Preacher Ko Lingkang
Why Do We Remember History?
This year is a significant year for Christians round the world, for it marks the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Five hundred years have come and gone since Martin Luther first nailed the 95 theses upon the door of Castle Church at Wittenberg, sparking off a series of events that resulted in massive upheavals throughout Europe, giving us the Protestant heritage that we enjoy today.
At the end of this month, as we do every year in October, our church will remember the Reformation with a special service to commemorate this historical event.
Some may ask, why is it so important to remember history? Is it really that useful to keep dredging up events of the past each year, and speak of events and people that are long gone? To answer that question, it can be useful to look at what is sometimes called a historical Psalm, Psalm 78.
Psalm 78 is the second longest psalm in the book, second only to Psalm 119. It recounts the history of the nation of Israel, of their escape from captivity in Egypt, their years of wandering in the wilderness, the conquest of Canaan, and finally the ascension of David to become King of Israel. In narrating this history, the Psalmist does not just give a chronology of events, but comments on Israel’s numerous sinful rebellions against God, of how they continually forgot God’s goodness to them, and failed to keep the covenant that He made with them. Though God did rightly judge them for their sins, He was also “full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath” (v. 38). It is therefore a story of the rich mercy and underserved grace that God showed to them, whereby He continued to guide them, even though they proved to be unfaithful time and again. In many ways, this is the story of God’s dealing with His people all through the ages.
Prior to giving this history, the Psalmist gives an introduction in the first 8 verses, explaining why it was needful and necessary for them to know this history. As we look at these 8 verses, application can be made to instruct us on why it is important to remember history – not just of the events in the Bible, but also of God’s providential working amongst His people. The story of the works of God does not end with the close of the Canon, but continue through the ages. While church history is not the same as Scripture, nonetheless there are important lessons that we can learn from history, that is important for the present. These 8 verses therefore give us 4 reasons why it is important for every Christian to remember history.
For the Glory of God
Psa 78:1-8 Maschil of Asaph. Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth. (2) I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old: (3) Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. (4) We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done.
As the Psalmist calls the people to gather to listen, he acknowledges that the facts of what he is about to recount is not new, for they are messages which they have ‘heard and known’, and has been passed down through the generations. However, the distinctive that he wants to highlight about their history, is not about how glorious a past Israel has had, but that they would know more of how great and glorious their God is.
Every recounting of history must result in the praises of the Lord, for through it God’s people can have a better understanding of His great strength, and know of the wonderful works which He has done. In like manner, we ought to remember church history, because it is the story of God and the wonderful works that He has done amongst His people.
One danger of promoting church history is that we have the tendency to glorify man. When we talk of the saints of the past, we may fall into the error of focusing on the person, rather than His God. While it is useful to learn from the courage, piety and faithfulness of men of old, it is far more edifying to learn of the Lord whom they trusted in, who gave them the strength, courage and faith to accomplished all that they could do. The focus of history must always be on how God guided the events of the past according to His perfect providence, and to see how His plans and decrees always work together for good.
Therefore the first and most important reason why we need to study church history, is so that every generation would know the strength of the Lord, and the ‘wonderful works that he hath done’, all for the glory of God.
For the Perpetuation of the Truth of God
(5) For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children: (6) That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children:
In Israel, every generation of fathers had the duty of teaching the law to their children. They were to instruct them from the Torah, explaining the history of God’s covenantal dealings with them, and how they ought to continue to worship God. This was critical, for such faithful teachings would ensure that every generation is aware of the rich heritage that they are a part of, and that they would continue to propagate the same truths to their children as well. If every generation did their duty, then the people of Israel would continue to be faithful, to know the testimonies and laws of God.
The primary application for us from this verse, is of course that we are to teach God’s Word to every generation, that every family will do their part to instruct their children to know God and to keep His law. But the testimonies of God’s dealing with men are important as well. Although we do not elevate the accounts of church history to that of Scripture, nonetheless it is a very rich resource that we would do well to acquaint ourselves with, and to teach others about as well.
God wants every generation to know about the past. He wants to know of the many rich testimonies that history has to offer. He wants us to know of the rich doctrines that we have inherited from our forefathers. He wants us to know of the battles that have been fought in the past for the truth of God’s Word, and how important it is for us in the present to continue to earnestly contend for the faith. Every generation therefore has a duty to first learn of the testimonies of the past, and then teach it to their children, who will then pass that rich heritage on to the generations after them. It is a grave responsibility that must not be forsaken.
