When most of us think of October 31st we think about Halloween. Though many Christians are divided on what to do with this holiday, it is not my goal here to convince you one way or another. Regardless of what you do with Halloween, as followers of Christ, we should recognize that something else extremely significant took place on October 31st of 1517 that has impacted each of us whether we realize it or not. This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on All Saints Day or All Hallows Eve. This event in church history should cause us to stop and appreciate not only what God has done in the building of His church, but it should also cause us to ask what we can learn from the followers of Christ who have come before us.
Growing up in a Christian home I was blessed to be exposed to the truth of the gospel from a very early age. I have no memory of the first time I heard the name ‘Jesus’ because He was always a part of my life; even before I came to a personal saving faith in Him. My parents prayed for me before I was born and taught me how to pray as I grew. I have memories of going to church and sitting in the pew with my family, going to Sunday school, attending vacation bible school, eating at pot-lucks, and holding a candle during Christmas Eve service as we sang Silent Night as the clock struck midnight.
The strange thing about all this was that even though I was saturated in church life, my knowledge of the history of the church and those who came before was as shallow as my peers who never stepped through a church door. Unfortunately, as I have expressed this to others who have grown up in the church, this does not seem to be a unique experience. But why is that?
The study of history is one of those subjects that most people would admit is important, but in practice avoid as much as possible. Even though we may acknowledge it as significant, I think the primary reason many avoid the study of history is that we’re not sure how it will have any practical impact on daily life. Shouldn’t we just be about loving Jesus and loving others; and leave the study of history to scholars who write long and dry books that only other scholars read? Why should I invest valuable time to something like church history?
Here are just a few reasons I have found the study of church history beneficial to my daily walk with Christ.
1: GOD ENCOURAGES IT
The Bible itself is an account of God working in human history to bring about His redemptive plan which culminates with Christ. God did not just provide us with a manual on how to live; He gave us a rich historical account that reveals who He is, and how man can be reconciled to Him through faith in Jesus. In fact, the Bible itself says that ‘whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction’ (Romans 15:4). There are many instances in Scripture where God instructs His people to utilize some type of memorial in order to point back to a particular moment in history. Some examples would be the Sabbath (Exodus 31), the Passover (Deuteronomy 16), Israel crossing into the promised land (Joshua 4), and not least of which Jesus’ instruction for the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22).
Furthermore, there are many instances where the people of God are encouraged to learn from the lives of others, ‘Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.’ (Hebrews 13:7). It is important to realize that church history is not an end in itself, but a means that God can use to mature and grow His people. We should be marked as people of truth because it is a reflection of God’s own character. When we study church history we are given the ability to rightly understand and represent the truth found in history.
2: WHAT WE BELIEVE MATTERS
When we study church history we see how our theology impacts the way we live. Everyone has a worldview and it will dictate the direction of our life for good or evil. Examining church history gives us a unique perspective because it allows us to see the fruit that a particular theology or worldview had in the life of an individual. Because of our fallen nature, nobody has a worldview that perfectly aligns with God’s Word; which becomes very apparent as we examine the lives of men and women who were mightily used by God. It will cause us to learn from their mistakes, and it prevents us from thinking that our beliefs do not impact the way we live.
3: THE PRESENT IN LIGHT OF THE PAST
There is a tendency to believe that the problems we face today as individuals and as the church are completely new and unique. The more we study church history the more we realize that most of the questions we wrestle with today have arisen time and again throughout the history of the church. The Spirit of God is not unique to us, and He has been working through God’s people for a long time to give them an understanding of the truth found in Scripture. There was a reason why men sat down and wrote the historic creeds and confessions; they wanted to bring clarity to what the church is to believe is taught in the Word of God. These documents are not authoritative in themselves, but they are beneficial in as much as they rightly reflect what is taught in the Bible.
Spending time reading biographies about individuals in church history or reading their writings is an exercise in humility. We live in a forward-thinking culture, which often creates an arrogance in us that assumes that those who have come before us were simply ignorant. But, the more I have read the writings of some of these pastors and theologians the more I have come to realize that their grasp of God’s Word causes my own to look downright pathetic. Men like Martin Luther or Thomas Watson were voracious consumers of Scripture and if anything I have been humbled and inspired to pursue the truth found in the Bible all the more diligently because of their example.
WHERE TO BEGIN?
Reading biographies and the writings of men like Augustine, John Calvin, William Tyndale, and Charles Spurgeon has been extremely helpful to me and my walk with Christ. God has really used these men to stir my soul and cause me to more passionately desire the things of God. There is something about reading about William Tyndale dying for the truth of the gospel contained in the pages of Scripture that spurs me on to live and die for the same thing he did. I need the examples of godly men that the Spirit of God has worked through in order to equip me for whatever God has for me.
The study of church history can be extremely overwhelming if you are new to it, so I want to point you to a few simple resources that I hope you will find to be a beneficial starting place. Some of these cover an overview of church history, the history of a particular period of time, or are a biography about a significant individual.
Church History 101 by Sinclair Ferguson, Joel Beeke, and Michael Haykin
The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World by Stephen J. Nichols
The Gospel Focus of Charles Spurgeon by Steven J. Lawson