This list is by no means exhaustive and, in fact, is rather limited, but it should serve as an introduction to many of the well-known classics. Several notable works were excluded because they were no longer in print.
Anonymous, The Didache (First century)
This is a preserved oral tradition focusing primarily on how home churches can incorporate gentile converts into the Christian fold. A fascinating look at early Christian life.
Saint Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine (c. 400)
Long considered the classic of all time, many modern readers will find this book difficult reading with scattered wisdom. The genre itself will seem unfamiliar and slightly wordy to many evangelicals.
John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (c. 640)
The classic of eastern Christendom, written to monks, this book calls for a high commitment and the message may seem harsh, but the book is worthy of the attention it has received.
Brother Ugolino, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis (Late thirteenth, early fourteenth century)
Little Flowers is a narrative account of Francis of Assisi and his early followers. While the historicity of many accounts is suspect, the model of devotion and the earnest application of a spirituality emphasizing poverty, simplicity, and prayer is truly inspiring.
Johannes Tauler, Sermons (mid-fourteenth century)
Johannes Tauler, a Dominican monk, was a disciple of Meister Eckhart and a key voice of the influential German mystics. He spent the bulk of his life in the Order of Preachers, and his writings had a significant impact on Martin Luther.
Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing (late fourteenth century)
This book is very mystical, but with real gems sprinkled throughout. Evangelicals might find the full “program” of little interest or benefit, but those who take the time to read it will find considerable wisdom.
Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (late fourteenth century)
One of the distinctives of this book is that it is the first Christian classic, indeed, the first English book, that can be identified with certainty as being written by a woman. As an evangelical, I must confess my own uneasiness with a book based on “divine revelations,” particularly when some of those seem to go against evangelical understandings of Scripture. Accordingly, I read this book like poetry—not to get doctrine, not to take it literally, but to benefit from, and be inspired by, the fine prose and passionate surrender to God that is often a hallmark of feminine spirituality.
Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (c. 1418)
This is probably one of the most popular spiritual classics of all time, and for good reason. À Kempis focused on rigorous spiritual training as a necessary part of Christian living. His work is a good counter to “soft” Christianity.
Lorenzo Scupoli, Spiritual Combat (sixteenth century)
A practical primer on the nature of sin, temptation, and spiritual warfare, this fine book was immediately recognized as a masterpiece of holy wisdom. Though written in the midst of the Counter-Reformation, it was soon adopted by the Orthodox Church as well, where it was published as Unseen Warfare.
Ignatius Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola (1548)
Full of very practical advice for monks, this book also offers many helpful insights for evangelicals.
John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul (c. 1587)
Author of these two mystical classics, John was recognized as a highly gifted spiritual director (he was Teresa of Avila’s director for three years). In these works he provides many helpful insights into the spiritual life, especially the stages that Christians go through. One of my favorite writers, John of the Cross wrote with an unparalleled passion for God.
John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (sixteenth century)
Rewritten and updated throughout his life, Calvin produced one of the premier works on the Christian life. You don’t have to be Reformed in theology to enjoy the spiritual insights and commentary that fill this work of spiritual genius.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle (1588)
This is a relatively short book on prayer, emphasizing spiritual visions leading to spiritual betrothal and marriage.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to a Devout Life (1609) and Spiritual Conferences (post 1610)
Introduction is a unique spiritual book in that Francis wrote for laypeople, not a religious community. His desire was to see ordinary tradesmen learn to grow spiritually, recognizing that they needed different advice than members of a religious community. This book is very practical with several helpful meditations. Spiritual Conferences is a series of talks given to the Visitation nuns, so you can compare how Francis speaks to religious people. The modern version is entitled The Art of Loving God.
John Owen, Sin and Temptation (1656-1667)
This is actually a compilation of three of John Owen’s treatises that have now been collected by Dr. James Houston. Owen’s teaching on sin and temptation should be considered must reading for every Christian.
Ralph Venning, The Sinfulness of Sin (1669)
Classic Puritan work, written in a classically Puritan style, developing an applicable and insightful theology of what sin is, why it is so serious, and how it affects the Christian life. Originally published as Sin, the Plague of Plagues.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1670)
Pascal was a brilliant man in both science and devotion; the Pensées comprise an unfinished collection of his random thoughts. It’s haphazard reading, but there are some real gems for those who wade through the collection.
Jeanne Guyon, Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ (late seventeenth century)
Originally published as A Short and Easy Method of Prayer, Experiencing the Depths explores a life of unceasing prayer, meditation, and contemplation, emphasizing abandonment and union with God.
Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (1692)
Brother Lawrence was a very humble man with an extraordinary sense of living in God’s presence. This little book includes several letters and conversations Brother Lawrence had with others who wanted to learn from his experience.
Francois Fénelon, Christian Perfection (1704-1717)
Fénelon wrote as a wealthy mystic living in the upper strata of French society. The temptations faced by the elite several hundred years ago are remarkably similar to those faced by middle-class evangelicals today. This is one of the most helpful spiritual classics I’ve read; it’s one you may want to read over and over.
William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728)
This is a rigorous treatise written by a devout Puritan. It is very helpful and challenging but could be dangerous for a person who isn’t rooted in grace because it might lead some into an unhealthy legalism.
Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746)
Discusses those who are “truly pious” by examining and discussing various religious affections. Edwards is another of my favorites.
John Wesley, Wesley’s Journal (eighteenth century)
An astonishing, convicting, inspiring and compelling day-to-day account of a man on fire for God, earnestly seeking to build God’s Kingdom, and inviting us to share the journey.
Henry Drummond, The Greatest Thing in the World (late nineteenth century)
Drummond was one of D.L. Moody’s favorite “counselors” for those who responded to the famous evangelist’s appeals. He received considerable fame in his own right for his work applying the theory of evolution and natural laws to the spiritual life. This work consists of a series of addresses given by Drummond between 1876 and 1881, originally published under the title The Ideal Life.
Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (twentieth century)
While it may be premature to call a book less than a hundred years old a classic, this treasured devotional is surely deserving of the title. Chambers was renowned for his work with the YMCA, and his daily thoughts breathe an astonishing depth of insight and devotion.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1937)
A ringing indictment of “cheap grace” and a call to experiential faith. Bonhoeffer warned that cheap grace was ruining more Christians than legalism, and sought to call the church toward the costly grace of discipleship.
Lewis, C.S., The Screwtape Letters (1944)
Among the most creative of all classics, this book brilliantly exposes the nature of temptation, spiritual warfare, human nature, and a life of faith.
A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (1948)
A classic call to an experiential, intentional, and transformational faith. I’m holding the line at books written prior to 1950 to deserve the title “classic,” but I believe it likely that Tozer will still be read 100 years from now.
Ordering the Classics
I have found very few Christian bookstores that actually stock these works. However, armed with the information contained in this list, any bookstore (including a “secular” one) should be able to order the classics of your choice. The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. has a fairly extensive collection for a bookstore its size.
Around the country, if your favorite Christian bookstore doesn’t carry a desired title, look for: Roman Catholic bookstores, which are more likely to carry many of these titles; University bookstores with Catholic affiliations (Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., for instance, carries many titles); monasteries, which sometimes run small bookstores that carry many of the classics; Christian Book Distributors, a discount buying club, also carries many of these titles (particularly the Paulist Press editions) at reduced prices.
If you don’t wish to purchase the book, inter-library loans are helpful. I’ve found few public libraries that actually carry more than one or two of these titles, but through inter-library loan, you can obtain most of them.