Rev. Eriks is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hudsonville, Michigan. This is the text of the speech given on September 24, 2009 at the annual meeting of the RFPA.
Do you read good, Reformed books? Do you read the Standard Bearer and the books published by the RFPA? In your home do you teach your children to read? Do you model this in your home? If you are doing this, my desire is that you be encouraged to continue reading good, Reformed material. If you are struggling to read, may you be inspired to read good, Reformed (RFPA) books in your homes.
Although I was excited to speak on this topic, the task of showing the importance of reading is not easy. Who would disagree with the proposition that it is vital for Reformed Christians to read? Our practice may not always show it, but who would really disagree? Of course reading good literature is important. It is part of Reformed thinking. Sometimes when that is the case, it can be difficult to put into words what we instinctively know is good and right.
Historically, writing and reading good books has always been seen as important in the church. This goes back to the apostle Paul, who requested in II Timothy 4:13 that his coat, which he left in Troas, be brought to him, and “the books, but especially the parchments.” As he sat in prison in Rome facing death, Paul still believed there was great value in reading. The church fathers saw the importance of the printed page. Even today we can read what the church fathers wrote. Martin Luther saw the value of the printed page. God moved him to write, so that Luther was responsible for one third of the published books in the German language in his day. He knew that the message of the gospel could, by writing, be spread further, and more Christians could grow in grace, and the church would be strengthened.
We know the value today, which is why we all have at least some good Reformed books on our bookshelves. But why should we read good, Reformed books?
Reading good, Reformed books is vital for the spiritual health, strength, and growth of the individual believer and the church as a whole. Let me put this in terms of the physical. If you are weak and lethargic physically and you go to the doctor, he will ask about your diet. What do you eat? Do you eat enough dairy products, fruit, vegetables, and grains? How much junk food do you eat? Do you have a balanced diet? The same could be asked in regard to your spiritual health—do you have a balanced diet? Your spiritual health is directly connected to your spiritual diet. This is true in regard to the preaching, which is the spiritual food for our souls. But this is true also in regard to reading. Where there is good, Reformed reading, you will find spiritual health. If one doesn’t read much, or if his reading consists of junk-food reading, that man will be spiritually weaker than the man who reads good, Reformed literature. The saying goes, “You are what you eat.” So also you are what you read, and you read what you are. The Reformed Christian will read good, Reformed books for his spiritual health.
Here are four reasons that reading good, Reformed books is vital for the spiritual health, strength, and growth of the believer and the church.
First, reading is vital for our spiritual health because the Christian faith is a faith of the mind. This is what we read in Romans 12:1, 2, which speaks of “the renewing of your mind.” Faith includes knowledge (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 7). It is not all feelings; it is not all emotions. Faith involves knowing God, which is a matter of the mind and heart. We grow in this knowledge by hearing the preaching and by reading the Bible. But our faith also grows when we read good, Reformed books that teach us the truth of God’s word.
John 17:3 teaches us that all believers must know God: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” Does any Christian not need to know God? This passage shows that knowing God is not an option. The knowledge of God is necessary to eternal life. There is nothing more important to know in the entire world than God and His Son, Jesus Christ.
For us to grow in this knowledge of God, we must read good, Reformed books. In our day of false doctrine, worldly philosophies, and pop psychology, we must be grounded in the absolute truth of God’s word. Reading good material is one of the best ways to grow in the knowledge of the truth.
Second, reading contributes to the spiritual growth of the church because we come under the ministries of many pastors and teachers that Jesus Christ has given to the church. Jesus Christ has given to the church the Spirit of Truth, who teaches the church about Christ. Within the church our ascended Lord, Jesus Christ, gives a variety of gifts to men for teaching and exhorting. This is true not only in the present-day church, but also in the church in the past. In Ephesians 4:11, Paul teaches us that our ascended Lord gives pastors and teachers. We have the permanent ministry of pastors and teachers. When we read this passage we probably think only of the present ministry in our local congregations. Paul has something much larger in mind. He is speaking about the gifts of pastors and teachers to the entire church. Through the printed page we can benefit from the gifts Jesus Christ gave to men years ago and from different men in the church today who are not our own pastors. These pastors and teachers can edify and encourage us, although we may be separated from them by a great distance or by time. In a little pamphlet entitled Read Any Good Books?, Sinclair Ferguson wrote:
Think of that when you next take a book into your hands! You can sit under the ministry of Augustine, or Calvin, or John Owen, or Baxter, or Bunyan, or Edwards, or Boston, or Spurgeon! [May I add Abraham Kuyper, Herman Hoeksema, and many others—GJE.] Even those who are dead may yet speak to you and by their exposition of God’s truth help forge you into the kind of man or woman that was produced in earlier days by their living testimony and ministry.¹
Third, reading good books is important for our personal spiritual growth and development. II Peter 3:18 says, “But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” We are commanded to grow in grace and in knowledge. This is a striking command, when you think about it, because nothing else is commanded to grow. We do not command our children to grow. We do not stand in our gardens commanding vegetables to grow. Farmers do not drive through their fields commanding their crops to grow. But God commands us to grow. To grow in grace and in knowledge we need the right spiritual diet in the preaching. This spiritual diet should be supplemented by good reading. Good reading promotes spiritual maturity in our lives. It transforms our minds and lives into the image of Jesus Christ. It brings our thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ. Through good reading we will see how great our God is. We learn about the wonder of His amazing grace and love for us as the Scriptures are explained in these books. This strengthens our faith.
Reading good books helps us to understand ourselves better. Have you had that experience when reading a book or a Standard Bearer article? Good reading can be painful because as the author explains the Scriptures concerning sin, we see the sins of our own hearts and lives. These writings are used by God to expose our sins and our selfishness. These same books, as they teach us about God, remind us to live for the glory of His name. The result is growth.
