Last week, we began a series articulating 10 reasons every Christian should learn more about church history. We started with the fact that most believers are clueless about church history, and that ignorance leaves them vulnerable to all sorts of error and misconception about the past. Today we will consider three more reasons why church history is important … and why it should matter to you.
Pardon the cliché, but it really is His story. Everything is working according to His plans, and He is orchestrating all of it for His eternal glory (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20–28). God declares Himself to be the Lord of history:
Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’ (Isaiah 46:9–10)
Studying church history reminds us that our God is on His throne. He reigns. He is perfectly accomplishing His purposes and providentially preserving His people and his truth in every generation. No matter how bad society becomes — no matter how antagonistic or immoral — we already know how history ends. What comfort there is in remembering that the Lord of history is working all things together for His glory and our good.
One of the greatest theological lessons any believer can learn is to rest in the sovereignty of God. The Scriptures are filled with examples of men and women who trusted God and acted upon their faith in Him (cf. Hebrews 11). Church history, likewise, consists of wonderful examples of faithful Christians whose lives are testimonies to the providential care of their heavenly Father.
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3. Because the Lord Jesus said He would build His church. To study church history is to watch His promise unfold.
In Matthew 16:15–18, we read:
[Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
The church is established on the gospel truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. The church’s unconquerable history is evidence that He is indeed who He claimed to be.
Commenting on that passage, John MacArthur says it well:
No matter how liberal, fanatical, ritualistic, apathetic, or apostate its outward adherents may be, and no matter how decadent the rest of the world may become, Christ will build His church. Therefore, no matter how oppressive and hopeless their outward circumstances may appear from a human perspective, God’s people belong to a cause that cannot fail.
The church is the only institution that Jesus ever established. That alone is reason enough to study church history. Moreover, His promise — that the gates of hell will never overpower the church — gives us reason to hope even when the church appears to be weak and infirm. At times, the contemporary evangelical landscape gives us reason to grow pessimistic and discouraged. But Christ’s promise keeps us optomistic, because our hope is in Him and not in the things of this world.
When we study church history we are reminded of those times when the gates of hell appeared ominous and threatening, and yet the church survived and prevailed through God’s power. When courageous Christians were severely persecuted to the point of death for the sake of the truth — or when Arianism threatened to overrun the Roman Empire and Athanasius stood, nearly alone, against the world — or when the sacramental system of the late-medieval church threatened to eclipse the gospel of grace — or when liberal theology infiltrated the universities of 19th- and 20th-century western society . . .
These and countless other examples embolden us to face today’s challenges and persecutions with the confidence of knowing that we belong to a cause that cannot fail.
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4. Because church history is our history as members of His body.
When we study the history of the church, we are not merely studying people, places and events, we are studying the history of the bride of Christ. If we belong to Christ, then we too are part of that bride. As Paul explained to the Ephesians:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25–27)
So when we study church history, we come to see who we are, where we’ve come from, and how we fit into flow of God’s kingdom work in the world. We are studying our spiritual family tree. The Lord Jesus Himself cares deeply about His bride (cf. Rev. 1–3), and we should too.
On a practical note, one of the great ways to remind ourselves that we are part of a body of believers that spans the centuries is through singing hymns. Along those lines, Carl Trueman’s suggestion is a good one:
Deliberately mine the historic tradition of psalmody and hymnody for worship. Not that anything written by anyone still alive is to be excluded. Far from it. But try to make sure the songs of worship reflect the chronological sweep of the church’s life, from the Book of Psalms onwards. Make people aware that praise did not begin six months ago.
When we sing hymns like Be Thou My Vision (a 6th-century Irish hymn) or O Sacred Head Now Wounded (penned by either Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century or Arnulf of Louvain in the 13th) or A Mighty Fortress (written by Martin Luther in the 16th century), we connect ourselves to the history of the church.
Knowing the history behind the hymns reminds us that we belong to the corporate body of believers, the universal church. And just as we have brothers and sisters across the world, we also have brothers and sisters from generations past who are now in heaven rejoincing around Christ’s throne. The study of church history allows us to meet them, as it were, as we read their testimonies and learn about their lives. It also reminds us that one day soon we will go to join with them in eternal praise, when we see our Savior face to face.
Studying the history of the church reminds us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, or our own local congregations, or even the century in which we live. We are part of the bride of Christ — and His bride consists of all the redeemed from every generation.