The Christian and his Books

Rob Ventura & Jack Buckley
"...the books especially the parchments..." 2Tim 4:13

Surely, you have heard the expression, "You are what you eat."  The gist of this axiom is that our physical health generally reflects the nutritional value of the food we consume.  We would like to develop a similar maxim which we believe is equally true: "You are what you read!"

Christianity is, as one has rightly observed, "...a religion -- not only of one Book, the Bible --but of books."[1]  Standing infinitely above all others, the Bible is the only book that is God breathed and infallible. It is our only inerrant and final authority for what we must believe and how we must live.  Yet, while in no way diminishing this truth, we also believe that there are many other good books from which Christians can greatly benefit.  Both should have their proper places in the redeemed's reading regimen.

Our plan here is to focus on the other good books that Christians should be perusing.   In doing so, we consider three basic questions:

1. Why should we all become diligent readers of good Christian books? 
2. What types of Christian books should we be reading? 
3. How might we benefit most from the Christian books we read?

Why should we all become diligent readers of good Christian Books?

We must first define what we mean by a good Christian book.  If you were to visit your local Christian bookstore surely the salesperson would tell you, "We have hundreds of good Christian books here.  Why, that's all we sell!"  However, in this day of muddied theology and religious mass merchandising, we are not inclined to agree.  Much of what is marketed as "a good Christian book" is nothing more than pop psychology or positive thinking dressed up in religious garb. So we must be on guard.

When we speak of good Christian books, we mean books that in a variety of ways help us to better understand the truths of God's word.  These books can vary from technical Bible study tools at one end of the spectrum to historical, biographical, or contemporary works at the other.  We will go into more detail later.  Suffice it to say that by reading books we are seeking to bathe our minds in truth; and that truth is ultimately to be rooted in God's written revelation to man.  A good Christian book will provoke its reader to think more deeply and more biblically in matters pertaining both to God and to ourselves as His children.

Why then should all of God's people become diligent readers of good Christian Books?  We will answer with three texts of Scripture.  The first passage is found in 2 Peter 3:17-18.  Here, as Peter closes his final letter, he warns his readers against those who are "untaught and unstable", who "twist to their own destruction" the Scriptures.  Peter admonishes them: 
You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen.

As Peter considers those who distort God's word, leading people away from the truth, he proceeds to inoculate his readers against such deception.  He tells them in verse 18 that they are to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Peter is not making a suggestion here.  He speaks in the imperative.  Literally he orders them to be constantly growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior.  The point?  They are never to be stagnant or static.  Rather, they are always to be growing.  Peter's remedy against error is two-fold.  First, the believer is always to be cultivating the various graces of the Christian life (some which he mentioned in chapter 1 of this letter).  And, second, the Christian is to always be growing in their head/heart knowledge of who our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is. 

Now one might ask, "How do I grow in the graces of the Christian life and in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus?" To be sure, this must be done by means of regular Bible reading, prayer, godly fellowship, and in diligently hearing/obeying God's word as it is soundly preached and taught in a true church.  

Supplementing these, we find a further means to this growth process in Ephesians 4:11-16.  In the second half of this chapter, Paul informs us that Christ gives gifts to the church for her good.  In verses 11-16 he clearly identifies these gifts as duly called and duly recognized leaders in His church.  Referring to Jesus, Paul writes:
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head--Christ--from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.

Verse 12 tells us that Christ has equipped and given people to the church (i.e., apostles, prophets, etc.) for the express purpose of "... equipping of the Saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." And for how long will the saints need this equipping and edifying?  The answer is in verses 13-14: "till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the son of God to a perfect man to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting..."  This side of glory, the church's need for such equipping and edifying is ongoing.

Since our Lord has given these gifts -- these people -- for the equipping and edifying of His church, it follows that we will be equipped and edified in proportion to our humble exposure to their ministries.  As God has commanded us to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and since He has given these gifts as means to this end, we must employ them with all diligence.  Further, these gifts do not only include the pastors and teachers of our day.  They also include those time-tested, faithful ones who have gone before us.  After all, Christ has given these gifts to the church throughout her history.  Those presently in glory, though dead, still speak to us through their writings, recorded sermons and biographies, all of which have been signally used of God to strengthen His people over the centuries.   If we fail to consider the ministries and biblical writings of these departed faithful servants, how could we grow as Christ intends?  Would not the ignoring of their writings stunt our growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord?  If we neglect His means, how can we be all that He wants us to be?  We think the answer is plain enough.

Sinclair Ferguson drives home this point in his excellent booklet entitled, Read Any Good Books?.  Commenting on this Ephesians 4 passage he writes:

We are accustomed to associating those ministries with the ministries of the local congregation. But, Paul has a larger vision than that.  He is speaking about God's gift in Christ to the whole church: all pastors, all teachers, are gifts of the ascended Christ to the whole church.  When teaching and exhorting gifts are exercised in writing, they can edify and encourage us even although we may be separated by great distance or by time (or, in the case of translations, even by language) from the author.

