Friday, 1 November 2019

Top 10 books for new believers; and a word about local Christian bookstores

[Edited November 13, 2019]

Because books have had such an important part in shaping my life, I love recommending them.   I was once an Arminian Baptist minister.  Today I am ministering in a reformed Presbyterian church.  What happened?   I was reading... John Owen, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Piper, and - of course - my Bible!  Actually it was the memorization of 2 Timothy and Ephesians that played the greatest part in convincing me of the doctrines of grace; but the other books I was reading played a major part in helping me understand what I was reading in my. Bible.

Books have been important to me for so many reasons.  I came out of seminary confused on justification, not sure of the place of the law in the life of the Christian and uncertain as to the relationship between faith and works.  What made the difference was access to good books.  In the same way it was by reading that I initially took an interest in revival.  Again, it was by reading that I learned to practice family worship and by reading that I discovered what a prayer closet should look like.  

Reading good books is more than just valuable.  It can leave its mark on eternity!

But it can be hard to know where to begin and often what is available isn’t all that good.  On this website I have offered a number of book lists.  I have decided to offer one more.  This one is designed for the ‘beginner’ who isn’t already reading the puritans and the reformers... but it may also be of use to the season reformed reader in need of a breath of fresh air.   These aren't all 'presbyterian' nor even reformed.  But they are all good.  Here they are in no particular order...

1. Memoirs & Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne by Andrew Bonar

2.  E. M. Bounds on Prayer

3.  Why Revival Tarries by Leonard Ravenhill

4.  George Muller of Bristol by Arthur Pierson

5.  The Rock of our Salvation by William Plumer

6. Revival by Richard Owen Roberts

7.  Holiness by JC Ryle

8. Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul by Octavius Winslow

9.  Vital Godliness by William Plumer.  This is a big book and written a long time ago.  It is less for the beginner and yet vital, even essential, reading for every Christian.

10.  Studies in the Sermon on the Mount by Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  This book was life-changing.  

More advanced reading:

Looking Unto Jesus by Isaac Ambrose.  This one isn't really for beginners but it is simply the very best work I know of on the person and work of Jesus.  It is glorious reading and can be read in bite sizes.

A word about local Christian bookstores

Should you decide to pick up one of these books try ordering it through the local Christian bookstore.  And why would you do that? 

Actually, that's not what I have been doing for the last 13 years... and had you suggested anything different (before now) I would have smiled at you and quickly forgotten the suggestion.  But I have changed my policy, and I would like to suggest you at least consider doing the same.  So, why would you? 

Visiting other churches I have noticed something very wrong with their libraries.  There is usually nothing of substance.  That sounds harsh but it is the plain truth.  There is often heresy, fluff and a lot of shallow nonsense.  If you have visited the local Christian bookstore you know where it came from.  Most these bookstores are dying.  This shouldn't surprise anyone.  God honours those who honour Him.  The only bookstores that thrive are the ones where discernment is exercised by management.  That too may sound severe, but it is a plain observable fact. 

But can we make a difference?  Could we somehow shape and influence what ends up in those bookstores.  I believe we can. 

By ordering good books we communicate something about what is in demand.  The fact is, very little in the way of books is in demand anymore.  But our reformed congregations read.  We generally love books.  So let's order them from the local bookstore and pray that in time it would tell on what finds its way on the shelves... so that when someone visits the local bookstore looking for a Christian book not knowing where to begin they may find something of substance.

The other day I met a man who told me about a book he had discovered.  He said it was a precious book and he was enjoying it immensely but it was in very bad shape because so very old.  He wondered if I knew the author.  Actually I did.  It was John Flavel.  He was reading volume 1 of Flavel's works (one of my favourites).  But this man had no idea that these books had been reprinted many times in recent years!  He had no idea where to find them because the reformed world (including its books) remains largely hidden from much of the Christian world.  I am praying we may become more visible and have a greater impact on our neighbourhood churches - and here is a simple way to begin...

