Rarely do we close a book unchanged. Reading has the rich capability of radically reorienting us. Our minds are informed, our hearts are formed, and our lives are reformed. We can all look back and point to a few books that stand out among others. We remember exactly where we were and how we felt when we read them. Some books are more influential than others due to a host of variables—the poignancy of the story, the gripping nature of the style, the cogency of the argument, the usefulness of the personal insight, or (most importantly) the timeliness of the undertaking. I have found that the first book I have read of a particular genre or topic distinguishes itself from others because it began the synaptic momentum toward a personal paradigm shift—an existential epiphany. Here are 7 books that have significantly shaped my life and ministry.
The Vanishing Conscience by John MacArthur
“Though sin is a defeated enemy, though we wage our battle against it from a position of victory, it is still a life-and-death struggle. And it is a battle we must continue to take to the enemy as we mortify sin and attack its remaining influence in our lives” (p. 227).
I cannot remember why I picked up this book my sophomore year of high school. Maybe it was my dad’s recommendation, the alluring title, or my guilt-ridden heart. In my house growing up, the shelves were filled with books by MacArthur and the closets were dangerously bursting with boxes of cassette tapes of his sermons. As a young man primarily immersed in Christian contexts, this book exposed me to secular society’s abject denial of sin and guilt. As a teenager intensely struggling under sin’s grip, it opened my eyes to see the depths of my depravity and my need to execute relentless battle on my flesh and its deceitful desires. It was the first time I was exposed to elemental, reformed/puritan themes such as the heart, total depravity, and mortification. The most impactful chapter was called “Hacking Agag to Pieces” (chapter 7) and it has forever impressed upon me God’s radical expectations in the mortification of my sin. It set me on a trajectory of repentance—protecting my heart from sin and preventing my conscience from being seared.
Bonus: Before this one, I read Found: God’s Will by John MacArthur in 8th grade which helped me see that God’s will for my life was not a mystery.
The Unwavering Resolve of Jonathan Edwards by Steven Lawson
“God is looking for individuals in this generation who will rise above the status quo of contemporary Christianity and say with Edwards, ‘I am completely Yours.'”(p. 60).
Most of my early life was wasted on the comfort and ease of doing the bare minimum. I was intellectually lazy and proud of it. Faithfulness, excellence, education—these things did not matter to me. I simply did not apply myself. My life was aimless and unexamined. It took a church controversy to make me begin to read and study more. In my study of reformed soteriology, I discovered Steve Lawson and his Long Line of Godly Men biographies. Being from New England I was drawn to this one in particular on Edwards and read it while on vacation on Cape Cod. This book changed my life by revealing my lazy, comfort-loving heart. Edward’s life motivated me to go back to school and resolve to glorify God with my whole life, especially my mind. Edwards’ Resolutions are included in the back of the book, but are certainly a worthy study on their own.
Bonus: In the same vein, What’s Best Next? by Matt Perman and Crazy Busy by Kevin DeYoung each gave me the confidence to strive to do more for the Kingdom and the framework to prioritize local church ministry, biblical counseling certification, and foster care during seminary.
The Deliberate Church by Mark Dever and Paul Alexander
” . . . Read the Word, preach the Word, pray the Word, sing the Word, see the Word (in the ordinances). Often referred to by theologians as the elements of corporate worship, these five basics are essential to the corporate life, health, and holiness of any local church” (p. 81).
I distinctly remember when my cousin, a Presbyterian minister in Wheatland, PA, handed me this book in his office in 2011. My visit to his church was the first experience at a Presbyterian worship service. I loved the formality. I loved the liturgy. I loved the sermon by the senior pastor, Bruce Mawhinney, in which he used the story behind “Fix You” by Coldplay as an illustration. My cousin showed me his office and gave me 3 books, including this one by Dever. After devouring the book on the beach in NH, I had a undeniable desire to dedicate my life to local church ministry. My formerly amorphous desire became concrete. We often place pastors on pedestals and romanticize the office in an unhealthy way which makes us intimidated to enter into vocational ministry. This book laid out a compelling, straightforward philosophy of ministry that was purely biblical and as practical as a manual.
Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hand by Paul Tripp
“True friendship calls you out of the darkness of personal privacy into the loving candor of of mutual concern . . . The best relationships are built on a foundation of mutual trust-building and truth-speaking” (p. 164).
