Reading a biography on Martin Luther changed the entire course of my life. That may sound like hyperbole, but it is the truth. I had grown up in Arminian circles, with a heavy emphasis on works-based salvation. I believed salvation depended, at least in part, on me and my ability to keep God’s Law. If I sinned and lost my salvation, then I’d have to beg to have it restored to me once more. Not only did I live in constant fear of messing up, but I preached these same things within the church circles I was involved with. Congregations would practically applaud as they offered their loud “Amens!” in agreement with my warnings about losing what the Lord had blessed us with. And every time I found Scripture that disagreed with such a pessimistic and humanist attitude, I’d ignore it. I didn’t know anyone personally who believed salvation couldn’t be lost, and the few I knew of who believed salvation was secure in Christ were lauded as damnable heretics by the circles I was in. How could I ever go against friends and family?
Then, I read about Martin Luther. I read of his bold courage to stand up to the Roman Catholic Church and their various indecencies during the Protestant Reformation. I read of his insistence that salvation is by God’s grace alone. I read of how Romans 1:16-17 became the catalyst of his own theological thought, as he recognized that faith alone was the instrument of our salvation in Christ. I read of how he courageously proclaimed to his enemies that he would not recant of his beliefs, for his conscience was bound to Scripture alone. And, somewhere along the way, I realized that I was wrong. Luther was right. A biography on Martin Luther changed the course of my theology, practice, and life. Church History can do the same for you.
Biblical Discipleship from Past Saints
Church history is essential to the health of the Church and the life of the Christian. I sincerely doubt my story is unusual. While I recognize that some may accuse of me of learning my theology from a man rather than the Scriptures, I simply offer in response the fact that Luther’s biography didn’t convince me apart from the Scriptures, but instead guided me to see the truth that I had been missing.
In fact, Luther himself is a prime example of the value of Church history. He learned a lot from the saints who came before. All the Magisterial Reformers did. Consider John Calvin, as well: Calvin’s magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, quotes from Saint Augustine. This is because the Reformers recognized that we are not islands unto ourselves; we depend upon the wisdom of the past. We stand on the shoulders of past saints. We learn from them the truths that we would never learn in our own lifetime. They help us to see our blind spots. Often, they help recenter us upon truth when we are off balance.
Yahweh commands, in Jeremiah 6:16, “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” Church history helps us to recover and stand upon the ancient paths. When we are in danger of veering dangerously off course, God has graciously blessed us with creeds and confessions to keep us in our own lanes. When we are discouraged, God has provided us with the encouraging stories of past saints to lift our spirits. When we are confused over Scripture, God has graciously given us the commentaries, sermons, and letters of past saints to help explain difficult texts. And when we simply need to be stirred in our spirits, being uncertain of which way to go, God has given us the saints of the past to speak wisdom into our lives.
Discipleship involves iron sharpening iron. It involves intentionally being involved in the life of another. While those saints who are now in Heaven cannot engage in personal discipleship, they can actively disciple us through their writings and lives. This does not do away with the need to have living mentors and disciples, but it is an important tool the Lord has blessed us with. We need past saints. We need Church history. These are means by which God disciples us as His children.
Speaking from Heaven
What do men like Polycarp, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John, Charles Spurgeon, C.S. Lewis, and Martin Lloyd-Jones all have in common? They’re all in the presence of the Lord in Heaven. They are earnestly awaiting the return of Jesus to this earth; on which day they will be raised in physically glorified bodies. We cannot hear them speak right now, but we can read their writings. And, in one sense, reading them may be as good as hearing them speak.
The writer of Hebrews looks to the saints, both living and dead, as a great cloud of witnesses that surround us and point us to Jesus. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2). The saints operate as a great cloud of witnesses that cheer us on, challenge us, and help us to finish our race with joy. They help to reorient our desires upon Christ and focus our affections upon Yahweh.
Often, as we read them, they lead us into greater understandings of Scripture. Sometimes they lead us to repent of sins we have committed, or to strive towards a greater pursuit of holiness. And, at the same time, they encourage us to live our lives in such a way that when we are called home (if the Lord should tarry), then those generations after us will be able to point to our lives and draw encouragement from them to live to the glory of God.
Yes, there is more to biblical discipleship than Church history. But Church history is a tool to help in biblical discipleship. To be without it is to be like a carpenter without his hammer. We may be able to get the job done without it, but how much easier and joyful is the process when we have the tools we need!
Jacob Tanner is a husband, father, and pastor, living in Pennsylvania. Holding to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, Jacob is focused on both evangelism and reformation. He is the founder of the Sound of Truth Ministries, where they have regular podcasts and preaches whenever the opportunity arises. His passion and motto are, “To know Christ and make Him known because He has made us His own.” He can be found spending time with his family or with a book in his hands in his free time.