It’s been four years now since my book Lit! launched — and it’s sobering to have received over those years hundreds of emails from Christians who struggle to read, or who were helped by some encouragements. Books and literacy are powerful tools in the Christian life, as you well know, Pastor John. I recently perused your little blue copy of The Weight of Glory, a C.S. Lewis book that you bought in the fall of 1968. And I know you can still remember standing in the bookstore reading the first few pages, and having your life changed by that little paperback. Great books have that power. And I’ve wanted to ask you: Speaking from a macro perspective, what has been the role of books in your life?
Well, what a wonderful question. It would be hard to overstate the life-shaping impact of books on my life. But I am wired in such a way that I even feel uncomfortable saying that without giving a reason for it — like I need to give a justification for why books can have such an impact on my life. So if it is okay with you, I am going to go back a little bit and lay a foundation.
And the foundation is this: The Bible is a book. The implications of that fact are simply staggering. When God contemplated all the possible ways that existed for him as an infinite, omnipotent, all-wise God to transmit and preserve his revelation to the world, he chose a book. And that is simply astonishing. We have no other authoritative access to the knowledge of God and the way of salvation and how to live a life pleasing to the Lord than through this book — either directly by reading it or indirectly from others who have read it.
The Book is absolutely unique. It is inspired in all of its words, and that inspiration secures the sufficiency of The Book in equipping us for “every good deed.” That very phrase in 2 Timothy 3:17 is amazing to me. It is an awesome claim that we are equipped or fitted-out by this book for “every good deed” that God expects of us. He will never expect of us anything he doesn’t equip us to do through this Book. So it is astonishing how unique and powerful this book is.
And then you add to that Ephesians 3:4 where Paul said, “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ.” That is breathtaking to me. The inspiration of The Book and the reading of The Book are the junctures between God and man where saving truth is moved from the divine mind into the human mind and spirit. There are just staggering implications of saying that reading is the way you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ as Paul says.
And, of course, it is not possible without the almighty agency of the Holy Spirit. It is not merely an intellectual affair, but it is not less than an intellectual affair, because God has ordained that his truth come through a book. And reading is a work of the mind. And, of course, nothing I’ve said is intended to imply that we can just go about this in our little private cubical without taking anybody else into account.
The Bible is crystal clear that God has appointed pastors and teachers — people with spiritual gifts. And those gifts include wisdom and knowledge and prophecy and teaching and other ways that humans clarify and apply and inspire us with the Scriptures. So even though God is giving us a Book, he means for us to understand The Book and apply The Book and be inspired by The Book with the help of other people who are dead and left their insights in books, and those who are alive and teach us and preach and counsel and converse with us.
So once the reality of God’s privileging the written Word with his choice of a book as the decisive means by which he would reveal and preserve the revelation of himself, once that has sunk in, you just can never be indifferent to the reality of books. Again, God has privileged The Book, honored The Book, elevated The Book, esteemed The Book above all other means for his centuries’ long preservation and explanation of his revelation.
So when I say it would be hard to overstate the life-shaping impact of books on my life, I think I am saying something very much in line with God’s purposes for the world. So let me be more specific in answering your question:
Books have shown me the glory and the greatness and the character and the attributes and the beauties of God. Jonathan Edwards’s Freedom of the Will, “Essay on the Trinity,” and dozens of sermons. John Owen on The Death of Death and The Glories of Christ and Communion with God. Stephen Charnock’s The Attributes of God sat on my beside table for almost a decade, I think, because I could only manage a few pages a night, it was so dense with glorious truths about God.
Books have convicted me of sin. In fact, most books convict me of sin one way or the other. There was an extended period of time in Germany when every Sunday evening I would read an extended portion of Edwards’s Religious Affections and found myself devastated, week in and week out, as he peeled away the layers of the self-exaltation of my heart.
Books have shown me the path of righteousness. I think of Randy Alcorn’s book on pro-life arguments, or Carl Ellis on Free at Last and the experience of black Christianity in the 20th century, or Søren Kierkegaard and George MacDonald and Ralph Winter on wartime uses of material possessions.
Books have given me inspiration and encouragement in some of my most difficult days. And I am thinking here mainly of biographies like T.H.L. Parker on Calvin and Peter Brown on Augustine and Courtney Anderson on Adoniram Judson. There was a season where I was reading little vignettes by Warren Wiersbe about great pastors.
Books have shaped the way I think and the way I express myself. And here I am thinking, of course, of C.S. Lewis — his razor-sharp logic and a deep belief in the reality of reason and logic, while never elevating it above the essential importance of the imagination and the affections. And it is not just a deep belief, but an exemplification. He not only displays such logic, but also the touchable, smellable, tasteable, concreteness of his language is significant. O, the power of concrete over the abstract in helping people grasp the greatest things!
Books have cultivated deep convictions in me about things like the aims of reading. I think here of E.D. Hirsch in his book Validity Interpretation that persuaded me profoundly that the only objective grounds for any claim to validity in one’s interpretation is that we have found an author’s intention in writing. I think that is right. And what a vast implication it has for how you read everything.
Books have clarified for me biblical concepts that I may never have gotten good clarity on myself. O, how extensive the scope of one’s grasp needs to be of Scriptures in order to synthesize the way books do. And I am thinking here of one of my professors, George Ladd’s New Testament Theology or his book The Presence of the Future.
So that is a tip of the iceberg.
To the person who struggles with reading, I would simply say: Join me. Join limited, slow-reading John Piper. Admit your limitations. Lay down all resentments and anger and self-pity and self-justification and humbly accept your limitations. Admit them and then do the best you can. Be thankful for every measure of reading you are able to do.