There are many motivations to read history. It’s fun, if not downright hysterical to read stories that wouldn’t be believable if they were made up. History is educational. You discover where you’ve come from. You learn how things came to be as there are now. You can avoid the mistakes of the past. There are numerous other reasons to read history (can you hear the bias of a historian?), but one I want to suggest here might shock you. Reading history can be devotional.
Now you might object, “History is about dates, timelines, and museums, all are boring!! Only strange, dare I say “geeky”, people like history. There’s no way it can food for my soul.”
Now there’s no doubt that a lot of history is presented as meaningless dates and dull facts. But I can say that history is devotional because of the perspective that can come from other people’s thoughts about the same life concerns and faith challenges we face, even though they lived in a different time, in a different culture, and with different social tensions. The distance of time allows us to engage things of life without the hang-ups of our modern biases.
Lately, a Puritan named John Preston (1587-1628) has been a source of comfort and delight for me. Yes, a Puritan’s sermons have warmed my heart! Even though some could rightly describe the puritans as “a pinched and frost-bitten lot: sour, picky, and bluntly, so boring pigeons cold roost on them (The Good God, 29),” John Preston was not. His two sermon series “A Breast Plate of Faith and Love” invited people to the assurance of faith and a love for Christ. These 400-year-old sermons have helped me to direct my gaze onto the beauty of the Lord.
Maybe a couple of examples will help you to see where I’m coming from. First is one of my favorite moments in his first sermon on Galatians 5:6. Here he invites people to see seven motives to love Christ, and he saves the best for last.
“And last of all consider that the Lord loves you. For that is the greatest motive to win us to love him. Just as fire generates fire, so love generates love. This is the reason that Paul loved the Lord, “He that loved me gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20).” I will not live any more to myself, but to him who has loved me and gave himself for me. He has loved me, and there was his testimony of his love, he gave himself. I say, consider this love of the Lord, and let this generate in you a reciprocal affection for him. Put all this together, and consider, the Lord worthy to be beloved. And he that is so great appeals to you for your love. He that is God, who planted love in your hearts, and therefore he does but call for his own. He that has done you so many kindnesses, that you are so engaged to him, that you are now united to, are you not now to choose, at least come to this, to say he is worthy to be beloved, bring your hearts to this, to desire to love him.” (Of Love, 47-8)
Preston here calls us to be won by Christ’s love. Our love for Christ isn’t a volitional choice determined by our self-moved will. Rather it’s a heartfelt response, “a holy disposition of the heart, rising from faith, whereby we cling to the Lord, with a purpose of the heart to serve him, and to please him in all things (14).” As we respond to Christ in assurance that he has saved us, and cling to him with a new affection we’ll naturally desire to please and serve him.
For the people Preston was serving these were winsome words to their soul. At a time when people were burdened with the duty to prove their salvation, Preston invited people to enjoy Christ and delightfully strive to please him as a loving wife desires to please her husband. Not for any benefit for herself but for him.
Much more could be said but I want to share one other gem. Often issues of security, pleasure, acceptance of others, are affections competing with our affection for Christ. Preston, looking to 1 John 2:15, shockingly calls these affections “a love for the world.”
Now question with your own hearts about this [1 John 2:15], whether you love the world and the things of this world. For if you do, the words are clear, “The Father is not in you.”
“You will say, how shall I know this? You shall know it by these three things. [I’ll offer one] First, by your delight in the things of the world, and your grief and sorrow and the loss of them after you have enjoyed them. For if you find that you are overly affected about them, it is certain that you love the world, and the things of the world…”
Ok, I get you might be thinking that this sounds more like the prickly-sort-of-puritan. But Preston proclaimed we have so many things that get in the way of our love of Christ, who should be the greatest reason for our happiness. If despair should set in from the loss of stuff it’s most likely we love ourselves and love the things that please us more than Christ. It’s not that we shouldn’t grieve or “we deny that man may grieve” at losses of jobs, money, our home, or social rejection. Instead, the assurance that we are Christ’s and Christ is ours should be the main source of our happiness and joy.
Maybe I haven’t convinced you, but I hope I have invited you to listen to the voices of the past. Dr. Lloyd-Jones often went to Richard Sibbes and Jonathan Edwards when he needed to combat despair. I would agree with him and add a couple of men chronologically between these two: John Preston and John Cotton. Let me also recommend that you read Luther and Calvin, not what others have said about them, but what these men actually wrote or proclaimed. I trust these men will invite you to love Christ and have joy in him!