Charles Dickens’ famous line in A Tale of Two Cities — “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” — seems well suited to contemporary western Evangelicalism. On the one hand, the last few decades have seen much for which to praise God. In his goodness and grace, for instance, he has restored Reformed truth once more to a position of godly influence. And yet, as an increasing number of evangelical authors have noted, there are still many sectors of evangelicalism that are characterized by great shallowness and a trivialization of the weighty things of God. Moreover, much of evangelical worship seems barren, and when it comes to spirituality, there is little evidence of the riches that should be there — we see merely poverty, or even worse, carnality.
Back to the sources
A key part of the solution to this situation is to heed Paul’s advice to his confidant Timothy. Beset by persecution from without (2 Tim. 1:16–17; 2:9) and wrestling with heresy from within (2 Tim. 2:16–18), Paul encouraged Timothy to meditate on the faith of saints he had known (in this case, Timothy’s mother Eunice and grandmother Lois) and to be grounded in the Word of God (2 Tim. 3:14–16). Similarly, we need to go back to the inerrant Scriptures to find a solid foundation for renewing the Church and recovering a truly biblical spirituality. And we also need to read the classics of Evangelicalism and of the Reformed tradition to help us find the pathway forward. To be sure, we cannot live in the past. To attempt to do so would be sheer antiquarianism.
the importance of saints past
Moreover, our forebears serve as role models for us. R.C. Sproul noted in the October 1999 Tabletalk regarding such giants of the faith as Augustine, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards: “These men all were conquered, overwhelmed, and spiritually intoxicated by their vision of the holiness of God. Their minds and imaginations were captured by the majesty of God the Father. Each of them possessed a profound affection for the sweetness and excellence of Christ. There was in each of them a singular and unswerving loyalty to Christ that spoke of a citizenship in heaven that was always more precious to them than the applause of men.”
Scripture itself expects us to learn from the past. Hebrews 13:7, for instance, calls those claiming to be disciples of Christ to imitate their leaders’ faith and, by implication, the faith of the saints of bygone ages. In fact, is this not what the writer of this tremendous letter does in chapter 11? We need to ponder the lives of saints past. The eighteenth-century English Baptist Caleb Evans was spot-on when he said, “Every Christian ought to be a good historian.”
Of course, we cannot place the writings of these men on the same level as the Word of God. John Jewel, the sixteenth-century Anglican apologist and bishop of Salisbury, rightly stated with regard to the church fathers: “They were learned men, and learned fathers; the instruments of the mercy of God, and vessels full of grace. We despise them not, we read them, we reverence them, and give thanks unto God for them.
Yet . . . we may not make them the foundation and warrant of our conscience: we may not put our trust in them. Our trust is in the name of the Lord.”
OUr models for imitation
Where, though, to begin? Church history is a veritable cornucopia when it comes to such lives. In fact, the more I study the history of God’s people, the more I become aware of how little I really know and how, despite thirty-seven years of almost constant reading of this history, I feel like I am only scratching the surface. Yet, we cannot afford to be stymied in the face of such riches. So, I propose that we ponder the lives of some of the English Puritans and their eighteenth-century heirs, the Calvinistic Baptists.
The Puritans are often written off, even by Christians who should know better, as hard-hearted prudes whose grim visages matched their drab clothing. Eighteenth-century Baptists are sometimes depicted as simply narrow-minded dogmatists sunk in the morass of hyper-Calvinism and out of touch with the great movement of God in the eighteenth-century awakenings.
Neither caricature accurately bespeaks reality. Considered as a whole, both of these Reformed groups, the Puritans and their Baptist children, shared a Christ-centered piety that gloried in the gospel (Gal. 6:14) and was deeply rooted in the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:14–17).