Good reading fills our minds with thoughts of God and His word. These books set before us His majesty and glory. And this knowledge leads us in our lives. Right doctrine leads to right living. Good books help us grow in all aspects of our lives: in marriage, in the rearing of our children, in the single life. These good books keep us focused on the heavenly, so that we are heavenly minded more and more in our lives. What a great blessing books are for our spiritual growth and maturing.
Fourth, reading good books is vital for the health and growth and preservation of the church. This is true because good books explain the truth of God’s word. This truth is the solid, indestructible foundation of the church. This means the church must know the truth. Therefore, reading is vital for the health of the church as a whole.
Let me pinpoint a few areas especially that magnify the importance of reading. First, it is important that we have officebearers who are readers. In all of their work, the officebearers work with the Scriptures. The deacons bring comforting words from Scripture on their visits. The elders are called to be apt to teach. They teach at family visitation, they teach on their discipline visits, and sometimes they teach the catechism classes. They teach the truth. Their own understanding of that truth will grow not only by reading the Scriptures, but also by reading what other men have written about the Scriptures. This will better equip them for their work. Young men of the church should set aside time to read to prepare themselves to serve Jesus Christ and the church in the special offices, if this is God’s will.
But good reading is not limited to the officebearers. The church is called earnestly to contend for the faith (Jude 3). This is the calling of officebearers and the members of the church. We read how other men contended for the faith against those who taught false doctrines. Reading sharpens our understanding of those errors and how to combat them.
Good reading helps the church’s witness in the world. We learn better how to explain the truth to others. We learn to speak the truth in love, as others have done.
Good books help us to serve and encourage one another with comforting words from Scripture. Good books serve to comfort our and
souls. When we are comforted by what we read, we can use these ideas to comfort others who are hurting in the church. Good reading gives a store of ideas and understanding that we may use in the service of the other members of the church.
May we all, young and old, be encouraged to read. It is vital, for our own personal spiritual health and for the health of our churches, that we read. Although we understand this and agree with this, the practical reality is that for some this is extremely difficult. Some of us are avid readers. Others are not. Some like to read, but we like the exciting, well-written novels. Others maybe read occasionally, but we like the easy-read fluff or junk found in many bookstores today. I encourage you to read good, Reformed books.
I want you to understand that this does not require a high IQ. I don’t want to set the bar too high for you. Some of you may say, “But I read so slowly, and sometimes I have to reread what I just read because I don’t understand what I read.” If you read slowly or you find reading difficult, don’t let that discourage you. Be assured that the more you do it the easier it will become. Sometimes we have all these books and don’t know where to start. So we just don’t start. Others of us start a book, but it sits on the nightstand or coffee table for a week or two and we don’t get back into it. Other men, after working hard all day, fall asleep so quickly when reading a book. This is understandable also. But don’t let these things discourage you or keep you from doing this for your own spiritual benefit.
The first thing to do would be to set aside a time of the week to read in the home. It is important that this be done in the home. Parents should be setting an ex ample to their children that there is a regular time to read good, Reformed literature so that this becomes part of the lives of the children as they get older. In my home growing up, the time of the week devoted to this was Sunday afternoon. We had dinner, we slept for a while (probably too long), then mom and dad read while we prepared for catechism. As we got older, dad would point out articles in the SB or the Beacon Lights and we would read those. This was a time for reading. This is a good place to start. The same could be done on Sunday evenings for a while.
It would be good to set aside another time during the week. For many people a good time to read is before going to bed. Take a half hour or an hour to read. Others maybe have a half hour at their lunch break. Or right after supper, when the children are doing homework and between questions, parents can sit nearby and read. Mothers can read to their children from The Farbers before they go to bed.
The key is scheduling. If you wait for the time to read, you won’t find it. During the time that is scheduled, turn off the TV, stay away from the computer, and devote that time to reading. In these small chunks, you will be surprised at how much you can get done taking one book at a time.
Another time to use for reading books is devotional time. For variety, I have used books for devotional reading. There are many RFPA books suited to this because the authors of these books are explaining the truth of God’s Word. The book Saved by Grace has a valuable study guide that forces you to open the Scriptures. Doctrine According to Godliness has small, succinct sections that are conducive to daily reading. When You Pray could be used profitably to study what God’s word says about prayer. Rev. Hoeksema’s sermons on Romans, Righteous by Faith Alone, could be used. These are just a few suggestions.
What should I read? Where can I find this good Reformed literature? The RFPA has a gold mine of good reading material on a wide variety of subjects. There are different books for all readers. Sinclair Ferguson writes: “Being a good reader does not mean having read many books, but knowing some good books, and having mastered your best and greatest books.”² It is easy to become lovers of books, so that we fill bookshelves with books that we never read. Publishers, even Christian Publishers, know that some people buy books simply because it is the latest book to be published. What is key for us is to master a few and to have a well balanced diet of good, Reformed books.
What is this well-balanced diet? We should read books on doctrine. We should read other books that explain books of the Bible or biblical topics.
It is good and important to read biographies and history. In the biographies we see how Christ has powerfully worked in the lives of others. We see the power of God’s grace working in the lives of sinners. In these books, we see men God has raised up in the history of the church. It is also good to read books on church history to see what great things God has done in the history of the church. We see the heroes of faith, those who have run the race and have now received the prize. Their lives and God’s faithfulness in the history of the church encourage us to run the race and to fight the good fight of faith.
The RFPA has devotional reading. They have excellent books on marriage and family living. They have books for young and old alike. Our reading does not need to be limited to the RFPA books, but this is a great place to start to build our libraries with good, Reformed books.
¹ Sinclair Ferguson, Read Any Good Books?, Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1992, p. 5.
² Ibid, p. 10.