In a previous post, I recommended biographies on the five greatest Christian men in history. Biographies are great, but we should also read the works of these men. So here I would like to recommend the greatest individual work that each of these men produced.
These men have other great works—Augustine's City of God, Luther's treatises, Calvin's commentaries and sermons, Dabney's Systematic Theology, and Machen's The Origin of Paul's Religion. However, most of these works serve best as resources (sermons, treatises, systematic theology). Or in the case of City of God, it is just too long (around 1,000 pages) and difficult (many references to the classics) for some people to read.
Thus three of the following books are relatively short. The first exception to this is Calvin's Institutes. However, even though it is long, it is not a hard read—and it is just too good to leave out! Calvin's Institutes is worth reading over the course of time, even if it takes a while. The other exception to keeping these books shorter is Dabney's Discussions, which is a five-volume set. However, since it is a collection of essays, one need not read all of them to benefit. And again, though Dabney has other works, his Discussions are just too good to leave out. I have selected the most available volume that also contains his most relevant essays.
These works should be on the shelf of every serious student of theology and church history. In other words, these works should be on the shelf of every serious Christian.
Five Great Works
1. Confessions by Augustine. Augustine is unique in that he has two works considered absolute classics, the Confessions and City of God. But if I have to choose one to recommend, it is easily Augustine's Confessions. The work is not only far shorter, but it is also more accessible to the modern reader. City of God has so many references to Roman classics that it can be a challenging read for those not trained in them. The Confessions can still be hard to read at times because Augustine is a deep thinker, but it is worth it. This book is actually an autobiographical prayer to God. Simply put, it is a unique work written by the greatest mind of the first millennium of the church.
2. The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther. This is Martin Luther's most famous work. It is his diatribe against Erasmus, the talented Roman Catholic priest and humanist scholar. Erasmus wrote a work against Luther, On Free Will, that defended a semi-Pelagian view of human free will. Luther would have none of it. So he wrote an entire book responding to Erasmus, demonstrating from Scripture that man's will is in bondage to sin until God in His sovereign grace sets him free and grants him faith in Christ. This book is great both for its theology but also its fiery rhetoric. It is classic Luther.
3. The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin. This is Calvin's most famous work. Though his commentaries and sermons should regularly be consulted, the Institutes is Calvin's magnum opus. It started as a small book intended for instruction in the Christian faith, and Calvin expanded it over time. It is amazingly readable for the modern reader. Though Calvin is often portrayed as being harsh, the reader of the Institutes will see Calvin's intellectual rigor combined with a pastoral tone. This two-volume translation by Battles is considered the best, though the one-volume translation by Beveridge is cheaper. Tony Lane also has an abridged version with selected readings, which may be good for someone who does not want to dive into the full work just yet.
4. Discussions by Robert Lewis Dabney. These essays were compiled near the end of Dabney's life by his friend C.R. Vaughn. Dabney was a professor of theology, but he wrote on a wide variety of subjects. His knowledge and grasp of so many subjects is simply astounding, and it shows that Dabney possessed one of the great minds in the history of the church. He had a deep understanding of the cultural and political trends of his day, and many of his predictions have come to fruition. Dabney's full five-volume set by Sprinkle publications is worth reading, but it is pricey. This third volume by Banner of Truth combines his most relevant essays from volumes three and four, including works on education, civic ethics, and Roman Catholicism.
5. Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen. This book was widely revered in the 20th century by Christians and skeptics alike. Machen defended orthodox Christianity against theological liberalism in what was known as the modernist controversy. These liberals/modernists stripped Christianity of the miraculous, denying doctrines like the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, and the resurrection from the dead. Machen's contention is that such denials do not amount to Christianity. Call it what you will, but liberal Christianity is another religion. It is neither the Christianity of history nor that found in the Bible. Considering that theological liberalism is still around today, Machen's short work is well worth your time.