Every church claims to be “doing” discipleship. But if you ask ten different pastors what that looks like, you’ll get ten different answers. I recently reread this book and found so many of its principles deeply ingrained in my thinking about ministry. Whether we call it biblical counseling, targeted discipleship, or soul care, this book provides a clear picture of what interpersonal, Christian ministry should look like. It should be intensely and intentionally relational. As the subtitle states, we are “people in need of change helping people in need of change.” Discipleship is not only the duty of the minister, but of every Christian. It is the leadership’s responsibility to train and equip their people to do this work. We are all called to be disciples who make disciples—followers helping others follow Jesus more closely. This cannot be accomplished without essential qualities such as humility, empathy, authenticity, vulnerability, and availability. Like the incarnation, we are to enter into one another’s lives—to be there, to truly listen, to know others and be known, and to speak God’s truth—for the purpose of Gospel-saturated transformation at the heart level.
Bonus: Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer is another essential book on authentic Christian community and Hearers and Doers by Kevin Vanhoozer vividly demonstrates that spiritual formation occurs through Scripture and doctrine.
Today’s Gospel by Walter Chantry
“When a half truth is presented as a whole truth, it becomes an untruth . . . Eliminating the doctrine of God from evangelism is no innocent shift in emphasis, but is cutting the heart out of the message'” (pp. 8, 22).
I grew up going to youth camps and rallies that practiced decisional evangelism with its emotional altar calls and theatrical, stick-in-the-fire recommitments—Second Great Awakening style. Although these tactics might often produce immediate and impressive results, they hardly produce genuine, persevering, wholehearted disciples of Christ. This short book helped me see that faithfulness in ministry is not determined by the quantity of results but the quality of the message. If our mission is to make disciples and disciples are made through proclamation, then the content of that message most certainly matters. We quantify success by the purity and integrity of our Gospel message including the costs of discipleship. God’s mission must be accomplished by his prescribed means of grace and not by our own man-centered, quota-driven, pragmatic schemes that are neither dependent upon the Spirit’s working or justified biblically. What you win them with you win them to.
Bonus: Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity is a more comprehensive work that clarifies the Gospel and Iain Murray’s Evangelicalism Divided contrasts the ministries of Billy Graham and Martyn Lloyd Jones to show the lurking dangers of compromise.
Ordinary by Michael Horton
“This is not a call to do less, but to invest in things that we often give up on when we don’t see an immediate return . . . Ironically, the most faithful Christian life is one that embraces a pilgrimage rather than a conquest” (pp. 28, 207).
I did read books like Radical and Crazy Love that call for an all-out sacrificial Christian life. And they are fine books. But both left me a little unsettled. They were so extreme and I felt pressured to perform some drastic gesture that was inevitably (though unintentionally) fraught with hidden motivations of self-aggrandizement—bigger, faster, louder! It reminded me of Holden Caulfield who wanted to die for a cause but refused to live for one. After all, just as you can only die once, you can only sell your house and give all your money away once. Horton opened my eyes to a way of life that is more sustainable. A grand gesture is wonderful and praised by all, but what about the hidden, overlooked, unspectacular patterns of life—the ordinary means of grace, the accumulation of sacrifices, the daily grind of our pilgrimage. This book helped me pursue character over personality, faithfulness over success, and perseverance over praise. It gave me the courage to be ordinary and to radically depend upon God, his ordinary means, and his approval. It challenged me to do harder things rather than bigger things—to love more, to give more, to suffer more.
Bonus: Similarly, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Timothy Keller and When People Are Big and God Is Small by Ed Welch helped helped me overcome my intense self-consciousness especially in my early years of public ministry.
Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson
“Interesting people are interested people. Interesting writers are interested writers . . . You read widely to be shaped, not so that you might be prepared to regurgitate” (pp. 23, 36).
As I mentioned earlier, my early life was characterized by an intellectual laziness that manifested itself most tangibly in a hatred of reading. Seminary pushed me to read and write well. I was taught various disciplines such as exegesis, hermeneutics, and homiletics all intended to discover, communicate, and apply the authorial intent. Studying passages of Scripture at this depth gave me a love for reading, critical thinking, and writing. It was my desire post-seminary to read and write more to make up for the years I wasted in my youth. Wilson showed me the unique power that words, languages, and books have to shape the mind. After reading this short book, I was motivated to read more often and more widely. This book was the spark that ignited the fuse to my passion for reading. Shortly after completing this book, I committed to reading 50 books a year.