The Pastor and His Study, Part 1

Desiring God 1996 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor and His Study

I’m very thankful to be here. It’s a true joy to us, my wife and I. We arrived on Saturday. We’ve had a most refreshing and encouraging weekend here at Bethlehem. I’ve often thought about brethren back in Britain and wish that they could be here with us. It is a great opportunity, I believe, to meet in conferences like this, and we do honestly pray that God will help us, that we’ll not meet in vain, that he will meet with us. I’ve been given a great subject tonight, and I pray that I’ll be able to help you with it.

A Provision in the Wilderness

It strikes me that we meet as strangers, most of us to each other’s faces, certainly me to you. We are strangers to each other’s situations, to each other’s circumstances, but I’m quite sure that if we were all to share our present experience, we’re all from situations where we have real difficulties. Paul went back through Lystra and Iconium, Antioch, exhorting the disciples, telling them that through much tribulation they must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). It would be very surprising to me if any of you brethren come here tonight without the consciousness of real difficulties in the situation where you are laboring for the Lord Jesus Christ. And that has always been so. John Bunyan said many years ago, “The milk and honey lie beyond this present wilderness.”

Although he said that, he knew that God had made provision in the wilderness for us, and he gives a wonderful sketch of what that provision is, as you will remember, in his Pilgrim’s Progress. You’ll recall in the early part of The Pilgrim’s Progress when Christian pilgrim was just beginning to confront his difficulties. “He was troubled,” says Bunyan, “lest he should be torn in pieces by lions.” As he was thus proceeding, he went on his way. And Bunyan says, “Behold, there was a very stately palace before him, the name of which was beautiful.”

And as Pilgrim arrives at the gate of the palace, he meets the porter, and the porter tells him that it was built by the Lord of the hill for the relief and the security of pilgrims. So Christian goes into the Palace Beautiful. He spends a night in a large upper chamber towards the sun rising. And in the morning, do you remember what is the first thing that his hosts did for him? Bunyan says, “They first had him enter the study of the Palace Beautiful, this gray room with books and records, for the comfort and the solace of pilgrims.”

Now you see what he’s doing. Here we are making our way on pilgrimage while difficulties beset us, but God has made provision for us. There is a beautiful castle, and there’s a room in that castle. Bunyan, of course, is speaking for all Christians. "All Christians need to come and spend time in the study of the Palace Beautiful. But if Bunyan were here and speaking to ministers, he would tell us for sure that this study is our special abode. We have the wonderful privilege of spending much time in the study of this Palace Beautiful. I’ve been asked to speak a little tonight about some of the things that may be found on the shelves in that study and what books are of help to preachers, and how we are to use our books.

Watchful of Our Motives

Well, by way of introduction, I have just a few preliminary points. The first is this: it seems to me that with regard to reading, we must always be careful about our motives. I don’t think we can ever cease to be careful. By which I mean that we can always do the right things or desire the right things for the wrong motives. Simon Magus said, “Give me this power that on whomever I lay my hands he may receive the Holy Ghost” (Acts 8:19). We may acquire power and influence and reputation through our reading, but it’s a very unworthy thing for a gospel minister to be reading anything for that motive.

We have to have knowledge in order that we ourselves are transformed. It is the devil who has knowledge without sanctification. The purpose of knowledge is practical. It is to lead us to know God, the wisdom that cometh from above. Knowledge is for moral transformation, and so that we can feed and help God’s people. So let us beware of knowledge that is read for its own sake, knowledge that puffeth up, and knowledge that is motivated by the pride which Simon Magus knew.

The Brevity of Time

That’s one preliminary thought. Another is this: it seems to me that when we talk about books we are immediately reminded of the brevity of time. I don’t know anything in my home that reminds me more forcibly of the brevity of time than just taking a look at my bookshelves. I don’t know what happened here in the States, but about 150 years ago in England, it was quite common for publishers and printers to put out books with the pages uncut so that as you read you had to rip them open. Maybe it was true here too. I’ve bought books that are 150 years old, and to my astonishment, not a page perhaps was cut. How many people owned them, how many people bought them, and no one read them?

Well, I confess to you, as a young man, I was pretty critical of those book owners, but now I can understand it. Life is very short indeed, and it’s quite certain that we will leave this world with many, many good books totally unread. That’s a certainty. We are reminded of the brevity of time. I believe that a great mark of a genuine student is that he knows the brevity of time. It was said of Gresham Machen of Princeton and Westminster that he always carried a book in his pocket.

Well, that’s a good example for a gospel minister. We need habits of reading, and I believe unless we acquire those habits when we’re young, there’s a real danger that we will never get them. If we leave it to a middle age, we’re getting perhaps past the point when we feel like tackling the great authors. I hope that isn’t true, but habits of reading are important.

A System of Reading

Now, something follows from that point, and that’s the fact that if our reading is to be useful, we need to have some system for recalling what we’ve read. What we read today we may need to garner and use in 10 years time, or whatever. I’m a great believer in the fact we should never read without a pencil in our hand. If we’re reading something that we don’t need to remember, then we’re wasting our time. We should be reading with a pencil in our hand.

Permit me to put in as an aside, I did say a pencil and not a pen. If you men have sons and you’ll have grandsons — and some of you already have no doubt — any secondhand book dealer will tell you that a book marked all over and scored with ink is not much use to anyone else. If you mark it in pencil, you never know who can use it profitably in years to come. They can rub out your pencil if they don’t like it. But that is an aside.

