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The blessings that come from reading Christian biography cannot be fully enumerated or overstated. There is a measure of comfort, joy, and inspiration that comes from beholding the hand of God in the lives of His flawed yet faithful servants. So inspiring are the lives of believers in history, in fact, that even the world often takes note and admires the remarkable fortitude and towering influence of Christian heroes. And while there is tremendous benefit from reading the many secular biographies available, I want to argue for the specific value and practice of Christians writing Christian biographies.

The Theological Reason

While it does not take any specific spiritual insight to retell historical events, it certainly takes a Spirit-filled person to understand and appreciate God’s providential hand throughout human history. Theologically, we understand that every Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19; Eph. 1:13–14.) and perceptive to the things of God. In fact, the Apostle Paul notes that “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12). Further, he notes that “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (v. 14). Unbelievers cannot and do not accept the things of God.

We see this when we read biography and history written by secular scholars. While their research may be impeccable, their historical retelling brilliant, and their writing sublime, they lack the spiritual insight to understand the doctrinal convictions of their subjects, often treating them as anachronisms. I recently read a historian liken John Robinson, the pastor of the Pilgrims, not to a shepherd but to a cult leader. However, the biographer was doing nothing more than trying to explain to a secular audience Robinson’s understanding of pastoral ministry.

This is common in the unbelieving world. To the Spirit-less mind, Jesus was merely an altruistic Jewish rabbi, the Bible is a collection of revered writings, the Holy Spirit is a mythical force, evangelism is religious zealotism, sovereign election is loveless and strange, complementarianism is arcane, the gospel is foolishness, and so on. However, Paul is clear that believers “have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) and therefore understand the basic Christian truths and beliefs that are common to all saints in history.

The Practical Reason

It seems axiomatic that biographers stand a better chance of understanding their subjects if they share common experiences. Who better to understand Christians than other Christians? While the events of a person’s life are unique, there are common realities shared by all Christian believers—common experiences to every Christian like regeneration, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the empowering by that same Spirit (Eph. 4:4–6).

Whereas secular biography will set its gaze on the historical figure, Christian biography will marvel and gaze at Christ, who is Himself “the author and perfecter” of the faithful.

To illustrate the practical challenges of this, for example, the Puritans are often researched and written about by secular scholars who do not fully understand or share their experiences or convictions. In addressing this issue, Sinclair Ferguson writes:

Characteristically [these discussions] have been carried on by scholars whose world is that of books and journals, lecture rooms and research libraries. But the writings they have placed under the microscope have been those of pastors and preachers. These are two different universes of discourse. On occasion it seems clear that historians have not been sufficiently sensitive to theology to be able to grasp the nuances of what is being said.1

This is not to say, however, that all Christian history is being researched and written by non-Christian scholars who do not understand the nuance of their theology or methodology. But the problem persists when you have secular scholars psychoanalyzing a redeemed people group, for such scholars do not understand them experientially because they themselves are not of the Christian faith.

Iain Murray records that, as a budding Christian biographer, J.C. Ryle learned from Joseph Milner that

“Church history” . . . is writing which shows that “in every age there have been REAL followers of Christ.” The objective of the Christian historian is “To see and trace the goodness of God taking care of His church in every age by His providence.” In so doing, “The honor of Christianity will be supported; the value of its essential doctrines will be ascertained; and we shall have frequent occasion to state what the Gospel is and what it is not.”2

On a most practical level, it makes the most sense for “REAL followers of Christ” to be undertaking the task of writing Christian biography.

The Devotional Reason

John Piper has said that “Hebrews 11 is a divine mandate to read Christian biography.”3 For in Hebrews 11—famously known as the Hall of Faith—the writer, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, showcases the lives of seventeen faithful saints. And while they’re no doubt listed as examples of faith, they function in a more immediate way for the reader.

In the following verses, the writer concludes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (12:1). Reading the biographical accounts is designed to motivate rejection of sin and perseverance in godly living. However, there is an even higher goal: “Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (v. 2). The ultimate goal of Hebrews 11 is to point us to Jesus Christ.

While the temptation is to marvel at the lives of the saints listed in Hebrews, John Owen notes, “Until now he had suggested that they look to people who had professed the Christian faith in the past, but now the focus is on him who is the author and perfecter of our faith. Thus the Apostle urges them to persevere in the faith and obedience of the Gospel.”4

What about Christian biography?

In the same way that Hebrews 11 is designed to inspire us toward godliness, directing our gaze toward the Lord Jesus Christ, Christian biography should encourage us to examine our own lives. This is especially true when we read of the sinful struggles of our clay-footed heroes—we should be asking, “Am I guilty of the same sin?” Further, it should also encourage us to see God’s providential hand in their lives, sovereignly working all things together for good (Rom. 8:28). But above all, Christian biography should showcase the glory of Christ, extolling Him as the true Hero and Champion of faith. Whereas secular biography will set its gaze on the historical figure, Christian biography will marvel and gaze at Christ, who is Himself “the author and perfecter” of the faithful.

 

  1. From the foreword to Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Prepared by Grace, for Grace: The Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage, 2013), x. ↩︎
  2. Iain H. Murray, J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), 145–146. ↩︎
  3. John Piper, “Brothers, Read Christian Biography,” DesiringGod.org, January 1, 1995, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/brothers-read-christian-biography. ↩︎
  4. John Owen, Hebrews, The Crossway Classic Commentaries, eds. Alister McGrath and J.I. Packer (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1998), 242–43. ↩︎

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