The five most influential books that have shaped my faith and ministry are listed below. I limited the list to non-fiction works. But my faith and ministry has also been shaped by several pieces of quality fiction. I cannot resist naming a few of those as well: J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, and Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.
- Knowing God by J. I. Packer
My sister, Heather, gave me Knowing God soon after I shared with her my aspiration and calling to serve as a pastor. As I read it, I found my exuberance for pastoral ministry eclipsed with the holier ambition of knowing God. Pastoral ministry is important, but knowing God is ultimate.
Packer writes, “What makes life worthwhile is having a big enough objective, something which catches our imagination and lays hold of our allegiance; and this the Christian has in a way that no other person has. For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God?”
- The Cross of Christ by John Stott
This is the most important book ever written on the cross of Christ. It is comprehensive in scope, thorough in treatment, and practical in intent. Stott traces how the cross of Christ has been understood in history and theology as well as its impact and application. He is biblically faithful, historically fair, and pastorally sensitive in his approach. While affirming the centrality of substitutionary atonement in our understanding of the cross, he does not ignore the atonement’s multi-faceted metaphorical beauty.
He writes, “The vision of God’s holy love will deliver us from caricatures of him. We must picture him neither as an indulgent God who compromises his holiness in order to spare and spoil us, nor as a harsh, vindictive God who suppresses his love in order to crush and destroy us. How then can God express his holiness without consuming us and his love without condoning our sins? How can God satisfy his holy love? How can he save us and satisfy himself simultaneously? We reply at this point only that, in order to satisfy himself, he sacrificed–indeed substituted–himself for us.”
- The Pursuit of God by A. W. Tozer
Tozer was a prophetic voice in his generation. Rarely can you read his words without being cut to the heart. He refuses to relinquish control of the Christian life to the tyranny of complacency.
He writes, “To have found God and still pursue Him is the soul’s paradox of love, scorned indeed by the too easily-satisfied religionist, but justified in happy experience by the children of the burning heart. St. Bernard stated this holy paradox in a musical quatrain that will be instantly understood by every worshipping soul: We taste Thee, O Thou Living Bread; And long to feast upon Thee still: We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead, And thirst our souls from Thee to fill. Come near to the holy men and women of the past and you will soon feel the heat of their desire after God. They mourned for Him, they prayed and wrestled and sought for Him day and night, in season and out, and when they had found Him the finding was all the sweeter for the long seeking. . . . I want deliberately to encourage this mighty longing after God. The lack of it has brought us to our present low estate. The stiff and wooden quality about our religious lives is a result of our lack of holy desire. Complacency is a deadly foe of all spiritual growth.”
This book impacted my life so much that when Kim and I met I gave her a copy and asked her to read it. She contends that I was testing her. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t . . .
- Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell and Preaching Christ from the Old Testament by Sydney Greidanus
I put these two books together because I could not choose between them. I felt I would be misrepresenting my development if I included one without the other. I preach the way I do today because of these helpful works. Not only have I found them useful in my preaching ministry but also in how I disciple others to encounter Christ in the Scriptures as they read and study for themselves.
Chapell introduces readers to the “Fallen Condition Focus” (FCF). He writes, “Since God designed the Bible to complete us, its contents necessarily indicates that in some sense we are incomplete. Our lack of wholeness is a consequence of the fallen condition in which we live. Aspects of this fallenness that are reflected in our own sinfulness and in our world’s brokenness props Scripture’s instruction and construction. . . . The corrupted state of our world and our being cry for God’s aid. He responds with his Word, focusing on some facet of our need in every portion. Our hope resides in the assurance that all Scripture has a Fallen Condition Focus. God refuses to leave his frail and sinful children without guide or defense in a world antagonistic to their spiritual wellbeing. No text was written merely for those long ago; God intends for each Scripture to give us the ‘endurance and the encourage’ that we need today. The FCF is the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or for whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage.”
Greidanus introduces readers to the useful Redemptive-Historical Christocentric method of biblical interpretation. In it, he provide seven credible ways to preach Christ from the Old Testament with hermeneutical integrity and homiletical consistency: 1) the way of redemptive-historical progression, 2) the way of promise-fulfillment, 3) they way of typology, 4) the way of analogy, 5) they way of longitudinal themes, 6) the way of New Testament references, and 7) the way of contrast. He writes, “Preaching Christ is good news for people, and preaching Christ is as broad as preaching the gospel of the kingdom–as long as this kingdom is related to its King, Jesus. More specifically, to preach Christ is to proclaim some facet of the person, work, or teaching of Jesus of Nazareth so that people may believe him, trust him, love him, and obey him.”
- The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis
This book contains nine sermons preached by C. S. Lewis, the first of which is titled The Weight of Glory. I cannot overstate its influence in my life. Permit me, then, to share with you a portion of my personal story of faith.
By God’s grace, I was exposed to the gospel early and often. As a result, I professed faith in Christ at a young age and was baptized soon after. Evidence of God’s grace appeared in my avid appetite for the Scriptures. I loved reading the Bible and spent much time doing so. Although I did not understand the full beauty of the gospel–nor do I presume to do so now for that matter–I do believe in the sincerity of my child-like profession. After all, I did not put my faith in the strength of my faith but in the strength of God’s grace in Christ. As I have matured, my awareness of the depth of my depravity and the glory of God’s grace in the gospel has matured as well.
My family moved to a new town prior to the start of my second stint in the fifth grade. I held back a year to graduate at 18 rather than 17. I did not handle the transition well. The move required leaving friends and making new ones. Many of my new friends, however, did not follow Jesus. Early on in our friendship, they influenced me more than I influenced them. We found camaraderie in our shared pursuit of the fleeting pleasures of drunkenness, vandalism, crass humor, etc. All the while, I knew the attitudes we harbored and the activities we engaged in were sinful, but I lacked a significant understanding of the goospel’s power and purpose in my discipleship. By God’s grace, all that began to change the summer before my senior year in high school.
My love for reading the Bible and other theological works remained consistent even in my rebellion. I soon discovered The Weight of Glory. In it, Lewis talked about sin in a way that was radically new to me. Lewis writes, “It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” He provided me with a theological motivation for obedience capable of severing sin’s appeal in my life. I learned that when I settle for the pleasures of sin, I sell myself short. My desires for pleasure were not too strong, but too weak! The way to fight the fleeting pleasures of sin is by seeking the forever pleasure of Christ. The call of the gospel, then, is for disciples to seek deep joy in Jesus, one far more satisfying than that which sin offers.
The trajectory of my life soon changed. As I began seeking my joy in Jesus, my desire to help others do so grew too. Two years later, God called me to serve the Savior in the context of the local church so that I might lead others to center their lives on the all-sufficiently satisfying gospel of Jesus Christ.
Thanks for asking!