April 5, 2018 Chapel Service — Dr. Donald S. Whitney

Posted On April 10, 2018

Donald Whitney
“Should We Have Christian Heroes?
—Hebrews 13:7

Dr. Donald S. Whitney is associate dean of the School of Theology and professor of biblical spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has authored six books, including Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, and served in pastoral ministry for 24 years.



Let’s open the book of God together to Hebrews 13. Thank you for that gracious invitation, Dr. Nichols. It’s good to see you again and it’s a delight to be here. I have written many times for Tabletalk magazine. Attended the Ligonier conference on a couple of occasions, but it’s my first time here to Saint Andrews and to this campus. It’s a delight to be with you. I know I would be amiss if I didn’t bring greetings from Dr. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Seminary, who’s well known to most of you and is my boss. We treasure the connections that we have with you. A lot of those will be celebrated next week in Louisville at the Together for the Gospel conference— many of you will know about that. So thank you so much for having me. I was at First Baptist Ocala in January, and met a student here who told me that there are a number of Baptist and among your student body. So I was anticipating that, but nevertheless, I appreciate the introduction and as I always like to say in these occasions, the blood of Christ that unites us is infinitely thicker than the waters of baptism that divide us. So thank you for having me.

My wife, Caffy— C-A-F-F-Y, her given name— is quite an accomplished artist and illustrator, and she does her work on a wide variety of media and styles. But the work she’s probably received the most accolades for have been her oil portraits, particularly of Christian heroes. She’s been commissioned to do several, Dr. Nichols, of Jonathan Edwards, of Charles Spurgeon, as well as some of George Whitefield and others. They’ve been book covers a number of them hanging in the offices and the homes of seminary presidents and pastors and other believers.

Two of them are life size portraits of Charles Spurgeon painted on four-foot by eight-foot canvases— the younger Spurgeon on the left, and the oldest Spurgeon on right— at the entrance to the Charles Spurgeon Library, at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Kansas City. Now maybe you have some likeness like that of some form or another of some Christian hero in your home, or maybe you’ve seen them in the hallways of church buildings or Christian institutions, or in your pastor’s study. At the seminary where I teach, in addition to a number of oil portraits are a little vignettes around the small exhibits with personal effects of some of the founders of the seminary, our subsequent presidents. Maybe you’ve never thought about it before, maybe you have— can giving such attention to these men be harmful to us spiritually? In short, the question is, should we have Christian heroes?

Do we risk biblical imbalance or even idolatry if we read much of Edwards, of Spurgeon, of Lloyd Jones, of the Reformers, Puritans, great missionary heroes, stalwart pastors of bygone days? Or is it possible to go to conferences and hear messages, biographical messages or addresses on these figures, these great men and women of faith, to discuss their lives in detail, to hang their likeness on our walls, to speak of them with sort of a wistful tears in our eyes and not diminish our adoration of Jesus Christ? The Biblical answer I would point you to is in Hebrews 13:7.

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”

And before we can answer the question about Christian heroes, we first need to ask the question, to whom was the writer to the Hebrews referring? Who did he want these Jewish Christians to remember and consider and imitate? All we’re told of them is that they had led the Hebrews and spoke the word of God to them, and the leading and the speaking that are mentioned here are in past tense. So these people must have died, perhaps even been martyred, but the word translated “leaders” is such a general term. It’s hard to say with any more precision who they were or even what they did. All we know is that they led them and spoke the word of God to them.

Now, strictly speaking, these leaders who spoke the word of God to them apparently were people known personally to them. They had personally led these Hebrews and spoke the Word of God to them face-to-face. As we will apply this to ourselves, is it necessary that we have known someone personally, and for them to have led us face-to-face and spoken the word of God to us face-to-face, for someone to be a Christian hero to us? Well, I think we can make a very good case, just two chapters earlier from Hebrews 11, that we can have heroes among godly people who died long before our own time. The men and women who are listed in the great cloud of witnesses there in Hebrews 11 had died centuries before this letter to the Hebrews was written.

