Church History

4 Reasons to Study Church History

Read your Bible. Pray with your spouse. Disciple your kids. Serve in the church. Meet with your small group. Mentor someone younger . . . and . . . study Christian history? I know what you’re thinking. There is way too much going on for me to think about juggling all the above, as well as maintaining a robust knowledge of the history of the faith. I suppose I can’t argue with you. Upfront, none of the above are requirements for admittance or acceptance into the family of God. The gospel calls us to enter a rest unlike we have ever known (Heb. 4). And because we’ve entered that rest by the blood of Christ alone, we are compelled by the love of Christ to grow deeper in the faith and to love people radically. I’m here to argue that God can use the study of Christian history to make you a mature disciple. Here are four reasons why.

1. The creeds and confessions were not written in a vacuum.

What is the chief principle of hermeneutics? Context, context, context! It’s no different for the historic creeds, confessions, and other writings. Many Christians have read the Nicene Creed, Luther’s Shorter Catechism, The Westminster Confession, and more, and taken them at face value. No doubt these documents were written to stand the test of time, but each one was also written within a specific historical context and toward specific historical debates.

Partner—GCD—450x300Look at these titles from the early fathers: Against Heresies by Iraneus. On the Incarnation by Athanasius. Anti-Pelagian Writings by Augustine. Or how about Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will, which is entirely a reply to Erasmus’ On Free Will.

I’m not saying that you can’t take these things at face value. What I am saying is that if you do, you are only getting half of the story. The beauty of many of these creeds, confessions, and writings is set against the backdrop of heresy. We see throughout the history of Christianity a vigilant defense of the orthodoxy we enjoy today. We stand on the shoulders of those who have fought for the gospel over the past two-thousand years. Let us not take that for granted because we are ignorant of that rich history.

2. Most contemporary theologians are admittedly reproducing what has been first produced elsewhere in church history.

Trace this line with me. Jesus met Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul espoused Christ’s gospel throughout his writings in the first century. In the fourth century, Augustine expounded and defended Paul’s gospel theology against the heresies of his day (see specifically the Pelagian controversy). Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk. Read Calvin’s Institutes, and you’ll find Augustine flooding its pages. The Great Awakening in eighteenth-century America was led by Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards. In the twentieth-century, C.S. Lewis picked up on the Edwardsian threads of beauty and wonder. And, as you likely know, the greatest theologians of our day constantly place the works of centuries past before our eyes to remind us that orthodox theology stands the test of time.

When you read men like Keller, Piper, Chandler, Carson—and many more—know that they too stand on the shoulders of other Christians through church history. We reap the benefits of their careful study of the history of the faith.

3. Church history, particularly during the Reformation, spurs us to be always reforming.

Theologically speaking, the Reformation is not complete. How can I say that? One of the chief tenets of the Reformation was Sola Scriptura. Can you say that your study of Scripture has totally transformed your life in such a way that you think and act Biblically at all times? Of course you can’t. Neither can I.

We are always reforming when we, like the Reformers, constantly go back to the Scripture as our standard for doctrine and life. The spirit of the Reformation lives on when we continue to challenge modern thought, practice, and life with the unchanging truths of Scripture.

4. The history of Christianity proves it has always been a disciple making endeavor.

Make no mistake, when Christ said, “Go and make disciples,” he meant it. Paul discipled Timothy. Augustine was deeply committed to his teaching and preaching ministry in Carthage as a way of transmitting the chief tenets of our faith to young believers. Wycliffe committed his life to Oxford, not only as a way of equipping, but also as a way of sending out some of history’s first itinerant preachers. Luther worked in a close relationship with Melanchthon. Calvin transformed Geneva through education and systematization of theology.

Step back and take a broad look at the spread of Christianity, and you’ll find a simple yet stunning reality. Since the book of Acts, God has built his Church by the power of his Spirit and the transmission of the gospel. He does this through discipleship. That means that he has invited you into this overarching story of Christian history. You are probably not the next Augustine, Luther, or Calvin. But, if you are in Christ, you are absolutely vital to his mission of making disciples. Who are you discipling today?

Here are a few great resources on historical theology:

  • Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought by Alister McGrath.
  • Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation by Mark A. Noll.
  • Concerning Christian Liberty by Martin Luther.
  • Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God by Dane C. Ortlund (the entire series On the Christian Life from Crossway is church history gold)

Alex Dean is a pastor in Lakeland, Florida. Holding an undergraduate degree from Dallas Baptist University, Alex is currently completing his graduate work at Reformed Theological Seminary. His book, Gospel Regeneration: A story of death, life, and sleeping in a van, will be released in the summer of 2014. Follow his blog at or follow him on Twitter @alexmartindean.