Certainly, we need a system of marking. We need to make our own little index. We need some kind of retrieval system. I’m not going to tell you what it is because I’m quite sure we have different methods, and it’s very good that we should have different methods. But the one thing that is criminal is to put our records on little bits of paper that will have no permanency at all. I was very impressed some years ago in New College, Edinburgh looking into some of the archives. There was a metal box there which had a number of items from M’Cheyne’s study and desk, the papers he left when he died in 1843, and all his notes of his reading. And they are as usable today as when he put them down. He used a hard cover notebook. He filled up one notebook, then he went to another. It was in perfect, permanent condition. Now, whatever system you use, let us be careful that we have some retrieval system that’s going to last us lifelong.

All of Life in the School of God

A fourth brief preliminary point is this: I’m sure we do not need to be reminded that books are not the only means by which God teaches us. Our whole lives as Christians are under God’s tuition. We are learning. We are learning many things not from books, but from experience. We are learning through friends. We are learning through trials. We are learning through the demands of our ministry. We are learning by illness perhaps, or the sickness of loved ones. We are learning by sudden removals to other places. There are innumerable ways in which God is teaching us. So we are not bookish in the sense that we think books are the exclusive way by which we learn. Certainly not.

But it is a wonderful thing how God’s general providence in our lives harmonizes with our reading. I do believe that God’s providence directs books to us at points when we must need them. It’s simply a fact of history that the turning point in the life of many gospel ministers has been a single book. You could think of George Whitfield as a student at Oxford. Henry Scougal’s book, The Life of God in the Soul of Man was the book that turned Whitfield around and prepared him for his great usefulness.

In May of 1738, on Aldersgate Street in London, John Wesley was reading Luther on Galatians. It was a great turning point. One of the Scottish evangelicals of the 18th century was Thomas Boston. And as many of you will know, Boston discovered a copy of The Marrow of Modern Divinity, an old Puritan book on a windowsill in a cottage in the south of Scotland, and that book brought light to Boston and was the beginning of a great missionary outreach in Scotland and indeed beyond.

You may think of many other instances, and I can in my own experience, when a book has come in God’s time into our hands. And because we recognize that providence, I do believe we need to be very cautious about laying down reading programs, because we’re all at different stages. God gives us personal tuition, and what a wonderful thing that is. So we mustn’t be over-impressed by the recommendations of publishers or conference speakers. We are all being led in our own way and at God’s time. I can think of books that I was urged to read and could make nothing of, not because they weren’t outstanding books, but simply because it wasn’t the time when I could really profit from them.

As a young Christian, I owned a copy of Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections. I must have had it for perhaps 20 years before I really began to profit from it. Today I think it’s easily one of the most valuable books that was ever written. Absolutely. But I can’t say that anyone here who doesn’t believe that is wrong. I may say you may just have to wait a little. We are all at different stages. It’s true that God’s providence is guiding us, so we need to bear that in mind.

Priority in Reading

Now, let me come down to priority in reading. Here’s a great fundamental point. I’m speaking of priority. By that I mean, of course, that there is no question about which book comes first. One volume stands apart, one book is divine revelation, one book has the words of eternal life, and one book has the words by which we shall be judged on the last day.

This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night . . . (Joshua 1:8, all Scripture references are in the KJV).

As preachers, we discuss, I’m sure, how the gospel can be restored to the life of communities and nations. It’s a very true question. But I believe the answer is always the same. It’s as God brings his word back to the hearts of preachers. It’s as the Bible becomes central to our thinking and speaking and living. It is that way and that way only that every great movement of the Spirit has originated. It was said of Martin Luther that he read the Bible more earnestly than anyone had read it for 1,000 years.

That was common amongst the reformers. They were Bible men. Those who were martyred — and not a few were — spent their last days in prison reading their Bibles, frequently the Greek New Testament. I mentioned John Wesley, let me return to him. In 1738, he read Luther on Galatians. In 1740, the beginning of the evangelical revival came on both sides of the Atlantic, almost simultaneously. By 1747, when John Wesley published his first volume of sermons, the awakening had spread far and wide. One result of that spreading was that Wesley had had the door slammed on him in Oxford. He was an Oxford don. He used to preach in the university church and so on, but not after 1744 when he had preached there on Acts 4.

But what Wesley and Whitfield and these other men did was to break the current agenda. Do you understand that Oxford in the 1740s was a very intellectual place? They weren’t fools or ignoramuses, they were sophisticated scholars of men. And here were Methodists who simply believed that quoting and preaching the Bible was all that was needed. That’s right. So when Wesley published that first volume in 1747, he said this in the preface:

To candid, reasonable men, I am not afraid to lay open what have been the inmost thoughts of my heart. I have thought, I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and am returning to God. I want to know one thing: the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me that way. For this very end, he came down from heaven. He has written it down in a book. O, give me that book. At any price, give me the book of God.

And so he goes on. That’s what lay at the center of the evangelical revival. The Bible was brought back, and was treated with the authority which belongs to it.

Be Much in the Bible

I have here a page from the Life of Edward Griffin, who was so greatly used in the Second Great Awakening. Griffin was the first minister of Park Street, Boston. He was writing to the minister at Northampton, where Jonathan Edwards, of course, had pastored some years earlier. This younger minister had written to Griffin asking advice on his future studies. He said he was ready to pursue new studies and he wanted some insight from Griffin. This is what Griffin said:

I doubt much whether I would enter it present on any new plan of studies beyond those which are strictly theological. If you can prevail to imbue that great people (Northampton) with divine truth and make the truth triumph where President Edwards fell and bring them by the side of Brainard to pray as Brainard prayed, you will have performed a work great enough for an angel’s powers. And you may then go to heaven, and the church will bless God that you ever had existence.