So there was no personal contact with them between the Hebrews and those heroes. I think we can draw case from that, that we too can have Christian heroes who have not personally led us or personally spoken the word of God to us. So should we have Christian heroes? I believe the Bible says yes, and like these Jewish Christians, we should seek godly, truth-speaking heroes. But in what way should we have Christian heroes? Hebrews 13:7 tells us. First it tells us we should remember them. Look at your Bible again. “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God,” and for starters, notice that this is a command. It’s an imperative in Greek. The word remember simply means to “keep in mind.” Most of you would know of the New Testament scholar Simon Kistemaker who puts it this way, “Call back to mind that which you know about a person.” At the very least we can say it means don’t forget them. Don’t overlook church history.

It’s important for this biblical reason here. Don’t overlook its heroes. All this tells us you ought to have heroes, godly, Bible-speaking heroes. And having heroes we should do more than just have a passing reference to them once in a while, rather, according to this word, we should keep them in mind. So how do we do this in the midst of faithfully, biblically proportional lives? How do we, in practical terms, do what this says? How do we remember our heroes while we’re in the midst of pursuing all the other commands that we have in Scripture? Let me give you a short list: how about listening to biographical messages? Many conferences have these— John Piper as a terrific a list of these, some 20 or more of them at the annual Bethlehem conference. That’s a great place to start. Photos, portraiture, other wall hangings. It’s in my notes here to mention sculpture, including even what I call the poor man sculpture bobble heads.

It’s easy to get Spurgeon, Luther, I didn’t know about the Katie [wife of Martin Luther] bobble heads. That was new for me today, but these words are in my notes. I didn’t make this up because it was in the announcements this morning, but it’s a great way to do this. Other memorabilia, I don’t mean in the sense of relics of course, but for example, I have a couple of different pages of proofs from Spurgeon’s sermons, I have one of the pages that he personally edited and then sent back to Passmore and Alabaster, his publisher. It would then appear on the streets on Thursday, and then collected, ultimately, in the set we call The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit. But it’s great to have his corrections on those in his own handwriting, in his favorite violet ink and to have that sermon note framed and placed there, and say that was Spurgeon’s own hand. Or just talking of them, such as illustrations in a sermon, or in a teaching, and bringing them to people’s minds in this way. And the purpose of all this, of course, is more than to just remember what Spurgeon looked like, to remember their idiosyncrasies, or their mannerisms, but to remember them from what the Lord can still teach us through them. They spoke the Word of God to us and that’s what’s important about them. That’s why they’re heroes, and so we want things that help us remember how they did that to us. In other words, it’s not so important to remember what they look like, but what the preaching was like, how they were faithful to the Word of God, what their prayer life was like, what their Christian example was like, how they devoted themselves to their lives and doctrine as 1 Timothy 4:16 says.

Their devotion to the Word of God, their passion for the Gospel, their faithfulness to the Word of God, their love for Christ. That’s why we want to use these things to help us remember in those ways, but what heroes? So many we could choose. Well, notice again what your Bible says. Verse 7, “Remember those who led you, who spoke to you, the Word of God.” The best heroes are those who by their words or their lives, spoke the Word of God to us or choose a hero who though dead, still speaks the Word of God to you. So yes, we should have Christian heroes. First, we’re told to remember them, second, to consider them. Notice verse 7 once more, remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the Word of God, and “consider the outcome of their way of life.” The term here means to “scan closely.” Another Bible scholar, Philip Edgecumbe Hughes, renders it this way, “look back carefully on.” Kistemaker again translates it as “look at again and again.” Observe carefully and the great Puritan theologian, John Owen says, it means a “repeated, reiterated contemplation of the matter with its causes and circumstances.” I like that— “a repeated, reiterated contemplation of the matter with its causes and circumstances.”

So this is more than just remembering, isn’t it? This is more than just saying, hey, don’t let that great Christian man or woman, be forgotten. To consider them as to do more than that. A bobble head of Spurgeon or Luther helps us remember whenever the subject of great preachers arises— oh yes, we remember. We must put Spurgeon at the top ,or near the top of that list, and we remember to do that because there’s that bobble head staring at us on the bookshelf every time we look over there, so it helps us remember. But we’re to do more than just remember, we’re told here to consider them. A picture of George Mueller on the lock screen of your phone can help you remember that he was a great man of prayer because you have to swipe his face every time you open your phone. But we’re to do more than just remember them, we’re to consider them, and that takes us deeper and deeper into their lives. As Owen put it, we’re to consider them, including their causes and circumstances. Why was Spurgeon such a great preacher, why was George Mueller considered a great hero of prayer? What was it about him that made it that way? What was the outcome of their way of life?

