Most Influential Books Part 3

This is part three (and final post) in a series on the most influential books I’ve read.  I’ve also listed some “runners up” at the end.  To be honest, there are so many good books that I read each year, that a list like this is necessarily subjective, and its always growing. Not that some books don’t have obvious merit for all people, but I also recognize that some may have had impacted me more than they will you. Not only that – but there’s a good chance that next week I could read something that blows me away and it won’t be on the list. Just this past week I read two books that were pretty darn good – Matt Chandler’s ‘Explicit Gospel’ and Michael Reeves ‘Delighting in the Trinity’. Nevertheless, I have to draw the line somewhere!

I hope you enjoy this third installment!

11. The Power of Positive Thinking – No one will accuse Norman Vincent Peale of being a theological genius, in fact much of his teaching undermines the basic Christian message that we are all sinner who need a Savior extra nos, but early in my theological awakening I didn’t seem to realize much of his incorrect teaching. So despite a deeply flawed message, God graciously used this book to help me learn two important things: 1. I need to be praying for others regularly and 2. The importance of Scripture memorization. This book literally pointed me back to the Bible’s importance for my physical and emotional well-being. I was suffering a great deal of anxiety and my doctor had prescribed anti-anxiety medication. My stomach was constantly in knots and I wasn’t sure how I was going to deal with the problem…medication seemed like the only option. But when I fervently began to memorize scripture and pray for others and bigger items besides just my own desires, I began to slowly be cured of my anxiety. I stopped taking medication. I was a free man. And its not a big mystery as to why – this wasn’t magic, it was simply allowing the Word of the Lord and the power of the Spirit to become my top priority and renew my mind. The Bible can do that like no other book.  In addition, praying for others got my mind off my own troubles and focused on loving others (even if I didn’t know them). This book helped point me in the right direction. Would I recommend it now?  No way – but its prescriptions, most certainly. In fact if you want to learn more about Peale’s false teaching you can read Tim Challies’ write up on his bio: http://www.challies.com/articles/the-false-teachers-norman-vincent-peale

12. The Loveliness of Christ – During some of my darkest, most stressed-filled days this book has been a balm of healing. I have quoted it, memorized portions of it, I’ve taken it to the hospital multiple times, and it’s been a great tool of perspective in the midst of suffering. It is a small book, but a powerful book. Samuel Rutherford is probably one of the most influential puritan writers of all time, and his influence on me has been significant. If you were to add any one book to your collection as a result of this blog post, this would be the one I’d start with. The book is comprised of probably 100 (small) pages of quotes which are simply excerpts from his letters to other believers. In another way, if you are a Christian, Rutherford’s caring love for others around him ought to be a model for you as you seek to live in a way that is caring and reflective of the Savior.

13. Kingdom Through Covenant – Perhaps no book to date has had such an outsized impact on the way I understand the way in which the Biblical story is put together and unfolds throughout history. It made me feel good to be a Baptist (truth be told), and assured me that I wasn’t giving up any intellectual ground on that score (perhaps an intramural joke there)! It also explained for me a lot of the flow of events in the Old Testament and how they culminate in Christ – especially O.T. promises. This was an important book in my deeper theological development, and for those who have been Christians for a while and have always wondered at the dispensational and covenant approaches (i.e. you are/were head-scratchers like me), then this will prove very fruitful ground for you. You’ll have to ignore all the Hebrew and Greek text that the authors slip in from time to time. They are the scholars in that field and they do that to show their work (like you did in long division in 8th grade). My best advice is to do your best to read around it and not let it bog you down…its well worth it!

14. The Lord of the Rings – Growing up I was somewhat of a stranger to Tolkein’s work. I was aware of The Hobbit (I had seen a play, and perhaps had it read to me by my mom), but had no idea there was more to the story. Finally, while I was in college, my brother Alex introduced me to the story when Peter Jackson’s silver screen rendition of The Fellowship of the Ring came out in the theaters. I went as a skeptic, and left as a man head over heals in love. Later, in the weeks and days leading up to my wedding, I read The Lord of the Rings almost nonstop. I carried it with me everywhere, and my bookmark was our wedding vows which I was endeavoring to memorize. I still read this book whenever I can, and appreciate its depth and literary value more with each passing year.