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Revival! by Richard Owen Roberts

In a previous post I listed my top 5 books on revival.  But I hadn't read this one.  

Last week I began to read it and very quickly wished I had read it earlier.  It wasn't a hard read.  It was actually a very simple straightforward read.  It was also very difficult to put down!  But it was hard in another way:  it was painful.  It was convicting on a level few other books are.

Its odd (isn't it) that this book is out of print.   I can't think of a book more urgently needed at this time!   Is it because we no longer see our own need?  Is it because it is too painful?  I don't know the reason, but it is a situation that needs to be somehow rectified.  If you are going to read a book on revival I would beg you to begin here.  But that raises a problem.  There are few copies available anymore; which means you may need to write Richard Owen Roberts.  Don't hesitate to do so.  This books needs to be reprinted. 

If you read this book here's what you will gain:

First, you will find out what revival is.   Roberts' description is simple, beautiful and winsome.  You will read and you will find it hard not to weep.  You will read and long and pray.  No born again Christian can read this brief introduction to revival without longing to see such a thing again.  You won't want ease in Zion anymore.  You won't want 'ordinary' you will long for the extraordinary.

Second, you will find out when revival is needed... and this is the part that hurts.  Because here the author describes a backslidden Church.  This part was hard.  I've always felt revival was needed, but never so keenly as when this section.  If you are willing to be convinced that revival is needed, if you are not sure revival is needed this is the book you need.

Third, you will find out what needs to happen if we will see revival.

This book - if it were read- could change the Church.  Get it if you can and read it.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Books on Revival

Books series, part 4

For part 1 go here.

Here I want to recommend books on the theme of revival.   Years ago I was introduced to Why Revival Tarries by Leonard Ravenhill.   That book (in 2003) changed my life.  In fact it had more of an impact on me than any book since.  From that point I have had a growing interest in the subject of revival and also a growing burden to see the Lord revive the Church in this country.   

In 2004 I discovered Sermon IndexThat year I heard three sermons/talks that dramatically impacted me.  The first was titled Ten Shekels and a Shirt.  Though it isn't a sermon on revival, the subject of revival came up.   It was a sermon that changed my perspective on God, missions, salvation and revival.   The second was a gripping account of the revival in the Hebrides by Duncan Campbell.   The third was an interview with Leonard Ravenhill.    These three had a formative influence on my life and added to my growing sense that the Church's great need is for a fresh awakening.   Since that time I have moved from an Arminian Baptist persuasion to confessional Presbyterianism, but I am more convinced of our need for revival today then I was back in 2004.  

Over the years I have read a number of tremendous books on this subject, which makes it particularly difficult to narrow the list to just 5.  Hopefully someone will find this list read these 5 and then go on to read more!  

Here then are my (current) top 5 on the subject of revival:

1.  Why Revival Tarries by Leonard Ravenhill - This book is a stirring call to the Church by a man burdened for revival.  It is not so much a description of revival as a call for prayer.  I vividly remember my first time through that book.  I had read just one page and I was down on my knees.

2. Revival! A people saturated with God by Brian Edwards - This is probably the single best introduction to the subject of revival.  It is a simple read, and perfect for lay people.  If you don't know what revival is this is the book to read first.

This book is currently out of print, but the author has told me it should be reprinted soon.

3. Come Down, Lord! by Roger Ellsworth - This is a very simple but moving book.  Working from Isaiah 63 Ellsworth shows how the Church may seek revival.  We begin, he says, by telling God we miss Him.

4. Revival of Religion - Of the five on this list this one is easily my favourite.  It has the substance that some of the other books lack, but it is also powerful.  Here is a collection of addresses given by men filled with the Spirit and deeply burdened for the Church in Scotland.  These men were surrounded by ministers and scholars content with the 'ordinary' and puzzled by their fascination with revival.  Their answer is as tremendous as it is convicting.  You cannot read this book without going to prayer with longings that God would again come down.