So how do we consider our Christian heroes? Let me be very practical again. Read their biographies. You can’t do what the text says, you can’t consider the outcome of their way of life, if you don’t know their life. This is surely the most practical way to think about all these things— read or listen to the accounts of their lives and recognize that, yeah, these are sinful men and women, but they were people through whom God worked. Teach or take classes on their lives. Some of you, I understand, will be in a Tolkien class this afternoon. That’s a great way to learn about a spiritual hero. Some things perhaps we would not want to emulate, some things that we do want to imitate, but consider them. So in your church setting or in some other setting, perhaps you can teach a class. Or you can take a class where you are introduced to the great heroes of the faith. This is never of course to be a substitute for the expositional preaching of the Word of God, but in every church there are settings, a Sunday night and Wednesday night, or a study group during the week, where there’s a place for what is not a biblical sermon, but a biographical address. It’s not, as I said, Sunday morning, that’s the expositional preaching of the Word of God, but at other times where it’s appropriate not to give necessarily an exposition of Scripture, but we refer to as an address and to do that on a historical figure.

For as long as I can remember in teaching at seminary now for about 23 years, every two years I teach a class called “Great Christian Lives.” Were all we do is read and study the biographies of Edwards, Spurgeon, and Lloyd-Jones— 1700s, 1800s, 1900s. Our task at The Southern Baptist Seminary is to prepare pastors primarily, and so these three men were pastors from different settings, different centuries, and it may be the most enjoyable class that I teach, but you could do something like that in a church setting. I know of a woman in a church in Kansas City where I was for many years. They’ve done biographical studies for years and years in a Thursday morning group. And the third way is to discuss a biography, discuss it with a friend or in a more formal way with a group. You read a chapter, you read a section each week, you talk about it— you talk about what they did, why they did it. That’s a way of considering it. So if you’re unsure where to start ask some mature Christians what their favorite biographies are. If you ask enough, you’ll notice some patterns. Just a week ago, Monday, I had the expected privilege to spend three hours with a dear friend, older brother Jeff Thomas from Aberystwyth in Wales, and on my list of questions that I made before I had this three hours with him at Starbucks was, you know, what are your five most influential biographies?

And you ask mature Christians, you’ll begin to see some patterns or you may have some surprises. Now, I’m not suggesting you read only the biographies of heroes from centuries ago. Sometimes a more recent life may be easier for you to identify with. Back to this Great Christian Lives class that I teach. Students come in, they all know of Edwards. They all love Spurgeon. Most of them know very little about Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Born December of 1899, he died March 1, 1981. Maybe they’ve heard of him, but that’s all, they know nothing about him. But it’s interesting to observe that by the end of the semester, most of them find Lloyd-Jones to be their favorite, and I thought about that a lot, why that is the case. I think for one thing, and he doesn’t wear a wig like Edwards. He’s not just some blurry black and white photograph staring out at them from the Victorian age, like Spurgeon. They can watch video of him. There’s color video from the BBC that we show in class. They see him walking and interacting with people, they can hear on their phone his sermons from the Martin Lloyd Jones app, and they see pictures of him. Though the dress perhaps and the settings are a little bit less familiar to them, they’re not contemporary and their in another country, nevertheless, they identify with so much of what they see there. And I think that contemporaneity of Lloyd-Jones resonates with them in a way that Edwards doesn’t and Spurgeon doesn’t, and he has a life worthy to be studied. I gave the first volume of his two volume biography from Iain Murray to five men in my church in Chicago. Only one of them is used to reading preacher biographies. There was my associate pastor, one was a courier, one worked in construction, one was a pharmacist, and one was a nuclear physicist, and all five of them said, “that’s the best book I’ve ever read.”

