I am listing these, not in order of most impacting or important, but chronologically. To say which was most important would be far too difficult, they have all been invaluable to me.
1.) THE Shocking Youth Message (Paul Washer)
I know several Calvinists who became Calvinists directly from this sermon preached by Paul Washer to 5,000 youth back in 2002. If sermons can be considered classics, this one will be when we look back 15 years from now and see young Calvinists teeming across America proclaiming the true gospel and denouncing the Charles Finney, Billy Graham decisionism that has plagued this nation for nearly two centuries. If you come out of the non-Calvinist, Baptist youth group setting like I did, and if you went to Christian school, this message will especially resonate with you. I had never heard preaching like this when I first heard it. I didn't know there was such a thing. It is an hour long, and I listened to it three times, back to back, in my dorm room at UNC- Pembroke. First by myself, then I called my friend and made him watch it with me, then I called my Dad and had him watch it with me and discussed it with him for probably another hour afterward. It was close to 4 in the morning by the time I had finished and I had class in four hours. As a result of this sermon and the friend who recommended it to me and introduced me to the reformed faith, I dropped out of college to just study the Bible and theology for about eight months, and eventually found my way to Reformation Bible college as a direct result of this. This is where I first received incredible gospel clarity and realized the importance of precision when it came to presenting the good news, and how salvation wasn't simply about being saved from hell, but slavery to sin and our own wicked desires itself.
2.)Was Anyone Saved at the Cross? (Article by James White)
3.) The Gospel According to Jesus (Book by John Macarthur)
This was the first book on the gospel that I had read, my pastor recommended it to me and lent me his copy. It again addressed the issue of "cheap grace" and easy believism with full-fledged, unabashed Lordship salvation, using that term in the best possible sense (is there really any other salvation?!). I probably do not agree with every single detail in the book, but the vast majority of it I would still sign off on today and heartily recommend to anyone who wants to grasp the gospel that Jesus Christ and the disciples proclaimed, and that we are called to proclaim as well. The amount of Scripture Macarthur uses to support his arguments is incredible and leaves you with no doubt that what he is saying is simply what Scripture says on every page of the gospels and New Testament. His book Slave is likewise recommended heartily. Read this one first, then Slave, and you will be filled with admiration for the Father, Son, and Spirit who has saved you. But have your Bible with you in hand so you can look up all the passages he refers to to see how the true gospel message is weaved consistently throughout Scripture and isn't at all what many pastors who have you raise a hand, make a decision/commitment for Christ, say a prayer for salvation, and walk down to the altar to confirm your good decision/commitment make it out to be.
4.) Redemption: Accomplished and Applied (Book by John Murray)
What can I say? This is the definitive classic on the work of Christ, in His active and passive obedience, His life and death for us. Did you even know that Christ had to live a sinless life in order for us to gain entrance into heaven and save us from all sin? I don't know if I did until I read this book. I knew He would fail to qualify to take our sins on the cross if He sinned, but I do not think I realized that He had to live righteous, to come under His own law and fulfill it perfectly as a man, and that this righteousness had to be imputed to me (credited to me). Why? Because God did not make us to merely not disobey, but to actually do things that He commanded. To do nothing, to be a Buddhist and achieve nirvana, having no desires one way or another (if such a thing were actually possible, which it isn't) would be to disobey God, because God commands you to desire Him and love and live for Him with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. So this book helped me understand this as well as what He did for us on the cross itself, and that on the cross my sin was imputed to Christ, and at the moment of regeneration, Christ's righteousness is imputed to me. This double transaction must occur in order for me to be saved and enter heaven. I am clothed in Christ's righteousness, and it is based on His sinless works, not mine, that I come before the Father as a Son, being viewed as obedient. Anyways, this book isn't a light read, but it's necessary. If you want to understand the gospel and be amazed by God's grace, read this. If you need to warm up maybe read Michael Horton's Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, but I read this first and got through it without any real snags, though I will say the first few chapters seemed more difficult for me than the rest of the book.