Sadly, this book is also out of print, though copies can be found.

5.  Revival by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones - This book is a collection of sermons preached in 1959.  It isn't light reading, but it is gripping.  Here Lloyd-Jones explains what revival is and why the Church so urgently needs it.  It is a wonderful read that will leave you longing not merely for revival but for God.

Note: You may wonder why Richard Owen Roberts' book isn't on the list.  I confess I haven't read it.  I recently obtained a copy and plan to read it soon.  

Edit March 23: See my review of Roberts' book here.  It is a book that easily deserves a place at the top of this list of 5.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

David Murray's Reset or John Flavel's Healthy Saint

I am hoping to review David Murray's book more thoroughly in the future.  For now I will be brief.

There were helpful elements in his book for which  I am grateful and which made me hesitate to offer criticism.  But I feel constrained to say something. Though helped in a number of places, on the whole I was disappointed.   Here is a book that would effectively rid the Church of her Brainerds, her Whitefields and her M'Cheyenes. It is a book in short, which tells men of this generation not to do what they did.   Keep in mind these were men who sacrificed their bodies for the work of the kingdom.  They prayed that they would not outlive their usefulness and willingly poured themselves out as a drink offering to God.  They were not alone. Many of our biographies tell similar stories of men who in answer to the call of Christ took up their cross and followed Jesus down into 'premature' death.  They willingly offered themselves on the altar of God's service and like Epaphroditus put the glory of Christ and the spread of the gospel before their own health.

David Murray argues for something different.  He insists, for example, on the priority that should be placed on getting enough sleep; and he writes critically of those who sacrifice the 7-8 hours of 'necessary' sleep for prayer.  Thomas Brooks had another idea. He said, "servants should rather redeem time from their sleep, their recreations, their daily meals, than neglect closet-duty a day.  And certainly those servants that, out of conscience towards God, and out of a due regard to the internal and eternal welfare of their own souls, shall every day redeem an hour's time from their sleep, or sports, or feedings, to spend with God in secret, they shall find by experience that the Lord will make a few hours' sleep sweeter and better than many hours' sleep to them; and their outward sports shall be made up with inward delights; and for their common bread, God will feed them with that bread that came down from heaven."  See The Works of Thomas Brooks, Volume 2, p. 215-216.

Reset is in parts rich in worldly wisdom and lacking in that heavenly mindset that characterized so many of our forefathers.  Though it is in places very useful, I am convinced that it offers a dangerous message to this generation of pampered lukewarm Christians.  

We need urgently to hear instead the  testimony of the men who have gone before us.  One of those men was John Flavel. Here he writes from the perspective of what he calls the healthful saint:  

"If I shall receive my body again so dignified and improved in the world to come, then Lord let me never be unwilling to use my body now for the interest of thy glory, or my own salvation!  Now, O my God, it grieves me to think how many precious opportunities of serving and honouring thee I have lost, under pretence of endangering my health!

I have been more solicitous to live long and healthfully, than to live usefully and fruitfully; and, like enough, my life had been more serviceable to thee, if it had not been so fondly overvalued by me.  Foolish soul! Hath God given thee a body for a living tool or instrument? And art thou afraid to use it? Wherein is the mercy of having a body, if not in spending and wearing it out in the service of God?  To have an active vigorous body, and not to employ and exerciser it for God, for fear of endangering its health, is, as if one should give thee a handsome and sprightly horse, upon condition that thou shouldst not ride or work him.  O! If some of the saints had enjoyed the blessings of such an healthy active body as mine, what excellent services would they have performed to God in it?" See The Works of John Flavel, Volume 5, p. 92 [Italics are my own]

Friday, 13 July 2018

Dear backsliding Christian

Do you remember?

Do you remember when you were as - John Flavel put it - "restless and impatient… in His absence!"  O you could bear anything but that. Sickness you could bear. Pain and temporal losses you could endure.  But His absence was unbearable. You couldn't stand to go on without the sense of His dear smile. You longed to walk and live and breathe in the light of His countenance.