Give these things away. Discuss them with people and not just older works, necessarily,  though certainly do not neglect those. Sometimes you know when I’m reading a biography, I almost wonder why I read anything else— you ever been there? They teach me so much. They just stimulate you to grow in your faith and encourage you in your faithfulness. You may be surprised at the guidance God gives you through a circumstance and a response by some hero of the past. Now they aren’t perfect, they certainly weren’t always right, they were sinful, but they were men and women through whom God worked. They were faithful to the Word of God, and they sought to be faithful to the Word of God, and so we’re to consider the outcome of their life.

Third, we’re to imitate them. Again, verse 7 says, “remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you, consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” How do you do that when you don’t have Spurgeon’s gifts, you don’t have Edwards’ intellectual capital, you don’t have the opportunities or the circumstances that catapulted other people to prominence in the past in terms of the Christian faith? Well, the Bible doesn’t say we’re to be clones of them, it says to imitate them. Besides, God made us all as individuals. He wants you to be you.

If we can imitate them and everything they did that was exceptional, we would be as exceptional as they are. Besides, the text says “imitate their faith.” Not everything about them, but you have to see faith in action before you can imitate it. If I say imitate the faith of George Mueller, but you don’t know anything about George Mueller, you can’t imitate his faith. We have to see George Mueller’s faith and action before we can imitate that faith. So again, we’re back to considering them, knowing about their lives. So we’re called here to imitate the way that they lived out their faith in their times and their circumstances, as Owen reminds us. Speaking of Owen, back again on this verse, he says, “A bare remembrance of them is of little or no use, but to remember them and what they did and taught, so as to follow them, this is a duty of no small advantage to us.”

In that Great Christian Lives class I told you about, really other than the daily reading and the daily engagement in the class, the only other responsibility is a long paper at the end. And it’s to have four elements, but two of them are to write on the inimitable traits of these three great men. What are the things that made them exceptional that that we can’t imitate, but then very importantly, what are the qualities we can imitate? It does very little good just to stand back and admire. Edwards, called by one edition Encyclopedia Britannica, “the greatest mind America ever produced.” How do you imitate that? Spurgeon, I think, unequaled as a preacher— we don’t have his gifts, we don’t have his mind and his ability. I think equally brilliant is Edwards, just a different kind of brilliance. I mean, who is more brilliant, Einstein or Mozart? Just different kinds of brilliance, right? What good does it [do to say] preach like Spurgeon? We don’t have Spurgeon’s gifts, so it’s important to look and see what can we imitate.

Here’s one, for example— one of the exercises I always have is I bring Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit in to class, the 63 volumes of Spurgeon, the largest collection of works by any single author in the history of the world in English, several times larger than Dickens.  By the way, he published another 120 books in addition to that, and one every four months his entire adult life. You know, what have you done the last four months you? You can’t even get one paper written, right? A book every four months his entire adult life, plus making the largest collection of works by any single author in English, but I pull that Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit in there, and I say, just pick a volume at random, and they do. And I say open any volume, to a sermon at random, and they do. Go to the last page of that sermon, and they do. Does he preach Christ on the last page of that sermon? And in the dozens of times I’ve had this exercise, not once have I had one student find a sermon where Spurgeon did not preach Christ on the last page of that sermon.

You can imitate that. We may not preach him as well as Spurgeon did, but we can preach Christ like that. And Jesus said, the Spirit was sent to magnify Christ, right? When can we expect the Lord’s blessing on our teaching or preaching more than when we’re preaching Christ? Spurgeon had exceptional results and if there is a human explanation to it, if there’s a human explanation to it, my argument would be he preached Christ more and better than anyone else. You can imitate Christ-centeredness in your preaching and teaching, though we may not be able to do it like Spurgeon did.

Well, our time is gone. Let me begin to wrap this up. Four applications here, finally— first of all, the safest heroes are dead ones. The writer of Hebrews told them to remember and consider and imitate the lives of dead men, dead men and women. Dead heroes are less likely to embarrass you. They don’t change. If there were some scandal that was going to be on Earth, it probably would have done so by now.

