3 reasons why pastors should read church history

I just finished Pillars of Grace by Dr. Steven Lawson, a book of biographical sketches of great churchmen throughout history who upheld the doctrines of grace. I did a premature review here, which doesn’t need to be revised having finished the book. But I’d like to write here about church history more generally, and why I think pastors should read it.

1. It helps you see the gospel is not new.

In the buzz of all the “gospel-centered” movement, it’s easy to think that this is some sort of new discovery– that finally, after 2,000 years of church history, we’ve finally got it right. Of course, that is naivete at its finest. The gospel is not new, and neither is gospel centrality.

Church history helps us see that this message that we fight for is not new. If it was, it wouldn’t be worth fighting for. The fact the gospel is rooted in antiquity, has been heralded faithfully throughout the ages by a preserved remnant, and is currently in our hands makes us aware of the great responsibility we bear. This is not our gospel. It is God’s– delivered through Jesus Christ, given to the apostles, passed down to the church. It has fallen in our lap for this hour. We must be sure that it gets passed on.

2. It gives a fleshed-out picture of God’s providence

Much of the Bible is written as history. If we have a strong doctrine of providence, then we must believe that history, in a sense, reveals the character of God. Since we believe that God ordains all history, and that every event and circumstance is the result of God’s providence, and that every occurrence, in a real sense, is something God does, then we can observe history with the understanding that it shows forth the person of God.

I don’t think this in any way usurps the uniqueness of the Bible. History is doing the same thing the heavens are doing: “declaring the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1). While it is possible to learn about God from creation, it’s never enough to grant the spiritual insight necessary for a relationship with God. I think the same is true of history. Every history book, secular or spiritual, as far as it is accurate, reveals the glory of God. Why? Because it’s the story of God’s work in the human realm.

Men cannot perfectly interpret events in history, which is why it could never be as authoritative as Scripture. We can’t perfectly interpret history because of sin, a limited perspective, and a host of other reasons. Instead Scripture interprets history for us. And when we look through the hallway of history through the Scriptural lens, we see a brilliant picture of providence alive.

Just when all hope is lost, we see God raise up a man to carry the gospel mantle. The Red Sea of opposition gets parted in the eleventh hour. We see doors shut for a thousand years opened by the hand of God. After reading the story of providence, the warm confidence of God’s sovereignty assures you of the victory of God. You are small, God feels big, and it feels good.

3. You see the inevitability of leaving a legacy.

This is an important one that, I’m afraid, doesn’t get too much thought. The way pastors build their churches begins momentum in a certain direction. Pastors need to sit down and ask themselves, what will make the church successful? Answer anything other than the faithful shepherding of the flock by the continual preaching and teaching of the Word of God and you’re headed in a bad direction.

The short-sightedness of our society forbids us to think deeply about the next generation. Most churches don’t consider how their practices will affect the church in a hundred years, but they should. History reminds us that we all stand in line— receiving what has been handed to us and passing it on to the next person in the queue. How well we pass it on will determine how valuable our legacy is.

History is like big, slow moving river. When you’re in it, it’s hard to tell if its moving anywhere. But when you view it from the sky, you see how it meanders through the terrain toward the sea. When we die, another generation will take up the work we’ve been doing, and the river will continue on. And the things we’ve done wrong will, most likely, be perpetuated.

Though there are a few talking about it, a wish more pastors would consider the long-term effects certain hot issues. Multi-site, church growth pragmatism, and other innovative fads and trends may have underlying assumptions that can undermine the gospel, and myriads are jumping on the bandwagon without giving much thought to the fact that though it might look successful for the next five years, the legacy they’re leaving for the next generation is destructive.

When you read history you realize that churches leave legacies, and if there’s one obvious lesson from two thousand years of church history it’s this: bad ideas have bad, bad consequences. If we care about human souls we should care about them in our generation and the generations to come. Thus, we should seek to be simple and faithful to the Word of God, and not be afraid to think deeply about how what we’re doing might undermine or obscure the gospel for future generations.

Every pastor needs to consider the fact that in due time, his task will be over. In the great scheme, a pastor’s tenure isn’t very long. But what outlasts every pastor is what they’ve taught and who they’ve taught. What has the pastor valued? What did he hope and trust in? What has he given to the next generation? Let’s hope it’s not fleeting innovations, fads, and trends.

Our job is not to innovate, renovate, or obfuscate, but to simply and faithfully protect and pass on the sound words we’ve been taught. Church history reminds us that innovation isn’t all the that the world has hyped it up to be. To be a faithful preacher you must be content to say that which has been said a thousand times before.