15. Henry Drummond – This is not a book, it is an author (is that cheating?). During the 2007/2008 Romney Presidential Campaign I lived on the short sayings of Drummond. He gave me hope that science and Christian intellectualism could co-exist, and helped add perspective to my busy life away from home when I was sad and often feeling lost. Drummond lived and wrote in the mid-nineteenth century and devoted a substantial amount of time to standing up to the popular new scientific theory of evolution. He had a sharp logical mind, and I think just about anything he wrote is really fascinating.
Runners up – books that have taught me at least one major concept that has stuck with me:

God’s Greater Glory – In this sequel to Bruce Ware’s ‘God’s Lesser Glory’, Dr. Ware explains God’s “meticulous sovereignty”, a concept that has really been important in my own studies over the past year or so.  His Biblical and logical arguments are beyond arguing with from what I can tell of all I’ve read thus far. If you’ve read Chosen by God, and don’t want to blow your brains out with a puritan reading (i.e. Freedom of the Will) on the topic of God’s sovereignty, then this is the next step in your educational endeavors.

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars – This is a recent purchase and read and makes the list for how much it makes me laugh. It is easily one of the most enjoyable and hilarious books I have ever read! What I love the most about it is its trueness to the story as well as to Shakespeare’s famous writing style (the entire book is written in iambic pentameter).  If you love star wars and literature, this is the perfect combination – but be warned, this book is not to be read in any location where laughing out loud might be frowned upon!

The Transforming Power of the Gospel – Jerry Bridges explains “dependent responsibility”, which is the concept that men and women are both responsible for their actions and obedience to God’s laws, while at the same time dependent upon God for help to obey.  The tension here is worked out beautifully, and helpfully.

Give them Grace – Elyse Fitzpatrick examines parenting using the gospel. It is probably the best parenting book I’ve ever read, and it is easily the most challenging. There aren’t a lot of “to-do’s” from here, but there is a significant philosophical boost and reexamination that will likely take place.  If you don’t yet understand how the gospel fits into everyday life, this is one you must read.

A Case for Amillenialism – Kim Riddlebarger opened my mind to eschatology and taught me to enjoy it and not be scared to study it. I don’t think he’s the best writer, it seems a little clunky at times.  But he is really helpful in this area, and I find myself going back to his book and his blog again and again for wisdom.

The Trinity – Bruce ware explains divine roles better than anyone I had ever read. Especially subordination in role and co-equality in ontology.  If you’ve never understood the Trinity, this book will be huge for you.

The Freedom of the Will – Edwards proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that God initiates salvation.  Extremely difficult read though, so don’t read this unless you’re ready to pop a few Advil along with it! In fact, I would recommend not reading this unless you are an advanced scholar whose already read some other puritan works (or even other works by Edwards). But if you are pretty advanced in your reading and understanding of doctrine, then make sure to put this on your bucket list.

Bonhoeffer – This almost made my original list. I read it at a time when I was going through much pain and angst and it helped distract me and keep my mind fresh. It was a very very good book and a very interesting biography.  It will not leave you satisfied though, I warn you there…but I think that is for the best (though I know some who disagree).

The Pleasures of God – Piper explained how it was the will and pleasure of the Father to crush the Son. This concept just blew me away.  He goes into many other “pleasures” of God in this series, and they are worth reading or listening (there is a sermon series) through.

Holiness – J.C. Ryle explained to me that in order to enjoy heaven later I need to pursue holiness now. That concept is meted out over some three or four hundred pages. It was a very impactful book and showed example after example of how men and women from the Bible lived their lives in pursuit of holiness all pointing forward to the One who lived a perfect life of holiness so that when we fail that goodness, that righteousness, is there for us and keeps us in right standing before God.

The 5000 Year Leap – I read this in 2009 (I think) and it was one of the first books to awaken me to how far off course our country has gotten. It’s a great foundational book for anyone trying to figure out for themselves “what’s really wrong with this country?”

