bought and read them all, and they are all wonderful books – well worth reading – although definitely a stretching read. Willard is a writer who found fresh ways to write about old perspectives, and calls us all not to settle for anything less than whole life commitment to practicing the teachings of Jesus.
I’ve only actually read two Os Guinness books that I can recall, “The Call”, and “God in the Dark” (relating to doubt) but both of them have been very helpful, and they would be my final book recommendations for this part 1. In actual fact “The Call” might belong better to part 2, because my vivid memory of reading it is of siting in the park during my lunch hour when working in Dorking around the time I was just getting to know Roz. It was a particularly good read for that time period as I struggled with the drudgery of my work.
That concludes the first part of this series on books. Part 2 will feature some of the books that have helped me because they sharpened my thinking – often because I disagreed with them to a greater or less degree. Part 3 will be more recent really good books I’ve enjoyed and benefited from, and hopefully I’ll manage to get as far as part 4 which will be about books I’ve read as part of my studies that could be useful to those outside the academic world.
How about you – what books have you found helping you? What books were formative on your early years as a Christian, and would you still recommend them today?
Final comment: I’ve linked these all to Amazon because that was easy. If you have a real life flesh and blood bookstore near you that stocks such books please consider using them instead!