For the Remembrance of God
(7) That they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments:
All it takes is for one generation to forget, for a people to fall into sin and apostasy. One of the main reasons why Israel constantly lapsed into idolatry and rebellion against God, was because of their propensity to forget God. In the book of Judges, all it took was for the generation after Joshua to fail in their duty of teaching their children, resulting in a people “which knew not the LORD, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel.” (Jud 2:10). Soon after that, they begin to do evil in the sight of the Lord, and every man did that which was right in his own eyes.
The Psalmist here in verse 7 stresses the importance of recounting the law and testimonies of God to every generation, so that they would put their trust in God, and not in any idols or the nation round about them. They were to remember the works of God, of how He had been so faithful to them in the past despite their sin. They would learn of the abundant grace and mercy of God, who continued to care for them as a people, even though they did not deserve it. As they learn of God’s goodness, they would realize how important it is not to forget the works of God, but they would want to keep His commandments, and live as the people of God.
Likewise for us, when we learn of the works of God in our past, in how He led men like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox and John Calvin to bring about the Reformation, we would set our hope in the God who guided them out of darkness to see the light of the gospel. We would realize how lost the people of the Middle Ages were, and how much they needed the Holy Spirit to enlighten their eyes and cause them to know the truth. The church certainly did not deserve it, for they were completely apostate and far removed from God. Yet God did not abandon them, but raised up men of faith and courage to return to His Word and rediscover the power and beauty of Christ and His gospel that saves. When we learn of these things, we would praise God for His wonderful works, and treasure the doctrines that have been passed down to us.
To be Stedfast with God
(8) And might not be as their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation; a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not stedfast with God.
Finally, in learning their history, Israel was to learn from the sins of their fathers, and ensure that they would not repeat the same mistakes that their fathers had committed. They would learn of a history that was filled with disobedience, rebellion and unfaithfulness. Time and again God would chastise them and raise up judges to deliver them, prophets to warn them, and good kings to lead them back to the Lord. However the same problems of idolatry, compromise and transgression would repeat, as their hearts turn away from God towards the world. If Israel were to learn from their history, they would realize that sin would always lead to judgment, whereas obedience would result in blessings. However they constantly forgot, and were never stedfast with God.
The history of the church is also at times a sad narrative littered with apostasy, heretics, lukewarmness and depravity. While there were periods of reformation, revival and great missionary endeavour, what was far more prevalent were tragic stories of erroneous doctrines, spiritual deadness and compromise with sin and unbelief. As we remember the glorious days of the Reformation, we are also reminded of the great falling away of Europe, for the very same churches where the flames of reformation and revival once burned brightly, are now mere tourist attractions with only plaques on the wall to remind them of their past.
These are lessons for us to learn from, that we must never fall into the same mistakes of our forefathers. They turned away from God’s Word, and the rich heritage that the Reformation gave them. They yielded to the satanic forces of liberal theology and rationalistic thinking replacing the devotional study of the Bible with ‘scholarly’ criticisms of it. All they have now are “perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth” (1 Tim 6:5). America is not far behind, with only fading vestiges of faithfulness remaining. Much of the church scene here is being overtaken by worldliness, carnality and a distorted gospel. Many of the churches are filled with people who “will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” (2 Tim 4:3).
As we look to the west and see how they have fallen and continue to fall, we must learn from their mistakes, and realize that the very same problems can happen to us, if we fail to set our heart aright, and have our spirit steadfast with God. As we remember the past, we must look to the present and hold fast to the sound doctrines that we have, have our loins girt about with truth, and strive together for the faith of the gospel.
For us in the present, the Reformation marches on. Satan continues to assail the church, targeting the faithful remnant and doing all he can to turn them away from Christ. The encouragements and lessons from the past can equip us to face the battles of the present. There may be times when we feel lonely and discouraged, but we take heart in remembering how God led Luther courageously to stand for the truth at the Diet of Worms. There may be times when we feel tired and worn out, but we are strengthened my remembering how the Lord empowered men like George Whitfield to preach to hundreds of thousands and bring about the revivals of the Great Awakening. We may feel isolated and defenceless, but we are encouraged by the testimony of the Puritans who were expelled from the Church of England for standing firm on God’s Word, and many were imprisoned for their faith. The list goes on, as a constant reminder of Christ’s love for His bride, and how He is constantly watching over her. We must always remember that as long as we strive to be faithful and to do our part in fulfilling the Great Commission, the Lord will always be with us, even to the end of the world. (Matt 28:20). He never forsook the saints of old, and neither will He ever leave us.