The number one question I get over Twitter and email due to my Twitter account and podcast is “I’m new to Reformed theology. What books should I read?” Since I get this question a lot, I decided to write a blog post about it.
Now, before I begin, I have a few opinions, tips, and disclaimers:
- If you’re brand new to Reformed theology, meaning that either you’re studying it being newly Reformed or you’re looking into it as an Arminian or Molinist curious of Reformed theology, study Reformed soteriology first. This means to study the worldview of Reformed theology before looking into deeper, and sometimes more controversial things such as paedobaptism, ecclesiology, complementarianism, etc. Deciding what you believe on these deeper debated issues before you learn the Reformed worldview isn’t wise.
- Akin to the last point, study the Reformed worldview before looking into other (in my opinion, novelty) doctrines such as federal vision, theonomy, etc. I know I’m going to get in trouble for this point, but focus on central Reformed doctrine before ever grappling with doctrines on the edge of Reformed theology. All the cool kids might be talking about it, but that doesn’t mean it’s central to Reformed theology.
- That last point reminds me, learn/listen more from the older people and books than newer people and books. This means both books written centuries ago and also men and women alive today that are in their senior years. Reformed theology is a mature old faith. Read books from authors that have stood the test of time like Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Owen, Spurgeon, etc. Also listen to wiser and older believers who are still alive. These believers have plowed through the fields of what’s new, false, heretical, and have come out wise and faithful in their walk with God. Follow them as they have followed Christ.
Disclaimer: All of these men have certain doctrinal shortcomings. None are perfect. That’s why it is incredibly important to follow/read a multitude of writers/preachers, not just one or two. Become balanced.
The books I will be recommending are for beginners. Once you finish these, there are thousands of books you can read. Many you will find seem better and deeper, but the ones I present are the best for beginners, those who don’t have an understanding of Reformed soteriology. For another good beginner’s list, see Mongerism’s list here.
I also am choosing books for those who struggle to read. I could say to read all these old English books or 1200 page scholarly books, but I personally understand the struggle to read, to press on through the tediousness of reading sometimes. Ligonier has a great list if you like intense reading. The list I am giving though are truly for the low laymen who are new to exploring Reformed theology.
I recommend reading these books in the order I have listed them.
BOOKS TO READ
I recommended this book on my last post, “The Best Books of 2015”, but it really is that good and is my number one go-to book for beginners. While Reformed theology is way more than just TULIP (or God’s sovereignty in salvation), it seems TULIP is the door many go through when they enter into belief of Reformed theology. There are many great books about TULIP, but none that paint it so beautifully than this one. The core of Reformed theology is that of beauty and joy in view of God’s sovereignty. I read this book years into being Reformed. I didn’t learn much new, but I smiled, rejoiced, and praised God through it more than any other book I have ever read. The book is wonderfully written. Reinke does a great job writing simply yet poetically, exploding the truth of TULIP in a way that leads you to delight and joy.
The first step in understanding Reformed theology is realizing that it is about the pursuit of beauty and joy in Christ and not just knowledge or understanding. Once you get that, you are ready to go deeper.
Most who say they believe in Reformed theology (or “Calvinism”) haven’t read Calvin’s central work. This is a tragedy in the younger generation of Reformed believers. However, I do place some blame on the book itself. Most are told to read the 1559 version which was translated from Latin and is by far the longest read of all the versions at almost 1100 pages. The text seems stagnant, hard to read, and lacks a poetic flow. I don’t blame Calvin for this of course, but rather older translators. I prefer the French-translated version of the Institutes. I also recommend the 1541 French version of the Institutes now. It’s beautifully written and also has a simple and great flow. It’s also at 920 pages. I’m a huge fan of condensed writing and less-is-more thinking. I haven’t heard one complaint of anyone who has read this version. Sure, you can get the Institutes for free online, but it’s doubtful you will understand it in such a way that it will bring worship to God as you read it. I believe this version will.
Taken from his magnum opus, Desiring God, this booklet condenses his book into a short, easy to read book. This book (and it’s older bigger brother) changed my life. It was my door into Reformed Theology. Piper talks about joy in God being central to the Christian faith, that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” God-glorifying joy was something I was missing in my faith (back before I was Reformed). It showed me that the Christian life wasn’t just about knowledge or being purpose-driven, but rather about delighting in the goodness and sovereignty of God. I will forever be in Piper’s debt for this book.
