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.

according_to.gif (16198 bytes)

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.

9. sovereignty.gif (12987 bytes)

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.”

8. holiness.gif (18927 bytes)

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.

7. lectures.gif (16333 bytes)

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.

6. preaching.gif (13579 bytes)

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.”

5. future_grace.gif (17441 bytes)

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.

4. invisible.gif (14511 bytes)

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.”

3. desiring_god.gif (14117 bytes)

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.

2. crazy_love.gif (10408 bytes)

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.”

1. institutes.gif (16095 bytes)

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.”


Reformed Theology Page

The internet has changed drastically since I first published The Reformed Theology Source website in 1998. One of the great advances has been the vast number of reformed theology online resources that are now available. Some of my favourite of these resource websites, Monergism.com, Desiring God Ministries, Truth For Life, & Ligonier Ministries are bookmarked on the right hand side of this blog.

As you can see, The Reformed Theology Source has evolved into a WordPress blog entitled “Thinking Big”.  I have maintained a “Reformed Theology” page which contains some of the links from my original site. Thirteen years later, however, many of the original links I had posted got moved by the author or became extinct. As a result, my Reformed Theology page is a little thin on links/resources. I’m not looking to recreate a massive online database, but I am very interested in adding a few dozen Reformed resources….and I’d love your help.

I would be delighted if, in the comments section, you recommended some suitable links to buttress my reformed theology page. In particular, articles/sermons by the following are encouraged:

Calvin, Luther, Baxter, T.Watson, M.Mead, Owen, Bunyan, Edwards, Ryle, Spurgeon, Bonar, McCheyne, Pink, Lloyd-Jones, Boice, Sproul, Piper, Begg

If you prefer to recommend via facebook message or Twitter message, that works too! Thanks in advance.


As I consider which conference I might attend next, this is high on my “wish list”. What a fantastic promo video for what will undoubtedly be an outstanding event. The opportunity to sit under the teaching of John Piper, R.C. Sproul, Rick Warren, and Francis Chan would be a remarkable privilege and delight.

Two Great Posts

As I procrastinated posting on my own blog today I am came across two outstanding posts from my colleagues. The first is by Carey Nieuwhof, Lead Pastor of Connexus in Barrie and Orillia, Ontario. In his post, Shift Responsibility, Fuel Your Growth, Carey asks the question, “Who is responsible for your spiritual growth?” and gives a straightforward answer: You are.

Many act as if it is up to the church to ensure that we are growing spiritually. This isn’t quite right. The church can certainly help a person to grow in their relationship with Christ but, at the end of the day, it’s not up to the church to make sure that we’ve grown in our faith.

The second great post I came across is from a neighbouring colleague, Darryl Dash, pastor of Richview Baptist in Toronto, Ontario. Pastor Dash writes an insightful review of Brian McLaren’s book, A New Kind of Christianity.

I haven’t read the book, and I’m not certain that I’m going to, but Dash’s review is nonetheless helpful for those seeking to remain informed regarding the shifts in the theological landscape around us. I hugely appreciate Dash’s efforts in reading McLaren’s book and sharing with us his keen and discerning observations.

Back To Basics

January 18 is a special date for me. On this date, twelve years ago, I was ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament within the Presbyterian Church in Canada. This year, more than any of my other ordination anniversaries, I reflected on the kind of minister I’ve become. There are some areas where I am pleased with my growth and progress. But there are also areas where I lament my inability to push forward and improve.

God is gracious. I sense His carefulness as He reveals these areas where I still need much growth. And, to keep me from despair, He also provides moments of encouragement—often in subtle, but always in meaningful ways. I recognize that God is continually shaping me—using ‘the good’ and ‘the bad’ to help me become that which He intends for me (Romans 8:28; 2Corinthians 12:7-10).

As I reflect over the past twelve years, I note different emphases within my ministry. Early on, it was my passion for Reformed Theology—as expressed through the Reformer, John Calvin, the 17th Century Puritans, Jonathan Edwards and, in our day, through the likes of R.C. Sproul and James Montgomery Boice.

In 1999, I heard a sermon that has profoundly marked my messages and my ministry ever since. At the Moody Bible Institute Pastors’ Conference, John Piper delivered a message that was entitled, “Stop Serving Jesus!” (as though He needed us). As the result of this message, duty no longer drives my ministry efforts, delight does (recommended reading: “Desiring God” by John Piper).

In my early years at St. Giles Kingsway, the principle of “Contagious Christianity” (Bill Hybels) directed our evangelistic efforts. In recent years it was “Simple Church” by Thom Rainer & Eric Geiger that compelled me to tweak our ministry trajectory. The thesis of Simple Church is that less is more—simplicity of vision and programs helps congregations to preserve their vibrancy.

This past year I read a book that I count among my top ten, in terms of its impact upon my life. “Crazy Love” by Francis Chan was written “for those who want more of Jesus”. A light goes on in my head. Yes, I still subscribe to Reformed Theology. Yes, the Supremacy of Jesus in all things remains central to my ministry. Contagious Christianity continues to provide a helpful track for evangelism. Simple Church remains a much needed model for ordering a ministry. But Francis Chan struck a particular chord in my conscience. The reason I enrolled in seminary, the reason I became a minister, is because I wanted more of Jesus…and I wanted others to have more of Him too.

Some might say that my ministry has evolved over the last twelve years, and there’s evidence of that. But I think it might be more accurate to say that it has come full circle. I’m back to  basics: wanting more of Jesus for myself and for the congregation I serve. As the hymn writer, Horatius Bonar, well puts it:

I came to Jesus and I drank of that life giving stream; my thirst was quenched, my soul revived, and now I live in Him.