He is saying, “Be much in prayer and make yourself deeply acquainted with the Scriptures.” I don’t think it was exactly the advice the young man was expecting, but surely it was right. “Give yourself to the Bible,” Griffin is saying. “Be sure you know it. Be sure you have it in your mind and heart so you can preach it freely.” And this is our great need, brethren. It’s so easy to read about the Bible rather than actually study the Bible itself. We ought all to be ashamed that we don’t know God’s word better. There’s not a Christian minister, I believe, when he came to die who thought that he had spent too much time with the pure text of the word of God. I’m afraid there can be little doubt that a great deal of our poverty is due to our inadequate knowledge of Scripture.

In Scotland in days past, there were just ordinary laboring men who had a tremendous grasp of Scripture. They knew it, memorized it, and understood it. I think of one man whose name was Donald Munro. He had been a fiddler before he was converted, a musician on the Island of Skye. One occasion, there was a communion service in Loch Carron, some miles away. People in those days used the communion time as a time of fellowship, rather like a conference. People assembled and walked 30, 40, or 50 miles, and they hoped they would find accommodation when they got there. There weren’t planned as these conferences are planned. One man heard of this communion time at Loch Carron.

He got there in the evening. There was no accommodation proper to be had, but he was told that there were a number of men sleeping in the barn and he was welcome to join them in the barn if he wished. Well, he was glad to do so. So they settled down and slept well enough until some early hour in the morning. When it was still pitch black, some voice said, “Let us pray, brethren.” And in the darkness, there was an earnest, seraphic prayer. And then, and this is what astonished him, he said, “Let us hear the Word of God.” And a whole chapter of Scripture was recited in the darkness without a candle. Well, the truth was it was Donald Munro, and I didn’t tell you; he was totally blind. But he had so much of the Scripture in his heart. To someone in the darkness, it sounded as though he was simply reading the Word of God.

Study in the Original Languages

Well, that was not uncommon in the former days. But these days, one fears the word of God no longer has the priority that it must have in all our lives. Let me read you a few words from Adolphe Monod, a French Protestant Evangelical preacher in the middle of the last century. When he was dying, he dictated a little book that became known as Adolphe Monod’s Farewell. It’s made up of reflections and some regrets. He has a whole chapter on his view of the word of God. Now, he puts his speech into the third person, but this is what he says:

Of the many things he wishes he had done and would do otherwise if he were recalled from his half open grave, this is one of the most important: “Ah, how differently I ought to have acted with regard to the word of God. How much more I ought to have studied it. How much better I ought to be acquainted with it, in order to live it out more and communicate it to others. O, how can we sufficiently venerate this book and give it the attention it deserves?

Now, let me add as a writer to that that insofar as we are able, we should all use the original languages. It’s a great regret to me that I haven’t given more time to the original languages. A.T. Robertson has a fine book called The Minister and His Greek New Testament. In his preface in the opening chapter to that book, he makes a statement which I believe cannot be gainsaid. Robertson says:

There is no sphere of knowledge where one is repaid more quickly for all the toil expended.

Spurgeon says, “It is a great pity that more Christian people do not master New Testament Greek.” That’s too important to pass over. I won’t develop it, but it ought to be very high on our agenda.

Suggestions for Saving Time

Now I want to move on to some suggestions regarding means of saving time. Whether you believe them or not, to my mind, they’re proven. Alexander White used to say, “Read the best books and only the best.” But the question is, how do you know them, and how do you find that out without wasting a lot of time first? There are no easy answers, but I do have two personal rules which I think are worth passing on.

Avoid Books Claiming Special Insight

These are rules for saving time, and the first is this: A book which claims to have a key from outside Scripture to give us a new understanding of the Bible is a book that is generally a waste of time.

Now, it comes in all kinds of forms. Some tell you that you can’t understand what Paul means by a certain subject unless you know the culture of the Greek and Roman world. Some tell you that you can’t understand Deuteronomy unless you know more about the archeology of Assyria or whatever. It could be the Roman Catholic who tells you that the Bible isn’t enough, but you must interpret it with the magisterium, you must have the tradition, you need something else. Now there are endless variations, all kinds of keys, and many of them are promising wonderful new insights into Scripture if only we will grasp them. Some, of course, are extreme and are pure crackpots, like people who tell us if we understood the numerics of the pyramids, then we’d have marvelous new insight.

Now, I admit there may be grains of help here and there, but time is short, and I think any book that parades itself as giving us a key which lies outside of Scripture to interpret the Scripture, is mostly a sheer waste of time. It’s a sheer waste of time because it contradicts Scripture’s own testimony. Scripture is given that the man of God might be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto every good work (2 Timothy 3:16–17). That’s true of Scripture. Taking the Bible alone, comparing Scripture with Scripture, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, we have a book which will make us thoroughly furnished. So the Westminster Confession says in its majestic language:

The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for God’s own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture or by good and necessary consequence may be derived from Scripture; unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.

That’s the sufficiency of the word of God. Well, to me that’s a helpful thought, and I think it is a tragedy the time, the money, and the souls that are lost because people are led away by specious claims of new insight that is drawn far from Scripture and is supposedly essential for us. I don’t believe it, and I hope you don’t believe it either.

Avoid Books Lacking Unction

Now, another rule is this: books which have little unction about them are generally of no use for preachers. Now I say generally because I admit that grammars, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and books of that kind are not books that we expect to find unction in. So I’m not saying you don’t use those books, but speaking generally, books that are going to help preachers are books that have unction to them. That is why I believe that one century can benefit so much from the books of another century, from a distant age. Because there’s something in those books that’s living and which searches us and moves us and stirs us.