What Does Revival Look Like?

As we scan the pages of church history, we see that the Holy Spirit has always been present in the church through revival. In fact, the Spirit has been in continuous operation since the ­­time of the Old and New Testaments. Many great Christian leaders experienced revival in their lives and ministries. Although some people believe that the work of the Holy Spirit ceased with the time of the Apostles, church history tells a different story. In this article, we will take a look at some of the great Christian leaders and revival movements to see how the Holy Spirit has moved in the church through revival.

What is Revival? There are many definitions of revival. Some people think it takes place when an evangelist preaches a protracted set of meetings in a church that last several days or even weeks. Others may think revival is style of worship or preaching.  Revival is not something we do, but what God does in and through us. Stephen Olford says that revival is that “strange and sovereign work of God in which He visits His own people, restoring, reanimating and releasing them into the fullness of His blessing.”[i]

“The strange and sovereign work of God in which He visits His own people, restoring, reanimating and releasing them into the fullness of His blessing.”

Revival happens both personally and corporately. Personal revival happens when the Holy Spirit renews the heart and mind of an individual. The Spirit renews and revives us when we pray and seek His face. Corporate revival comes about when the Holy Spirit brings renewal to a church or a movement. Alvin Reid and Malcolm McDowell say, “The end results in church revival is that Jesus is Lord, the Holy Spirit is unleashed, and the Father is glorified, the church is edified, and the lost are evangelized.”[ii]

Patrick and the Irish One of the great revival movements happened in Ireland under the influence of St. Patrick. His life is surrounded by mystery, superstition, and myth, but is perhaps best known as the man who used the shamrock to explain the trinity. He was personally responsible for baptizing over 100,000 people, driving paganism from the shores of Ireland, and starting a revival movement that helped preserve Christianity during the Middle Ages.

Many of the myths that surround Patrick come from his spiritual clashes with the pagans who opposed him. According to legend, King Loiguire set an ambush to kill Patrick, but when Patrick came near, all the king could see was a deer. Patrick challenged the power of the druid’s black magic because he believed that God’s power was greater.  He believed that signs and wonders verified God’s supreme superiority over the spells of the pagans. He was a bold preacher who was not afraid of magic, demons, or the devil. The story that he drove the snakes out of Ireland is symbolic of the fact that he helped transform pagan Ireland into a Christian country.

Patrick established many churches throughout Ireland. Like the Apostle Paul, he discipled new converts to become pastors to the local churches. Patrick was instrumental in the conversion of thousands, ordaining hundreds of clergy, and establishing many churches and monasteries.

Because of his ministry, Christianity spread like wildfire through Ireland and into other parts of the British Isles. The churches and monasteries that he was responsible for establishing became some of the most influential missionary centers in all of Europe. Missionaries went out from Ireland to spread the gospel throughout the world. St. Columba (597) established the famous monastery on the Isle of Iona. It was the Irish monasteries that helped preserve the Christian faith during the dark ages.[iii]

The Reformation Revival also sparked during the Reformation, a Spirit-inspired movement that swept across Europe in the 16th century. The Reformation began as an attempt to reform the abuses and excesses of the Catholic Church, of which Martin Luther was a forerunner. Many of the Reformers were troubled by what they saw as false doctrines and abuses within the Catholic Church, particularly involving the teaching and sale of indulgences. Another major contention was the corruption within the Church's hierarchy and leadership. On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints' Church.

The Church and the Pope criticized the 95 Theses. The most controversial points centered on the practice of selling indulgences and the Church's policy on purgatory. Other reformers, such as Ulrich Zwingli, soon followed. Beliefs and practices under attack included: purgatory, devotion to Mary, the intercession of and devotion to the saints, most of the sacraments, the mandatory celibacy requirement of its clergy, and the authority of the Pope.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others proclaimed the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith alone.” Justification is God's declaration of a person righteousness because of their faith in Christ. The reformers also emphasized the inspiration and illumination of Scriptures. Their commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of Scripture was the foundation of the Reformation movement.

In addition to their theological prowess, the reformers sparked the planting of thousands of new churches across Europe. John Calvin trained and sent numerous missionaries into France who were responsible for planting over 2,150 Reformed churches! Reformed Protestants eventually grew to over two million people in Frances alone.

