Monday, March 26, 2018

Some recommended books for new Christians

In 2014, I blogged on some life changing books that were really turning points for me. Today, I'm going to list some of the top books I would recommend to somebody who either just converted to Christianity or who wants a basic understanding of it. These are books outside of the Bible.

1. The End For Which God Created the World by Jonathan Edwards.

I think this is THE essential book that every Christian should read. It explains what the big picture is--God, and why he bothered to create the world in the first place. This book answers such basic questions as "What is the meaning/purpose of life?", "Why do bad things happen to good people?", "Why does God demand that we worship him?" and "What is the point of the whole salvation drama?" It turns out that it's not all about that bass, about that bass. It's not even about the Hokey Pokey. It's about the majesty, holiness, and glory of God. Edwards may not answer all of these questions explicitly, but he provides the foundation from which all of these questions can be answered. This book sheds light on just about any other book on theology you could possibly read.

2. Basic Christianity by John Stott.

Amy Hall recommended this to me saying it was an even better introduction to Christianity than Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I would not say that Stott's book is a better defense of Christianity than Lewis' book; however, I wholeheartedly would agree with Amy that Stott's book is a better explanation of Christianity than Lewis' book.

3. What Is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert.

You may read this and think, "Yeah, I already knew all that." But I'm including it anyway because it's an essential topic, and this book does a better job than any other I know of in explaining clearly what the gospel is. It certainly does a better job than those tracts where you see a guy standing on a cliff and a cross making a bridge between the opposite cliff where God is. Have you seen that one?

4. The Forgotten Trinity by James White.

Here's an essential doctrine that most people I run into butcher whether they are Christians or not. And it's a doctrine most critics of the Trinity misrepresent and do a poor job of refuting because they confuse it with modalism or some other heresy. White gives an unusually lucid explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity, he defends it succinctly, and he shows in a simple and clear way why all the arguments against it fail. It's really easy to understand. So yeah, this one I would consider essential reading. White himself once said on his podcast that he would recommend a book by B.B. Warfield. I think it was The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity.

4. Decision-Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen and J. Robin Maxson.

I don't know of any book on the market that comes close to this book in offering good practical advice on Christian living, specifically in making decisions. This books covers every day mundane decisions (e.g. what to eat for breakfast) and all important decisions (e.g. who to marry). It also refutes a lot of the silliness that goes on in other books and conferences on the subject of figuring out what God's will for your life is.

5. Scaling the Secular City by J.P. Moreland.

If somebody wanted to read just one book on Christian apologetics, and that's the only book they'd ever read on it, this is the one I would recommend. I keep looking at other books, wondering if another will come along, but I keep going back to this one. There are books that cover some of the subjects in this book better, some books go into more detail on this or that topic, and some cover a wider range of subjects than this one, but when all things are considered, I still think this one is the best over all one stop defense of Christianity. I'm writing a book like this myself, and when I'm finished, maybe I'll start recommending my own book instead. I figure since it'll be my own book, it'll include exactly what I would want to be in a book like this, and it'll say exactly what I would like to be said in a book like this. How could it not since I'm the one writing it? Amirite???

6. Tactics by Greg Koukl.

This is a one-of-a-kind book, and it's a must read for anybody who has any interest in apologetics and/or evangelism. There's a gazillion books out there on apologetics that just give information and arguments. This is a practical book on how to use that information to have productive conversations with people who disagree with you. It's even useful if you don't have a lot of apologetic knowledge. This book has value beyond Christian apologetics, too. I think the tactics taught in this book would be useful to anybody who had a desire to have more productive conversations with people they disagree with, whether the subject is religion, philosophy, politics, or ethics. The only shortcoming is that there is not a chapter on how to argue with your wife. There, I'll defer to my dad who said, "Don't ever argue with your wife. You can't win."


That's it for essential reading. This rest of this is a list of what I think are some really good books that are well worth reading.

7. Jesus Under Fire, edited by Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland.

I'm adding this one to sort of round out the ones I mentioned before. Whereas the earlier ones dealt with theology, evangelism, decision-making, and mostly philosophical apologetics, this one deals with historical apologetics. I included it because I think it's a much better introduction to the academic study of the historical Jesus than The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. The chapter on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is better than what Strobel presented. It's a little out-dated, though, because it's mostly a response to the Jesus Seminar which no longer exists, but there's still some good stuff in there, and it's not too academic.