Whitfield said that in the 18th century. He was recommending the works of John Bunyan written 100 years before. Whitfield said:

These books were written under the cross. These men of the last century were men who had something of the Spirit of Christ and of glory resting upon them. They in a special manner wrote and preached as men having authority. Though dead by their writings, they still speak. A peculiar unction attends them to this very hour. Without pretending to the spirit of prophecy, we may venture to affirm that they will live and flourish when more modern performances of a country cast, notwithstanding their gaudy and tinsel trappings, will languish and die in the esteem of those whose understandings are opened to discern what comes nearest to the scriptural standard.

Spurgeon uses this unction test when he’s reviewing a volume of the Pulpit Commentary in the 1880s. The Pulpit Commentary was a very prestigious commentary at that time. It’s no longer spoken of, I guess, but a great fanfare of trumpets heralded it in the 1880s. Spurgeon was reviewing the second volume on John’s Gospel with the Reverend Reynolds and Professor Croskery as the writers. Spurgeon says:

The good men who wrote the exposition and outlines have in no case erred on the side of too spiritual an interpretation. John’s Gospel is a book in which the teaching is spiritual to a very high degree, and the great qualification for expounding it is not so much learning as much as unction from the Holy One. We will not say these divines know very little of unction, but assuredly we see small traces of it in their volume. The modern spirit has a tendency to dry up the Scriptures and to leave them like the skins of grapes when all the juice has been trotted out in the wine press. What they have seen and written is good of its sort, but an hour with Hutchinson is worth a month of Croskery

Now, by Hutchinson, he means the Puritan who wrote on the Gospel of John in the 1650s. Spurgeon continues:

Commentators of the present age may be more critical than their predecessors, but they’re not more edifying and improving. We are growing so wise that soon we shall be ashamed of everything savory and sustaining.

Well, I think that’s a good test, brethren. We may get snippets out of books where there’s no action, but we want to read authors who have real reverence for Scripture. You can think of modern commentators like Linsky and Hendrickson, men of that stamp. I do think the unction test is a fair test, and if we apply it, we’ll save ourselves a great deal of time.

Guidance in reading

Now, I want to move on to two general principles for guidance and reading, and the first is especially connected with you younger brethren. I believe it’s a right principle that especially in our earlier years we need to have a doctrinal framework by which we judge our reading.

Depth in Our reading

We need to have fixed points of reference. We shouldn’t come at our reading with a kind of open mind that’s ready to listen to anything. I do believe that one of the great current problems of the church is a sheer lack of discernment. People are ready to pick up a book if only it gives them some secret to have success and how to fill their church, completely contrary to what the apostle says: “Be no more children, tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). We need to have fixed positions.

Now, let me illustrate this from Spurgeon. To me it’s an amazing thing that Spurgeon was so useful at such an early age. At 21 he was probably the leading minister in Britain, and he was a humble young man. He was mature. He didn’t go after anything fanciful, and didn’t preach anything original. How did that happen? Well, he tells us in his autobiography how in his mid-teens something happened to him. He came to learn a system of doctrine called the doctrines of grace. He says:

I can recall the very day and the hour when I first received those truths into my own soul, when they were, as John Bunyan says, burnt into my heart as with a hot iron. And I can recollect how I felt I had grown suddenly from a babe to a man, that I had made progress in scriptural knowledge through having found once for all the clue to the truth of God.

One weeknight when I was sitting in the house of God, I was not thinking much about the preacher’s sermon, for I did not believe it. The thought struck me, “How did you come to be a Christian?” I thought, “I sought the Lord.” Then came the thought, “But how did you come to seek the Lord?” The truth flashed across my mind in a moment. I should never have sought him unless there had been a previous influence in my mind to make me seek him. Then I saw that God was at the bottom of it all, that he was the author of my faith. And so, the whole doctrine of grace opened up to me, and from that doctrine, I have not departed to this day.

Now, when that happened as Spurgeon, it led him into a position in which the whole heritage of partisan, Reformed, Puritan literature became his own. Instead of looking upon those older writers as archaic and irrelevant, he understood them. They were his heritage. He had fixed points, and as he says, he never moved from them.

Through the Grid of Sound Doctrine

Now, the same thing happened with Martin Lloyd Jones. When Dr. Lloyd Jones left medicine, he went straight into the pastorate, and the year was 1927. All kinds of different theories and views were in the air. He was conscious of how little he knew, how little he had read, and how easily he could be diverted. And so, he determined to make the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist fathers of the 18th century his guide, to use them as a sort of benchmark. So everything that was urged upon him or told him, he would check it out with the Calvinistic Methodist fathers.

What I’m saying is that when we are in our younger years, we need to dig deep, we need to know our position doctrinally so that our reading is focused within that. If anyone was to ask me as a younger man here today what other authors could be used as benchmarks, I would urge the consideration of the Princeton men. Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, and B. B. Warfield are great benchmarks. Three books worth getting would be Alexander’s Religious Experience, A.A. Hodge’s Outlines of Theology, Warfield’s Biblical Doctrines. If a young man gets hold of those books and they get hold of him, I believe that he’s got something for life.

In case anyone thinks that Princeton is a little too Presbyterian, let me give you another quote from Spurgeon. Spurgeon said:

We have had of late years no abler theologians than the Hodges. We fear there will be many a day before we see their like. Finer minds than those of the Princeton shooters have seldom dwelt among the sons of men. No better textbook of theology for colleges and private use is not extant than Hodges Outlines. O, for more Princeton theology, for it is the word of God.

Breadth in Our Reading

I’ll give you another general principle. I recommended narrowness in reading, and now I’m going to appear to contradict myself and recommend the importance of breadth in reading. It’s not really a contradiction because I’m thinking rather of different times in our lives. I do think when we’re young we don’t want breadth so much as depth. If we don’t have strong convictions when we’re young men, we are not likely to get them later on. We can start off keeping ourselves to the great historic teachers of Christianity. We don’t need breadth so much when we start, but we do need to go on to something broader, because, of course, there are dangers in being exclusively and permanently narrow. We can set up authors as our heroes, we can treat them as authorities, and that is no good for anyone.

