The Positive Imprint of Formative Reading

by Pastor James Lee

This past summer, an SD brother asked me a thoughtful question, “Which is your favorite book outside of the Bible?” I responded that I have so many books I’m fond of, that it would be difficult for me to narrow them down to just one. Maybe that’s a “cop out” answer, but that’s genuinely how I feel. And this is coming from someone who throughout his pre-college days was greatly devoted to NOT reading. Reading for pleasure is not something that I understood. I only read when I had to for school – and even now I don’t remember much except a few parts of The Merchant of Venice and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The rest is a big blur, or found in those yellow Cliff Notes. My parents would buy me books each summer in the off chance that I might actually read them, only to realize the futility of their project. It wasn’t until I was an undergraduate being challenged with great questions from peers I evangelized on campus along with a new hunger for serving the Lord did I actually truly begin to read. And read I did. The summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I read about 30 Christian books. Mom and dad were witnessing something miraculous. Even today, when they visit my church study, my mom will say in Korean, “There is a God!”

Now I love to read, but now have less time to do so. I enjoy reading books of all kinds, not just Christian works, especially history. One that I recently read and recommend would be Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy… really, it’s good stuff! But prior to that, the only reading that I actually enjoyed was the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip, and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series. Picking one favorite book back in the day would have been difficult for a different reason than today… I had none! Today, I would have favorites in certain subjects. And since then, I would have favorites at certain times in my life. But to choose one, and only one, I’d have to think a lot about that, and even then, I would be hard pressed to have a finalist. So instead, I offered to write a Beacon article to answer his question, but in the format of an autobiographical timeline of the impact of certain books. I hope it encourages each of us to read for our own edification, equipping, and encouragement, however it might specifically and uniquely take form. So dear brother, who will remain unnamed, I apologize for the tardiness of my article.

And let me add, as a quick caveat, that I’m thankful that there was a qualifier of “outside the Bible” because of the singular primacy of commitment we all share to The Book, to which everything else ought to be a distant second. It is a misguided practice to read a lot of Christian books, blogs, and biographies, but neglect a daily reading, meditation, and application of the Scriptures. This article I hope would promote a lot more direct Bible reading. I could not emphasize that enough. First, we need our daily bread. Jesus replied to Satan’s temptation in Matthew 4:4, “MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.’” That too has to be our conviction. The original context of what Jesus quoted is found in Deuteronomy 8:3 when the Israelites are being addressed after 40 years in the wilderness, “He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.” God intentionally humbled them. God intentionally let them be hungry. Such mercy. Such love. Likewise, we need God’s Word like we need food, and our prayerful dependence on Him is like our need for oxygen. Being in the Word is like eating, and praying is like breathing. The apostles in Acts 6:4 demonstrated that priority to the “Word and prayer.”

Second, if one hasn’t read the entire Bible in its breadth from Genesis to Revelation, or isn’t still seeking to maintain that spiritual discipline, I would counsel one to start or restart there, or at least to do so concurrently. As David directed to the chief musician to lead our life’s singing in Psalm 19:10, “They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.” As Paul urged his young protégé in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” and 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Nevertheless, there is an immense value to the reading of solid Christian books insofar as they help us to more accurately understand the Word, thoughtfully apply the Word, and affectionately be equipped by the Word for worship and service. The old adage is that “leaders are readers”, and that should be evident among local church shepherds. But that aim and desire should, to varying degrees, also characterize our corporate pursuit of godliness. So I will share a list of books that have impacted me personally at various points in my life. I want to qualify my list though in a few ways:

  • The list is not an authoritative list of the best books available. It is only kind of an autobiographical list of what I’ve read and how they are like sign posts along my discipleship – as a new believer, as an excited husband-to-be, as an anxious father, as a struggling pastor…
  • The list tries to limit authors to once, or at most twice as well as subjects as much as possible – I like certain authors more, and I’m tempted to list certain subjects more, so this is my effort at curtailing repetition in both categories.
  • The list does not reflect what I now view, or others might view as the best book on a subject – I think that is something you can ask others about, which is what I’m always trying to ask as well. I have opinions on that question, but with new books (even if just unread) always on the horizon, I’ll resist.
  • This list doesn’t commend everything the author or book teaches as there has been theological development in my life – books are listed for their personal impact at certain times in my life.
  • This list is probably missing something – I’m just eyeing my library and making quick assessments, and even then, it’s mild torture to have to leave off so many favorites.
  • This list leans a bit heavy towards my pastoral ministry – I would suggest other titles depending on each person’s needs and where they are at, so it’s wise to get counsel from others.
  • This list has a variety – some are simple and short, others long and weighty, but I have my own strange reasons for including or not including some books… I may plead the 5th when asked.