Second, know the difference between hero admiration, idolatry, and foolishness. If you do what Hebrews 13:7 says, some will accuse you of idolatry, especially those who dislike your hero or who disagree with your hero theologically. But on the other hand, if you do what Hebrews 13:7 says, you will be tempted to make too much of your spiritual hero. So even if you don’t make too much of them, you’ll be accused of doing so. But if you do what Hebrews 13:7 says, you likely will be tempted to make too much of them and that’s a special warning, I would say, for the typical college student. I think it’s just part of being in your circumstances, in your age, and in the situation, and so I think this is an appropriate warning. It’s a warning for all of us, but especially at an age when you were first discovering, maybe, some of the great heroes of the faith, hero admiration assumes you will talk about, you will make much, of your hero. That’s what it means— to remember them, to consider them, to imitate them. That’s part and parcel of it, but idolatry is thinking or speaking of your hero more than you speak of, more than you think of, Jesus. Foolishness is thinking that your hero is right about everything.

I have a theory that God gives or allows every great Christian leader to have some obviously mistaken view on some issue. It’s usually some secondary issue that almost everyone else can see except them. And you want to say, “This incredibly brilliant man, this great man of God who knows the Bible so much better than I do, is so much closer to Christ than I am, how can he take that view? Even I can see he’s wrong about that, and everyone else sees he’s wrong about that.” I think almost every great leader God allows them something like that just to remind us they’re not right about everything, just to keep us from thinking too much and following them blindly.

Third, only one Hero is perfect and unchangeable, and He’s mentioned in the very next verse, the famous Hebrews 13:8— “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” After the recital of all of the great heroes of the faith in chapter 11, chapter 12 begins by telling us, nonetheless, that even though we are to be aware of the great cloud of witnesses, we are also to be looking to Jesus. Hebrews 12:2 says, or as many have translated it famously, we’re to be “fixing our eyes on Jesus.” We glance at our heroes for what God teaches us through their example, through their words, but we fix our eyes on Jesus, the only hero who is unchangeable, who is perfect. We shouldn’t be foolish enough to think that any of our heroes are right about everything. The best of men are minute-best, only one Hero is perfect and unchangeable, and it is the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and all the right heroes will point us to Him. The best heroes are the ones who point us to Jesus most often, so have heroes who make much of Jesus, much of His sinless life, much of the cross, much of His bodily resurrection, much of His ascension and His return to rule as Judge and King over all.

Fourth, and finally having the right heroes will protect you from error. Look at the very next verse, verse nine says, “do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.” Interesting place for that to be put in there. Well, it’s following the command to remember, consider, and imitate our heroes, that Jesus Christ is the only one who is perfect and unchangeable. Don’t be led astray from this. Don’t be led astray by diverse and strange teachings. All heroes, except Jesus, will lead you into error if you follow them uncritically and without discernment, but to have no heroes is to overreact. Some people say, I didn’t want to have any heroes then. I don’t want to follow men, just Jesus in the Bible. Well that sounds great, but that’s to overreact, to fear that you’re going to be spiritually polluted by Luther or Calvin, Edwards or Spurgeon, or Lloyd Jones, or any hero we could name. The right heroes are right almost all the time. No hero is right all the time except the one Perfect One, Jesus.

But the right heroes are right most of the time by speaking the word of God to you, but by sharing insights you don’t have. God hasn’t given any of us all the gifts, all the insights. Some people have a way of illustrating things that make things unusually clear. That’s why we appreciate Lord of the Rings in literature like you’re studying in the afternoon, so many of you, right? Because it’s a different way of thinking about biblical truths and we see illustrations in that we would never would have come up with on our own, we don’t have all the experiences. We are taught it sometimes as people interpret the Word of God and speak it through experiences in their lives that we have not had, that we may never have. You risk far more doctrinal error by having no heroes. The right heroes will protect you from far more error than they will ever give you. Some will advocate, look, just find one hero. You can immerse your whole life in a Jonathan Edwards and a John Calvin, in a Martin Luther, in a Spurgeon, so just find a hero and just read everything they wrote. Immerse yourself in that hero. Others will say, no, it’s better to find a range. Pick and choose cafeteria-style from things from many heroes that can benefit you, but find those who will speak the Word of God, who will point you to Christ, who are worthy of remembering and considering and imitating. The man or woman of God who has no Christian heroes probably will never be one.

Transcripts are lightly edited.