8. Love Your God With All Your Mind by J.P. Moreland (the first edition if at all possible).

I say "the first edition" because the second edition removed the best chapter--the one on methodism, particularism, scientism, relativism, etc. It was such a travesty, I had to complain about it in my Amazon review.

9. Relativism by Greg Koukl and Frank Beckwith.

I mentioned this one on my "life changing books" post, but I'm repeating it here because it's really good. It has a few shortcoming that I'm attempting to patch up in my own book, but my own book could never have been written if I hadn't read this one. As a supplement to this book, I highly recommend going to and getting a copy of Greg Koukl's debate with Sabina Magliocco. I don't know if they still have it or not, but if they do, you should give it a listen. If not, then google around for his debate with John Baker.

10. Miracles by C.S. Lewis

You've probably heard of "The Argument From Reason." Well, this is where it all started--chapter 2 to be exact. As much as has been written on the argument from reason, Lewis still does it the best. A lot of people misrepresent Lewis' argument. Whereas Lewis argued that materialism undermines rationality, apologists frequently water it down to where determinism undermines rationality. Besides not being true, that isn't even what Lewis argued. Lewis also gives an entertaining refutation of David Hume's argument against miracles by showing that Hume's argument is circular. I remember a long time ago reading a critique of Miracles on the Infidels web site. If you've read that critique, but not Lewis's book, then read Lewis' book anyway because that critique was rubbish (I do not remember who wrote it). I was tempted to write a refutation of it a long time ago. I wish I had. I've read several books by C.S. Lewis, and Miracles is my favourite one.

11. The Freedom of the Will by Jonathan Edwards.

Would I be Sam Harper if I did not include this book? I've already talked it to death on this blog, so I'll spare you this time.

12. True For You But Not For Me by Paul Copan (and the sequels, though this is the best one in the series).

These books have short chapters responding to a lot of popular slogans you often here pretty much anywhere you go, and the short responses Copan gives are very good. He's got one chapter in one of his books where he addresses the question of what happens to people who never hear the gospel. His answer was so wrong it was almost right again, but other than that, I can't complain too much. He's not a Calvinist, so we have to cut him some slack in places.

13. God, Freedom, and Evil by Alvin Plantinga.

This is where Plantinga explains his "free will defense" that so many people think effectively solved the logical problem of evil. It's also where he explains his modal ontological argument. As for me, the jury is out on whether either argument is sound. I suspect his ontological argument is sound. The problem is that there's no way to demonstrate it since the argument can be turned on its head to prove the opposite. So it's not a good argument even if it is sound, and Plantinga as much as admitted that in the book. My only reservation about the free will defense is that he postulates libertarian freedom as a possible state of affairs. If libertarian freedom is a possible state of affairs, then I think his argument is sound, but I'm not convinced that libertarian freedom is even coherent. I'm about 50/50 on that. But I suspect the over all argument could be made sound. Plantinga was just offering libertarian freedom as a possible state of affairs that, if true, would entail that God and evil are logically compatible. Well, one might be able to show the compatibility of God and evil with something besides libertarian freedom, so libertarian freedom may not be necessary for Plantinga's over all argument.

So why am I recommending this book if I'm unsure of the value of either of his major arguments? It's because this book is a great exercise in critical thinking and modal logic. Reading it carefully and studying it will make you a better thinker whether you agree with his conclusions or not. Besides that, even if his conclusions are not true, he still has a lot of valuable things to say in his premises.

14. Pleasing People by Lou Priolo

This would make an excellent compliment to Edward's book, The End For Which God Created the World. Whereas Edwards showed that it's all about the glory of God, Priolo argued that the solution to fretting over what everybody else thinks about you is to concentrate on living your life to please God, focusing on his glory rather than your own. This book was a wake up call for me. I still have to remind myself of these things every day. I have bad social anxiety that gets worse when I'm all self-conscious about my own shortcomings. My anxiety gets worse when I take my focus off of Christ and the glory of God in salvation and instead put the focus on myself, what I'm like, and whether the world approves of me.

