10 Books That Changed My Life

Christian Theology WorksDuring my years at Ridley College, and during my time at the University of Western Ontario (beginning as an English major), I had the opportunity to read a wide variety of excellent novels. Particularly memorable were Wuthering Heights, To Kill A Mockingbird, Gulliver’s Travels, 1984, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Frankenstein (I had a Sci-Fi bent). As good as these books were, none of them changed me.

As I set out below the 10 Christian books which did have a profound affect upon me, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that all “Christian” books transform and all “secular” books fail to transform. I don’t subscribe to that. I love how science fiction books stretch my imagination and challenge me to think outside of the box. I have read “secular” books that have elicited powerful emotions from me. I have also read Christian books that were a complete bore, and some which were utter nonsense. But, at the end of the day, as I consider the books (outside of the Bible) which had the biggest impact on me, it was this group of 10–all of which happened to be written for the benefit of followers of Jesus.

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My good friend, Brian K. Smith, introduced me to this book, and John MacArthur, in 1991 when I was a freshman in University. Having become a Christian as a teenager, I struggled to live that out consistently. This book challenged me by sensibly laying out what Jesus requires from His followers. Having understood that Jesus was my Saviour from sin, this book cemented in my mind the necessity of Jesus also being my Lord and Master. My Christian walk has never been the same after reading this compelling book.

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Before I even knew what an Arminian was, I was one. I imagined that I was the master of my own destiny. I reckoned that the faith I had in Jesus originated with me. It was again during my University (undergrad) years when a friend’s father encouraged me to read this book. I might say that Pink’s book was the sandpaper that prepared the surface of my heart so that the doctrines of grace and God’s sovereignty (as revealed in the Scriptures) might stick. Pink boldly lays before the reader two alternatives: “God must either rule, or be ruled; sway, or be swayed; accomplish His will, or be thwarted by His creatures.”

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I am certain that during my undergrad years of University I read more Christian theology / lifestyle books than I did University textbooks. Jerry Bridges’ book was one that I read a couple of times during those years. I had been lukewarm in my faith for too long. The gap between what I believed and how I behaved was too big. Bridge’s book set me on the path to pursuing holiness. To keep this from becoming a legalistic pursuit, I strongly recommend following this work with Bridge’s Transforming Grace, which I read in 1993.

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If there was ever a book that I wished I had read before graduating from seminary, it is this one. It wasn’t until I was in my second charge as a Presbyterian Pastor that I was introduced to this excellent work. Recommended to me at a conference at Alistair Begg’s church, Lectures To My Students helped me to recalibrate my personal walk with Christ in a way that it overflows into the ministry entrusted to me. Before reading this work, I fear that I had compartmentalized my private faith from my public faith. A must read for every pastor and soon-to-be pastor.

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This is another work that I picked up at the recommendation of Alistair Begg. In my mind, this is the best book ever written on preaching. Why do I include it in a list of the books that helped “change my life”? Because one of the strengths of this work is Lloyd-Jones’ understanding that preaching and the preacher can’t be separated. The one inevitably affects the other. One of my favourite quotes from the book: “The preacher’s first, and the most important task is to prepare himself, not his sermon.”

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I think it was 1999 when I first heard John Piper preach at Moody Pastors Conference. I’ll never forget the main point of his message: “Stop serving Jesus…as if He needed you!” Piper was addressing then, and does so thoroughly in this book, our tendency to want to “pay God back” for the grace we receive in Jesus. Piper makes the compelling argument that we cannot live the Christian life today fuelled by yesterday’s grace. We need grace today! Furthermore, we need grace in the future in order to do that which we are called to do.

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Having come to accept the doctrines of grace, as revealed in the Scriptures and explained by the Reformers, what remained for me was to understand how God’s sovereignty affects every aspect of our everyday life in a most positive way. Hearing R.C. Sproul speak on this over a weekend of lectures at a Ligonier Conference in Toronto, and reading this work, hugely advanced my understanding of God’s sovereignty and what it means for Him to work “all things together for good” (Rom. 8:28). One of my favourite quotes from the book: “The Providence of God is our fortress, our shield, and our very great reward. It is what provides courage and perseverance for His saints.”

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The turning point within my first pastoral charge (1998-2002) was hearing Piper preach at Moody, and reading this book. I feel like there is a huge difference between the Bryn MacPhail who pastored and preached before reading this book, and the Bryn MacPhail who has laboured since, guided by the compelling principle that “God is most glorified in me, when I am most satisfied in Him.” Members of my congregation at the time even noted the change in my preaching, which had shifted to a new focus: magnifying the supremacy of Jesus in all things. The other distinguishing mark was learning to labour as a delight rather than as a duty. I imagine that this book makes a lot of Christians’ Top 10 lists.

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I read Crazy Love in 2009, in the final year of my pastoral charge in Toronto. This book challenged and changed me on so many levels I don’t even know where to start. Using this space for any kind of review won’t do this book justice. You’ll have to read it for yourself. Disclaimer: This book will make you squirm. I highly recommend the accompanying video curriculum (which I have done with 4 groups in the last 2 years). Chan has a endearing, sensible, manner to him which helps immensely as he lays out some intense biblical principles for us to apply. One of my favourite quotes from the book: “God doesn’t call us to be comfortable. He calls us to trust Him so completely that we are unafraid to put ourselves in situations where we will be in trouble if He doesn’t come through.”

