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One of the cultural plagues of the twenty-first century is our historical illiteracy. The comedian Jay Leno capitalizes on this when he asks random questions to people. Leno’s “Jaywalking” skits demonstrate that regular Americans are not up to speed with the basics of U.S. and world history. In one memorable scene, Leno asked someone to name one of the Ten Commandments. The reply: “Freedom of speech.” Enough said.
I wonder how well church members would do if someone asked them questions about church history. Would they know the key players, dates, and issues? Does it even matter?
Church history does matter for Christians today. In particular, it matters with respect to false teaching. In this article, I want to highlight four reminders from church history that serve us today.
1. This Is Truly Bigger Than You
When we look back and see what God has done in the past, we quickly realize that the church is much bigger than us and our experiences. In reading Martin Luther and the other Reformers, I am immediately thrust into an era that not only predates my life, local church, and city, but also my country. It’s hard to imagine a world where people couldn’t hum “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but such a world once existed. Above the white noise of calendars flipping from year to year is God’s passion for His glory. He is now, as He has forever been, relentlessly pursuing His glory.
We are reminded of this when we see faithful saints such as John Huss (1369–1415) stand firm against attacks upon the truth. He did not die to preserve or pursue his own legacy but because he was committed to God’s. When we see a guy like Huss giving his life for the truth, we are reminded that this beautiful institution called the church is bigger than us.
2. Same Song, Different Verse
One of the more ironic occurrences of the last few years is the Emergent Church movement. As the group began to gain traction, it became clear that an orthodox answer was needed. How would Christians answer this new movement that is predicated on being a progressive reaction to all of the problems of the institutional church? The most helpful responses were restatements of what had already been said. Many dipped back into church history, quoting authors such as J. Gresham Machen, who stood in the ring with the theological liberals of his day. Surprisingly, many of the same arguments posited by the contemporary gurus sound a lot like what Machen dealt with in his writing. Isn’t it ironic that a new movement is answered by old books?
This is how the writer of Jude sees it. He cites numerous examples of opposition to the progress of the church and then sees their shadows in history. He cites fallen angels (v. 6), Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 7), Cain, Balaam, and Korah’s rebellion (v. 11). Jude drives us back to see and understand that the present issues are just another verse in the same song of opposition.
3. The Canon Spikes Their Cannons
In the days of cannons on the battlefield, an enemy could render the cannon useless by driving a metal spike down through the touchhole (the place where the fuse was lit). The weapons that were so feared quickly were turned into very large paperweights.
When we read church history, we see various heresies arise and threaten the church. Time after time, however, faithful men have gone back to the Scriptures to answer the fire. Think about how men such as John Calvin and Martin Luther pored over the Word of God, laboring to get it right. Remember that it was the tireless work of the Reformers in the Scriptures that proved so valuable. It was not simply persuasive arguments but the faithful exposition of the Scriptures that won the day. Truly, it was the canon of Scripture that spiked the cannons of the enemy.
4. The Gospel Leaves Footprints
When Paul wrote Galatians, he was defending the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Throughout the letter, the Apostle dangles the pearls of the gospel on the table. He refutes error by showcasing beauty. I love how Paul writes as one who is so utterly fixated and gripped by the gospel. In Galatians 2:20, we read concerning the Lord Jesus: “Who loved me and gave himself up for me.” Right in the midst of a major refutation of the Galatian heresy we find the Apostle gushing like he is the only sinner in the world: “He loved me and gave himself up for me” (emphasis mine). Paul is unable to contain how overwhelmed he is by the truth of the gospel. It has hit home.
Reading church history reminds us of the beautiful simplicity and power of the gospel. God saves sinners. This is what it’s about. This is what we read when we come across faithful saints from previous generations in the church. The gospel left footprints in their day and is doing so in ours. God has had His faithful laborers throughout the ages. Let them continue to serve Him and you, for the glory of Christ.