Here are 40 books that impacted me to keep trusting Him who is trustworthy…

  1. More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell – one of the first little books that I read as a new believer
  2. Trusting God by Jerry Bridges – one of my all-time favorites, and this one I’ve read again and again
  3. Harvest by Chuck Smith – these testimonies gave me hope as a shy man that God could use even me
  4. The Gospel According to Jesus by John MacArthur – I read this that incredible summer of reading based on the recommendation of my small group leader – it affirmed truths for me like few have
  5. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton – this was an assignment in my college history class that affected me deeply, and once more as an assignment in seminary!
  6. Competent to Counsel by Jay Adams – this book by the “Martin Luther” of the biblical counseling reformation was pivotal in grounding my commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture
  7. Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret by Taylors – I was forever exhorted to missions during my college years by this and it has stood as a convicting testimony behind every mission trip I’ve been on
  8. The Lost Art of Disciplemaking by Leroy Eims – as I was being mentored to mentor younger believers with the Navigators during college, I found practical encouragement here at the time
  9. Power Through Prayer by E.M. Bounds – encouraged me to a thoughtful prayer life that I struggled to consistently have
  10. Knowing God by J.I. Packer – started and struggled to get through this book in college, but it threw the doors off at the beginning of seminary
  11. Essential Truths of the Christian Faith by R.C. Sproul – I don’t agree with everything, but I always find his explanations concise, cogent, and careful, and this book of short chapters lit a fire in my soul
  12. Found: God’s Will by John MacArthur – I read this little paperback in my school library while I was struggling terribly with the very question, but left feeling freed to live joyfully for God’s glory
  13. Tell the Truth by Will Metzger – still to me is the best, not shortest, book on personal evangelism
  14. Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing by Philip Kenneson & James Street – this helped me stay the course while many of my friends went to the seeker sensitive model in the 90s
  15. Spiritual Leadership by J. Oswald Sanders – a classic work that is on this list because it was my first
  16. Always Ready by Greg Bahnsen – as Van Til was difficult for me, this helped me navigate presuppositional apologetics when most of my training was from an evidentialist perspective
  17. Life in the Father’s House by Wayne Mack & David Swavely – there might be better titles on the matter of church membership, but this was nostalgically the first one in a happy line of them for me
  18. Thoughts for Young Men by J.C. Ryle – after I read this little book as a single man, I remember buying a few dozen copies and giving them out to all the brothers in my church
  19. Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper – there might be more important titles of his I read, but I chose this for the way it challenged me and convicted me as a young churchplanter almost 15 years ago
  20. Liberating Ministry From the Success Syndrome by Kent Hughes – this remains equal encouragement to remain faithful and equal admonition against pastoral envy – I needed this at a ministry low point
  21. When People Are Big and God is Small by Edward Welch – I struggled growing up with a painful shyness and still struggle with a self-focus fearing man and caring too much what people think. This book helped me in tremendously in that struggle.
  22. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney – with so many great titles on Christian living, this was one that helped bear more fruit in my life than many others
  23. The Peacemaker by Ken Sande – my biblical counseling mentor George Scipione urged me to read this as I was taking nouthetic counseling classes with him just after graduating seminary, and it became the first bible study I ever led in my first full-time pastorate influencing my ministry ever since
  24. The Godly Man’s Picture by Thomas Watson – probably my favorite Puritan writer and title, but reading him launched me into a growing appreciation and reading of other Puritans
  25. The Supremacy of God in Preaching by John Piper – there are many books in this category, but when I see this in my library, it makes me both want to preach and to preach to the glory of God
  26. Lectures to My Students by Charles Spurgeon – raw, eloquent, and immensely practical lessons from the “prince of preachers” himself to someone who still has so much to learn
  27. Leading With Love by Alexander Strauch – one of my all-time favorite books, the one I tend to give to every young man I meet about to enter seminary or just starting out in ministry
  28. Revival & Revivalism by Ian Murray – I try to read as many books of Murray as I can, as I love reading history in general, but this was the one that started me on that journey with him
  29. Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp – when I was still a single senior pastor, I read this to equip myself to serve new parents in the church, then I reread it when Sandy was pregnant with Toby
  30. The Complete Husband by Lou Priolo – there are so many wonderful marriage books I’ve read and yet to read, but this left me in tears of repentance and with a renewed desire to love my wife
  31. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor by D.A. Carson – the story of a famous son’s less well-known father hit home deeply with me, lifted my spirits in a discouraging time, and shaped a more biblical perspective
  32. Sinners in the Hands of a Good God by David Clotfelter – when John MacArthur said get it at Shepherds Conference, I read it and been giving it to every Arminian brother or sister ever since
  33. Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller – this confronted the many idols of my heart and gave me hope
  34. Church Planting is For Wimps by Mike McKinley – this book fit me to a tee and still does
  35. A Gospel Primer for Christians by Milton Vincent – love this book so much that it’s required reading for our FOF class (no, he’s not one of those Puritan paperback authors)
  36. Adopted for Life by Russell Moore – when Sandy and I were getting serious in our dating relationship, I asked her if she was open to adopting a child. This book not only encouraged us to fulfill that shared desire, it gave us a deeper appreciation of the gospel and our own amazing status as His children
  37. William Tyndale: A Biography by David Daniell – I have done a biographical teaching around every Reformation Day for the last several years, this was one of the most powerful lives I read
  38. Thoughts on Family Worship by J.W. Alexander – the older works of centuries ago still prove to be the best. Even when the newest and greatest have come on the scene, this is one of them for me
  39. The Hole in Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung – I appreciated this loving and thoughtful response to the dangers of the hyper-grace movement, just as J.C. Ryle had to similarly respond to in the past
  40. Dangerous Calling by Paul David Tripp – convicting and challenging then, and one I think would be both needful and helpful for me to reread

