Bring the Books 6
Note: Today's post was written by Pastor Joe Cassada of the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Maryland Heights, Missouri, a church he started over twenty years ago. It is a follow up to last week’s post regarding the wisdom of reading the Puritans. It also marks a bit of a shift in this series from establishing philosophical principles regarding reading toward more practical type suggestions regarding what to read and how to read it.
The Puritans have left us a treasure trove of Christian literature whose precious contents we could spend a lifetime studying and discussing. When the feast table is lavished with such sumptuous meats, the dinner guest is easily overwhelmed with the superabundance of delicious choices. And when it comes to reading the Puritans we are apt to ask “Where should I start?” There is no one right answer of course, but allow me to share with you a few of my own favorites.
I would begin, first and foremost, with John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Most Christians have heard of this title, and probably those who attended a Christian high school are at least vaguely familiar with it, yet this Christian classic goes largely ignored by the vast majority of Bible believers today. And even those who are not complete noobz to Bunyan’s allegory usually stifle yawns when the mere thought of reading it invades their consciousness and threatens to overwhelm the endangered neurons threatened with extinction by social media consumption. As with most literature of the Puritan era, whatever exposure one may have had to the work probably left an indelible imprint on the brain in the shape of complete boredom. And understandably so. Many folks these days struggle enough with modern English, so any attempt at devouring a book written 400 years ago is immediately impaired by reading comprehension challenges. I get it. I really do. It takes hard work and practice to read and comprehend early modern English. But it’s good for us – our brains – to focus on such reading material.
If your experience of Bunyan’s Pilgrim is powering through it with sheer determination as a reading assignment for English Lit, then your apprehensiveness of re-reading the tales of Christian and his pilgrim companions are certainly legitimate ones. But I beg of you to give it another try. No book report will be assigned this time. I promise.
Honestly, I wish all Christians would not only read The Pilgrim’s Progress but read it regularly. And don't settle for those abridged versions or those versions that leave out the second part. Bunyan wrote two parts to the book: one about Christian and the other about Christiana (Christian's wife). The second part is very helpful in adding some detail and explanation to the first. So be sure to get a version with parts 1 and 2. It’s also helpful to understand part 1 to be an allegory of the individual Christian, whereas part 2 is more like a tale of the local church endeavoring to help each other on the way to the Celestial City. Unfortunately, many publishers today choose to leave out part 2.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is a book that will not entertain mentally so much as it will edify spiritually. It is ill-suited for the passive reading style with which we engage most works of fiction; rather it should be approached meditatively: read, ruminate, repeat. Preachers especially ought to be as familiar with this story as they are the pop-culture garbage that daily pollutes our attention. Bunyan's delightful allegory is as rich as a diamond mine in its abundance of illustrations of vital Christian doctrine. It's also helpfully pastoral, as it explains through the medium of storytelling the struggles and battles we Christians face in this life. We see in the allegory the importance of vanquishing guilt by looking to the cross, of diligence in guarding our assurance of salvation, and of entering the Valley of Humiliation properly – and much more.
Really, you should try to read everything John Bunyan has written. Many men are honored posthumously, but the Tinker of Bedford was such a gifted writer and such a biblical thinker that even his contemporaries lauded his God-given gift of pen and pulpit. The scholarly John Owen famously said of Bunyan’s preaching, “If I could possess the tinker's abilities to grip men’s hearts, I would gladly give in exchange all my learning."
And so for my second book recommendation, I must include Bunyan's book on prayer (the Banner of Truth edition is simply titled Prayer). Everything that I have read from Bunyan has edified me, but few books have changed me. This book changed how I prayed.
In it, Bunyan defines prayer as “a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to his Word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God.” I know it sounds wordy, but the rest of his exposition (the first half of the book) is an explanation of each phrase, and it is excellent. What helped me the most was the truth that we should pray for what God has surely promised instead of what we simply want.
The third book I would encourage you to add to your reading list is one aimed primarily at preachers: Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor. To their own detriment, many independent Baptist preachers have eschewed Baxter’s book because it has in the title the taboo word “reformed” - the assumption being made is that the book is about Reformed theology. This is a false assumption. Baxter’s book is not a primer for Reformed theology, but a prescription for a ministry reformed by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. It is a thorough exposition of Acts 20:28 – a book born from what would’ve been a sermon for a preachers’ meeting. Other than the Bible, this is the most soul-convicting, sin-exposing book I have read – which is exactly what we preachers need (and often). Most ministers today lap up church growth literature like a cat at a milk bowl, but Baxter’s book is the thick cream of Bible meditation - not the blue john of today’s market-driven mindset. He is not giving us some listicle for attracting visitors or some discourse on church branding and logos; he gets to the root of the matter: ministers must be first and foremost holy servants of God. This is where we fail or succeed; this is where our ministries live or die.
The fourth Puritan work I would encourage you to read is William Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armour. This is a massive volume, but it is worth breaking through the Philistine host of distractions and inattention in order to draw water out of the well of Gurnall’s scriptural exegesis. His well is deep, but the water is near the top – every page has something to refresh your soul. Don’t let the size of this tome give you the false impression that this is some lofty academic work that is meant to impress by its sheer volume. It isn’t. Gurnall writes as a pastor to his people. After all, this book was a compilation of the sermons he preached to his church from Ephesians 6:10-20.
My final in this list of favorites is a book of collected sayings of Thomas Brooks, compiled by Charles Spurgeon and titled Smooth Stones Taken From Ancient Brooks. Thomas Brooks is one of Spurgeon’s favorite preachers, and he’s one of mine too. I’ll let Mr. Spurgeon himself tell you why this is a worthy read: “As a writer, Thomas Brooks scatters stars with both hands. He has dust of gold. In his storehouse are all manner of precious stones. Genius is always marvelous, but when sanctified it is matchless. You have presented to you here the choice sayings of one of the King’s mighty men. The great divine who wrote these precious sentences was of the race of giants. He was head and shoulders above all the people., not in his stature, but in mind, soul, and grace. Treasure these gems and adorn yourself with them by putting them into the golden setting of holy practice, which is the end the writer aimed at.”
I must conclude by exhorting you to read not only these five favorites of mine but as many of the Puritan works as you can possibly get your hands on. It is no coincidence that Charles Spurgeon, a preacher eminently blessed of God and universally admired by believers of all stripes, cut his teeth at an early age on the books of the Puritans.
Permit me to share with you just one more word from Spurgeon, “The Last of the Puritans,” as he describes his reading habits when he was a small child perusing the books in his grandfather’s library:
“Some of these were enormous folios, such as a boy could hardly lift. Here I first struck up acquaintance with the martyrs, and specially with ‘Old Bonner,' who burned them; next with Bunyan and his ‘Pilgrim'; and further on, with the great masters of Scriptural theology, with whom no moderns are worthy to be named in the same day...Out of that darkened room I fetched those old authors when I was yet a youth, and never was I happier than when in their company. Out of the present contempt into which Puritanism has fallen, many brave hearts and true will fetch it, by the help of God, ere many years have passed."
So go on, brave heart, and fetch Puritanism and bring its champions into the ranks of your own library.