And as we go on with our reading, we find that it’s not as simple as we thought it was when we were young. I don’t know how you brethren find it, but I know when I was young I could tell you pretty accurately a good author and a bad author. But it’s not so easy when experience grows on you, because the truth is, you see, that some authors are very good in some areas and they may be woefully weak in others.

If you read Augustine Against the Pelagians, what powerful material it is. It’s valuable to this day. But if you read Augustine On the Sacraments, you’ll discover why the church of the Middle Ages were so misdirected. The same man had such lucidity in some areas of exposition and in others he went so woefully astray. Richard Baxter is another example. What a wonderful tonic it is to get down Baxter’s practical writings. When we are feeling dull, take up Baxter. But if you want to understand the doctrine of justification, Baxter is the last man you should ever turn to. He’s a labyrinth. It’s not even clear that he himself understood what he was saying.

Spurgeon was a great recommender of Methodist writings, Wesleyan Methodists like John Wesley and so on. It wasn’t for their theology, but for their devotion to Christ, for their prayerfulness, for the fire that’s in them. I had a dear friend who was at the end of his life and he had a prayerful wish that he would live long enough to finish his reading of John Wesley’s letters. He was enjoying them so much. Now, that’s right, we need to spread our reading, we need breadth. It helps us to realize that we’re to call no man father upon earth. We’re to love all Christians. We’re to understand that no group and no denomination has all light on every subject.

Be definite, be somewhat narrow in the earlier years, and have fixed points, but then realize, too, the importance of breadth. All books that have the evidence of Christ’s Spirit upon them will help us in many different ways.

Reading Church History

Now I want to pass on to reading church history, and say a little bit more about this. Seems to me that church history does tend to be a casualty in preachers’ reading, because someone might say, “We can’t preach church history, that’s not what we’re in pulpits to do. So why read it at all?” Let me give a few reasons why I believe it is most important that we have, all of us, some real, ongoing acquaintance with church history.

Assessment of Various Authors

The first reason is knowledge of church history is indispensable if we are going to assess authors of different periods. We’re all men of our times, and authors are men of their times. Christian literature from different periods has its own characteristics. The Reformation period focuses on the recovery of the gospel. What do we find in the writings of the Reformers? Fresh, lively, new presentation of the gospel, of the righteousness of Christ. That’s what we go to the Reformation for. They have statements of the gospel itself with clarity and power.

In the next century, there is something somewhat different. Because in the 17th century, Britain and other nations had become formally Protestant. Everybody nominally was a Christian. Everybody was orthodox. So the preachers had something else to do. They had to show that real Christianity is not simply truth but it’s also power. It’s experience and the application of the truth. So the Puritans were raised up by God, and their great characteristic is the way they handle the subjective experimental subjects: assurance, repentance, self-denial, prayer, etc. These subjects are where the Puritans are masters.

And then after the Puritans’ time of decay and deadness, where the church seemed to have gone to sleep, the awakening of which I have already spoken happened in 1738 and 1740. One goes to the 18th century for books that stir us with the record of revival and fresh gospel preaching. We hear of Samuel Davies here in the United States, Edwards, and so on. Dr. Lloyd-Jones used to quote the French novelist Anatole France. Anatole France said that when he was tired and jaded, “I never go into the country for a change of air and a holiday, I always go instead to the 18th century.” Dr. Lloyd-Jones would give those words his own application and he would say, “When I get discouraged and overtired and weary, I go invariably to the 18th century.”

For the preacher it is absolutely invaluable. There is nothing to compare with it. The more he learns about the history of the church, the better preacher he will be. Well, it’s the same for the 19th century. What I’m saying is that we need a general understanding of the characteristics of these different periods to make assessments of the kind of literature that comes out of those periods.

A Preservative Against Error

The second reason why I think church history is so important for our reading as preachers is that it’s a very important preservative against error. Error will destroy our usefulness. Error works great havoc in the church, and error is very, very rarely — if ever — original. The Scripture says:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
     and that which is done is that which shall be done:
     and there is no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

That’s true of errors. And if only we knew our history better, many of the errors that newly arise and seem to have such power would be cut short. And where history is not known, error can get its head.

I think, for example, of a very critical meeting that took place in England a long time ago in the year 664 A.D.. It was called the Council of Whitby. At that meeting were the Celtic missionaries from the north who had come with Columba and others and had evangelized in Scotland and the north of England. From the south there came representatives of the papacy who had more recently arrived in England. The purpose of the Council of Whitby, ultimately, was to decide this issue: Are all the churches universally under the authority of Rome? The representatives of Rome urged that they were. “Thou art, Peter,” they said, “and upon this rock I will build my church.” They argued about it. These Celtic missionaries didn’t know how to answer their arguments.

Nine-hundred years later in the month of July in 1519 at Leipzig, the very same argument occurred again. On one side was John Eck, and on the other wasMartin Luther. It was almost an identical argument. This time there was someone who knew how to answer both from Scripture and from history. How essential it is that we are not in ignorance.

Not in Outward Observation

Now, let me give you just a few errors which it seems to me are constantly repeated and are relevant to us as preachers. Firstly, there is the error of thinking of religion primarily in terms of the visual and the external. How often that error has come in. The Jews of our Lord’s time had circumcision, the Scriptures, and the temple. They said, “We are Abraham’s seed. We are the true lineage. What need do we have of a savior?” They had no knowledge of the truth that the apostle announced:

They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed (Romans 9:8).