The Children of Hurin – This is one of J.R.R. Tolkein’s posthumously published works and probably the greatest thriller/tragedy I’ve ever read hands down. It was published with the help of his son Christopher and if you get the right edition it will have sketches by Alan Lee, which are really good. Just a fantastic piece of fiction.

Knowing God – This classic work of J.I. Packer helped shape a lot of my thinking on the nature of the Christian life.  Perhaps chapter 19 (on adoption) was most influential because it stuck with me the best. You can hardly go wrong by reading this book multiple times until its truth seeps in and helps you better grasp your life’s purpose, and more of who and what God is all about.

Battling Unbelief – John Piper works out some important ideas here in a book that is basically a boiled down version of ‘Future Grace’ and the idea behind the book is that most of our anxiety and sinfulness (and many issues in our lives) derive from a Christian’s failure to have faith in God.  In other words, we don’t believe Him and don’t trust in His promises etc. It’s astonishing how many times Piper is able to get to the root of things in this small book. I’d recommend this one to anyone who wants to get to the root of the problems facing them each day.

The Story of Christianity Volume I – I read this 500 (or so) page history book last year as part of a seminary class on the history of the Christian church. It was so easy to read and so good that I picked up its sequel (volume II) for reading on my own. What I liked so much about this book was Justo Gonzalez’ ability to simplify complex political and religious issues, and help the reader traverse hundreds of years of history without missing the small things, yet without losing site of the bigger picture.  It’s easily the best volume on the church I’ve read thus far (at least for a beginner like me).

Holy, Holy, Holy: Proclaiming the Perfections of God – This book is a compilation of essays written about the holiness of God by noted scholars and theologians.  The essay by Sinclair Ferguson entitled ‘Hallowed be Your Name: The Holiness of the Father’ left a lasting impression on me and I refer back to it again and again.

Conclusion: One of the things that is inevitably left off a list like this are the dozens of commentaries and study aides I read each year as I teach through books of the Bible. Men like Carson, Calvin, Ridderbos, Vos, Stott, Augustine, Boice, MacArthur, Morris, Kostenberger, Frame, Schreiner, Grudem, Beale and others who didn’t get mentioned in my book list have been equally influential on my thinking and understanding of life, death, Scripture, and many other topics under the sun. There have also been men and women whose books I have read and have been helpful or enjoyable, but if I listed them all it would take way too long!

But what I have learned is that reading changes lives, it does this in the way that Bruce Ware describes the study of theology: first it changes your mind, then your heart, then the actions of your hands, which in turn affects your habitat.  But it starts in the minds and hearts of those who seek wisdom. You’ll notice that many of my books are theological or Biblically based, and that isn’t because I haven’t read a slew of Gresham or my fair share of Star Wars, and it isn’t because I haven’t read the classic works from Dickens and Dumas (becauseI have), but its because the books that have shaped me, influenced me, and changed me for the better have largely been books whose topic is heavenly, and whose aim is joy in life and after it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the postings – feel free to comment with any questions!

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Fighting Anxiety with Prayer

It so happens that this time of year is especially stressful for me.  Being in politics comes with its benefits and opportunities to serve the Lord and one’s country, but it also entails a great deal of stress, which can lead to anxiety.  I make a distinction between the two terms because I feel that stress is best defined as the result of outside agencies pressing down upon a person’s life – these can’t always be avoided. Whereas anxiety is probably best defined as the nervous feeling we have inside as a result of the stress – and ultimately because we are weak and sinful creatures who battle “unbelief.”

I am not unique in feeling “anxious.”  The topic is so intrinsic to our fallen humanity that Christ spent a lot of time addressing it during His Sermon on the Mount.  But because it is a battle I have fought often, I am familiar with the weaponry one needs to successfully wage war against anxiety.  One of the major weapons is prayer – not simply small little prayers you send up during the day, but long, deep, gut-wrenching prayers that bring you to your knees.  As it happens, I’ve been reading a lot about prayer, and wanted to post some of the quotes and tips that I’ve come across in the past few days.  This is a combination of two sources, 1. Jerry Bridges’ chapter on Prayer in ‘The Transforming Power of the Gospel‘, and 2. John Calvin’s 4 rules of prayer that was posted on Ligonier’s blog earlier last week. I hope you find these excerpts helpful and encouraging!

