Jonathan Edwards wearing a mini-scarf

Christians love their heroes. We always have. Whether it’s Moses, Paul, Athanasius, St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, John Piper, Francis Chan, or Preston Sprinkle (one of my personal favorites)—we love hearing about these heroes of the faith and being challenged by their zeal, knowledge, and unbreakable faith.

I’m not sure how big of a business Christian biography really is, but I’ve gone through a few biography stages in the last decade, and I know many others have as well. There is so much that is good and helpful about examining the lives of the godly men and women who have gone before us, but I don’t think I need to sell any of you on the validity of Christian biographies (If I’m way off on that, by the way, leave a comment and I’ll write a post to that effect). What I want to do here is offer a few cautions about reading biographies.

 

Don’t forget that even heroes are human. Some biographies are excellent at presenting heroes of the faith realistically. In other words, they present a hero’s weaknesses along with his strengths. This is incredibly healthy. Some biographies read more like hagiographies (writings about saints). They show all of the hero’s strengths and make him seem perfect. St. Francis of Assisi was worthy of imitation in many ways, but he wasn’t perfect. Neither is John Piper. So while we should look up to these great Christians, it is unhelpful and inaccurate to view them as superhuman. Nothing is gained by viewing a historical figure as better than he or she really was.

 

Don’t read biographies moralistically. There are moral lessons to be learned by reading Christian biographies, but we still shouldn’t approach biographies moralistically. I have often heard the sentiment (whether expressed explicitly or implicitly) that if we could only be as disciplined as Jonathan Edwards, if we could only be as bold as Martin Luther, if we could only be as prayerful as Hudson Taylor, then we would see revival.

Let’s imitate the discipline, boldness, and prayerfulness of such Christians, but we would be foolish to suppose that adopting a few character traits moralistically is going to change anything. True change comes through the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us. Don’t assume that you can discipline yourself into being the next Apostle Paul.

Hebrews 11 is commonly referred to as the “Hall of Faith.” Here the author of Hebrews holds up a number of faithful figures from the Old Testament for our consideration. But we must be careful to notice that it’s not the moral perfection of these men and women that is being praised as worthy of imitation—it’s their faith. Hebrews 11 is a call to faith, it isn’t a call to moral discipline.

 

Don’t forget that these heroes are dead. Okay, not all of the heroes I listed above are dead. But my point is that these men and women have all been used by God at unique times and in unique settings. You shouldn’t do exactly what St. Francis of Assisi did, because God called him to a specific type of ministry in the midst of a specific historical context. The same is true for all of the others, from Jonathan Edwards to Francis Chan. The value of Christian biography is lost if we merely imitate what our heroes did. Our task is to pursue the same God that our heroes pursued with the same passion and faith with which our heroes pursued him, and then to let the Spirit direct us and empower us for exactly what He wants to do in and through us in our unique historical and cultural setting.

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Mark Beuving

Mark Beuving currently serves as Associate Pastor at Creekside Church in Rocklin, CA. Prior to going back into pastoral ministry, Mark spent ten years on staff at Eternity Bible College as a Campus Pastor, Dean of Students, and then Associate Professor. Mark now teaches online adjunct for Eternity. He is passionate about building up the body of Christ, training future leaders for the Church, and writing. Though he is interested in many areas of theology and philosophy, Mark is most fascinated with practical theology and exploring the many ways in which the Bible can speak to and transform our world. He is the author of “Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music” and the co-author with Francis Chan of “Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples.” Mark lives in Rocklin with his wife and two daughters.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for posting this, Mark! I haven’t actually read a biography on a Christian since I was required to read about Hudson Taylor in AWANA… 10 years ago. Is there one or two biographies you would recommend as must-reads?

    • I would say the best place to start is with Piper’s “The Swans Are Not Silent” series.

      (http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=the+swans+are+not+silent)

      Each biography is brief, powerful, and realistic.

      George Marsden’s biography on Jonathan Edwards is excellent, as is Ian Murray’s “The Forgotten Spurgeon.” “Worldly Saints” by Leland Ryken is an excellent and realistic portrayal of the Puritans in general. Leonard Verduin’s “The Reformers and their Stepchildren does the same thing with the Reformers and Anabaptists.

      You already know about Tucker’s book “From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya,” but it’s an excellent overview of the history of missions in short biographical snippets.

      That’s for starters. There are plenty of great biographies out there. If anyone else wants to recommend some good biographies they’ve read, it could be helpful to everyone if you post it as a comment.

  2. “it’s not the moral perfection of these men and women that is being praised as worthy of imitation—it’s their faith. Hebrews 11 is a call to faith, it isn’t a call to moral discipline.”…AMEN! and thank you – i can’t be reminded of this too many times!

  3. I am surprised you got through this whole post without a Francis A. Schaeffer name drop.
    Also, just a side note, most the people mentioned in Hebrews 11 would be seen as pretty immoral when considering things they did in their life!
    Thanks for the article Mark!