On chilly winter nights we enjoy drinking a hot drink in a comfy chair in front of a fire. This kind of ideal setting becomes even more enjoyable if we can open a great book on church history. Imagine reading Five English Reformers by J. C. Ryle with pecans roasting on an open fire. This book records the martyrdoms of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. As they were preparing to be burned alive, Latimer says to Ridley, “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” Examples of courageous Christians and their heart stirring words fill the history of the church. Modern believers should learn from these great leaders of the past to find encouragement and direction for the present.
Sola Scriptura and Church History
Sola Scriptura means “only Scripture.” We use this phrase to explain that only God’s Word is the sufficient and final authority for the faith and practice of the church. This stands true because of the nature of God’s Word—it comes from God and is therefore inerrant and infallible. We hold firmly to these convictions as we approach the study of church history. We recognize church history doesn’t have the same nature as Scripture—it’s fallible. When we read church history we’re not hearing from God, we’re simply learning from the experiences and teachings of faithful men and women (and this can be very helpful). We don’t sacrifice Sola Scriptura when we utilize church history. Spurgeon offers a good perspective on teachers and theologians throughout church history. He says,
I beg of you to search the Bible for yourselves. To the law and to the testimony; if I speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in me. I am willing to come to that test. Have nothing to do with me where I have nothing to do with Christ. Where I separate from the truth, cast my words away. But if what I say be God’s teaching, I charge you, by him that sent me, give these things your thoughts, and turn unto the Lord with all your hearts.1From the sermon, “Sovereign Grace and Man’s Responsibility.”
The meaning of Scripture never changes—Romans 1:16–17 meant the same thing in the third century as it did during the Reformation. Its meaning hasn’t changed for today. By examining church history, we see how other faithful Christians understood and taught God’s Word. We find value in studying theologians of the past so long as they help us understand and apply God’s Word. The history of the church serves as a useful tool to help us in a myriad of ways. This blog post attempts to show some of the ways church history helps us today.
Church History Helps us Endure the Perils of the World
Facing the challenges of the world can be daunting and discouraging. God promises faithful Christians will face persecution (2 Tim 3:12). Jesus warns that the world will hate us (Matt 10:22; John 15:19). Christian history provides examples of other Christians who endured perilous times. One biographer of Calvin says, “He was not unfamiliar with the sound of mobs outside his house threatening to throw him in the river and firing their muskets”2Quoted in Parker, T. H. L. Portrait of Calvin. Minneapolis: Desiring God, first published 1954, 10. On his deathbed Calvin tells the gathered pastors, “I have lived here amid continual bickerings. I have been from derision saluted of an evening before my door with forty or fifty shots of an arquebus [a large gun]”3Dillenberger, John, ed. John Calvin: Selections from His Writings. Scholars Press, 1975, 42.
I’ve had difficult days as a pastor, but never people shooting at my house with guns. Reading about the struggles of the Reformers, the martyrs at Smithfield, and the great ejection of the Puritans, gives us a needed perspective for our ministries. Most of us don’t face the dire challenges endured by these faithful heroes in church history. Examining how other believers persevered through severe trials helps us endure our challenges.
Church History Helps us Endure Pain within the Church
Many of the churches we read about in the New Testament dealt with internal strife. We also often face strife and disagreements with other Christians in the church; and the example of Jonathan Edwards can help us. Though he was a leader in the Great Awakening, Edwards struggled through many challenges from his church in Northampton. Concerning all the controversy surrounding him, Edwards said, “It seems I am born to be a man of strife.”4Marsen George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, 349. Edwards was eventually put on trial by his congregation. David Hall, one of the witnesses of the trial, describes Edward’s exemplary Christian demeanor. He writes, “I never saw the least symptoms of displeasure in his countenance the whole week, but he appeared like a man of God, whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies, and whose treasure was not only a future but a present good, overbalancing all imaginable ills of life, even to the astonishment of many, who could not be at rest without his dismission.”5Ibid., 361 One biographer summarizes these events by writing, “In Northampton much that Edwards had built up in the past fifteen years came crashing down in one small-town squabble.”6Ibid., 292 This would ultimately lead to Edwards being voted out as pastor by an overwhelming majority of his congregation (only 23 of the 230 members voted for Edwards to continue as their pastor). As we endure disagreements and disunity in our churches we can be encouraged by the demeanor of Jonathan Edwards.
Church History Helps us Engage Perplexing Theological Issues
The Second London Confession of 1689 states, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.”7Chapter 1, Section 7 Understanding some Biblical doctrines can be difficult. Furthermore, explaining/teaching these theological points in such a way that people understand presents a major challenge. But we’re not the first people to read the Bible or struggle with some of its complicated doctrines. Church history helps us understand knotty theological issues and express them clearly to others. The great preachers and theologians of previous generations provide a treasury, library, and arsenal of sound interpretation and lucid explanation.
The sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man garners a lot of attention from serious students of the Bible. Spurgeon preached several sermons on this specific issue. In his sermon, “Sovereign Grace and Man’s Responsibility” the Prince of Preachers clearly explains and applies both realities. He offers great examples from Scripture that help clarify this doctrine. Related to this, his sermons “Free Will a Slave” and “God’s Will and Man’s Will” address issues concerning free will. These provide biblical correction and powerful argumentation against common misunderstandings of free will. For a winsome and compelling example of teaching these doctrines, check out Spurgeon’s sermon, “Robinson Crusoe’s Text.” When you meet someone wrestling with the idea of God’s sovereignty, read through one of these sermons with them.
When studying the sovereignty of God, people often ponder how evangelism squares with this doctrine. For this question, refer people to Spurgeon’s book, The Soul Winner. Spurgeon provides a helpful example of pleading for souls in preaching while heartily trusting in the sovereignty of God for salvation.
Many of the errors Spurgeon addresses in these sermons continue to thrive in today’s church. While modern teachers repackage old errors, Spurgeon can help us provide a tested, helpful, and articulate remedy. Spurgeon proves especially helpful in addressing these subjects with Baptists. He was a Baptist preacher and author who remains highly regarded by many who emphasize free will and reject the doctrines of grace (which Spurgeon loved).
Conclusion and Challenges
Sir Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Church history provides modern Christians with this kind of perspective. We can stand on the shoulders of giants as we develop our understanding of Scripture and seek to teach and apply it. We should look to the example and words of those who have come before for encouragement and help in following Christ today.
A couple of church history challenges for the New Year:
- Buy your preaching pastor a copy of the two-volume biography on D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones by Iain Murray. Tell him it’s essential reading.
- Find another Christian in your church and read together The Daring Mission of William Tyndale by Steven J. Lawson.
|From the sermon, “Sovereign Grace and Man’s Responsibility.”
|Quoted in Parker, T. H. L. Portrait of Calvin. Minneapolis: Desiring God, first published 1954, 10.
|Dillenberger, John, ed. John Calvin: Selections from His Writings. Scholars Press, 1975, 42.
|Marsen George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, 349.
|Chapter 1, Section 7