It’s not the visual that’s the first thing. That’s the ultimate reason why the Jews rejected Christ. All their confidence was in the visual, external religion. That was the great issue at the time of the Reformation. There was spending, a magnificent church, wealth, power, and the priesthood. And what were people to do? They had to submit to the visual, submit to the priest, go to mass, do penance, do this, do that.

Here were men who arose and said, “This isn’t Christianity. Christianity is not firstly what you see. The kingdom of God doesn’t come with outward observation. It consists of something else. It’s in truth and holiness and power,” and so on. It’s exactly the same argument returning to the external.

Now, evangelical Christians have been exposed to the same error; it occurred in the time of the Great Awakening, in Edwards time. It occurred more widely in 1800. It’s the idea that if we can actually see people falling down or screaming or shouting or weeping, these are wonderful evidences of the presence of God. Jonathan Edwards said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. There’s nothing external or physical that proves anything spiritual. People can fall down and weep or shout and in a few days or weeks can be as hard as Judas.”

So Edwards said that the great thing is a spiritual thing. Don’t let it be carried away by the external. But ministers arose, especially in Kentucky in 1800, who thought it was wonderful if they could see things, and so they encouraged the people. Once you start doing that, you’ll certainly see things. Once people know that’s what’s expected of them, you’ll produce it. It was the same kind of thing. The kingdom of God is not primarily anything physical or visual. It’s much more than that.

No Evidence of Truth in Sheer Numbers

Now a second error, which I suppose is related to it, is the error of supposing that truth can be proved by success, and that numbers can prove truth. That’s arisen again and again and again. I mentioned those representatives of Rome that came to England. The first leader among them was Augustine of Canterbury, as he’s called. On Christmas Day in the year 597, Augustine of Canterbury baptized 10,000 people. It was so wonderful that no one dared ask, “Is that the baptism of the New Testament? Who are these 10,000?” The question wasn’t asked. The numbers were enough. To doubt it would be almost blasphemy. Numbers were used to support a position.

In 1547, coming back to the Reformation, Edward VI became king in England. He was a genuine, young Protestant king. He reigned until 1553. The whole national church became Protestant, and there were 8,000 parishes. All the clergy abandoned their Romanism and embraced the Protestant faith, including the doctrines of justification and so on. There were vast numbers.

As you know, in 1553, Edward’s half sister came to the throne, Mary Tudor, and she was a Roman Catholic. This was a marvelous somersault. The church that had been so Protestant, in a few moments went back entirely to Rome. Every minister who remained faithful to the gospel and who was still in the country was put to death. Well, I told you there were 8,000 parishes, I can’t give you exactly the number of clergy, but there were many thousands and all would have professed to be Protestants. How many do you think were put to death? Not a thousand, not 100, not 50, only 26. In other words, everybody else had gone back. What a few years before had been so impressive was entirely superficial.

Now, that happens again and again. It happened in a very serious way here in the United States, as so many of you know, early in the last century. Until about the 1820s, it was the universal belief of gospel preachers here, both Calvinistic and Methodist, that gospel preaching had to be based on reliance on the Holy Spirit. The thought was, “We must proclaim Christ. We must call men to faith and repentance. But we cannot bring the dead to life; that’s God’s work.” But a new idea arose that we can actually do something to hasten conversions. We can encourage people to do something. We can summon them to come up to the altar, to come forward, to make their stand. We can get them to commit themselves. And if we do that, conversions will be multiplied.

This was happening at the end of the Second Great Awakening. The old preachers said, “Wait a minute, this isn’t something we read of in the New Testament.” They said, “If you do this, you’re going to confuse a physical act like walking an aisle with saving faith. More than that, you’re going to start filling the churches with nominal Christians.” The old preacher said, “This isn’t what we ever knew before.” But it came in, and it became Orthodox. Why? It looked impressive. There were hundreds of people. People didn’t stop to ask, “Well, where are they going to be in a few weeks time or so on?” It looked impressive, and the sheer visual impact was the thing that kept the altar call and established it. It’s the same old error. We can’t prove the truth by numbers or by success.

No Experience Before Truth

The last error is the error of putting experience and feeling before belief and truth. Now, I say before belief and truth because surely the biblical position is that we need both. Jesus says:

These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full (John 15:11).

So it’s not the truth against feeling, is it? Never. We want both. Biblical religion consists of both, but the Bible always gives priority to truth coming first. The doctrine comes first. But there have been, and there are alas today, those who don’t take that order.

The ecumenical movement is built on experience, not truth. People say that they’ve now discovered that the old definition of Christian was too narrow. They’ve now discovered that most people can be Christian. Roman Catholics are Christians. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m sure some Roman Catholics are Christians, but they’re Christians in spite of the faith of Rome not because of it. They’re not generally Christians, not commonly so in my view. But the new view is that we’ve been far too narrow, and so now we have our evangelistic campaigns, and if we can’t have cooperation with Catholic churches as well, we may decide not even to hold our campaigns.

My question is this: Has this transformation come about through a new and better understanding of the Scriptures? Have we discovered there was something wrong in the way that the gospel and the doctrine of justification was formulated in the Reformation? Have we discovered that, have we found a new light? No, no, that’s not the position. It’s about experience. We’ve met them. Their faces are so Christian. Don’t you understand? These people are all Christians. They’re all friends. Dr. Lloyd-Jones said:

It seems to me that if we proceed much further along this line, evangelical faith is going to disappear. Christian people are mistaking natural qualities, or niceness, or a cultural veneer, or politeness, for true Christian grace. It seems that we are no longer capable of distinguishing between the two. How often today affability is mistaken for saintliness. “What a gracious man he is,” they say. What they really mean is this: “He never criticizes. He agrees with everybody and everything.” I know nothing more dangerous than that. These so-called gracious men are all together nicer than John the Baptist or the Apostle Paul. I do not hesitate to go further; they are much nicer than the Lord Jesus Christ himself who denounced the Pharisees. Affability is not saintliness.