Calvin’s 4 Rules of Prayer

For John Calvin, prayer cannot be accomplished without discipline. He writes, “Unless we fix certain hours in the day for prayer, it easily slips from our memory.” He goes on to prescribe several rules to guide believers in offering effectual, fervent prayer.

1. The first rule is a heartfelt sense of reverence.

In prayer, we must be “disposed in mind and heart as befits those who enter conversation with God.” Our prayers should arise from “the bottom of our heart.” Calvin calls for a disciplined mind and heart, asserting that “the only persons who duly and properly gird themselves to pray are those who are so moved by God’s majesty that, freed from earthly cares and affections, they come to it.”

2. The second rule is a heartfelt sense of need and repentance.

We must “pray from a sincere sense of want and with penitence,” maintaining “the disposition of a beggar.” Calvin does not mean that believers should pray for every whim that arises in their hearts, but that they must pray penitently in accord with God’s will, keeping His glory in focus, yearning for every request “with sincere affection of heart, and at the same time desiring to obtain it from him.”

3. The third rule is a heartfelt sense of humility and trust in God.

True prayer requires that “we yield all confidence in ourselves and humbly plead for pardon,” trusting in God’s mercy alone for blessings both spiritual and temporal, always remembering that the smallest drop of faith is more powerful than unbelief. Any other approach to God will only promote pride, which will be lethal: “If we claim for ourselves anything, even the least bit,” we will be in grave danger of destroying ourselves in God’s presence.

4. The final rule is to have a heartfelt sense of confident hope.

The confidence that our prayers will be answered does not arise from ourselves, but through the Holy Spirit working in us. In believers’ lives, faith and hope conquer fear so that we are able to “ask in faith, nothing wavering” (James 1:6,KJV). This means that true prayer is confident of success, owing to Christ and the covenant, “for the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ seals the pact which God has concluded with us.” Believers thus approach God boldly and cheerfully because such “confidence is necessary in true invocation… which becomes the key that opens to us the gate of the kingdom of heaven.”

Overwhelming? Unattainable?

These rules may seem overwhelming—even unattainable—in the face of a holy, omniscient God. Calvin acknowledges that our prayers are fraught with weakness and failure. “No one has ever carried this out with the uprightness that was due,” he writes. But God tolerates “even our stammering and pardons our ignorance,” allowing us to gain familiarity with Him in prayer, though it be in “a babbling manner.” In short, we will never feel like worthy petitioners. Our checkered prayer life is often attacked by doubts, but such struggles show us our ongoing need for prayer itself as a “lifting up of the spirit” and continually drive us to Jesus Christ, who alone will “change the throne of dreadful glory into the throne of grace.” Calvin concludes that “Christ is the only way, and the one access, by which it is granted us to come to God.”

Jerry Bridges on Individual Prayer

“Biblical meditation simply means to prayerfully and carefully reflect on Scripture in order to determine what God is saying and the possible application of that Scripture to you.”

“…though we cannot transform ourselves, we can and must bring our minds under the continual influence of the Word of God. And as we do that, the Holy Spirit will use His Word to do His transforming work in us.”

“As we open our Bibles to read, we should do so with a prayer that God, through His Spirit, will meet with us in His Word.”

“We pray more about our needs, both temporal and spiritual (but probably more in the temporal area), than we do about God’s glory and will. Therefore, in our time with God, it is good to expand our horizons beyond ourselves and our families and consider the work of God worldwide.”

“Does your prayer during your time with God reflect this interest in His glory and will?”

“We know that we are both responsible and dependent, and prayer is, among other things, an expression of that dependence. It is an acknowledgement that we are helpless sin ourselves – that we are dependent on the Holy Spirit to both do His own work and enable us to do the work we must do.”

“I also pray that I will be motivated to obey and serve Christ out of love and gratitude, not out of a sense of duty.”

“He will give us the desire and motivation to pray if we ask Him.”