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Leave Your Century for a While

Why I Read Christian Biographies

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

During my first seven years in the pastoral ministry (1980–1987), I felt very green — inexperienced, and in some ways unprepared. Before coming to Bethlehem Baptist Church at the age of 34, I had never been a pastor. I was in school full time till I was 28 and then taught college Bible courses until God called me to the pastoral ministry.

“When I came to Bethlehem, I had never performed a funeral, stood by the bed of a dying person, or baptized anyone.”

In seminary, I had avoided pastoral courses and taken as many exegetical courses as I could, not at all expecting to be a pastor. When I came to Bethlehem, I had never performed a funeral, never stood by the bed of a dying person, never led a council of elders (or any other kind of council or committee), never baptized anyone, never done a baby dedication, and only preached a couple dozen sermons in my life. That’s what I mean by green.

Ear to the Past

During those first seven years, one of the ways I pursued wisdom for the pastoral work in front of me was the reading of pastoral biographies. For example, I devoured Warren Wiersbe’s two volumes Walking with the Giants: A Minister’s Guide to Good Reading and Great Preaching and Listening to the Giants: A Guide to Good Reading and Great Preaching. Together they contained over thirty short biographies of men in pastoral ministry.

But one of the most enjoyable and inspiring things I did to deepen my grasp of the pastoral calling was to listen to a master life-storyteller, Iain Murray. Murray had been a pastoral assistant with Martyn Lloyd-Jones in London and had served as a pastor in two churches in England and Australia. He is a co-founder of the Banner of Truth Trust, and has devoted a great part of his life to biographical writing.

He is well known for his biographies of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Jonathan Edwards, to mention only two. But not as many people know that Iain Murray is a master at taking an hour in a ministerial conference and telling the story of a great Christian in a way that instructs and inspires. For example, even today you can go online and find the (forty-plus-year-old) audio stories of Charles Spurgeon, Robert Dabney, William Tyndale, Ashbel Green, George Whitefield, John Knox, John Newton, William Jay, Thomas Hooker, and more.

Man with His Walkman

The latest technology in the early 1980s was the Walkman — a small cassette player that let me take Murray with me on my morning jogs or in the car. I listened to everything biographical I could get. This stoked the embers of my affections for biography.

It has always felt to me that biography is one of the most enjoyable, edifying, and efficient ways to read history. Enjoyable because we all love a good story, and the ecstasies and agonies of real life. Edifying because the faithfulness of God in the lives of contrite, courageous, forgiven sinners is strengthening for our own faith. Efficient because in a good biography, you not only learn about a person’s life, but also about theology, psychology, philosophy, ethics, politics, economics, and church history. So I have long been a lover of biography.

I could be wrong, but my own opinion is that my book 27 Servants of Sovereign Joy would not exist without the inspiring ministry of Iain Murray’s audio tapes. In 1987, it seemed to me that there was a need for a conference for pastors that would stir up a love for the doctrines of grace, a zeal for the beauty of the gospel, a passion for God-centered preaching, a commitment to global missions, and a joy in Christ-exalting worship.

A Series Is Born

The first Bethlehem Conference for Pastors took place in 1988. Inspired by Iain Murray, I gave a biographical message every year for the next 27 years. That is where the mini-biographies in 27 Servants come from (which means that all those chapters, and six more, can be heard in audio form at desiringGod.org).

“Christian biography is the means by which the ‘body life’ of the church cuts across the centuries.”

Throughout the year before each conference, I would read about the life and ministry of some key figure in church history. Then I would decide on some thematic focus to give unity to the message, and I would try to distill my reading into an hour-long message. The messages — and the edited versions — are unashamedly hortatory. I aim to teach and encourage. I also aim never to distort the truth of a man’s life and work. But I do advocate for biblical truths that his life illustrates.

My short biographies were published under the series title The Swans Are Not Silent, which comes from the biography of Augustine. When Augustine died, his successor felt so inadequate that he said, “The cricket chirps, the swan is silent.” The point of the series title is that, through biography, the swans are not silent! Augustine was not the only great voice that lives on. Thousands of voices live on. And their stories should be told and read.

Biblical Mandate

It would be wonderfully rewarding to me if I heard that your reading of biography brought you as much joy as I received in researching and writing them. If you need a greater incentive than that prospect, remember Hebrews 11. Surely this chapter is a divine mandate to read Christian biography. I wrote a chapter in Brothers, We Are Not Professionals that tried to make this case. It was titled “Brothers, Read Christian Biography.” I commented on Hebrews 11,

The unmistakable implication of the chapter is that if we hear about the faith of our forefathers (and mothers), we will “lay aside every weight and sin” and “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). If we asked the author, “How shall we stir one another up to love and good works?” (Hebrews 10:24), his answer would be: “Through encouragement from the living (Hebrews 10:25) and the dead (Hebrews 11:1–40).” Christian biography is the means by which the “body life” of the church cuts across the centuries.

Swans Not Silent

I think that what was said of Abel in Hebrews 11:4 can be said of any saint whose story is told: “Through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.” It has been a great pleasure as I have listened to the voices of the saints from the past. But not only a pleasure.

“Biographies have helped me feel that I was part of something much bigger than myself or my century.”

They have strengthened my hand in the work of the ministry again and again. They have helped me feel that I was part of something much bigger than myself or my century. They have showed me that the worst of times are not the last of times, and they made the promise visible that God works all things for our good. They have modeled courage and perseverance in the face of withering opposition. They have helped me set my face to the cause of truth and love and world evangelization. They have revived my love for Christ’s church. They have reinforced my resolve to be a faithful husband and father. They have stirred me up to care about seeing and savoring the beauty of God. They have inspired the effort to speak that beauty in a way that it doesn’t bore. They have quickened a love for Christian camaraderie in the greatest Cause in the world. And they did all this — and more — in a way that caused me to rejoice in the Lord and be glad I was in his sway and his service.

I pray that all of this and more will be your pleasure and your profit as you read or listen. For the swans are definitely not silent.