One of my favorite questions to ask people is, “What is the most influential book you have ever read?” Spoiler alert: Mine is The Mortification of Sin by John Owen. More on Owen later. Recently I read Justin Taylor’s exceptional dissertation entitled “John Piper: The Making of a Christian Hedonist.” Taylor writes of Piper’s attempt to survey the works of Jonathan Edwards and then list the eight books he discerns are most impactful. So I set out to do something similar here.
What I mean by “influence” in the title is that these eight books had such a substantial impact on me that they have become my conversation partners even to this day. They have so influenced me that they have been absorbed into my everyday life, in some ways not even at my invitation! This is the kind of measuring stick which I use to gauge the influence of a book in this post. I would argue that a book is only truly influential in so far as it somehow moves into your life without you asking it to. The kind of book I am talking about metastasizes itself in your life and never ever leaves your thinking.
I once heard D. A. Carson say something to the effect that “different books come to different people at different times.” I have found that principle to be profoundly true in my life. So my list, just as your list, will be providentially and exquisitely subjective—biased even. When you scratch down a list of your “Great Eight,” I bet it will have the effect of a glorious trip down the memory lane of God’s kind providences in your life—the book that showed up in your life right when you needed it.
As you make your list, make sure to write down a brief reflection or two on the kindnesses of God that were, and continue to be, mediated to you through these books and in those particular seasons. I have included in my list the approximate year I encountered each book:
8) Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective by Andreas Köstenberger (c. 2010)
Oh, what God did for me in the book of John that year! What he did to me through the study of the book of John can, for me, scarcely be grasped at with human language. I felt so magnificently loved by God while studying John that I am almost cardiologically affected when I reflect on it. I was writing a twenty-one week Sunday school study through the entirety of the book and in due course stumbled upon Kostenberger’s Encountering John. To see the contours, irony, layers, and the unplumbable depths of Jesus Christ in the book of John was truly life altering for me. Kostenberger was with me the whole way. The backgrounds and illuminating comments he wrote made for a constant doxological walk through John. I had never felt the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible quite like I did while writing that curriculum. I would even say that I experienced the doctrine of inspiration. I swam around in it and ate it daily. It was beautiful in an otherworldly way.
7) Practicing Affirmation: God Centered Affirmation for Those Who Are Not God by Sam Crabtree (c. 2012)
My experience with Crabtree’s Practicing Affirmation was wholly other than my experience with Kostenberger’s Encountering John. I searched for a book that could help me wrestle with the awesome responsibility to steward our words. Boy, did I ever get a conversation partner on the subject in Practicing Affirmation! I concluded that my words, our words, cause major collateral damage on a daily basis. Unlike time and money, no one talked about our words in terms of stewardship or as a spiritual discipline. In Practicing Affirmation I saw that most of us walk through life being suffocated by a lack of godly affirmation. I am light years away from mastering what Crabtree points to, but I at least now have a lens through which I can see this underestimated, sinful area in my life and in other’s lives. I want to speak words of life, not death (Proverbs 18:21, 25:11).
6) Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung (c. 2010)
In Just Do Something, God used DeYoung in a mighty way to release me from a tightrope mentality of the will of God. Oh, how it freed me up! I am a different man today because of this book. I am free to run hard after Christ through his revealed will in his word, and I am not haunted by doubts or bygones.
5) Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God by C. J. Mahaney (c. 2011)
Many of the healthy habits that Mallory and I have established in our marriage can be directly traced back to C. J. and Carolyn Mahaney’s influence. Date night, pursuing Mallory’s heart, growing spiritually as a family, creating space for Mallory to grow, fighting fair, communication, planning, weekend getaways, and more all seemed to suddenly come within my grasp as Mahaney walked me step by step through this little book. I slowly began to build these things into our marriage habits and it has set us up for the long haul.
4) A Method of Prayer by Matthew Henry (c. 2010)
Every page of this book is bursting with Scripture-saturated prayer. Henry doesn’t say anything in the book that isn’t a reconfigured or implicated Bible verse! It’s uncanny, really. I use a live and ever-changing daily prayer document. This document essentially fits into an adoration, repentance, intercession, and request pattern, and Henry’s fingerprints might as well be all over that thing. Henry’s A Method of Prayer is the playbook; I just subbed out his players for mine. The current era of Christianity misses it when it comes to prayer. The man flat-out knew how to pray.
3) I Kissed Dating Goodbye/Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship by Joshua Harris (c. 2004)
I understand Harris’ books on courtship have taken a public beat down as of late. But to be candid with you, I don’t get it! These two books read in tandem were utter Godsends for Mallory and me. We both read them before we actually met each other. Growing up in twenty-first century America did not exactly bestow upon me a great framework for pursuing holiness in a dating relationship, so I took Harris seriously. Sure, Mallory and I were wary of swallowing hook, line, and sinker every single principle Harris lays out, but we have a perceptibly healthier marriage because of Harris’ influence on the dating season of our relationship. We adapted and modified Harris’ overall scheme, and called it “dourting” (I think Harris deserves credit for that term as well!) and tried our best to glorify God in our purgatory-esque state of dating and waiting.
Mallory and I did not kiss until the day we were married, and to say that I don’t regret it would be to attempt the understatement of the century! The way the Lord led us to pursue purity in our relationship saved us from what might have been a thousand slow deaths of regret.
So, call it whatever you want: dating, courting, dourting, pursuing, or whatever, but God used Harris to challenge us to set parameters and chase hard to apply Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 3:3-7, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter…for God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” I will be eternally grateful for Harris’ books that came to me at just the right time.
2) According to Plan: God’s Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible by Graeme Goldsworthy (c. 2006)
In 2006, I had a huge problem as a Christian Studies major at Ouachita Baptist University. It was the worst kind of problem too because it was a problem I didn’t even know I had. I didn’t have the slightest clue what to do with the Old Testament! I was resplendently ignorant that I was ignorant. When I read Goldsworthy’s According to Plan it was like all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. I saw God’s glorious narrative mosaic for the first time. I have never gotten over Goldsworthy’s recapitulation of the Bible in According to Plan. Every time I read a book in the discipline of Biblical Theology I am chasing after that first experience with Goldsworthy.
1) The Mortification of Sin by John Owen (c. 2007)
I can say along with J. I. Packer that this little book has had more consequence in my Christian life than any other single book save the Bible. Something about Owen is stunningly contemporary. In Mortification, Owen somehow found a way to climb into my head, take me by the hand, and lead me down the well-worn hallways of my temptations, all the while explicating my particular sin triggers, postures, habits, and failures of misbelief in Christ. It was as if Owen was personally explaining to me why at each one of these doors of temptation I would fall prey to turning the knob and entering into my detriment. It was sad and beautiful at the same time. I felt God reaching down to me, loving me through Owen, dead though he was.
Owen, dear brother or sister, taught me how to repent. He broke me down, gave me what-for, and then concluded by giving me timely advice for how to starve out my sin. Owen taught me the freedom of coming out into the light of community in my local church.
I get emotional when I consider just how God did something—something amazing for me, through this little book. He opened up vistas of the Christian life that I scarcely even knew existed. Owen showed me how to put on Christ.
So, which books are your “Great Eight”?