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Introduction to Learning from the Giants of the Past

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For many years, men have gone to great hardship and effort to mine for gold. They have endured freezing temperatures in the Klondike, they have tunneled into the hard Rocky Mountains in spots that are difficult just to hike to, let alone to carry out gold ore. Men would shoot other men in arguments over a claim. They did it all to get the gold.

I’d like to tell you about some rich sources of spiritual gold that are there for the mining. These are found in reading the biographies of the great saints from the past. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who has been called the greatest preacher in the English language in the 20th century (no small compliment!) said, “There is nothing more important for preaching than the reading of Church history and biographies” (Preaching & Preachers [Zondervan], p. 317).

The Bible as Biography

There is biblical warrant for studying the lives of great men and women of faith. The rabbis said that God made people because He loves stories. Much of the Bible—far more than the didactic portions—consists of stories about people. God knows that we learn by example. Seeing how different people succeeded or failed in real life situations helps translate faith into practical insights to guide us through life’s many difficult situations and decisions. Bible stories show us that God saw a need to wrap theology in human flesh—the incarnation of Jesus Christ being the supreme example.

Lessons from Reading Christian Biographies

I began reading Christian biographies in the summer of 1970 when I read George Muller of Bristol by A. T. Pierson. God used that book to show me that I could trust Him and that He is a God who answers prayer. Since then I have read dozens of biographies or books on church history. It is rare that I come away empty. Sometimes the lessons are mistakes to avoid, but that also can be profitable! Here are four ways that reading Christian biographies has helped me:

1. Heritage: Christian biographies give me a sense of my place in the Christian drama.

Reading Christian biographies has helped me appreciate my spiritual roots. It helps me put our times and my own circumstances in perspective. It helps me realize that I’m carrying the torch hand­ed to me by those who went before, and that I must hand it off intact to those who come after me.

There are very few new doctrinal errors or church problems that have not already come around in the past 2,000 years of church history. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are really just recycled Arians. The current non-lordship salvation controversy is a rerun of an error from the 18th century, promoted by a man named Robert Sandeman (1718-1771). If you’re having struggles in your church and the members are threatening to fire you, you can read how Jonathan Edwards’ church fired him, even after he had led them through the revivals of the First Great Awakening. You can read of how men of God endured persecution, hardship, and sometimes martyrdom, yet remained faithful to the Lord. Knowing the price that some of these men paid to hand off the message to us will give you strength to endure when you feel like quitting.

2. Modeling: Christian biographies give me great examples to follow.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer was asked what is the best way to raise children. He wisely replied, “There are three ways: 1) By example, 2) By example, and 3) By example.” I disagree with the man’s theology, but he was right on that point. God has made us so that from our earliest days, we learn from models. We pick up attitudes and actions by watching how our parents and others around us live.

The same is true spiritually. We learn by watching models who “flesh out” Christian principles in their daily lives. When I was younger in the faith, I wanted someone to disciple me. I tried several different men, but it never seemed to work out. But in a very real sense, I have been discipled by some of the greatest Christians who have ever lived, by reading their biographies and their sermons and books. Here are some who have helped me most:

Five of my most influential models have been John Calvin (16th century), John Bunyan (17th century), Jonathan Edwards (18th century), Charles Spurgeon (19th century), and Martyn Lloyd-Jones (20th century). All were pastors and strong preachers. Their ministries affirm the power of biblical preaching backed by godly lives.

I have always admired men who can combine solid biblical scholarship with vibrant, genuine love for God. Through their deep study of the Scriptures, these men knew God and they knew the hearts of people. They were able to bridge that gap with powerful preaching. Each man had a passion to see lost people coming to faith in the Savior.

They each faced intense pressure to compromise the gospel or their doctrine. But they held the line. Each was involved in painful controversies that took an emotional toll on them. Calvin was a frail, painfully shy, scholarly man, but he was thrust into the limelight and constantly under opposition. Bunyan spent years in jail because he dared to preach without a license. Edwards was removed from his pastorate and he and his family (ten children at that time) nearly starved, because he came to hold that only saved people in the church could partake of communion. Many attribute Spurgeon’s final decline in health to his grief over the “Downgrade Controversy.” Lloyd-Jones paid a price by standing alone against the encroachment of liberalism into British evangelicalism.

Reading the lives of these men has motivated me to deepen my theological roots. They have shown me the shallowness of my love for Christ and the need to walk in daily reality with Him. I’ve been strengthened to take a stand on the theological issues that really matter, rather than go with the tolerant mood of our day. I have worked harder to base my preaching on solid biblical scholarship, but to communicate it in a way that connects with the average person. They’ve shown me that in whatever century, the simple gospel is still the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes.

Besides these great men, I have many more models. Francis Schaeffer has reinforced the need to blend compassion with truth, scholarship with evangelism, and orthodoxy with spiritual reality. His model of strong family life in the midst of fishbowl living has been of great help.

George Muller impresses me with the practicality of a life of prayer and faith. Hudson Taylor, Jim Elliot, and Bruce Olson all give me examples of men who bucked the Christian establishment and endured hardships to further God’s work in difficult areas.

