Christians today can greatly benefit from reading the works of “yesterday’s” theologians, pastors, and writers. There is much to be gained from books that have withstood the test of time and have impacted generations of believers.
Unfortunately, Christians can fall into the habit of ignoring “old” things as much as anybody else.
We must be intentional if we are not to let classic works get pushed to the back of the bookshelf. To avoid this mistake, CS Lewis said “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
But which old books are worth reading? With so many options, it can be difficult to know where to start.
There are, of course, many wonderful works by the Puritans (here are some recommendations on where to start). There are timeless classics such as The Pilgrim’s Progress and important theological treatises such as Calvin’s Institutes. While these options are great, they can also be a bit overwhelming to someone who is still warming up to the idea of reading older works.
In order to gain wider exposure to many authors and eras of church history, as well as to benefit from large works in smaller sections, check out the following recommendations. Each one is a short work or a short section from a larger book.
Here are eight old books that every Christian should read:
Henry Scougal — The Life of God in the Soul of Man
This is a thoughtful work originally written as a letter to a close friend. The great evangelist George Whitefield, reading Scougal’s letter decades after it was written, commented that he never understood true religion until he read The Life of God in the Soul of Man.
Here Henry Scougal explains that true religion is not an outward observance of particular traditions or rituals, but instead is experienced as the life of God in the soul of man, which enables and motivates us to live lives that are pleasing to Him.
“I had rather see the real impressions of a God-like nature upon my own soul, than have a vision from heaven, or an angel sent to tell me that my name was enrolled in the book of life.”
In the first section Scougal discusses what true religion is, in the second part he writes on the benefits of having true religion, and in part three he touches on the difficulties and duties of living the Christian life.
In reading this short book you will be edified and encouraged to calibrate the affections and activities of your life to align more closely with the life of Jesus.
John Calvin — The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life (All)
An excerpt from Calvin’s Institutes, this short book provides a helpful reminder that the Christian is enabled, commanded, encouraged, and obligated to obey the commands of Christ. Therefore self-denial is not a drudgery, but rejecting sin and embracing of holiness comes from a joyful heart that is willing to submit to the will of its Master.
The Golden Booklet is a wonderful introduction to both the writings of John Calvin and to the concept of sanctification. It provides much conviction and encouragement to continue to fight against sin. As Calvin notes, “our labor is not lost if this day surpasses the preceding one.”
Jeremiah Burroughs — The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (Chapter 1)
In Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment we have a helpful presentation of what true contentment is, what it looks like in the life of the believer, and how it can be obtained.
“Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.”
As Burroughs points out, contentment is not merely an absence of despair. It is the presence of delight in the sovereign hand of God, regardless of what He brings into our lives or takes away. It is a heart-attitude that trusts God’s providence in good times and bad.
Thomas Brooks — Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices (Chapters 1 – 6)
The author of this book, Thomas Brooks, says that “Christ, the Scripture, your own hearts, and Satan’s devices, are the four prime things that should be first and most studied and searched.”
In addition to learning how to better guard your own heart against your Enemy, this work is also a tremendous help to the pastor, counselor, and Bible teacher as they try to apply God’s Word in practical ways and help others fight well in the battle against sin.
Jonathan Edwards — Heaven, A World of Love (All)
Jonathan Edwards was an American preacher and theologian during the Great Awakening. This short book is an adaptation of one of his sermons, and here he expounds on the glories that await the believer in heaven. It is, as Edwards puts it, “a world of love.”
“There in heaven this fountain of love, this eternal three in one, is set open without any obstacle to hinder access to it. There this glorious God is manifested and shines forth in full glory, in beams of love; there the fountain overflows in streams and rivers of love and delight, enough for all to drink at, and to swim in, yea, so as to overflow the world as it were with a deluge of love.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer — “Costly Grace” (Chapter 1 from The Cost of Discipleship )
Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor who was opposed to the Nazi regime and ultimately died at their hands in a concentration camp towards the close of WW2. His book, known in English as The Cost of Discipleship is worth reading in its entirety.
That being said, the first chapter called “Costly Grace” is especially relevant to today’s Christian. Even in the most biblical of churches, we must always be on guard against what Bonhoeffer describes the difference between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.”
As he explains: “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
“Grace is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”
This is a helpful, thought-provoking book that helps the reader better understand that grace is both freely given from God and also carries with it a cost – to Jesus who purchased it for us and for the believer who would follow after Jesus in this fallen world.
The Confessions of Saint Augustine (Books 1-10)
In these early chapters from Confessions, Augustine reflects on his early life and the sinfulness from which he was rescued when he became a Christian. Though he had very real spiritual struggles as he was being convicted of sin and considering the Christian faith, Augustine found the proverbial Pearl of Great Price, and by God’s grace recognized that he should sell all in order to purchase it.
Not only do these chapters provide an introduction to an important theologian, it also encourages the reader to reflect on the impact that God’s grace has had in their own life and to better appreciate our salvation in Jesus Christ.
Geerhardus Vos — Heavenly Mindedness
In this chapter from Grace and Glory titled “Heavenly Mindedness,” Geerhardus Vos makes the case that those who would exhibit “obedience, the self-sacrifice, the patience, [and] fortitude” must through faith keep “their eye firmly fixed on the unseen and promised world.”
Much of what is necessary for a Christian to maintain their heavenly mindedness stems from having a pilgrim mentality about our current life, and this work by Vos helps you to better understand what it means to live as a citizen of heaven.
The main thesis of the book is that we are to be “heavenly minded,” and that we must be intentional to not treat this current life as being more precious and valuable than the next.
The next time you’re looking for a good book to read, challenge yourself to take up one of these classics.
Do you have another “old book” to recommend? Leave a comment with your suggestions!