We live in a time when many in the church struggle to connect with other members of the body. Many consider connectedness something that happens online rather than through living in community. If you don’t believe me, ask the closest millennial--his or her deepest relationships may be with people they know via pixels and screens. We are “alone together” as sociologist Sherry Turkle has put it. The struggle for community is a problem in the world and increasingly it is also a problem in the church.
Besides this lack of connection—or communion—the 21st century North American church is also largely ahistorical. Being ahistorical, having a disregard for the history of the church, has led to old errors being revived, to a disconnection with ancient Christianity (hence the number of evangelicals that go to Rome or the Eastern Church in search of historical connection), and to an inability of individual Christians to gauge their experience against the experience of others.
Lack of connection and community, as well as an ahistorical approach to Christianity, has caused a deficiency in the lives of believers. What can be done to help encourage connection, community, and history? There are several vital remedies for regaining vibrant and experiential reformation Christianity, but let me offer you just one: read biographies.
In both times of struggle and spiritual outpouring, biographies connect us to the history of the church and the experience of other believers, and they encourage in us a vibrant Christianity. The New Testament makes it clear that this is the way the church is to interact with the lives of the saints who have gone before us. Biography is helpful.
“And what shall I more say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets…” In Hebrews 11, the Apostle Paul whets the appetite for the Christian to explore the lives of those before him or her. When he wrote of Barak and Samson and David and others, he was writing with a millennium between himself and those whom “time would fail me to tell of.”
The apostle challenges the church to consider the biographies of the saints. Time would fail for him to express the full value of knowing of their lives. What can we learn from this positive approach to Christian biography? What encouragements are there for the ahistorical and disconnected believer in the pew?
Christian History Did Not Begin with You
One of the clearest applications that can be drawn from the apostle calling us to consider David and Barack and Samson and a host of others is that Christian history did not begin with you. Several weeks ago I had a conversation with a young man who wanted me to help him defend the Trinity to his girlfriend. I agreed and began to talk through the history of the doctrine. Respectfully, he interrupted and told me that he only wanted “to use the Bible, not history or theology.” As pious as that statement sounds, that’s not how it works. The church has a history and the more we become familiar with the names and faces—through biography—the better off we are at understanding that the history of Christianity did not begin the moment you were converted.
Theology in Context
Connected to the fact that Christian history did not begin with you is the fact that theology happens in context. The Bible did not drop down from the sky with the doctrines that we hold spelled out. The Three Forms of Unity, the Westminster Confession, and the ancient creeds all have a context. Biography helps us to understand that context and teaches us to appreciate the work of God in leading the church to refine her theological understanding of the teaching of the Bible.
Descriptions of Experiential Grace
Reading biographies helps us to understand the ways the Lord works in the lives of his people. We all know that the normal Christian life is a life under the means of grace that God provides, but what does that look like exactly in the life of the believer? Christian biography puts flesh on experiential Christianity. We are helped in our understanding of how God has converted, justified, and sanctified those who have gone before us. Biographies teach us of experiential grace.
Faithful Witnesses: Run!
Knowing how the Spirit of God works in the conversion of sinners is helped by biographies, but there also seems to be a Hebrews 11 encouragement in reading them. Run! Run, Christian! Many know the encouragement that a faithful biography brings. Many know the encouragement to the soul of reading about a Jonathan Edwards, Mary Prentiss, William Carey, or another faithful brother or sister. Run, Christian! Keep running, Christian! Add these saints to your “great cloud of witnesses” as the Spirit encourages you to “run the race set before you.”
Perseverance in Suffering
The Hebrew Christians to whom the apostle wrote were in danger of falling away. The apostle cheered them on with the fact that Jesus is better! As we reflect on the cloud of witnesses given as a cheering section for the faithful runners, we are reminded that suffering occurs. Perseverance is needed in the midst of suffering, especially in those trying hours of temptation or struggle or persecution. Biography reminds us that we are not alone. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs served as a reminder to the English Marian refugees of the sufferings of their brothers and sisters in England. Scot’s Worthies served the Covenanters by reminding them of the sufferings of their covenanted forefathers. The Voice of the Martyrs stories of suffering remind us of the same things today—Christians suffer. Our siblings in Christ suffer. There may come a time wherein we will suffer. Biographies remind us that Christ will sustain us in the midst of suffering just as he has sustained our suffering siblings for centuries—millennia, even.
Prayers for the Holy Spirit’s Outpouring
Biographies also remind us of better times in the past—and encourage us to pray for better times in the future. Read about George Whitefield whose preaching brought tears to the eyes of the miners that “carved lines of white” on their faces. Read about the Welsh revivals. Narratives of reformation and revival in all eras of Christian history encourage the soul and remind all of us to pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We live in spiritually dry times and biography reminds us that the Holy Spirit has poured out reformation and revival in similarly dark times; biography teaches us to pray for that work.
Biographies of the lives of the saints ought to be great encouragements to us as Christians. Living in ahistorical times, times of distant fellowship, we need to increase our biography reading. We need to be reminded that our faith is bigger than ourselves. We are taught from biographies that theology has a context. We are encouraged by God’s redemptive acts—both the ordinary and the extraordinary—through the lives of saints who have gone before us. We are encouraged to run—sometimes in the midst of suffering. And we are encouraged to pray for great outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the communities in which we live and serve.
Read Christian biography for the sake of your soul--for the sake of your community's soul.
A variation of this article originally appeared the the Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, Volume 24, Number 6.