In writing the biographies of saints from bygone years and centuries, two dangers must be avoided.
One danger is to write of past saints in a supercilious and facetious manner, taking the position that, while some biographical data may be desirable, the past is of little value and significance to the church of our century. It is an attitude towards the past reflected in a speech by a professor from a Reformed Seminary who, in observing the 450th anniversary of the Afscheiding (The Separation) in the Netherlands , apologized for it and spent the greater part of the speech belittling the entire movement, though it was a genuine reformation of the church.
Such an attitude is born out of a serious error. It fails to recognize that God so works in history in the gathering of His church that the church of all ages is one, united by the one great truth of God, revealed in Christ, and made known to the church by the Spirit of Christ. Such an attitude finds the truth confessed in past centuries a mere opinion of the church which, while perhaps useful at the time, is of no value today to a church facing the towering problems of our modern technological age. And in turning its back on that truth, it turns its back on those who fought for it and sometimes died for it.
The opposite danger is to consider those whom God has used in the past in the defense of the faith to be such noble men that we are to worship them not only, but also to worship the ground on which they walked, the stakes at which they were burned, the prisons in which they suffered the cruel tortures of their oppressors. The danger of a kind of hero-worship that rises in the church is that our present day religion consists of very little more than a veneration of saints from the past -- as if we fulfill our calling in the world as God's church by paying homage to faithful people of God in long ago centuries.
The danger is real. Some seem to do ittle else than "garnish the graves of the prophets." But if one looked for the faith for which these saints fought and died, one would need a lantern to find it.
Does this mean that a book dedicated to past saints can be of no value for the church today? No, that cannot be. Scripture itself points us in a different direction. As an introduction to the sad book of Judges, Scripture informs us that upon the death of Joshua and the elders that outlived Joshua, "there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel" (Judges 2:10). Israel's subsequent apostasy and oppression at the hand of heathen nations was the result.
Two things are brought to our attention. One is that it is what the Lord does for Israel that is important. That is, not what man does counts, but a memory of what the Lord does is what saves the church from apostasy. The second is, (and one need only read what the Lord did for Israel) that the Lord does His mighty deeds through men whom He raises up: an Abraham, a Joseph, a Moses, a Joshua. We cannot know the Lord's mighty deeds without knowing about these men.
The important thing then is the Lord's mighty deeds. They have continued in the church until the present. We wish to know them. And to know them we must know the men through whom the Lord worked them. That will keep us from apostasy.
In a slightly different figure, Hebrews 11 reminds us of the heroes of faith and recounts their stirring deeds of faith. But the purpose is not that we may be reminded of some significant biographical detail, but: "Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:1, 2).
We run a race in this life; it is the race of faith. The saints of bygone years, heroes of faith, are, so to speak, in the grandstands cheering us on. They are in the grandstands for they have run the race before us and are now entered into their reward. Their lives of faith encourage us and spur us on in our own difficult and exhausting race when the course seems all but impossible.
If the faith God gave them enabled them to perform such mighty exploits, their voices echoing from the past down the corridors of time will give us courage -- us whose course in the race is usually not as difficult as was theirs.
But it is the faith that counts. And Jesus is the Author and Finisher of our faith -- as He was the Author and Finisher of the faith of those who have run the course before us. And so we hear their encouraging shouts that faith will overcome, and so are strengthened; but we look to Jesus for that faith which we need to run without dropping of exhaustion in our own race from here to glory.
We speak of the saints who have been before us, therefore, only that we may learn of their faith and its power in their lives. Because Christ is the Author and Finisher (and the later term is also extremely important) of that faith, that faith which enabled them to do what they did can only enable us to do what we are called to do.
Jaroslav Pelikan put it well in his book, "The Christian tradition": "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living."
These articles first appeared in a series of articles written for the Standard Bearer. Many of the readers of the Standard Bearer were kind enough to express appreciation for the articles and to suggest that they be reprinted in book form. The RFPA Publishing has graciously consented to do this. The necessary editing has now been completed, and this material is presented to the public with the prayer that God will use them to enable the saints today who are called to live in such perilous times to run the race set before them, inspired by the cloud of witnesses who shout their encouragement from the glories of heaven where they have attained the victory which shall presently be ours.
Grand Rapids, Michigan 1996