So the ecumenical movement, which has attained great influence, perhaps more in Europe than it has here, hasn’t done so by means of the truth. It has done so by putting so-called experience before truth.

Alertness to Present Dangers

Now, in our own circles there are the same kind of dangers. There are those who we see in Britain today who lay great stress upon excitement, phenomenon, and noise, and these things they look upon as evidence that God is doing something wonderfully new. And anyone who doubts it is supposed to be grieving the Spirit. Now, let me read you some words, descriptive words:

They profess (the group that’s being described) and appear to believe that they are regularly inspired in their worship; that they’re enabled to speak and to sing in unknown languages; that they derive their sentiments, their knowledge, their devotion, their unnatural actions, and even their tunes from the same divine source. Several of the brotherhood profess to have gifts — gifts to curse and to censure those who oppose their conduct. There are also gifts of trembling, shaking, jumping, stamping, rolling on the ground, running with one or both hands stretched out, groaning, laughing, loud shouting, clapping of hands, and the power of working miracles.

When were these words written? They were written around the 1790s by Timothy Dwight who died in the year 1817, written of something that he observed of the Shakers of the late 18th century. I do believe that if we knew our history better we would be far more alert to present dangers.

The Personal Health of Ministers and Christian Biography

I want to say just a little about knowledge of church history as an immense personal health to faithful preachers, and particularly now I’m thinking of biographies. Oh what a biography can do. What did David Brainerd’s biography do? It inspired William Carey, and it led to the dawn of the age of world missions. One book from 1749, Brainerd’s memoirs, had a tremendous influence.

In the last century, Edward Payson’s memoirs and Murray M’Cheyne’s memoirs. These books had tremendous influence in raising up generations of preachers and men. Let me read you the words of Daniel Baker written in Savannah in1830, where he was pastor:

I labored without much apparent success until the 10th of August, 1830, when not satisfied either with myself or the state of things in my church, I took Payson’s memoirs in my hand. And going out early that morning, I spent nearly the whole day in a distant graveyard engaged in reading, fasting, and prayer. While I read and mused, the fire burned. My heart was greatly enlarged. The place proved a Bethel indeed. I know not when I had my feelings more wrought upon. I compared myself with Payson and was deeply humbled in the comparison. I long to follow him as he followed Christ. Returning to my dwelling that evening, about the setting of the sun, I resolved by the grace of God to turn over a new leaf, and in preaching and pastoral visitation to be more faithful and diligent than I had ever been.

Fresh Guidance

Biographies can give us fresh guidance and fresh resolution. W. M. Taylor of Brooklyn came to the States in 1872. He was a middle-aged man from England, and he was rather nervous and anxious. He boarded his boat in Liverpool. In the ship’s library he found a copy of the Memoirs of Thomas Chalmers. Reading that book as he crossed the Atlantic did something that put its print upon him, and it prepared him for the ministry that lay before him in Brooklyn. Countless examples could be given.

Biographies show us that God is in control of history, and that all our problems and difficulties are divinely overruled for good, for blessing. Jonathan Edwards was at Northampton 23 years and then was dismissed by his congregation. God is still in control. People in England were persecuted and thrown out of their homes and churches. They crossed the Atlantic and became the pilgrim fathers and New England Puritans. It’s all under God’s control.

I don’t know that you know that you, brethren in the States, have had a great influence in the formation of Australia. Because before you rebelled against lawful authority, King George used to have the practice of sending convicts across the Atlantic. And sadly, after 1783, he could no longer do that so they had to find somewhere else to put them. Someone said, “Well, why not Australia?” So a few years later in 1788, the first fleet sailed with convicts to Australia. That’s a human story, but behind that story is the marvelous providence of God. Australia then became the springboard for missions into the whole Southern Pacific. It became a staging post. It became something that no one had ever planned. It’s the way God works in history. So I say, as I’m sure you already believe, that reading history and biography is a tremendous help to us as preachers.

Illustrations for Preaching

One very last point is that biographies give us illustrations to use, don’t they? Lord’s day by Lord’s day. We shouldn’t use these trivial, pathetic illustrations about what little Johnny did at the shops last week, and so on. We should tell our people of the great things that God has done. It awakens interest. They come to you and say, “Well, where can I read more about that?” And the next thing you know is that our people have got these authors in their homes. They’ve come to live with them. And it builds up churches. Tremendous strength and blessing comes when people get a hunger for the truth. And it often comes indirectly because preachers use little sidelights from church history that awaken attention.

The Solitude We Need

My last point is that all this is useless unless we are really determined to get quiet and time and solitude to read. It’s a sheer waste of time talking about any book unless there is in our hearts a real conviction that in this age of noise and bustle and activity we as preachers must get alone and study the word of God and read good books, and we can’t let anything stop us from doing that. Our studies should be really sacred places. We have a corner in the study of the Palace Beautiful, and it should be to us a hallowed place.

Theodore Cuyler, who spent almost 30 years in Brooklyn, New York, saying farewell to his congregation, said:

There are many sharp pangs before me. None will be sharper than the hour that bids farewell to the yonder blessed and beloved study. For 28 years it has been my daily home, one of the dearest spots this side of heaven.

He goes on to describe his study and says that sometimes it was a place of tears, and sometimes it was a Herman, a place of vision where he saw no man but Jesus only. How will we talk about our studies when our days are done? Let’s be found in them more often. Let us pray that God will meet with us there.