Think of that when you next take up a book into your hands!  You can sit under the ministry of Augustine, or Calvin, or John Owen, or Baxter, or Bunyan, or Edwards, or Boston or Spurgeon.

Even those who are dead may yet speak to you and by their expositions of God's truth help forge you into the kind of man or woman that was produced in early days by their living testimony and ministry.

Since Christ has been giving these gifts to the church from the beginning, we do well to make diligent use of their preserved works.  These have been given for our good, for our development as God's people.

Perhaps at this point someone might ask for a biblical example of one who read books other than the Bible. They grant the points already made, but would like a model from scripture.  We supply that example now.  

It could be argued that a man's dying wish often deals with that which is most important to him.  In our dying hour, we will not likely be preoccupied with the trivia that often clutters our lives; we will rather give attention to things most needful and momentous.

In our specimen passage, II Timothy 4:13, the apostle Paul writes as a man on death row.   He gives a parting request to his dear son in the faith, Timothy:  "Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come--and the books, especially the parchments."

Paul knows that the time of his departure from this life is at hand--he is about to enter glory and be with the Lord Jesus Christ, and yet he says there are some things that are near and dear to him. These included the books, and especially the parchments.

We might wonder what Paul is referring to.  Which books?  Which parchments?  Regarding the parchments, it seems likely that these were the scrolls upon which Paul wrote to various individuals and churches.  Some of these letters were the divinely inspired epistles and now comprise part of our New Testament Bibles.  But what of the books?   While we cannot be 100% sure, some suggest that they were Latin or Greek works or, perhaps, Hebrew commentaries of his day -- in either case the sense of the passage seems to be that even to his last days Paul read books.

Paul's request reveals much about him.  Charles Spurgeon's comments on this passage are memorable:

Even an apostle must read.... Paul is inspired, and yet he wants books!  He has been preaching for at least 30 years, and yet he wants books!  He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books!  He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books!  He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for a man to utter, yet he wants books!  The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, "Give thyself unto reading."[2] 

Calvin sounds a harmonious note in his commentary on this passage.  He writes,  
It is evident from this, that the apostle had not given over reading, though he was already preparing for death.  Where are those who think that they have made so great progress that they do not need any more exercise?  Which of them will dare to compare himself with Paul?  Still more does this expression refute the madness of those who--despising books, and condemning all reading--boast of nothing but their own divine inspirations.  But let us know that this passage gives to all believers a recommendation of constant reading, that they may profit by it.

Paul was a reader.  If we follow his example as he followed Christ, we will also be readers and blessed by it.  Surely God the Holy Spirit had His reasons for conveying these inspired words to us.

Perhaps this dying request of Paul guided the mind of William Tyndale who, when writing from his cold, wet cell before his execution, begged the governor of Vilvorde Castle, for a warmer cap and cloak, a woolen shirt, but "most of all my Hebrew Bible, Grammar and vocabulary, that I may spend my time in that pursuit."

What types of Christian books should we be reading?

Just as a well-balanced diet is essential for physical health -- so it is with regard to our spiritual health.  A balanced reading diet is essential.  Reading only one type of Christian book will tend to foster an unbalanced perspective of the Christian life.  For example, devouring only present day works will tend to rob us of the richness of Christianity as understood and practiced through the ages and leaves us to evaluate the faith through a grid preconditioned by the thinking of our day.  Reading only theological works might rob us of the warmth that such doctrines are intended to produce when we see them lived out in a biographical work.  But if we read only historical and biographical works, we might tend to exalt or romanticize certain eras or particular people, or even develop a sort of pragmatism that does not have its taproots in theological truth.  So not only do we need a healthy intake of Christian books, we also need balance.  We offer several categories of reading that should be part of the well balanced diet.

General reference works --these include Bible encyclopedias and Bible dictionaries.  These serve as foundational books in our libraries, helping us to better understand the world that existed when the various portions of scripture were recorded.  In these volumes we find supplemental ancient histories, geographies, archeological discoveries, and ancient customs, all of which help us interpret the scriptures in their historical context.  Here we would recommend Halley's Bible Handbook, Zondervan Pictorial Dictionary, and Evangelical 
Dictionary of Theology.

Language works --these include lexicons, grammars, various Hebrew and Greek dictionaries, word studies and specialized Bible language software such as BibleWorks.  These resources help us to understand the original meaning, intent, and nuance of the words through which God chose to make himself known to us.  Here we would recommend Vines Expository Dictionary, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology, and New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology.  Note also that the program BibleWorks is only one of several useful software tools for language studies.

Biblical works -- these include biblical introductions, Bible surveys and Bible commentaries. The products of years of accumulated study and even exegetical controversy, these books help us to interpret scripture with scripture so we can comprehensively understand the Bible's teachings.  Here we would recommend Bible Survey (William Hendricksen), New Testament Commentary (William Hendricksen/Simon Kistemaker), Old and New Testament Commentary (John Calvin), Matthew Henry Commentary, Matthew Poole's Commentary, Treasury of David (C.H. Spurgeon), and Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (J.C. Ryle).[3]  

Doctrinal works -- these include systematic theologies and individual books that deal with such topics as the doctrines of God, of man, of Christ, of salvation, of the church, apologetics, and last things.  Here we would recommend Systematic Theology (Louis Berkhof), Systematic Theology (Robert Reymond), Institutes of the Christian Religion (John Calvin), and Collected Writings (John Murray).