I apologize for not limiting myself enough, but I hope all of the above would encourage you to read or continue to read. I left off many books that I would recommend over what I listed, but they reflect the titles which were significant at certain times in my life. If the circumstances were different, the list would probably be different. How about you? Which books would you list? Why? I invite you to share with and ask others.

When Paul was in a Roman dungeon expecting eventual execution, he instructed in 2 Timothy 4:13, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.” If I was Paul, I might ask for some decent food, or to pull some strings and get me out of here!” But Paul asks him for warm clothing and to bring him… books! When a guy is on death row, he wants his soul fed!

If I had to answer one of those cliché questions about which 5 books I would want on a desert island, I might answer (1) MacArthur Study Bible (2) Sound Systematic Theology (3) A Christian Directory by Richard Baxter because it’s great biblical counseling material and really long (4) A Hymnal, and let’s be practical (5) a book on surviving on a desert island! But the real challenge is that we don’t have all this time to sit on the beach to read. For me, I’m preparing sermons, Bible studies, counseling, visiting the hospital, fixing the printer, etc. Then at home, I’m fixing the broken faucet, going to the kids’ school play, trying to have a date night with my wife. And your own life is really no different, and the last thing we think we have time to do is read, right?

Dave Harvey exhorts us:

When we read and study, it expresses our commitment to godly discipleship. One of the first things I remember learning as a new believer was that the Greek word for ‘disciple’ (mathetes) literally means ‘learner’. To be called to Christ is to be called to learn, grow, and develop, so that we may learn to live in a manner worthy of the gospel (Ephesians 4:1)… We don’t merely read good books, we befriend them. We open our mind to them and grant the gift of influence. As friends, books feed us. It’s what makes them potent. It’s what’s makes them valuable. Just like they were for Paul… I can’t begin to recount how much reading good books has affected me. It’s not possible to quantify how my companionship with the messages of Charles Spurgeon has lifted me in dark moments of discouragement, or how Thomas Watson has armed me to fight for contentment, or how John Piper has pushed me to treasure God until my last dying breath. As good companions, books feed the soul and expand the mind. They help prevent ministry-lite, which is leadership based upon impulses, impressions, intuitions, and instincts.

Dear fellow disciples, let’s read!