Devotional reading has gotten a bad rap, perhaps because it conjures up images of sappy stories whether a lightly baptized version of a Lassie episode or a Max Lucado book designed to bring us to tears. Still, the recovery of Christian devotional reading will help the evangelical and Reformed movements to recapture the spiritual vitality that was once theirs.
Over fifty years ago, John Warwick Montgomery surveyed the devotional literature available in the early sixties (see Christianity Today, September 25, 1961). It is gratifying to compare his list with those books currently available. Things have improved dramatically, partly due to the labors of our friends at Banner of Truth. Yet I wonder if believers are benefiting from this richesse. My hunch is we’re wasting too much time on Twitter and Facebook.
Giving advice to preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones urged them to preface their prayer and Bible reading times by reading something that will “kindle a flame in your spirit” (Preaching and Preachers, p.170). So obviously, devotional reading cannot and must not replace our Bible reading; rather it should accompany it...
John Piper tells us that, “Hebrews 11 is a divine mandate to read Christian biography. The unmistakable implication of the chapter is that if we hear about the faith of our forefathers (and mothers), we will ‘lay aside every weight, and sin’ and ‘run with endurance the race that is set before us’” (Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, p.89). I want to cover the reading of Christian biographies in this post. God willing, others will follow.
“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also …” Hebrews 12:1.
Three contemporary authors have written biographies that will aid our spiritual growth: Arnold Dallimore, Iain Murray and John Piper. Dallimore is best known for his two-volume biography of George Whitefield. Whitefield was the greatest preacher England has ever produced. He exuded love for God and for men and was heard gladly by the elites in the home of Lady Huntingdon and by the common man in Moorfields and Kennington. To read this work will move you to greater love for Christ and to unstinting devotion to His service and perhaps also to use creative methods in reaching the lost. I also really enjoyed his much shorter paperback on the life of Spurgeon that has similar strengths though not as much detail.
Iain Murray’s biographies of Jonathan Edwards and Martyn Lloyd-Jones (both volumes) are similar to those by Dallimore. Murray helps us see the joy and discipline that “made these men tick.” Reading about them will cause you to yearn that God might revive His work in our day.
Several other works by Murray contain biographical snippets. He draws spiritual lessons from the lives of men like Samuel Davies, Archibald Alexander, Gardiner Spring, Asahel Nettleton and others in Revival and Revivalism, as well as warning us of the dangers of the theology and practice of revivalists like Charles Finney and his friends. Similar lessons are learned from Murray’s fellow Scots (John Knox, Robert Bruce, Thomas Chalmers, John MacDonald, Horatius Bonar and Robert Moffat) in A Scottish Christian Heritage.
As an example of Murray’s style, let me mention the lessons he has gleaned from the life of John MacDonald. He ministered in the north of Scotland in the early 1800s. (1) From MacDonald’s ministry (and those of his friends), we learn of the centrality of the love of God in the gospel. Preeminent in their preaching, “was the fact that all were addressed as those whom God was willing to save. The free offer of a loving Saviour was at the heart of their ministries, and the provision of the atonement was pressed upon all for their acceptance” (p.145).
(2) From MacDonald’s ministry (and those of his friends), we learn of the importance of the inner life of the preacher. The reality of God’s love “was the motivating experience of their lives” (p.147). Their dependence on God’s Spirit caused them to return again and again to their heavenly Father for more grace, for more of His Spirit, even while they lamented how “shamefully cold and powerless” they felt in their ministries (p.149). Truly, God gives grace to the humble.
(3) From MacDonald’s ministry (and those of his friends), we learn of the crucial role played by laymen and women. By prayers, both public and private, by exhortations in fellowship meetings and personal conversation, these men and women aided and commended the work of God in the awakening of souls to the gospel, even while they deferred to their faithful ministers.
(4) From MacDonald’s ministry (and those of his friends), we learn of the awe-inspiring sovereignty of God in the revival of His church. There were many years in MacDonald’s ministry where little or nothing happened as a result of his preaching. Yet in Breadalbane in 1817 and Kilsyth in 1839, great things were done for the Lord. Why did most years see little fruit and others see an abundant harvest? It all goes back to the sovereignty of God in pouring out His grace. Charles Calder, a friend of MacDonald, saw more blessing in his itinerant ministry than he did in his parish in Ferintosh. The awakening happened in that village after his death, in the first year after MacDonald arrived. Calder’s widow, while rejoicing in the evident fruit, wondered why it did not occur under her husband’s ministry. MacDonald replied to her as follows: “What you now see, my dear Mrs. Calder, is the upspringing of the seed which your husband was sowing. The farmer sends his best man to sow the seed; but the field once sown, he sends any boy who may happen to be at hand to harrow it …” (p.152).
For many years, John Piper has been delivering biographical sketches at his conferences for pastors. Five books have emerged from these conferences (published as a series, “The Swans are not Silent,” by Crossway) and Piper is following in the tradition of Murray by drawing spiritual lessons from the lives of Christian leaders. You can tell that John has drawn encouragement from these men and he is eager to pass on what he has learned. They are a tonic for those who have grown weary in the work of the Lord.
“And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of …” Hebrews 11:32
Each of these three authors has served as pastors. They are deeply sympathetic with the theology of their subjects and are unconcerned about the reviews of their books by professional historians. They aim for biographical accuracy but also to edify and encourage their readers and this pastoral heart sets their work apart from biographies written by scholars.
A notable exception to this rule is the work of David Calhoun on the history of Princeton Seminary. Though a church historian by profession, his heart beats to the same rhythm as he writes of the Alexanders and Hodges and their co-laborers. Princeton began with the conviction that to preach Christ “is the best, hardest, sweetest work, on this side of beholding Him.” This explains why one-third of Princeton students in the first fifty years of the school ended up on the mission field, since they knew that Christ had died for men from every tongue, tribe, people and nation. I read these two volumes on Princeton in the bathtub, taking cold baths while adjusting to the hot temperatures of Zambia ten years ago.
Three more authors deserve mention (though they do not “attain to the three”). Joel Beeke continues in the tradition of Murray with his Puritan Reformed Spirituality. His mini-biographies of the Erskine brothers, Willem Teellinck, Thomas Boston and Theodore Frelinghuysen (and many others) are spiritual gems. How can we not be encouraged as Beeke writes of the sermons of Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine on the promises of God? Breathtaking. [Unfortunately, the binding of my copy is almost shot. Publishers please take note.] Timothy Dudley-Smith’s two volumes on the life and ministry of John Stott rebuked me for my lack of discipline. If there is a secret to Stott’s successful ministry (other than the sovereign blessing of God), it was his disciplined devotional life. May it spur you on to greater dedication as it did me. Many years ago, I read with great profit Betty Lee Skinner’s biography of Dawson Trotman, the founder of the Navigators. You’ll finish reading it with a greater desire to memorize Scripture and make disciples than you had when you began.