August 8, 2013

Dates, Doctrines, & Dead People (Part 2)

by Nathan Busenitz

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.

steeple2. Because God is at work in history. Conversely, history is a testimony to God’s sovereign providence.

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.

Click here to continue reading Part 3.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Tom

    Thank you for this post. The last two paragraphs remind me of Phil Ryken’s good book, “The Communion of Saints – Living in Fellowship with the People of God”. Not only in the present but also in the past through their writings.

  • Melissa Collins

    Truly enjoyed this!

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  • Ron G.

    Let’s test this out. Hi Nathan. I am watching your video’s on the History of Christian Theology 1 & 2. Excellent work and I will watch it twice as I read through Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church and the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

  • Ron G.

    I wrote my senior paper on Lordship Salvation “What it means to be a Christian” in 1992 at Nyack College. I also went to BJU for 1 1/2 years and finished with a B.A. degree in Bible at Nyack College. I was considering going to seminary at Asbury but instead I went to Wall Street.
    Comparing the Ryrie and MacArthur argument with the debates of Calvin, Wesley, Arminian, the early Church Fathers, Free-Will verses Predestination, Once Saved Always Saved, I stated that John MacArthur didn’t go far enough. His efforts to balance Antinomian Christianity (90% of churches today) with the Pelagian heresy, I don’t believe he gave the Biblical view. So if you have the time I will be humble yet beware of my hero Tertullian’s extreme Biblicist views. My hope is if we go down this Pilgrims path in the end we won’t consider who won but we understand the living Bible ever more and more.

  • Johnny

    “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. ” Right on! There’s so much richness to be gleaned from studying the history of the church before us, especially the lessons of persecution, the reality which we often take so much for granted. Eccumenicalism is fine and dandy until Rome starts enforcing her will through inquisition…

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  • Haram

    I know this is completely off topic, but this question has been bothering me for some time now, and I was wondering if anyone could give me an answer: whilst reading the Book of James, I came upon this line: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (2:26). Now here’s where I’m confused. From my understanding, righteousness is something that comes from belief in the message of the Gospel (i.e. faith), and it is the means by which we are saved. If I am correct, no work of ours can make us righteous (you can grow in sanctification, but not righteousness). But then how do we explain this verse above? It seems as if it is suggesting that salvation is attained through both works/deeds AND faith, which is something no Protestant would claim. I guess in other words, I am asking if this verse affirms the Roman Catholic belief of salvation through both faith and works. Thanks

    • Hi Haram,

      From my understanding, righteousness is something that comes from belief in the message of the Gospel (i.e. faith), and it is the means by which we are saved.

      That is a correct understanding, I would only add that true repentance accompanies this faith, as well, repentance and faith are a “gift of God” so that “no one can boast” (Eph 2:8-9) What James is pointing out in this passage is not that we must do works to be saved, but that since we have been saved, this is what our blood bought lives ought to look like–that we are doing those things that will glorify God and benefit the Body.

      In his commentary on James 2, particularly vs. 14-26 Matthew Henry says that James was speaking to a people who’s “temper of their minds and the tenour of their lives were altogether disagreeable to that holy religion which they professed. James was making a point, not stating a means of salvation. You may read Henry’s commentary here:

      That’s just the short, and, considering the authors and most of the readers of this blog, utterly un-scholarly answer, I hope it helps!

      Blessings ~

    • Charlie Frederico

      Hi Haram. James wrote that as the body is lifeless unless it has the human spirit in it, so faith is lifeless unless it has deeds with it-not for salvation, but for evidence of salvation. The point James is making in the paragraph from verses 14-26 is that some will say that they believe in Christ, and yet there will be no evidence of the justification that was supposed to have occurred in that person. If God declares a sinner just, He will also make the sinner increasingly just (Philippians 2:12-13). A true believer, one whom God has regenerated by His will, will have the Holy Spirit resident in him. He, the Spirit, will produce righteousness in the person to an increasing degree over the person’s lifetime (Galatians 5:22-23). You are right. No works of yours can make you righteous. In fact, however, no works of yours can make you righteous in reference to sanctification either. It is the work of the Father to sanctify, to make us righteous (John 17:17). He only sanctifies by faith-a submissive belief in God (Romans 6:17). That is, as we believe in Him (Philippians 3:8-11). Roman Catholic doctrine is corrupt in that they teach the essential need of a person to do something to become just. James is saying you can’t. However, when God does the impossible in you, you will, by His Spirit (1 John 3:9-10) have the resulting service to God evident in your behavior. You will love God, rejoice, proclaim Christ, hate sin. You will learn from Scripture and understand your responsibilities in life, i.e. family, work, etc. and do them with righteousness. God will produce a disdain in your heart for the world, and the things in the world (1 John 2:15). These are examples of the things that God will produce so as to give evidence of life that is in you.
      I hope this is helpful.
      Take care,

  • Really appreciate learning about church history, Nathan, thanks! I started listening to your lectures on this subject as well (thanks to Elaine Bit for the link! 🙂

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