Do you remember when “Divine withdrawments were to you as the hell of hell (Flavel).”  Those seasons when God seemed to hide His face from you, when He was distant, and there wasn't that familiar communion and fellowship in the prayer closet were to you as hell.  You wept and you groaned and you cried for His return. You stirred yourself to take hold of God (Isaiah 6:7), you wrestled with Him as you told Him you would not let Him go.

Do you remember when the world was a burden to you?  Do you remember a time when if it weren't for your sense of duty you would have gladly and willing let everything else alone (you would have neglected a whole world) if only to enjoy uninterrupted communion with Jesus?  This was your one thing: to dwell in the house of your God and behold His beauty (Psalm 27).  How you loved to sit at the feet of Jesus.

Do you remember when you woke in the night and you could say, "the darkness [was] enlightened by the heavenly glimpses of the countenance of my God upon me?  How did His company shorten those hours… (Flavel)."  You could say with the psalmist (63), that you remembered Him upon your bed, you meditated on Him in the night watches.  His lovingkindness was better than life, your soul was satisfied as with marrow and fatness, your mouth praised Him with joyful lips and you rejoiced in the shadow of His wings.

But now it is not so.  You are living at a distance from your beloved.   How sad to think that you have been content to remain hidden from Him.  Though He watches you with love and urges you to speak and tells you how He loves to hear the sound of your voice in the prayer closet (Song of Solomon 2), your voice is not heard, your prayer closet lies empty.   You have become fascinated with the world's toys. You have grown weary of God; and He comes to you asking, "have I been a wilderness to you (Jeremiah 2:31)?" Has he been a land of darkness? How can this be that a bride would forget her Groom and that a people redeemed at the price of His blood should so soon forget their love?  Has he been so unkind to you that you should treat Him like this? Is this how to requite the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world?

John Flavel wrote a poem to express these very thoughts.  Read these words prayerfully...

Thou art the Husbandman, and I
A worthless plot of husbandry,
Whom special love did, n'ertheless,
Divide from nature's wilderness.
Then did the sun-shine of thy face,
And sweet lapses of thy grace,
Like April show'rs, and warming gleams,
Distil its dews, reflect its beams.
My dead affections then were green,
And hopeful buds on them were seen;
These into duties soon were turn'd,
In which my heart within me burn'd.
O halcyon* days!  Thrice happy state!
What sweet discourse, what heav'nly talk,
Whilst with thee I did daily walk!
Mine eyes o'erflow, my heart doth sink,
As oft as on those days I think.
For strangeness now is got between
My God and me, as may be seen
By what is now, and what was then:
Tis just as if I were two men.

* According to an online dictionary a halcyon "denotes a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy and peaceful."

Dear backsliding Christian, isn't it time to cry mightily to the Lord for quickening?  Why not get down on your knees right now and say to Him, "O God I miss you."

Flavel writes, "he will not despise your cry.  The moans of a distressed child work upon the bowels of a tender father…”

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Books for the Lord's Day: Sermons

Book Series, part 3

You will have noticed by now that I am not following any particular order.  I do hope to eventually cover the various doctrinal loci.  Here I want to recommend books for the Lord's Day.  As a pastor I am always reading commentaries and theological works, so it is important for me to keep the Sabbath somehow different.  Here is a day of worship, and I have sought, then, to read material that will bring me into worship.  To that end I generally confine my Sunday reading to sermons.   

There are, of course, other books appropriate for the day.  I think, for example, of Octavius Winslow's Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul or some of the great Christian biographies (M'Cheyne, Bonar, Nettleton, Whitefield, Lloyd-Jones, Elias, Harris, Burns, Dabney, etc.) or histories of revival or any of the great books on the person of Christ listed in an earlier post.

In this post, however, I will offer just 5 books - the best 5 that I am aware of - which contain sermons suitable for this day which ought to be for the Christian a kind of heaven on earth.   