5.) Desiring God, and Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Books by John Piper)
Okay, so chronologically the ideas behind these books would fall in order next, although I didn't technically read Think until 2010 and Desiring God until this past year for Bible college. I can't exactly recreate all the articles and sermons I watched and read in one neat little point, so the best I can do is recommend these books, which amounts to a neat compilation of the articles and sermons of Piper I began cobbling together after first becoming a Calvinist in late '08 and early '09. Piper has profoundly shaped my big picture ideas of why God created man and what I as a Christian am supposed to do to glorify God, and how I am supposed to do it. The answer is succinctly stated in one of Piper's many handy sayings, "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him," as well as his twist on the answer to the first question of the Westminster Confession of Faith: "Man's chief end is to glorify God BY enjoying Him forever." The WCF says and, not by. That makes all the difference. The more joy we get from glorifying God the more we glorify God, because it is the enjoyment of God that brings Him glory. It is impossible to love someone without delighting in and desiring that person. When you love someone, they make you happy, they are on your mind, and you want to get to know what they are like intimately, in the nitty gritty details, so you can love every particular nuance about them, and the more you know of them, the more your love and delight in them grows. That's how we get enjoyment from the ones we love, and the same applies to God. That is precisely what God means when He commands us to glorify Him- to know Him deeply and love what we learn of Him, and the reason we love what we learn of Him is because we rightly understand it, we grasp it theologically speaking and see the beauty of it, the logic of it, and how it truly is the best thing for us (a point I will further develop and discuss in number 7) and thus incredibly desirable. We glorify Him by knowing Him, and loving what we discover of Him. That's why theology can never be an abstraction, pure head knowledge for me, Lord willing. Grasping theology, which is to say, understanding who God is, has to go from the head to the heart then out into my life because that's it's purpose. I want to know God more so I can love and enjoy Him more, so I can live for Him more with greater joy and understanding. That is the Christian life. No decision has to be made between finding pleasure and being obedient to God- they are one and the same thing! Thus the subtitle for Desiring God is "Meditations from a Christian Hedonist." The wedding of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, of right thinking leading to right feelings, of true knowledge leading to true love, is the invaluable contribution of Piper's Desiring God, as well as his invaluable book Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God which connects the dots between thinking deeply and feeling strongly.
6.) Classical Apologetics and Defending the Faith (Book by R.C. Sproul and John Gerstner, and Teaching Series by R.C. Sproul)
Here is a link to the teaching series. You can listen to the first two messages online for free (it's 32 sessions long, each session running at 23 minutes).
When I was working at Cracker Barrel, sometime in late 2009 or early 2010 a co-worker asked me about the the existence of God and His goodness. The man claimed to believe in God and was briefly at a baptist seminary to become a pastor, but had fallen away from the faith and now questioned God's goodness. He said this resulted from joining the military and seeing so much suffering in the world. How could God allow this? Was there even enough evidence for God? The question that he posed to me that I couldn't sufficiently answer, much to my shame and frustration, was "Who made God?" I never had thought of that, because I knew that God by definition was unmade, but to my co-worker for something not to be made was an impossibility. I didn't know how to counter that, so I knew I had to learn how to defend the faith better and read some material on apologetics. I started with reading Edgar Andrews book Who Made God, which is very helpful and I do recommend, but what impacted me and helped me even more was Sproul's teaching series and book on apologetics. It takes the classical arguments for God's existence rather than the presuppositional approach, which is the majority report for those of the reformed faith. So, I stray from reformed orthodoxy here (at least, in the last 50 or so years since Van Til). God is the uncaused caused, the only being that has the power of being within Himself. He is pure being, true being. Everything else is derived from Him. That was the answer I needed to give to my co-worker, and I got it from Sproul. Self-creation is impossible, because that requires existing before you exist. You have to be in order to create yourself, but creation by definition is bringing something into being. So this is a contradiction, an impossibility. And if in the very beginning there was nothing, there would still be nothing. Therefore, there had to be an eternal being, and that self existent, eternal being is God. The book is very difficult to follow probably because it uses tight logic and sharp thinking, something we Americans aren't so good at and used to anymore, so I recommend watching the teaching series first. Yes its over 15 hours long, but it is worth it and will bolster your faith in the existence of God and show you the folly of atheism and evolutionary thought. Not to mention it will teach you how to defend the faith for yourself against those who oppose you, which is something most Christians cannot do and yet Scripture commands we be able to do it- for His glory and our joy.
