We all have those moments where a seemingly insignificant statement has far-reaching effects throughout our life. For me, one came 17 years ago when an older mentor was helping me look for resources to grow my faith. As I was looking through the books she kept in her office, I told her that I really wasn’t sure what to read next. She told me to simply scan through the back of my favorite books and find the works those authors had read. Once I read who they read, just repeat the process. The idea was to follow the trail — which means, inevitably, that I came to read a lot of old books.
On the Trail
One of the books that started me off shortly after that conversation was my first Piper book, The Pleasures of God. But though the meditations I devoured there had a huge impact on me, it was really the back of the book that set in for long-term influence. I learned there of Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man which took very little time to read. However, it took me a couple of years to make it through Stephen Charnock’s Discourses on the Existence and Attributes of God.
I learned of John Newton and Abraham Kuyper, and witnessed how George Mueller worked through his wife’s death. From Jonathan Edwards I learned how a resolved life flows from a doctrinal life, and from David Brainerd that a short life can be a significant life. Many of those authors in turn led me to Calvin’s Institutes where he in turn quoted a man named Augustine so often that he had to be read next.
References in other books from men like J.I. Packer soon led me to more of the Puritans. For many years, I took Packer seriously that Pilgrim’s Progress should be read once a year, and I found that Bunyan’s story became a map of my own life’s twists and turns. He also helped me understand the crucible of suffering, something which went hand in hand with all John Owen taught me about the mortification of sin.
Richard Baxter’s writings on grief sanctified my own, while Thomas Watson introduced me to the Westminister Catechism. Charles Spurgeon soon became a favorite for the peculiar beauty he displayed in holding such a high view of God’s sovereignty over all of life with such a tender heart for those who doubt and disbelieve. It brought home to me that I also want to make the most of the time I have in the place I live with the people God has put in my life.
Worth the Time
We know from reading Hebrews 11 that God has always been faithful to draw out men and women who are examples to us in faith — men and women who show us how God can transform our simplest attitudes and most desperate circumstances. That list didn’t end in the Old Testament. God has still given his church those “who walk according to the example” we have in his word (Philippians 3:17) — and finding their books is easier than ever. The hard part is knowing what to read next. So let me commend the advice to you that I once received: Start in the back of your favorite books, and follow the trail.
Read old books.
Slow down your mind to understand their words and context. Piece together their propositions with the Bible by your side so you see their teaching in light of God’s word. Identify with their concerns, restate their arguments, carry their thoughts around with you as you move back into your 21st century world.
We are far better served to live our lives in line with the truth of Jesus when we stop every now and then to breathe in the air of long ago times. Thanks to the introductions Piper and others gave me through their citations, I’ve met a great number of men and women who have helped me see God more clearly. Try it for yourself. Take the time soon to read old books and let those authors introduce you to some of their favorite teachers who will in turn introduce you to even more who fought the fight of faith before us.