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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 gospelregeneration.com or follow him on Twitter @alexmartindean.

Eternity Changes Everything: An Interview with Stephen Witmer

In Eternity Changes Everything, you claim that, for Christians, a passion for our future in the new creation will affect our lives in the present. Why? Because we’re human, and humans inevitably live toward the future. The philosopher Peter Kreeft says we “live by hope. Our hearts are a beat ahead of our feet. Half of us is already in the future; we meet ourselves coming at us from up ahead.” I think he’s right. Just ask any school teacher whether an approaching summer vacation stays in the future. Of course not! Kids get restless and rowdy in the weeks before, because their future is impinging on their present. The future often gets to us (in our thoughts and feelings) before we get to it (in our actual experience).

Check out how all the practical exhortations of Romans 12-13 are framed by the call to not be conformed to “this age” and the call to “know the time,” that “the day is at hand.” When we’re living, and what we’re living toward, shapes how we’re living.

I was blown away when I read something George Marsden wrote in his biography of Jonathan Edwards: “If the central principal of Edwards’ thought was the sovereignty of God, the central practical motive in his life and work was his conviction that nothing was more momentous personally than one’s eternal relationship to God…He built his life around disciplines designed constantly to renew that eternal perspective.” Marsden then goes on to give some remarkable advice to those who want to better understand Edwards’ writings. He says if we think something Edwards has written seems harsh, difficult, or overstated, we should ask the question: “How would this issue look if it really were the case that bliss or punishment for a literal eternity was at stake?” My first response to reading Marsden’s advice was to wonder whether the life to come is so foundational to my thinking that it could serve as a key for people who want to understand who I am and what I say. I hope my life doesn’t make sense apart from the reality of the new creation. There’s a big problem if it does.

So, where do you see a need for improvement in how Christians think about the new creation?

Too many of us have bought into the wrong-headed notions of our culture. The other day in the children’s section of our local library, I saw a book on Heaven by Maria Shriver (yes, the Maria Shriver). The Heaven in this book is a place of fluffy clouds and disembodied existence. And that’s normal: Heaven is often thought of as solitary, static, and boring. In 2007, Starbucks printed on their paper cups some wickedly funny and surprisingly insightful lines from Joel Stein, a columnist at the Los Angeles Times: “Heaven is totally overrated. It seems boring. Clouds, listening to people play the harp. It should be somewhere you can’t wait to go, like a luxury hotel. Maybe blue skies and soft music were enough to keep people in line in the 17th century, but heaven has to step it up a bit. They basically are getting by because they only have to be better than hell.”

Of course, the Heaven Stein describes isn’t the biblical portrait of Heaven at all–it’s our modern, misconceived notion of Heaven. Some recent books–such as Randy Alcorn’s Heaven and N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope–have been really helpful in explaining the biblical teaching on Heaven, as well as distinguishing the present Heaven (where we go when we die) from the future new creation, which is a renewed creation in which we’ll live an embodied existence forever. The new creation will be an incredibly exciting place to live, and it will be great above all because God is there. We get God…forever. Yet, sadly, I’ve spoken with people who have been Christians for many years who don’t understand this biblical teaching about our ultimate future.

If we understand the greatness of our ultimate future in the new creation, and begin to long for it, how will this affect our living in the present?

It’s going to create two impulses: we’ll become more patient in waiting for the new creation, and simultaneously, we’ll become more restless in longing for it. That sounds like a contradiction. It’s not.

Why not?

Well, we often have this experience in life. When we’re convinced that something really, really good is coming to us, that certainty simultaneously lengthens our patience and heightens our restlessness. If you know Thanksgiving dinner is going to be absolutely fabulous, you’ll start anticipating it well before it’s on the table and on your plate. The smells emanating from the kitchen will make your mouth water. But–at the same time–because you know dinner will be phenomenally good, you won’t snack on Doritos. Who wants to fill up on junk food when turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce are on the way?! You’ll be patient.

Christians lived in a permanent and productive tension. We are a restlessly patient people, and that’s biblical. In Romans 8.23-25, Paul says the certain, glorious hope of the new creation makes us groan restlessly and wait patiently.

Why, and in what ways, do Christians fail to wait patiently for the new creation?

Two words: prosperity gospel.

We’re children of our culture, and most of us realize that our culture has a massive problem with waiting. The Dunkin Donuts in my town actually times their employees to the second on their drive-thru service so that customers get their donuts and coffee as fast as humanly possible. None of us are immune from this impatience. Have you ever exclaimed in dismay that your internet search took longer than two seconds? I have.