7.) Is God/Jesus an Ego-Maniac? (Message by John Piper)
This is an essential lynchpin once you embrace the six preceding points and Reformed theology. Piper actually delivered this message at the 2010 Passion conference. I went to the 2011 and 2012 Passion conferences, and stumbled across this message sometime in late 2010. The question is simple. If God created all things to give Him glory, and if God keeps demanding that everyone praise Him and worship Him and give Him credit for every good thing that happens, isn't God a needy, nagging egomaniac? The answer? God is an egomaniac, because God IS worthy of all the glory, honor, and praise! The great contribution of this message? Worshiping God is God demanding us to find our greatest amount of joy in Him. It's Piper's pithy saying once more, "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him." To praise Him is the capstone, the consummation of our joy that we have in God. When God commands we praise Him, He is commanding that we have our joy in Him to the uttermost. He designed us to experience the height of our delight in Him by praising and worshiping Him, by giving Him all the glory. Piper also rightly points out that to be made to live for ourselves would be the true crime, because God is infinitely more worth living for and infinitely more delightful to live for than we are! Thus, in God creating us to be most satisfied in living for Him rather than ourselves, He is allowing us to have much more delight and joy. Infinite enjoyment in fact, something we could not have if we were made to be most happy in living for ourselves. Of course, living for yourself is pretty much the root of all sin, and the lie that we have believed in is that sin is more satisfying than living for God. So this glues together the six preceding points and really clinches it for me. God is an ego-maniac, and that is a wonderful thing!
8.) Plowing in Hope: Toward a Biblical Theology of Culture (Book by David Bruce Hegeman)
And lastly (at this point in my life) this book. Perhaps this is an odd one to post. I read it for Sproul Jr.'s class last semester at Bible college, and it has convinced me that what I need to be doing is writing works of fiction for God's glory as a contribution to culture. This book gave me peace that writing fiction was a worthy calling and very, very needed from a Christian perspective and worldview today. And that goes for all the arts- music, painting, poetry, dance, theatre, movies, sports, video games, you name it. All that can and should be used to promote the glory of God, and there is a very specific way to do that. This book showed me how in the OT God inspired certain men to build the temple and tabernacle with literally supernatural skill. Meaning, he empowered them to construct His temple with much skill and craftsmanship. So God definitely values quality and style, not merely the truth of the content. God is God of the true and the good, most people recognize that, but also the beautiful. Scripture says to worship God in the beauty of His holiness. The only way I can see that being done and expressed is through culture. Christians should be high quality culture makers, precisely because high quality culture done for His glory produces great enjoyment in displaying Him and can illustrate His worthiness and attributes and the gospel message in a beautiful, poignant manner that a simple sermon cannot do. This is one of the main places that I want to pitch my tents, this is a hill I want to die on- that God is glorified through culture only when content and quality collide in beautiful harmony. The message and the skillful use of the medium must both be done with excellency, else it would be better not to engage in the arts and culture at all. Christians have failed to grasp this, thinking the message is all that matters. That is not so. Even preachers have classes on homiletics, on how to effectively and skillfully deliver their message. Sproul is an effective communicator, and because of that he gets the point across, the theology across, the reality and precision of what is true about God across, much better, much more effectively. The opening of his book The Holiness of God is a wonderful demonstration of this. It is written almost like a story, because it is a story in fact. Jesus spoke in parables, in fictional stories, to illustrate truth about Himself. A third of the Bible is written in poetry. Need I say more? And don't be stupid, divinely inspired poetry is very, very high quality. It isn't done sloppily. The same Holy Spirit that inspired the builders to build the tabernacle skillful and with elaborate, splendid decor is the same Holy Spirit that inspired every line of poetry found throughout Scripture. High quality artistry for God's glory matters, because it magnifies and complements the message being delivered. And that message is nothing other than God Himself. Doesn't He deserve the best music, the most inspired lines of poetry, the most beautiful paintings and sculptures, the most exquisite dancing, the highest quality stories written to glorify Him, who He is and what He has done? Of course the answer is yes. Now get to it. Labor in the craft God has gifted you with, for His glory and your enjoyment. And see? You do not have to feel guilty about it anymore, because you now see that laboring to get better at writing or painting or sports in and of itself depicts our devotion to God and our enjoyment of Him, when we do it with this correct understanding and for His glory.