The Importance of Devotional Reading for Pastors and Theologians

As a pastor, I make theological reading a priority. The truth contained in these books informs my teaching and writing, undergirds and permeates my counseling, and enables me to discern harmful doctrinal trends that may be influencing my people and the greater church.

Earlier this year I read The Holy Trinity by Robert Letham and Inerrancy and the Gospels Vern Poythress. These were followed by Ladd’s The Blessed HopeBiblical Hermeneutics: Five Viewsedited by Stanley Porter and Beth Stovall and The Pastor-Theologian by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson. I am currently reading  Sam Storms’ treatise on amillennialism, Kingdom Come and just finished Steve Wellum’s excellent book in the Five Solas series, Christ Alone. I also recently finished Barrett’s book in the same series, God’s Word Alone as well as Trueman’s Grace Alone. Peter Gentry’s little book Reading and Understanding the Biblical Prophets was helpful, and I am looking forward to tackling Matt Waymeyer’s response to amillennialism, Amillennialism and the Age to Come in the near future (no pun intended).

Mingled with these books are works on marriage, parenting, discipleship, pastoral ministry, counseling, evangelism, and topics related specifically to what I am teaching or writing. There is often overlap in this last area. For example, I am reading the Five Solas series in order to prepare for a multi-week series on the Reformation in our young adult ministry. Letham’s book helped me write an article on the Trinity while navigating recent evangelical discussions on the nature of the Father and Son’s eternal relationship.

To be sure, all of the books of heavier doctrinal content feed my soul and strengthen my convictions. Just a few evenings ago I found myself worshipping Christ anew as I beheld his deity with even greater clarity due to Wellum’s careful biblical investigation and theological articulation. What a blessing!

But I believe we must include devotional reading in our weekly schedule and not merely books of a doctrinal or practical nature. By devotional reading I certainly don’t mean to drive a wedge between theological writing and devotional writing as though each must be, by definition, void of the other. When I refer to devotional books, I mean works written by authors who are especially skilled at bringing Scripture to bear on our affections and motives, who are able to unearth sin and wrong thinking, and who, by their depictions of Christ and the gospel, are able to simultaneously humble and rejoice the heart.

To be specific, I am thinking of books like Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections, J. C. Ryle’s Holiness, Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, John Owen’s Temptation and Sin, Richard Sibbes’ The Bruised Reed, Charles Bridges The Christian Ministry, and Andrew Bonar’s The Everlasting RighteousnessI also find a few modern writers to be helpful. Russell Moore’s Tempted and Tried was a particularly powerful book. Tony Reinke’s Newton on the Christian Life still remains one of the best book’s I’ve ever read (which is mostly material from John Newton, an old writer), and I am usually helped by whatever John Piper writes.

But while we shouldn’t separate theological and devotional reading—the best devotional writing is infused with good theology, and the best theological texts will be flavored throughout with doxology—there is something life-giving about these more devotional books that pastors and theologians cannot miss. These kinds of books help us to (1) maintain a devotional frame throughout our other studies; (2) pursue the right spiritual priorities; and; (3) minister well to others.

If we are reading only doctrinal works, we may begin to mistake the accumulation of theological knowledge for genuine spiritual growth and start approaching our studies as a mostly academic exercise. But by introducing books like Ryle’s Holiness into our weekly reading, we are constantly reminded of what is at stake in our theological studies, and we will begin to approach our labors with greater reverence and worship. This careful attention to our personal lives and heart affections will enable us to better minister to others through our teaching, writing, and counseling ministries. We will become better acquainted with our own hearts and with the hearts of others, and we will see Scripture, not as a mere primary source for our theological formulations, but as words of life to be embraced, believed, and enjoyed.

Photo by Amos Bar-Zeev on Unsplash

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