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I was 19 years old when I first read the Institutes. If that sounds young, remember that Calvin wrote the first edition of the Institutes in his mid 20s! I confess to first reading Calvin in order to understand this mysterious doctrine of election. It’s as if I went mining for one gem, but found a myriad of gems. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once described preaching as “logic on fire”–that is exactly how I would describe Calvin’s work in the Institutes. To reduce the Institutes to a treatise on election is to entirely miss the boat. Nowhere else have I found such a rich Christology, such a profound description of the majesty of God, and such a compelling description of how the church should conduct itself. For a book loaded with complex theological statements, one of my favourite quotes from the Institutes is beautifully simple: “Whatever we need and whatever we lack is in God.”


Who Is Praying For You?

One of my all-time favourite quotes comes from the 19th Century Scottish minister, Robert McCheyne: “If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million of enemies…and He is praying for me.”

I covet the prayers of others. I regularly ask people to pray for me, and I believe their prayers on my behalf make a difference. But even more heartening is the reminder that the follower of Jesus is always being prayed for…by Jesus!

This is what we are assured of in John 17. From this prayer of Jesus we are able to glean some priorities for our Christian walk. And, if we desire to know how we ought to pray for ourselves and for others, there is much to be gained by studying how Jesus prays for us. Here are some things we observe in the prayer of Jesus:

Jesus prays that His followers would be marked by joy.

What do you think of, when you hear the word “joy”? Many of us think of joy as a feeling of happiness. Joy is something we feel when our circumstances are favourable. Joy is what we feel when our favourite sports team wins the big game. Joy is what we feel when we are reunited with a loved one who has been far away.

Is this the joy that Jesus wants us to have? I don’t think it is. The joy I have just described is not unique to being a Christian. You do not have to be a Christian to be a “happy person”. But you do need to be a Christian to possess the kind of joy that Jesus calls for. Jesus prays, “that they may have My joy made full in themselves” (John 17:13).

It is not any kind of joy, but Christ’s joy that should mark the Christian. So, how do we get that? What we commonly find in Scripture is a connection between Christian joy and faithful obedience to God’s commands. In John 15:10ff, Jesus says, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love…These things I have spoken to you (in order) that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

What I find most striking in that is the notion that obeying God is joy-producing. Many imagine the opposite to be true. Many imagine that if we did all that God required, our life would be devoid of happiness and excitement. Jesus insists, however, that the one who has the deepest joy, the one who has an abiding joy, is the one who faithfully obeys God’s commands (John 15:11). To this end, Jesus prays for the fullness of our joy while He also prays for the progress of our sanctification.

In addition to praying for our joy, and for our sanctification, Jesus also prays for us to be marked by unity.

Jesus prays, “that they may be one, just as we are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me” (John 17:22, 23).

We see here that Jesus is not calling for organizational unity. Nor does He call for a sentimental, handholding, kind of unity, but rather, He prays that we may be one just as He and the Father are one.

How do we accomplish that? To answer this, A.W. Tozer employed the analogy of tuning pianos. Tozer noted that if a 100 pianos were merely tuned to each other, their pitch would not be very accurate. But if the 100 pianos were all tuned to one tuning fork, they would automatically be tuned to one another. Similarly, unity in the church isn’t trying to be the same as everyone else. Rather, unity is achieved by becoming like Christ.

And, finally, Jesus prays that we would be marked by love, asking that “the love with which (the Father) loved (Him) may be found in (us)” (John 17:26).

Again, not just any kind of love is called for, but rather, Jesus is praying for a manifestation of Divine love in the lives of those who would come to follow Him. Accordingly, we don’t establish the standard by which we love others–it has already been set. Jesus didn’t simply say, “Love one another“, He said, “Love one another just as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

So much is required of us–to be filled with joy, to be increasingly sanctified (obedient to God’s commands), to be united, and to love according to God’s standard. This would appear beyond us if it weren’t for the fact that Christ is praying for us!

If we belong to Christ, we can expect profound, ongoing, change in our character. We can expect this transformation in large measure because of the prayers of another.

Follower of Christ, I hope you are massively encouraged by this. Jesus is praying for you. And the prayer of Jesus will most certainly be answered.

The Refiner’s Fire

Today I had a profound encounter with the transforming power of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Last July I wrote a post referencing a man who regularly slept on the front porch of our church. I hadn’t seen my friend in many months until today when he visited my office with a heavily bandaged face and right hand.

My friend had been living and working on another island in The Bahamas when he had an accident. When lighting a fire to cook dinner, he inadvertently caused an explosion that launched him off the ground and temporarily took away his eyesight. As he recounted the story to me, the extensive burn marks on his face verified what he was saying.

At first, you could only feel sorry for the man because of what he had endured. But soon it became apparent that this fire had, in a manner, saved my friend’s life.