Pillars of Grace– a premature review

I am not finished with the book, but per my desire to become a book reviewer, and my promise to start somewhere, here’s my review of Pillars of Grace: A Long Line of Godly Men, by Steven Lawson.

I started by reviewing chapter one, which you can read here if you want to.

Chapters 2-13

After an introductory chapter, the book focuses in on individual Christian stalwarts. They are arranged chronologically. I am now on chapter 14, and I’ve read of Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose, Augustine, and Isidore of Seville.


Each chapter is arranged essentially the same way. It begins by setting the stage. Lawson writes of the main dilemmas Christians were facing, whether it’s government decreed persecution, discredit from the world of philosophy, or heresy. Once he establishes the scene, the hero takes center stage. What follows is a short biography: where he grew up, what influenced him, what he wrote, why he wrote, and what became of him. I found these sections to be the most interesting.

I also found that the chapters later in the book have gotten better. This is partially because the cumulative testimony of these witnesses to the doctrines of grace is so strong. Each chapter is like a brick being laid, and the total effect is a beautiful building.

The later chapters are better also because the farther we go through church history, the more biographical information we have. For example, the extant writings of 1st century Clement are infinitesimal compared to the voluminous writings of 4th-5th century Augustine. The more material, the better the biography and the greater understanding of who they were and what they taught.

Major Works

After introducing you to the character, he briefly describes his most popular writings. In the chapter on Justin Martyr, he mentioned his Apologies, who they were written to and what they were about. The chapter on Irenaeus discussed the importance of his Against Heresies, what it was, why he wrote it, and what effect it had.

Because of Augustine’s incredible output of literature (242 books), Lawson focuses on the most popular ones (Confessions, The City of God, etc). For Isidore, who also wrote extensively, he makes sections (Biblical and Theological works, Dogmatic and Apologetic works, etc) and highlights the most important writings in each. These sections, combined with the comprehensive citations at the end of each chapter make for a great reference.

Doctrines of Grace in Focus

The chapter then turns to focus on their doctrine. He looks at them through five or six doctrinal categories, each category having its own section: divine sovereignty, radical depravity, sovereign election, definite atonement, irresistible call, and divine reprobation. Lawson goes through each doctrine and shows what the father believed about it by citing original sources.

A few comments about this section. First, it tends to be dryer than the rest. It mostly consists of original source citation (which is helpful) and Lawson’s summarizing comments. Second, in some cases it seems difficult to truly understand whether the churchman in question was actually articulating the specific doctrine. In most cases, Lawson is right on by nailing down the father’s stance on an issue. In other cases, the father’s writings simply don’t offer enough information on the subject, and the few quotes offered aren’t very convincing. This is a small quibble, however, because it doesn’t happen often, and when it does, Lawson is quick to admit that the writings are blurry.

On the more positive side, Lawson makes it clear early on that these men are by no means infallible. In many cases, he critiques their view, shows how it contradicts Scripture, and offers an opinion as to what influences caused them to take that view. Lawson doesn’t make the Catholic mistake of unwittingly buying everything the fathers said.

Conclusive Exhortation

After the doctrinal focus, Lawson ends with an exhortation for his readers. This section is short and pointed. He summarizes the life of the father and shows how it applies to people today– men need to rise up and proclaim strong theology, live with conviction, and do all for the glory of God while they have breath.


This book might be difficult to read lengthy portions in one sitting because it doesn’t tell a single cohesive story. It’s like reading a compilation of short stories– they’re not much related. In many instances, it reads like a series of lectures, which, according to the preface, it was– Lawson put together this material to teach the men of his church (I find this fascinating) and ended up editing it and publishing it as a book. This means that there are many repeated statements throughout (I have no problem with that, I need to hear something again and again for it to stick). With that being said, it doesn’t feel academic. Lawson is a preacher, and you won’t finish a chapter without being exhorted to faithfulness.

A great way to approach this work would be to read it devotionally. Since the chapters are around 10 pages each (except for a few longer ones, like Augustine’s and Luther’s), I think it would be a great exercise to read a chapter each morning, perhaps after your Bible reading and prayers. I continually find my soul soaring to great heights after reading reading of these men and the truths they proclaimed.

Through reading this book, I am convinced more than ever that pastors need to be familiar with church history. What we can learn by reading the pages of the centuries is far more important than what we can learn by reading the latest issue of Relevant Magazine.