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Past, Present, Future

Young people of old did exploits because they loved the Lord more than anything else, sacrificing comfort and popularity because of their devotion to Him.

The extra day of the leap year of 1528 was marked by the courage and conviction of a young Scotsman. Aged 24, Patrick Hamilton had been condemned as a heretic for holding to Lutheran doctrines. The previous year he had published ‘Errors and Absurdities of the Papists, Touching the Doctrine of the Law and the Gospel.’ The title itself indicates the Protestant nature of the content. A section within the writing was entitled: ‘A Disputation betwixt the Law and the Gospel.’ In it Patrick wrote:

‘The Law saith,
Make amends for thy sin.
The Father of Heaven is wrath with thee.
Where is thy righteousness, goodness, and satisfaction?
Thou art bound and obliged unto me, to the devil, and to hell.

The Gospel saith,
Christ hath made it for thee.
Christ hath pacified Him with His blood.
Christ is thy righteousness, thy goodness, and satisfaction.
Christ hath delivered thee from them all.”

Such Protestant doctrine was heretical to the Roman Catholic authorities and so Hamilton was condemned to die for the faith of the gospel. The scene was set in St. Andrews, February 29, and Hamilton was given the opportunity to recant. Rather, he boldly stood for the Saviour he loved: ‘As to my confession, I will not deny it for awe [fear] of your fire, for my confession and belief is in Christ Jesus.’ His death was particularly gruesome as the Scottish wind kept putting the fire out. Rather than seeing this as God’s providence staying their sin, the authorities persisted in their cruelty until Hamilton died, after suffering for 6 hours.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and many inspiring stories of faithfulness and fortitude will be readily available. But why should young people study church history and be encouraged to know of the past? The word ‘history’ for many is associated with words like ‘boring’ and ‘irrelevant’. Sadly, history can be taught and communicated in such a way, but true history is relevant because true history is the story of God in this world.

Let me offer some reasons why you should study church history:

1. Church history reminds us that Christ’s church will never be defeated
The Reformation arose out of the darkness of the Middle Ages. In such times the errors of Rome had almost extinguished the light of the gospel. But the light still flickered until God came and fanned the flame into the conflagration of the Reformation. Today some live in fear. Secular society promotes an agenda opposed to the Bible. Legislation is advanced to destroy biblical marriage and to destroy the unborn. Islam appears to be on the increase all around. Materialism dominates our land. Will the church of Christ survive? Of course it will! Church history gives us an encouragement that that is so. Christ will keep on building His church. God continues the work of saving a multitude that no man can number.

2. Studying Church history helps us to see the need to learn from the past
Most of us remember our teenage years when we were reluctant to learn from our elders, be they parents, teachers or pastors. There is an independent streak in the young that needs to be checked. The discipline of studying the ways of God throughout the ages is a helpful means of reminding us that we are not the first to live on this planet! The faithfulness and the mistakes of others can teach us many vital lessons of Christian discipleship. Studying those has a humbling effect, encouraging us to learn from those who have gone before. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once declared that every “Christian should learn from history… it is his duty to do so.”

3. Church history demonstrates what God can do in the life of a young Christian
Stories of courage should inspire us all to do exploits for God. It is remarkable to observe the effects wrought by the bravery of young saints. John Knox comments on the impact of Hamilton’s death: ‘So, within short space, many began to call into doubt, that which before they held for a certain verity [truth].’ We should not think that only older saints can be used of God. But we also must never think that we can do great things in our own strength. What enabled the saints of old to face the fires of martyrdom? Only the strength that comes by the grace of God. The Apostle Paul suffered much for his devotion to Christ but testified of the sufficiency of God’s grace. He describes his labours as a “striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily.” (Colossians 1:29) The heroes of history did not do what they did because of their stubborn personalities. They took the stand they did and performed the works they did because of the power of God in their lives. Today, it can be difficult to witness for Christ in an increasingly hostile environment. But as we read history and read of how the grace of God sustained men and women of old we are encouraged that the unchanging God is able to sustain us in our day.

4. Church history furnishes us with biographies of young heroes of the faith
Hamilton was only 24 years old and he is only one of many who, despite their youth, chose to die rather than deny the Lord. These heroes are a challenge to us all. We would rather deny Christ than endure the scoffing of our friends or the mockery of our enemies. There is no fire involved but the cost of owning Christ is too much for too many. These historical figures remind us what is involved in being a Christian: “And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matthew 10:38-39) No matter how young, we must not be ashamed of the Saviour.

These stories challenge our hearts as to the level of our love for Christ and the gospel. Young people of old did exploits because they loved the Lord more than anything else, sacrificing comfort and popularity because of their devotion to Him. They “loved not their life unto death” (Revelation 12:11) because they loved Christ more than life. “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37)

If studying church history does nothing more than challenge us as to our love for Christ, it’s been a valuable pursuit. We should read of Hamilton and others and cry with the hymn writer: ‘More love to Thee, O Christ, more love to thee.’