The Psalmist said, “We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, what work thou didst in their days, in the times of old” (Ps. 44:1).
Consider several important reasons why Christians should study the past in general, and Church history in particular.
First, the past is a great stimulus to faith.
When David faced Goliath, he did so because he had already seen God’s faithfulness and power. David carried in his soul the memories of some dramatic moments when the Lord delivered his life from the mouth of a ferocious hungry lion and the jaws of a ravenous bear. When the lion carried away a lamb that was entrusted to David, the Sweet Singer of Israel went after that lion. And when the lion dropped the lamb and turned to devour David, the Shepherd fought back and slew him (1 Sam. 17:32-36). In like manner Christ protects His own by dealing with the Great Lion who spiritually seeks to destroy the sheep.
Time passed and another enemy came forth. The enemy was an uncircumcised Philistine named Goliath (1 Sam. 17:38–51). Standing over nine feet tall, Goliath had been trained in fleshly warfare since childhood. But he was no match for David because this soldier of God had been trained in spiritual warfare since childhood. Goliath might trust the strength of the carnal weapons he possessed, but David would rely on the mighty arm of the living Lord. God had always been faithful. And so David remembered the past in order to face a present ordeal.
Not only is the study of the past a stimuli to faith, but the study of history pleases God.
Many times in Scripture God reminds His people of His great exploits on their behalf and bids them to remember.
“Remember the former things of old: For I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me” (Isa. 46:9)
“Seek the Lord and His strength, seek His face continually. Remember His marvelous works that He hath done, His wonders, and the judgments of His mouth” (1 Chron. 16:11–12).
There are particular truths God wants His people to remember.
Christians are to remember the works of creation for “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1).
Christians are to remember the Sabbath day. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exod. 20: 8).
Christians are to remember the commandments of God. The Law was given “That ye may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God” (Num. 15:40).
The church is to remember the general mercies of Divine favor in being delivered from the land of bondage. “And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt: and thou shalt observe and do these statutes” (Deut. 16:12).
Christians are to remember the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Cor. 11:26).
It is in the study of history that the greatest story ever told is reviewed. The heart remembers the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the world is invited to authenticate or discredit Christianity on a simple historical question: “Who moved the stone?”
If the Disciples of Christ moved the stone to steal the body of Jesus, then Christianity is a lie and the most monstrous of all religions because it sets itself up to be the most moral. However, if an angel rolled the stone away from the tom b, not to let Christ out, but to let the world in, then Christianity is vindicated and we serve a risen Savior. There is a Man in the heavens, and His name is Jesus.
As the study of history stimulates faith, pleases God, and validates the Christian message it also encourages the Church to contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.
There is such a faith as per Jude 3. “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.”
In every generation the body of truth has been divinely preserved and protected in order to be passed on and preached afresh. Unfortunately, one of the great challenge to the truth are men and women, filled with good intentions, who think they have to add to, or improve upon the gospel, rather than receive and proclaim it. And a lesson is learned: good intentions can kill!
I tell you a true story. A few years ago a young female college student went to Mexico City with a girlfriend on vacation. Just as they were ready to come home, one of the girls spotted what she thought was a wounded little Chihuahua. Moved with compassion she took the little animal and was determined to nurse it back to health. After returning home she took the creature to a veterinarian for advice. As soon as the doctor saw the creature, he took it from the girl and put it in a cage.
“Do you know what you were holding so close to you,” asked the doctor.
“A Chihuahua,” replied the young lady.
“That was no Chihuahua,” responded the doctor. “That was a Mexican gutter rat dying of rabies.”
Doctrinally, millions of religious people are holding a gutter rat to their heart. Not having a sense of the historical faith of the church, new ideas and concepts are constantly being presented, in sincerity, but with the voice of authority of the ancient prophets. And that is wrong.
It is more than wrong, it kills souls. The truth of the matter is that much popular thinking finds no support in the creeds of Christendom or in the writings of the Church [Self-esteem theology; Health and Wealth Gospel; Liberation Theology; certain forms of Dispensationalist; Rationalism; the gospel of Sophia; the Cults etc.] Our generation needs to heed the biblical exhortation of Jude 1:3. “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.”
What will happen when God’s people seriously begin to study church history?
First, there will be a greater appreciation for the saints that have gone before. I think of the young people in particular now. Christian young people need heroes to believe in. Role models are important. Therefore study the lives of the saints.
Let me suggest to the young people one person in particular. His name was William Borden and he was the heir to a large American fortune. Having graduated from Yale and attended Princeton Seminary, Borden was committed to being a missionary for Jesus Christ. Despite an upper class upbringing, his travels around the world had challenged him to the needs of the lost to hear about Jesus Christ. He wanted to make his own life count for Christ. As William Borden trained for a life of service to the Kansu people of China, his heart and labor went out in practical ways to the widows, orphans, and cripples, in the back streets of Chicago. A quiet yet powerful young man, William Borden sought to win other young college men for Christ and His service. In 1913, Borden finally fulfilled his dream to move towards the mission field. He arrived in Egypt and was soon battling cerebral meningitis. William Borden understood there were risks to serving the Savior—and he accepted those risks. Nearly every newspaper in the United States covered his untimely death at the age of twenty-five. William Borden made a great decision. Like Moses he forsook the pleasures of this world to lead others to a better world to come. Though his life was waste, in the eyes of the world, his life and death have been a testimony and a challenge beyond his own generation to “keep eternity’s values in view.” Those who study history will be challenged by other such stories.
Second, in the study of history there will be a greater confidence in witnessing for there will be no apology for the Church. One of the dangers of modern thinking is that the Church is a corrupt institution living in the last days—and this is taught by those within the body of Christ. We are not of that persuasion. We believe the Church is the most glorious institution. To know her story is to invite others to come to the only kingdom that will never end.
Third, there will be the enjoyment of great stories. There is for example the dramatic narrative of men such as John Wycliffe (1320 -1384) and John Huss (1369 – 1415). John Huss, as a servant of the Savior, remained uncorrupted during the dark ages of human history when the glory of the gospel was darkened by the superstitions of the Church. John Wycliffe who preceded Huss had tried to turn the minds of the common people away from the vain superstitions of the Church by placing the Scriptures into their hands. Official opposition to Wycliffe by the Church was so severe that he had to flee to Bohemia.
While the “Morning Star of the Reformation” continued to criticize the sale of indulgences, the doctrine of transubstantiation (the magical turning of the communion elements into the literal body and blood of Christ), and papal hierarchies, darkness continued to descend the Church.
Another voice was needed to carry on the work of Wycliffe in Bohemia. That voice was found in the ministry of John Huss. John Huss was bold enough to criticize churchmen who rode on horses with brilliant tassels trailing behind in order to beat their fellow citizens with silver clubs. For his cries against injustice Huss was hated. He was arrested and brought to trial at a council of the Church of Constance (in present-day Germany) where, over a seven-month period, Huss was accused of teachings contrary to the official Church dogma.
In defense, Huss declared that he had never taught what he was accused of teaching. How could he recant or take back what he never said or wrote? Nor could he renounce the truth that the Church had become corrupt in some areas. The practice of penance was wrong for salvation is by grace through faith alone. Because of his stand for an alien righteousness, on July 6, 1415, Huss was condemned to be burned at the stake. He was taken outside the city limits and tied to a stake where a fire was lit. He died with these words upon his lips: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy.”
There are great men and movements to be read about in the study of history. Therefore, cultivate a greater appreciation for the saints of old, learn to witness with confidence, and learn the interesting stories of the Church.