“I was blind, but now I see!”, he declared when entering my office. At first, I thought he was talking about his physical eyesight, but upon further reflection I think he was talking about his spiritual eyesight.

My friend was overwhelmed with emotion as he described his new perspective to me:

“I’ve been given a second chance!”

“I’m Jonah–I was swallowed, but I’ve been spit back up!”

“I’m Job–‘Though He slay me, I will hope in Him'” (Job 13:15).

My friend shared how he was now reading his Bible every day and as I read some passages to encourage him, he insisted that I write down the references for him to look up later. He also thanked me for all that I had done for him, stood up and, with tears streaming down his face, gave me a hug.

I don’t know that I did all that much for him—some meals, some clean clothes, some encouragement, but sometimes we would go for weeks without any meaningful exchange.

At the end of the day, nothing I did brought about the transformation that I was witnessing. God did this.

One of the metaphors for salvation used in the Bible is that of the refiner’s fire. Many congregations even sing a hymn by that title. Amazingly, in this instance, the Lord chose literal fire to transform and refine a man that He refused to let go.

I am overjoyed that the word of the Lord, spoken through Zechariah, now applies to a man who once slept on our porch.

I will put them into the fire;
I will refine them like silver
and test them like gold.
They will call on my name
and I will answer them;
I will say, ‘They are my people,’
and they will say, ‘The LORD is our God.’”

The Power and Compassion of Jesus

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Throughout the Scriptures, human beings are often depicted as struggling to see what I would call, “The bigger picture”. What is frequently the case is that our vision for the future becomes stunted by our preoccupation with the present. Furthermore, our vision for the future tends to be limited by our existing set of experiences.

This is precisely what we see in Martha as she goes out to greet Jesus following the death of her brother, Lazarus. Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21).

It is not that Martha is altogether devoid of faith. Martha articulates, in this account, her conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (11:27). In addition, Martha evidently held the conviction that Jesus could heal the sick.

However, Martha’s perspective is limited in at least two ways. First of all, she says to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. Martha’s perspective is that Jesus is too late. Martha’s view is that Jesus needed to arrive by a particular time if Lazarus was to be healed.

Secondly, Martha’s perspective was limited in terms of space. She says, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. Martha’s view was that the healing of Lazarus could only happen if Jesus was physically present. Perhaps she had not heard the account of when Jesus healed a centurion’s servant without even being in the presence of the ailing person (Luke 7:1-10).

I do not mean to unduly criticize Martha here because I reckon that I might very well have said the same thing. By pointing out Martha’s limited perspective, I only mean to highlight the limitations of our perspective as it relates to God’s working in our lives and in this world. Thankfully, Martha eventually puts her trust in Jesus. After initially lamenting that He did not arrive at their house in time, she eventually confesses to Jesus, “Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give you” (John 11:22).

Friends, here is a demonstration of why faith is so vital. On this side of heaven, our view of God, and our view of the way things are, will inevitably be limited. For this reason, our posture before God must be the posture of humility, understanding that there is much that we cannot see. Along with a posture of humility, we will be well-served by the posture of faith, trusting that God is capable of doing what needs to be done. This becomes Martha’s posture.

And what a merciful response Jesus gives to her, “Your brother shall rise again” (John 11:23). Jesus responds to Martha’s faith with a blessed promise—Lazarus will live again.

Even still, Martha’s perspective remains limited—she can’t seem to overcome her conviction that the time of opportunity to heal Lazarus has passed, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”, she says to Jesus (John 11:24). We see a measure of optimism in Martha’s response, but her optimism is tempered by her view of reality.

That’s our challenge, isn’t it? In attempting to be pragmatic, in attempting to be guided by reasonable expectations, we run the danger of settling for less than what is possible if Jesus were to apply His power. We possess a modicum of faith in Jesus, but often our view of what Jesus can accomplish is often quite small. We imagine that things like congregational growth and spiritual progress are limited by statistical probability and the natural ordering of things.

And then we, like Martha, have our limited notions shattered by Jesus, who says, “I am the Resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25, 26).

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The Blessing Of Being Provoked

Below is the sermon audio & the sermon notes of Bryn MacPhail. “The Provoked Church”, based on Acts 17:16-21, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on October 17, 2010.

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You often hear people within the Church expressing an interest in seeing their particular congregation grow.

Such is the case here.

Many of you remember a time when these pews, and the Sunday School classrooms, were filled to capacity each and every Sunday.

We long to return to those days—or, at least, we long to replicate those attendance patterns, don’t we?

When a congregation begins to dream about numerical growth, the conversation usually then turns toward analyzing local demographics and then implementing suitable outreach strategies.

Visit any Christian bookstore and you’ll see that one of the larger sections will be books that offer formulas for “Church Growth”.

Would it surprise you to hear me say that I am not convinced that these conversations about church growth are entirely helpful?

I hope you won’t misunderstand me—I am eager to see numerical growth in the number of folks attending services at St. Andrew’s—it’s just that I do not think that the formulas being presented by the so-called church growth experts is where our emphasis should be placed.

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