I love books, all books – big books and small books; old books and new books; fiction and biographies; fantasies and histories; books about dictionaries and books about doctrines; books about geography and especially books about Jesus. If you’ve ever perused the bookshelves in my office (pictured to the left) or dusted off the stacks of books in my home, you’ll understand that I pretty much agree with Thomas Jefferson who once said, “I cannot live without books.” That may be taking it a bit far; I think I could live without books, but I certainly wouldn’t want to.
Nor should I. After all, believers are a book people. Christians are a people whose faith comes through the written word. We are a people who live on pages. Our souls are strengthened through sentences. We are a book people, primarily because we are a people of the book. We are a people who care about words chiefly because we care about the Word. We only live by “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” our rock-bottom commitment has to be to the Bible above all things. Believing that to be true, Charles Spurgeon once famously said that believers should “visit many books, but live in the Bible.” He’s right. For the Christian there is only one indispensable book: The Bible. It is the book that we are to bleed. Above all descriptions, may we always be known as a people of THE BOOK.
And because we are a people of the BOOK, we are also a people who are helped by, encouraged by, and spurred onward in our life with Christ by other books that point us to the book above all books. Two thousand years of church history are behind us, and we are given the awesome opportunity to profit from the insights, failures, struggles, and wisdom that have been left to us over the years. We have a two thousand year old library of gospel-soaked and God exalting books to be our friends. We shouldn’t take lightly the gift of encouragement, strength, and refreshment that helps us along our weary journey, through the written travelogues of other pilgrims who have trod this way before.
The problem, though, is that oftentimes we can be overwhelmed by how many books are available to us! I mean, I have a lot of books on my shelves! How do we know which books to read? How do we sort through the stacks of covers and bibliographies? How do we even begin to climb the mountain(s) of books that many of us have access to? Those are good questions. The truth is none of us has the time or energy to read everything that has been written. We don’t even have the time to read and savor every good book that is worth reading. So what’s a Christian to do? Well, my counsel is fourfold:
1. First, make a commitment to be a reading Christian.
2. Second, read what you like. Not all of us have the same interests. Not all of us have the same stories, and some of us will like some books more than others. In other words, don’t read what you have to read, but instead read what you want to read. Life is too short to struggle through a library of books that you just don’t like.
3. Relax. There’s no way you can read everything. There’s no way you can digest every valuable insight from every wise author. And that’s okay. Read the Bible more than anything (as Spurgeon said, live there), and then as you are able, read other books and become familiar with them. Winston Churchill’s counsel is appropriate: “If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle…them – peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances.”
4. And finally, we come to the major emphasis of this article: Knowing that you can’t read everything, and knowing that there is only so much time in life, commit yourself to reading some authors more than others. I suggest that you take five authors and spend the rest of your life with them. Oh by all means read other books and other authors, but let a select few be your lifetime friends and companions. Dig deep into these authors. Read and then reread them. Enjoy all books, but make these authors your inner-circle, your best friends, your guides. Do this so that throughout your life while you love and appreciate many authors and many books, there are at least some authors and some books that you know, really, really, know.
So who should these select authors be? Who do I recommend you spend the rest of your life with? Well, granted, each person’s list may be a bit different, so this list isn’t set in stone, and I may have answered this question differently in the past (and may again in the future), but this is my list, and I believe it’s a good list. I love all my books, but if I was told that for the rest of my life I could only read books from five authors, who would I pick and why? If I was on a deserted island and could have the complete works of only five authors, which ones would I choose? I would choose these companions (listed in alphabetical order) who have influenced me and impacted me more than all other authors, and I would encourage you to get to know them for yourself:
1. John Calvin – C.S. Lewis noted our tendency for “chronological snobbery,” the misguided belief that only modern ideas and authors are valuable or worth our time. Lewis understood that we need to read authors from the past, and even advised that for every modern book we read, we should not return to a modern author until we’ve read at least one book from someone in the past.
That’s good advice, and that’s one reason I value the writings of John Calvin. Now, I understand, for some of you putting Calvin on the list might seem strange. I think that’s due to a lot of untrue and unfair caricatures that have spread over the last five hundred years. Sometimes people who are unfamiliar with his writings think that Calvin is a dour, mean-spirited killjoy who has an unhealthy preoccupation with predestination and hell, or at best an author who only wrote about what later became known as “Calvinism.” The thing is, however, that those caricatures are NOT true.
Calvin is one of the greatest writers in all of history. His prose is unmatched, even in an English translation. His writings are often devotional, immensely practical, deeply theological, and are grounded on the conviction that the Bible is the Word of God. He consistently calls his readers to see all of life as a display of God’s glory and to live all of life centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is no overstatement to say that Calvin is probably the most influential author from the last five hundred years. Additionally, to read Calvin is in many ways to be marinated in both the early church fathers and the theological heart of the Protestant Reformation. Reading Calvin provides a helpful introduction to early church theologians like Augustine and others, and his writings are the clearest expression of the core doctrines that shook Europe during the Reformation. It is no wonder why Philipp Melanchthon (Martin Luther’s contemporary, friend, and “right-hand man” in Wittenberg) simply called Calvin (and not Luther), “The Theologian.”