The radical impatience of our culture affects Christian theology and practice. I look around the Christian scene today and grieve at the huge influence of the prosperity gospel. There was a report in The Atlantic a few years ago that said 50 of America’s 260 largest churches preach a prosperity gospel. Apparently, 66 percent of Pentecostals and 43 percent of ‘other Christians’ think that God will bless the faithful with material wealth. Have they read Hebrews 10.34?! What the health and wealth teachers are telling you is that the new creation is available now. Their teaching is deeply flawed eschatology. The Scriptures reveal to us a God who often makes his people wait. There’s a whole biblical theology of waiting that the prosperity teachers completely miss.

Of course, we can’t just point the finger at the health and wealth teachers. In the course of writing this book, I was convicted of the personal, mini-prosperity gospels I create for myself by daily expecting good health, plentiful finances, friendly neighbors, and obedient children. I recently replaced the catalytic converter in our car (expensive!). Now the “check engine” light is on in our other car, indicating the same problem. How will I respond to that? Will I expect the new creation now, and grumble that I still live in an age where things fall apart and cars need repaired? Or will I be thankful to own two cars, and cheerfully patient for the coming age, when they’ll run forever (or be unnecessary).

Why, and in what ways, do Christians fail to yearn restlessly for the new creation?

We’re not restless enough for the new creation because–as I’ve said–we think it’s going to be boring. One long worship service. Or a millennia-long harp solo. Moreover, we’re not restless for the future because we’re absorbed with the lesser pleasures of our present. God has given us a future the size of the new creation. We shrink it down to the size of a long weekend or a Facebook page or a promotion at work. We settle for far less than God plans to give. Because we invest all our emotional energy and passion in our immediate future, we have none left for our ultimate future.

Christians of our generation do not spend nearly as much time thinking about our eternal future as did Christians in previous times. The Puritan Richard Baxter said that as he grew older, he meditated more frequently upon the “heavenly blessedness,” and that he preferred to “read, hear or meditate on God and heaven” more than any other subject. Stephen Nichols says that Jonathan Edwards was “consumed by heaven.” Are we? How much time in the last month have we devoted to reading about, praying about, longing for, the new creation? I wonder if, for most of us, we’d have to say it was less than five minutes.

What fruit does a restless longing for the new creation bear?

For one thing, it allows us to die well. I’ve been at enough deathbeds to know that if you’re not confident and excited about what’s coming next for you as a Christian when you die, you’re going to die clinging to this life rather than embracing the life to come. It’s really sad to watch people go that way, with their backs to God’s future. Christians with a passion for the new creation will die facing forward.

Restlessly longing for Heaven also allows us to live well. Richard Baxter said that the mind will be like what it most frequently feeds on. That’s so insightful. If you become absorbed in some mindless reality TV show, you’ll tend to become as flat and shallow as it is. But if you feed your mind on heaven, your soul will begin to look heavenly. For Baxter, heaven was more than a comfort when things in this life were tough–it was also a reality that produced present obedience and strengthened him against sin and temptation. I can testify to the latter in my own life. I remember vividly a time several years ago when my longing to see God in the future (Matt. 5:8) saved me from serious temptation. God’s promised future trumped inferior, sinful promises.

Final question: will too much focus on the new creation make Christians less engaged with this present world? Is there some truth in the old saying about being so heavenly-minded we’re no earthly good?

No, it’s exactly the opposite. C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.” Amen! A paradoxical Christian life of restless patience produces yet another beautiful paradox: we need this world less and love it more. And that love moves us into the world with fearless, fruitful productivity. But you’ll have to read the book to get the full story on this!

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Stephen Witmer is the author of Eternity Changes Everything: How to live now in the light of your future (Good Book Company). He is the pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, MA and teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter: @stephenwitmer1.

Help Support GCD

Dear Friends, Gospel-Centered Discipleship exists to publish resources that help make, mature, and multiply disciples of Jesus. That is our heart. Our board members and staff pray daily that we will continue to resource the Church to this end.

And we have seen God answer these prayers in tangible ways. Over the past year, we:

  • Saw over 250,000 visits to GCDisicpleship.com, a nearly 30% increase from the previous year.
  • Increased book sales, with our last two books becoming #1 bestsellers on Amazon.
  • Increased our reach, as we donated the rights to two of our books (Raised? and The Unbelievable Gospel) to a larger publisher with greater marketing potential.
  • Published our articles into foreign languages, including Spanish and Swedish.
  • Distributed 1,000 copies of Make, Mature, Multiply to a church in Houston to help launch their new discipleship initiative.