I have written elsewhere about growing up without the Sabbath.   For years I was convinced that Sabbath keeping was legalistic.  Apart from Sunday morning worship my Sundays were my own.  When confronted (10 years ago) with the consistent testimony and example of our forefathers I began studying the matter and became convinced that Sunday is the Christian Sabbath.  I began to observe the day thinking it would be a costly and painful endeavour.   I have found instead that it is the very best of days; indeed, it is the queen of days.  I have learned as the old saying goes that "a Sabbath well spent brings a week of content."  

A great part of Sabbath keeping is reading books that will lift our hearts toward heaven.  Here, then, are 5 of the very best in that category:

1. The Shadow of Calvary by Hugh Martin.  This book was a Christmas gift from my parents.  It interested me because of the title, but I really didn't know what to expect except that it was a Banner publication and (therefore) had to be good.  It is better than good.  Hugh Martin has made me think about the events leading up to the cross in ways I have never have before.  Better than that I have come to appreciate Christ's work at Calvary still more.  On more than one occasion this book has brought me to tears.  Reading these sermons you cannot help but be confronted on one hand with the appalling wickedness of our ingratitude to Christ as well the terrible price that was paid for our sin; but then, on the other hand, you cannot help but be astonished at the love of Christ which truly passes knowledge.  Whatever else these sermons do they will certainly leave you more grateful to Christ. 

2. Sermons by Benjamin M. Palmer.   This selection of sermons amounts almost to a systematic theology, but it is more than that.  Palmer was one of the greatest preachers in the history of the Church.  He was well loved in his day though underappreciated in our own.  Here is a volume that is worth its weight in gold.  Here is what preaching ought to be.  Sometimes the sermons come as a rebuke to the careless, sometimes they come as medicine to the weary, sometimes they come as an appeal to the lost but always they are rich in gospel hope.      

3. Communion Sermons by Samuel Rutherford.  This is a very short volume but truly valuable.  Rutherford's sermons are among the very best I have read.  Other great works include Quaint Sermons and Sermons Preached by the Scottish Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly.  But of the 3 this is easily my favourite.  It is hard to explain its value.  Perhaps it is enough to say that it shows like few books do the loveliness of Jesus.

4. The Works of Ralph ErskineSo far I have only completed volume 1, but that one volume is worth the price of the collected works.  No author/preacher so winsomely presents Christ in the offer of the gospel as Erskine does.  If I had only a very short time to live I would probably turn to Erskine for comfort.  I have been so helped by these sermons.  More than once I have been stirred to the very core of my being and left wondering and worshiping.  I cannot commend these sermons enough because they do what every sermon should do.  They leave the reader thinking (not "what a great sermon I have read" but) "what a great Christ I have!"  

5. The Most Holy Place by Charles Spurgeon.  I have spent many happy Sabbaths in this book.  Of course there are so many volumes of Spurgeon's sermons that I could have chosen, but this is the one that has meant the most to me.  It is a collection of sermons on the Song of Solomon.  Spurgeon believed that whereas much of Scripture could be described as something like the outer court of the temple and the Psalms the Holy Place, Song of Solomon could be described as the Most Holy Place; because here we are shown an intimate picture of Christ's love for His bride.  I don't know if this book is available anymore.  It was published by Christian Focus but may be out of print.  If you can find a used copy buy it.

Edit, July 13 2018: In this list I neglected a set of works that I shouldn't have.  I have mentioned in previous posts John Flavel's works.  I have been reading them again and realizing that they are gold.  He is certainly my favourite of the puritans, and everything I read of his is fuel to a hungry soul.  I have been so richly encouraged and helped by volumes 4 and 5; and yet its hard to think of anything book (apart from Ambrose's Looking Unto Jesus) which equals volume 1.   So do take up Flavel's works and read them.  I read them daily, but they certainly would make for rich Sabbath reading.

Next in the series - Soteriology