Once you finish this booklet, you might attempt to read Desiring God. It’s a large scholarly book that may be too hard for some people to read. However, I encourage you to attempt to read it.
If you ask a middle-aged Reformed believer what their favorite book was, Knowing God would be the response over and over again and for good reason. Packer has written many great books (my personal favorite) but nothing compares to his ultimate work, Knowing God. In this book, Packer shows that to love God is to love His Word. Through that belief, Packer discusses and explains many theological beliefs (like election, the Trinity, etc) with so much clarity and impact, it can be seen as a work of art. Why is the book on this list though? Because of “Sola Scriptura” (meaning “according to Scripture alone”). Packer hammers the fact that all truth in God must be found in His Word. There are no other ways, doors, nor shortcuts. That is a central truth in Reformed doctrine.
(After reading Knowing God, I recommend reading Knowing Christ by Mark Jones, which is a tribute to Packer by taking Packer’s book one step farther by centering it around Christ.)
Let me tell you a secret: I wish I read this book within the first 90 days of studying Reformed theology. It’s human nature to belief that we are the pioneers to the doctrines we believe, that we are the ones discovering, fine-tuning, and battling for these “new truths”. What Clark shows us in his book is that Reformed theology is old, classic, and not about us and our interpretations. While I said in the beginning that it is important to have a well-grounded soteriology before you look into deeper issues, it’s important to know what those before us believed and the “founders” and councils (so to speak) of the Reformed faith put into place.
The other thing this book masterfully does is teach the place of the creeds and confessions in the life of the church and the believer. Sadly, most evangelical churches do not recite, study, or look at the creeds and confessions when considering matters of practical or spiritual life. This ought not be.
While I may disagree with some of his points, and believe that the Reformation was about “always reforming”, this book is genuinely helpful to get your feet planted where they need to be: in a faith that’s older than us all.
(I currently go to a Assembly of God church, though I see myself more of a Reformed Baptist who is also a continuationist. I’m pretty sure that does not follow the Reformed “tradition”, but like I said, you can argue these deeper things once you get the Reformed worldview under your feet.)
Hailed as one of the best and easiest to understand Reformed systematic theology book (besides Calvin’s Institutes), Grudem’s book breaks down every subject relating to theology. At over 1250 pages, this book is a beast, but it’s rich, wonderfully written, and most importantly…fair. Grudem tackles opposing views with grace and offers his opinion but presents other arguments fairly and balanced. After you’ve read all these books, get this one immediately and make a plan to work through it. There’s even a podcast that goes through it chapter by chapter. Trust me, it’s worth it.
OTHER HELPFUL STUFF
A Study Bible
I recommend the ESV Study Bible. I also enjoy the Reformation Study Bible, though it is biased towards paedobaptism and cessationism. I also have a ESV Journaling Bible that I do much of my reading from. Writing notes down is one of the best ways to remember what you read and understand it.
Find an elder from a Reformed congregation and talk to them. They are there to help people understand the faith. When it comes to the reformed faith, people have many questions. Sometimes having a person you can ask those questions to really helps.
In the beginning, listening to podcasts was the life-blood of my learning of Reformed theology. There are great podcasts out there that teach simply (and many times, hysterically) the Reformed faith. Here is a list of free podcasts you can listen to.
(Note: this is not an exhaustive list)
- Mortification of Spin
- 5 Minutes In Church History
- Ask Pastor John
- The Reformed Pubcast
- Calvinist Batman & Friends
- These Go To 11
- Jesus Changes Everything
- The Dividing Line
- Renewing Your Mind with R.C. Sproul
- The Gospel Coalition
- Theology Refresh
Other books to mention
As I said in the beginning, there are thousands of books that could be on this list. Let me talk about just a couple more.
The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones and The Biggest Story by Kevin DeYoung
Sometimes we have to simply things to a children’s level before we can understand theology. These books are amazing. My kids love them and I love them even more.
Putting Amazing Back Into Grace by Michael Horton
Grace is a central truth to all Christian doctrine and is the theme of a believer’s life. Yet we don’t understand it well enough. This book will fix that problem.