2. C.S. Lewis – Anyone who has spent much time around me knows how much I love C.S. Lewis. Sometimes it may seem like it’s all I can do not to quote Lewis on almost any subject! My bookshelves in my church office and at home are full of his books, and I’ve turned to them repeatedly throughout my life.
And in some ways that may seem a little strange. After all, I have some very real disagreements with Lewis (as I do with Calvin and every other author on this list). Lewis was certainly not a conservative evangelical Christian. I believe his views on the Bible, the atonement, and the afterlife are all seriously deficient and problematic. So why do I wholeheartedly recommend him (albeit with a healthy dose of discernment)?
Lewis’ writings are an overwhelming example of a man who saw all of life through the lenses of who God is and what he has done in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He got some things wrong (as we all do), but what he got right, he got gloriously right. His mind and imagination were on fire with the truths, the deepest truths of the universe, and everything he ever wrote (after his conversion) was written through the filter of what had happened to him when he had encountered the saving grace of God. As a former atheist, he never got over what it meant to encounter the one, true, and living God in the person of Jesus Christ. His friend Walter Hooper once said that Lewis was “the most thoroughly converted man I have ever known.”
If that weren’t enough, I’m convinced that Lewis is the master of taking huge, life-altering, deep truths and explaining them in language that is easy (or at least easier) to understand. No one writes like Lewis. No one else explains and explores the implications of the gospel like Lewis, whether he is writing a defense of Christianity or a fairy-story for children. As his friend Owen Barfield said, “what he believed about everything was present in what he said about anything.”
3. J.I. Packer J.I. Packer is one of the two authors on this list who are still alive as of the writing of this article, and one of only a handful of modern authors that I believe are worth returning to over and over again throughout a Christian’s life. He would deserve to be on this list even if the only thing you ever read by him is Knowing God, but his other writings are just as good and just as important.
Born in 1926 in England, he heard C.S. Lewis lecture in person while he was a student at Oxford University, and he was later heavily influenced by Lewis’ writings. He would later become even more heavily influenced by and indebted to the English Puritans, and one reason Packer should be on this list is solely because to read his works is to in many ways read the entirety of Puritan theology flowing through the pen of one author. If you read Packer, you are in a sense also reading John Owen, John Bunyan, Richard Baxter, and others.
Packer’s specific contribution lies (as mentioned above) in his book on the person of God, Knowing God, his writings on the Puritans, the inerrancy of the Bible, devotional and experiential life for the Christian, holiness, and as the General Editor for the Bible translation that Toby, Logan, and I all use – the English Standard Version.
4. John Piper – John Piper is the other living author on this list, and perhaps the one author who has influenced me more than all others. Piper, longtime senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, and currently the chancellor for the Bethlehem College and Seminary as well as the founder of Desiring God Ministries, has influenced a whole generation of Christians over the last thirty years.
Piper’s work, in both his sermons and his written works, consistently and continually call us to be passionate for the pleasure that is only found in the presence of God. A passion for God’s glory, for the centrality of the cross, for the sovereignty of God in the midst of suffering, and in radical, risk-taking, death-defying, and life-giving missions to the ends of the earth are all summaries of everything Piper’s ministry has been about. There are few authors who combine a sold-out passion for God’s glory with a solid theology of both suffering and missions like Piper.
Additionally, by reading Piper throughout all of life you will also be secretly ingesting the entirety of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards is almost certainly the greatest theologian and intellectual that North America has ever produced, but the writings of this eighteenth century genius, pastor, and missionary can be dense and hard to read. Edwards is worth the trouble of reading, but he can be hard to read. But Piper takes the thought of Edwards and slams it into every sentence he has ever written. To spend a lifetime reading Piper is to spend a lifetime reading Edwards, because as J.I. Packer once noted, the ghost of Edwards walks through most of what Piper has written.
5. Charles Spurgeon – Finally, the last name on my lifetime reading list probably isn’t a surprise. Spurgeon is incomparable. I know I said that Piper had probably influenced me more than anyone else, but that probably wasn’t true. That statement almost certainly belongs to Spurgeon, the only man to be known as “the Prince of Preachers.” I mean, he’s the only author on this list that I have a handwritten page from that is framed and on my office wall!
Charles Spurgeon was the longtime pastor of the Baptist Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, England, and he was one-of-a-kind. He was an anomaly, combining a fire-hot passion for the gospel, intellectual genius, unmatched energy and vigor, and giftedness in preaching that has perhaps never been equaled. He once preached to over 23,000 people at one time with no microphone and is estimated to have preached to over ten million people over the course of his life, all in an age before modern media and technology. It is no overstatement to say that Spurgeon is almost certainly the greatest preacher in the English language, and his literary output is unmatched. When you take his sermons that were published in book form during his lifetime, along with the many other books and devotionals that he wrote, his writings make up the largest body of work by any single author in the English language…ever.
Spurgeon’s writings combine humor, vivid imagery, simple explanation, a fierce commitment to the Bible and the supremacy of Jesus Christ over all of life. His writings are cross-centered, God-anchored, and speak to the believer (and the unbeliever) with pinpoint application for every area of life during every season of life. His struggles with depression and suffering are well known, and he provides refreshing water for the believer that is likewise struggling and suffering throughout life by anchoring all of life to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Coming in Part Two: Where to Begin With the Five Authors Recommended