Historical works -- these include books on church history, the history of doctrine, revivals, etc.  These help us to see the big picture of what God has been doing throughout the many centuries of the church.  From them we also learn how various errors crept into the church, how the church dealt with those errors, and how the church articulated more accurate and comprehensive statements of truth to protect against future recurrences.  We also have works describing how those who went before us handled the manifold issues that confronted the church.  Here we would recommend the History of Christian Doctrine (Louis Berkhof), History of the Christian Church (Philip Schaff), Foxe's Book of Martyrs, New Testament History (F.F. Bruce), Bible History: Old Testament (Alfred Edersheim), and Historical Theology (William Cunningham).

Practical works -- these include biographies, printed sermons, devotional reading and are often very heartwarming and helpful for our day-to-day living as Christians.  Here we would recommend biographies of leading servants of God, the Puritan Paperback series, sermons by Puritans, Spurgeon, and Lloyd-Jones, etc .[4]

Pastoral works - these include books on homiletics and various aspects of the pastoral ministry.  Such books help pastors better serve Christ and His flock.  Here we would recommend The Christian Ministry (Charles Bridges), Pastoral Theology (Thomas Murphy), The Ministry of the Word (William Taylor and William Plumer), Thoughts on Preaching (J.W. Alexander), Lectures to My Students (C.H. Spurgeon), Preaching and Preachers (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones), and Power of the Pulpit (Gardiner Spring).

Contemporary works - these include church or mission based periodicals, theological journals, and books on present day issues facing the church.  Here we would recommend World Magazine, The Christian Research Journal, Westminster Theological Journal, Founders Journal, Puritan Reformed Journal, Reformed Baptist Theological Review, and Ref 21(!). 

A well balanced diet of these types of books will, under the blessing of God, tend to the cultivation of Christian graces and to growth in the knowledge of Christ Jesus.  They will be vital means to equip us for the work of ministry and hasten our maturity in the faith, helping us to be more like our Lord.

How might we benefit most from the Christian books we read?  

Three recommendations: 

First, have a plan.  Often we purchase books and get all excited about them but then do not read them because we never set aside the time to do so.  We would encourage you to find a time that is best for you, when you can have ten, fifteen or thirty minutes each day for serious reading.  For some this will be in the morning. For others it will be in the afternoon or before bedtime.  It matters not, as long as you are blocking out time for this.  Consistency is key.  You will be amazed how much you will cover over the course of a year if you simply schedule specific times each day to read.

Second, aim to master the content of the book.  It is one thing to read a book but quite another thing to really grasp and be able to use what we have read. Our suggestion here is that when you read a book, if needed, go through it repeatedly, until it gets in your heart and mind. Also, take good notes.  Resist the urge to breeze through the pages thoughtlessly and, instead, earnestly seek to apprehend and apply the truth.  

Thirdly, read according to present need.  We have often found when reading books addressing particular issues in our lives that they become the most memorable ones to us.  For example, if we need motivation to evangelize, we would do well to read a book on a great evangelist or missionary, or perhaps a book on evangelism. If we need to be challenged theologically, we do well to read a doctrinal work addressing the concern.  If we are going through a trial, it would be wise to read a book on God's love and care.  If we need to see afresh the glories of Christ we ought to read a book that focuses on His Person and work.  Whatever our particular need might be, seeking counsel from proven guides in that area is a valuable aid to our progress.  

Concluding Remarks:

Pastors, God has called you not only to be leaders in the church but also models of the Christian life before your people. Therefore, be men who are good models.  Let your people see by your example that though Christianity is primarily a religion of one Book, it is also a religion of many books.  Read, read, and continue to read good Christian books yourself and encourage your people to do the same both publicly and privately.  Help them identify the most useful books for either rounding out their thinking or for meeting particular needs in their lives.  Lovingly exhort them to read diligently and discerningly.  Positively encourage them to read reflectively and regularly. And may God richly bless all of us as we do so.

Rob Ventura & Jack Buckley, Pastors 
Grace Community Baptist Church
Cumberland, Rhode Island 

 [1] W. R. Downing, Theological Propaedeutics (Morgan Hill, CA: PIRS Publications, 2010), 523.
 [2] C.H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 9, pp. 668-669.
 [3] For a more detailed list of commentaries, we would also suggest Tremper Longman III's Old Testament Commentary Survey, D.A. Carson's New Testament Commentary Survey and John Glynn's Commentary & Reference Survey.
 [4] Here it must be mentioned that although some of the Puritan writings might seem overwhelming, one should not shrink back from reading them.  The truths gleaned will be well worth the effort.