Adoniram Judson has shown me a model of endurance and faithfulness through horrible trials and discouragements. Judson served 33 years without a furlough, often working 12-hour days. He endured a horrible two-year imprisonment and torture, after which he lost his wife and baby daughter and went through a time of severe depression. He later lost another wife. It took him 14 years of disciplined translation work after his first wife’s death (not counting the many years with her at his side) before he sent the completed Burmese Bible to the printer. Thinking about Judson helps me put in perspective the criticism that I endure in pastoral ministry. If Judson endured all that, I can survive a rough elder board meeting! Maybe I don’t have it so bad!

3. Spirituality and Doctrine: Christian biographies give me theological perspective and balance.

We’re all limited by the fact that we are creatures of our time and culture. We tend to view issues from the perspective that we almost unconsciously absorb from the theological and social climate in which we live. It’s as if we’re born in the forest and start walking, not quite sure where all the various trails come from or lead to. Reading Christian biographies is like climbing a high mountain so that you can get a feel for the lay of the land.

Reading biographies of men who grew up in different times under different cultural influences, broadens me. To read of Anglicans, Lutherans, Plymouth Brethren, Baptists, Presbyterians, and others who loved and served the same Lord widens my understanding of what God is doing. It makes me less sectarian, less consumed with minor issues and narrow viewpoints.

It also gives me perspective on how the Christianity of our day has drifted. As I read their lives and their sermons, I realize how shallow our ministries and churches are today. These men knew God in a way that I don’t! As I see the trials that they endured, I realize how emotionally fragile today’s pastors have become. Their trials drove them to rely on Christ in ways that we do not have to in our day. Instead of going deeper with Christ, we go to Christian psychologists for insights on coping with stress and burnout!

But these men worked circles around us. Their output is staggering! Many of them labored long hours in spite of illnesses that would cause us to get out of the ministry. Calvin, who was often ill, would lie in bed and dictate his commentaries in Latin to secretaries on one side of the bed. While they caught up, he would turn to the other side of the bed and dictate in French. Then he would pick up right where he left off with the Latin dictation!

So reading Christian biographies has taken me up the mountain for a clearer view of my own and others’ theological perspectives. This has helped me sort through which issues are crucial and worth fighting for. It has shown me areas where I need to grow more in the Lord. If I need a good dose of humility, I just read a Jonathan Edwards sermon. He was so far ahead of me in the Lord that reading him makes me wonder if I’m even saved! But that’s good for me at times.

4. Humanity: Christian biographies give me an understanding of people and of myself.

I’ve discovered that there are two types of Christian biographies. Many of the older works fall into what I would call the “eulogy” genre. They approach the subject as we deal with the deceased at funerals: They emphasize his good points and overlook his faults. But more recent biographers tend to take a more honest look at their subjects, exposing the shortcomings and all.

If you uncritically read biographies of the “eulogy” genre, you can become depressed, thinking, “That guy almost walked on water. I’ll never attain the high level of spirituality he had.” But if you read more honest biographies (and read between the lines of the eulogy-type), you discover that God has used some very rough instruments. You find that the great strengths of some of the giants were also the flip side of great weaknesses and blind spots. Men and women who were unswerving in their commitment to Christ were sometimes stubborn and ran roughshod over people. And yet God used them greatly!

This is not to excuse their problems and sins, nor to excuse my own. But, like many pastors, I tend to be hard on myself. When I read of others who did great things for God, it helps me to realize that they weren’t perfect. Far from it!

John Wesley and William Carey had difficult marriages. Carey’s wife didn’t want to go to the mission field, and when she finally yielded to her husband’s pressure and went to India, she went insane. Jonathan Edwards had trouble relating to people socially and tended to stay holed up in his study. I wonder if he would have weathered the theological controversy that cost him his pastorate if he had been warmer relationally.

David Livingstone was a loner who had numerous conflicts with fellow workers. He carried a revolver and sometimes brandished it in the face of belligerent African chiefs. He essentially abandoned his wife and children, who suffered greatly without him. Yet God used Livingstone to open Africa to the gospel!

Many great missionaries sacrificed their families for the cause. Some were unable to relate well to people, including their own mates and children. C. T. Studd, famous for the quote, “If Christ be God and died for me, no sacrifice is too great for me to make for Him,” left his wife in poor health and went to Africa, returning to see her only once in the final 16 years of her life. He worked 18-hour days and expected everyone else to do likewise. His intense dedication to the cause of Christ made him intolerant of anyone who wasn’t equally committed. He alienated everyone around him, including his daughter and son-in-law, and was finally dismissed by the mission he had founded.

My point is not to be critical of these servants of the Lord nor, by pointing out their sin, to excuse my own. But seeing their shortcomings and failures helps me accept imperfect people, including myself. It helps me remember that there never has been a perfect church, so mine probably won’t be. The saints who are extolled as attaining such a high level of spirituality struggled with many of the same problems that I do.

And yet God did some significant things with these imperfect men and women. Thousands of lives have been changed. In some cases, the history of nations and of western civilization has been altered through these godly, yet very human, instruments. Maybe there’s hope that God can use even me! I pray that we all will be motivated to dig out the gold from these godly men of the past!

© Steven J. Cole, 2006

Related Topics: Christian Life, Equip, History, Spiritual Life, Testimony & Biography