God has blessed our work this year. We give him all the praise for this fruit.

Free and Reduced Resources

We join with the Apostle Paul in saying, “What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:18). We are working hard to make all of GCD’s resources freely available as often as possible. Our hundreds of articles are, and will continue to be, free. While we charge for books, we price them below market value so that we can get them into as many hands as possible. Serving the Church in this way is our primary goal.

However, providing these resources free or at a reduced cost is not free to us. Like Paul’s ministry (2 Cor. 11:7-8), GCD is a donor-supported ministry. Publishing books, running websites, and creating resources costs us about $15,000 every year.

Partnering with Us

Will you consider financially supporting this work? We need to raise $15,000 over the next three months to keep this work going for another year. All gifts to Gospel-Centered Discipleship are tax-deductible and will be used to create more material that helps make, mature, and multiply disciples of Jesus.

If you’re interested in partnering with us, here are two ways you can give:

  • Online: click here to make a donation online. You or your ministry can make a one-time gift of any amount, or a monthly recurring gift.
  • Mail: make checks payable to City Life Church c/o GCD, and mail to: P.O. Box 19594 Austin, TX 78760.

Thank you for all that you do to help us serve the church with gospel-centered resources. Through purchasing our books, distributing our resources, and referring us to other friends, you’re helping us fulfill the work God has entrusted to us. Please pray that we will be faithful to steward this calling with excellence.

Yours in Christ,

The Board of Gospel-Centered Discipleship

Brandon Smith Jonathan Dodson Brad Watson Austin Becton

Top 10 Articles of 2013

As 2013 comes to an end, here are the 10 most-read articles of the past year. Thank you to all of you who allow us the blessing of serving you!

1. 5 Things Mistaken for Evangelism - Mark Dever

2. The Introverted Evangelist - Seth McBee

3. 9 Myths of Discipleship - Zachary Lee

4. Spiritual Warfare Prayer - Winfield Bevins

5. How Kids Learn to Follow Jesus - Seth McBee

6. 5 Lies That Kill Obedience - Brad Watson

7. 7 Ways to Keep Your Missional Community from Multiplying - Seth McBee

8. Why I'm Tired of Church Planting - Seth McBee

9. 6 Lessons I Learned as a Rookie Pastor - R.D. McClenagan

10. How Jesus Made Disciples - Winfield Bevins

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Brandon Smith (@BrandonSmith85) is Director of GCD, Associate Editor at The Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, and Director of Communications at Criswell College. He is proud to be Christa’s husband and Harper Grace’s daddy.

Top Articles of November

  Here are our most-read articles of November:

1. 5 Things Mistaken for Evangelism - Mark Dever

Here is a helpful clarification on what evangelism is and is not.

2. 9 Myths of Discipleship - Zach Lee

We all have reasons why we don't disciple others.

3. 5 Ways to Grace Your Workplace - Nick Abraham

Tips from a Fortune 500 employee on how to live the gospel in your workplace.

4. The Idol of Hospitality - Danielle Brooks

It's a great gift to your friends to serve them well, but not at the expense of the gospel.

5. When a Comma Puts Us in a Coma - Robby Gallaty

Sometimes the smallest things make the biggest impact in our efforts to disciple.

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Brandon Smith (@BrandonSmith85) is Director of GCD, Associate Editor at The Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, and Director of Communications at Criswell College. He is proud to be Christa’s husband and Harper Grace’s daddy.

Top Articles of October

 

1. I Hate My Church - Seth McBee

If you feel like you have to leave your church, here's a godly way to do it.

2. Parenting & Grocery Store Tantrums - Gino Curcuruto

All parents know what it's like to have their kids throw tantrums in public. The question is, how should we as parents respond?

3. Your Church Doesn't Need Followers - Jason Garwood

Are you making disciples of your church or of Jesus?

4. Revising the Popular Phrase "In, but Not of" - David Mathis

We've all heard this phrase, but here's a better alternative: "Not of, but sent into."

5. Entering the Harvest - Logan Gentry

This is a great primer on becoming an evangelist, including four ways in which God may have wired you to evangelize.

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Brandon Smith (@BrandonSmith85) is Director of GCD, Associate Editor at The Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, and Director of Communications at Criswell College. He is proud to be Christa's husband and Harper Grace's daddy.