Part of a series of articles, entitled 20 years a Christian, recalling some of the important lessons I have learned in nearly two decades as a believer in Jesus.
I don’t remember exactly how it happened … but, some time during my final year of seminary, I came a across a collection of cassette tapes by a man called John Piper. Yes, the John Piper. Except that I didn’t know he was the John Piper at the time. I had heard of him as a speaker at Louie Giglio’s Passion conferences. But I didn’t know much about his books, or his powerful preaching, or his now-famous statement that ‘God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.’ My first real introduction to him was actually in the role of history teacher. For the tapes in my hands were a series of biographical messages that he had delivered at an annual pastor’s conference hosted by his church. I had heard of Spurgeon, Edwards, Luther, Calvin, and Augustine in my seminary classes. But somehow (and in spite of my being a history minor in my undergrad degree!) the value and joy of church history did not dawn on me until I started hearing it retold from the mouth of the preacher!
And that is what Piper did with those biographical messages – he preached! The lives of the great saints of God – Bunyan, Paton, Simeon, Brainerd, and Cowper – became, each one, like an hour-long sermon illustration, driving home for me all sorts of biblical truths, all through the lenses of real-life men who lived them out. And I fell in love – not so much with Dr. Piper, or with any particular one of the characters he brought before me – but with history itself; and especially with the history of Christ’s church! Soon I was on to other historians as well – Iain Murray especially, and later Michael Haykin and (with my kids) Douglas Bond – discovering one remarkable saint after another; learning the history of true, Holy Spirit revival; and marveling at how often our forebears trusted God through great trials and persecutions. And a whole host of new heroes, and hopes, and dreams, and even theological convictions began to blossom as new fruit in my heart!
I am undoubtedly a more sound, stable, mature, and fruitful Christian (and pastor) because of my now decade-plus love affair with church history and biography. For instance, I am so much better prepared to suffer (and to help others do so) for having observed how the men and women of old did so with such great “faith and patience.” I’m also much less enamored the latest Christian fads, having observed how the saints of old spread the gospel so successfully with nothing of the sort. The hymns, too, have become just a little richer for me, for having learned the stories of some of their authors. My theology has received many good doses of iron as well … by having discovered the much more robust and biblical theology of certain men of old. Furthermore, by learning from some of the more simple pastors of a bygone day, I have learned a great deal about being, not only a preacher, but a real shepherd of souls. And learning the history of revival has shaped my theology perhaps as much as anything else I’ve read outside the Bible.
“And”, in the words of the author of Hebrews (in his own review of the lessons of history, ch.11) “what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I” go on reciting for you all that church history and biography have to teach us. Better that you set out, yourself, on the same journey back in time on which the Lord has taken me these last dozen or so years. Start with some of the authors mentioned above. Or ask me for some book or listening recommendations. And start digging, for yourself, into the goldmine of the past. Joy, and perspective, and depth, and wonder, and fruit await you in the treasure chest of church history!