15. The Justification of God by John Piper

This is a really thorough exegesis of Romans 9 that also refers back to Romans 3 quite a bit. I think I was already a Calvinist when I read this, but I still remember thinking, "Whoa!" He went a step further than I was comfortable with. He didn't just argue for the predestination of the elect to salvation; he argued for double predestination, and it was convincing. That's why I said, "Whoa!"

16. Letters to a Mormon Elder by James White

I'm not recommending this book primarily because I think it's a good book in respond to the Latter Day Saints. I'm recommending this book because of how well James White explains the gospel in this book, and how well he explains the meaning and roll of grace in salvation. There's a chapter in there called "Grace, grace, grace." Read that chapter. Actually, read chapters 14, 15, 16, and 17 if you don't want to read the whole book. Those four chapters are just wonderful. Here are their titles:

14. The Gospel of the Grace of God in Christ Jesus
15. Faith, Justification, and Works
16. Questions from a Friend
17. Grace, Grace, Grace

17. The Potter's Freedom by James White

It could be that you're not a Calvinist yet. If not, then you need to read chapter 7--"Jesus teaches extreme Calvinism." James White makes an air tight case for Calvinism from the bread of life discourse in John 6. I mean that. The case is air tight. I don't say that about any other theological point of view I can think of. The closest to it might be the case for the deity of Jesus from John 1:3, but even that one has a possible loop hole. You may not realize the case is air tight on a first reading or from reading attempts to get around White's exegesis, but if you sit with a few Bible translations alone by yourself in a closet, and read through it carefully and think about what is being said, you will come away from it being a very uncomfortable Calvinist. In my case, I came away from it feeling very uncomfortable, but it took some more time for me to get around to calling myself a Calvinist. I had a lot of kinks to iron out, and I wanted to see what other people said about John 6 first in case there was something I missed.

EDIT: I just finished reading Drawn By The Father, which is White's commentary on John 6:35-45. I think his presentation in The Potter's Freedom is much better.

18. The "Marginal Jew" series by John P. Maier.

Way back in 1997 or thereabouts, I took a class called "The Rise of Christianity" at the University of Texas at Austin taught by L. Michael White. The next semester, I sat in on his class on "The Historical Jesus." In one of those classes, he said something like, "Until you've read John Meier's Marginal Jew series, you're not a real Jesus scholar." He heaped all kinds of praise on it. It wasn't finished back then, and I don't know if it's even finished now. I only recently started reading it, and so far it's everything Dr. White said it would be. So far, he hasn't gone into the background of Judaism prior to and up to the first century AD like other people usually do, but he has gone into quite a bit of depth about sources and methods in the first volume as well as anchor dates in the life of Jesus. I have high hopes for the rest of the series.

19. The "Christian Origins and the Question of God" series by N.T. Wright.

This one isn't finished either. I think there's one more coming out. I've read all of them except for the two volumes on Paul. This isn't just an historical Jesus series like Maier's. Wright's series only has two books on the historical Jesus, and one is solely about the resurrection. The first one is about post-exilic Judaism leading up to the first century. That was written to give background information about the world Jesus came out of. Wright is a pretty amazing writer, and it's interesting, too, so I highly recommend this one. As far as defenses of the resurrection, I think Wright's is still better than Mike Licona's big thick book on the resurrection of Jesus, although Wright doesn't go into nearly as much detail about historical methods as Licona does.

There are lots of good books out there. If your book didn't make the cut, don't feel bad. It's just that my brother is grilling lamb, and I'm hungry, so I had to end this. Your book was probably going to be next. :-)

EDIT: Okay, one more. . .

20. Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology by William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith.

This is one of my favourite books. Two brilliant philosophers going head to head on the implications of the beginning of the universe. While Craig argues that the beginning of the universe implies the existence of God, Smith argues that the beginning of the universe implies the non-existence of God. This one is just really interesting.


At 3/27/2018 4:55 AM , Anonymous Watson said...

Any idea when your book will be done?

At 3/27/2018 10:35 AM , Blogger Sam Harper said...

No idea. I made a big dent in it last year, but I don't have much time to work on it these days.


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