Questions and Answers

I wonder if you’d speak about your thoughts regarding literature and fiction.

I’m not quite sure I’ve got the question right. It’s terrible when speakers give wonderful answers and then someone says, “That wasn’t what I was asking.” Some preachers may have time for fiction, but the books I’ve been trying to talk about are so exciting that I feel sorry for anyone who has to turn to fiction. I don’t say then that fiction doesn’t have a place for our young people and others. I wouldn’t take any strict view on that, but I just think that there’s so many wonderful things for us as pastors. Even as I speak though, I remember that Rabbi Duncan of Edinburgh, a great Old Testament, godly saint, had a besetting sin, and you won’t believe what it was. He loved reading children’s fiction. He just did. And when he should have been preparing lectures for the university and so on, he’d be reading some little story written for 12-year-olds. So we’re all different. I’m sorry, I haven’t really answered your question at all.

Considering the brevity of time and the limited financial resources that many pastors have, do you see that there are perhaps some essential books — either for our own spiritual life or for the study of the word — that pastors ought to have?

Could we postpone that question because maybe all the speakers could come in on that on Wednesday morning and have resources to recommend. Wouldn’t that be good?

It appears that pre-Gutenberg history, they learned differently, and once we had the written word, we learned differently. Could you speak to that kind of learning back in those days? It was more speaking and listening and that kind of learning as opposed to quiet, private, controlling learning through books.

The old Socratic way of teaching was more by questioning, wasn’t it? A tutor would question and prod and perhaps people would go off on a wrong track and he’d let them do that and then he would show them later where they were wrong. Are you talking about that kind of teaching?

I’m talking more about the mentor or student reading and processing with a person or people. It would be the team effort of exegesis type of approach.

My impression is that we are too much people-persons today. We need more time alone. We need more solitude. I don’t say the other isn’t valuable, I’m sure it is. But in our priorities, there is a real danger that so many group activities are claiming our time that we just don’t have enough alone. It’s not either-or.

I want to thank you for your ministry. This past summer, the Lord used your biographies on Jonathan Edwards and Spurgeon very deeply in my life, and I really appreciate that. I was wondering if you might be able to recommend one or two titles that would be helpful in leading a friend from Arminianism to a biblical understanding of the sovereignty of God and salvation. Of course, we go to the Scriptures, but maybe one or two titles, possibly in biographical form, would be helpful.

I think biographies can be very helpful there. It’s not a frontal approach. But if a person is a Christian, we know in their hearts they have a concern to love Christ, to be more faithful. And if they read of someone who they recognize has that spirit, they listen. I’m sure many people have been helped by reading books like M’Cheyne’s memoirs. That’s more perhaps for young ministers. J.C. Ryle’s book Eighteenth Century Leaders is a very good introduction to history, isn’t it? Some of the women’s biographies are very good as well, like Amy Carmichael and these people. They are spiritual books, and they’re not decisionist books. I’ll go on thinking about that. Thank you. It’s a good question.

Dr. Packer in his book on the Puritans, I believe, divided them into the first echelon, the second echelon, and the third echelon of Puritans. I wonder what you think of that division and who you would place in the top echelon of the Puritans?

Well, the Puritans, just as with ourselves, were men of different gifts. Literally, some were more eloquent and some had more acute minds, so a mixture is good. The more readable Puritans are certainly Thomas Watson and Thomas Brooks. They are both readable and they are teaching at the same time. John Fable is not exactly so readable, but maybe slightly more helpful to us. John Owen perhaps is the least readable in a sense, but the most instructive without a question, I think, for ministers. I think that Owen’s works are of the priority for Puritan reading — not every volume of Owen.

But some of them are more racy than others, aren’t they? I’m all for a mixture. Thomas Manton doesn’t rise to great heights, and neither is he ever boring. He’s just rich. Thomas Manton is one of the most even of all the Puritans, I would say. You men have probably all got your own views on that. I would dip in here and there, but certainly Owen has to stand at the head. But I would read Baxter for the Reformed Pastor, and I would read Baxter for stirring up our affections. He has to be rated highly for that.

Let me take prerogative to close with one question, and I don’t have it well formulated. I was a literature major in college. I think if Mark Noll were here, who wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, he would say this was an anti-intellectual presentation. The question then has two parts maybe. Is the counsel you’re giving coming to us because we are pastors, or would you give the same counsel to a liberal arts student who’s thinking about becoming a historian, or a psychologist, or an anthropologist, or a teacher of English in secondary schools? Would you give them the same counsel? That’s the first question.

The second question is, could you say something about reading the books of unbelievers, for whatever reason, apologetic or enrichment, because truth is truth wherever it’s found?

To answer the first question I would say no, certainly. That’s our first rule as preachers, to think who we are speaking to. That’s why I think conferences like this are so valuable, when speakers know who they’re speaking to. If you’re speaking to ministers it ought to be a different address. If I was speaking to college students, no, I certainly wouldn’t do that. I do believe strongly in the old view that a very good preparation for gospel ministers is liberal arts courses first. You can take them through the older disciplines that are not directly due to Scripture, but they tend toward the enrichment of our minds. Yes, absolutely.

Regarding preachers reading the books of unbelievers. Definitely, yes, I don’t think I remember being so deeply moved as when I was reading the biography of Callas, the great opera singer. Those books show us something about life, and we certainly should read that kind of book. It’s important we do so. We’re not to live in a time warp, are we? I certainly don’t believe in reading the newspapers and studying them all up on Saturday night for the pulpit. I don’t believe in that sort of thing at all. But I still believe that we should have a real consciousness of what’s going on in the secular educational world.