Puritans The English Puritans were a 16th and 17th century movement that sought to purify the church in worship and doctrine. They were the outgrowth of the Reformation and heavily influenced the later development of Christianity in North America. The Puritans were Calvinistic and emphasized the necessity of spiritual conversation. The Puritans placed a special emphasis on the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in salvation that strongly influenced modern Evangelicalism.

Puritan theologians wrote extensive works on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the best of all was Puritan pastor and theologian John Owen (1616-1683) who wrote a work called The Holy Spirit: His Gifts and His Power.  Owen said: “The Holy Spirit, revealing Himself as the Comforter, ought to be especially honored, and when he is not, he is especially sinned against…Let us then, value highly all the comforting works of the Holy Spirit, seeing they are evidences to us of his love and power”[iv]

Great Awakening Around 1726, the Great Awakening began in North America as the result of the preaching of Jonathan Edwards and other important Christian leaders. Edwards preached the famous sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God,” which sparked a revival in Boston. During this great revival, people experienced unusual work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Both young and old were moved to dedicate their lives completely to God under Edwards’s preaching and ministry. Edwards later wrote an account of the revival saying, “The Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in, and wonderfully to work amongst us.”

In the mid 1700’s, George Whitefield began a successful ministry tour in America. Whitefield’s common method was field preaching in the open air to the common people. Whitefield blazed throughout North America and the British Isles, preaching to countless crowds of people. Whitefield recorded several accounts of people who were powerfully touched by the Spirit during these revivals.

In 1738, John Wesley experienced a “heart-warming” conversion. This event marked the beginning of Wesley’s evangelistic ministry. John Wesley witnessed an extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit throughout his ministry. During his lifetime he traveled more than 250,000 miles, preached over 40,560 sermons, organized hundreds of Bible societies, built several schools, and so impacted Methodism that at the time of his death nearly 43,265 members and 198 ministers had been attracted to the movement.[v] He believed that God was restoring the work of the Spirit in the church through the great awakening.

There are 120 million unchurched people in the United States, making it the largest mission field in the Western hemisphere and the fifth largest mission field on earth.

Revival Today There are a growing number of people in North America who are radically unchurched. Alvin Reid defines the radically unchurched as, “people who have no clear personal understanding of the message of the gospel, and who have had little or no contact with a Bible teaching, Christ honoring church.”[vi] There are 120 million unchurched people in the United States, making it the largest mission field in the Western hemisphere and the fifth largest mission field on earth.[vii] Non-believers can be divided into two groups of people: 1) nominally churched - 30% of U.S. population; 2) radically unchurched - 40% of the U.S. population.[viii]

Yet, there is a fresh renewal of the Holy Spirit that is sweeping across the church. The Spirit’s renewing power is taking place in churches, denominations, and networks across the country and around the world. The Spirit is anointing a generation of pastors, church planters and missionaries who are taking the gospel to the radically unchurched. As disciples of Jesus, we should seek the power of the Spirit to preach the gospel boldly like the reformers, plant churches wisely like St. Patrick, and pray earnestly like those of the Great Awakening.

This renewal of the Spirit is both theological and experiential. If we are to experience personal and corporate revival, a robust theology of the Holy Spirit will be necessary. We must turn to Him to give us a fresh hunger for God's presence and power in our life.

[i] Stephen Olford, Heart Cry for Revival. Westwood, NJ: Revell, 1962. 17.

[ii] Malcolm McDow and Alvin Reid, Firefall: How God has Shaped History Through Revivals. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997.  9.

[iii] See Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization.

[iv] John Owen, Communion with God, 206.

[v] Malcolm McDow and Alvin Reid, Firefall.  194.

[vi] Alvin Reid, Radically Unchurched: Who They are & How to Reach Them, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2002. 21.

[vii] George Hunter, "The Rationale for a Culturally Relevant Worship Service," Journal of the American Society of Church Growth, Worship and Growth.  7 (1996): 131).

[viii] Reid, Radically Unchurched. 22.

Dr. Winfield Bevins serves as lead pastor of Church of the Outer Banks, which he founded in 2005.  His life’s passion in ministry is discipleship and helping start new hurches. Winfield speaks at conferences and retreats throughout the United States on a variety of topics. He is the author of dozens of articles as well as several popular ebooks including Grow: Reproducing through Organic Discipleship. He recently wrote Creed: Connect to the Basic Essentials of the Christian Faith which is now available through NavPress.

Winfield has a doctorate from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He lives in the beautiful beach community of the Outer Banks with his wife Kay and two daughters where he loves to surf and spend time at the beach with his family and friends.