There is no fast lane on the road to spiritual growth, but thankfully we can carpool.
If you want to deepen your understanding of God and grow spiritually, and if you’re going to learn to think broadly about biblical concepts while maturing as a follower of Jesus, you will have to invest in studying the great men of God that came before you.
You will spend time pouring into yourself by examining these theological giants’ works. I like to call this spiritual carpooling.
Church history is full of incredible men who have helped mold the ideological landscape of Christian thought and whose works have served as the foundation for significant theological development and Christian expression. These giants of the faith have shaped how we think and speak about God, Scripture, Doctrine, and all sorts of important matters that affect our Christian life and spiritual development. Their contribution is invaluable, and their impact is incalculable, yet most Christians have never heard their names, let alone read their works.
We often take for granted the many beliefs we now consider “obvious” or the disciplines we call “standard practice” within the church, but these were not always accepted broadly, nor were they commonplace. Great men labored intensely to unravel some of God’s mysteries for us and teach us how to be better followers of Jesus. We would do well to learn from them. But there is so much to wade through and choose from.
St. Augustine’s most famous work, “the city of God,” is 1200 pages long. Tackling John Calvin’s 1500-page “Institutes of the Christian Religion” can be intimidating, especially considering that’s only about 30 percent of his written output. Charles Spurgeon wrote 140 books and compiled over 3500 sermons into 63 volumes. So where do you begin?
Here are two historical church figures that will help you deepen your understanding of the character and nature of God and whose work has dramatically impacted the church. By studying these men, you will grow in your knowledge of God and deepen your love of him and appreciation for all he’s done for you.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945): The Cost of Discipleship.
This brave German theologian was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1906. He was a man of incredible conviction and principle who believed Christians are morally obligated to stand up against injustice and defend the weak and oppressed. He boldly and openly opposed and condemned the policies of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis during the second world war.
During the early days of the war, a movement was spreading across the German Protestant Church to align itself with the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer resisted this and was pretty vocal with his criticisms of this movement and Hitler’s ideologies. Bonhoeffer spoke out against the persecution of the Jews at the height of nazi rule. He taught that the church of Jesus Christ has a vital part to play in today’s world, and he believed that we are to be a visible community wherever God has placed us, even if it means persecution.
God placed him in Nazi Germany, and although standing against Hitler and his party would undoubtedly bring severe punishment, Bonhoeffer believed that we must follow the words and teaching of Jesus regardless of the cost.
In 1943 he was arrested for his contempt of the Nazi party and was executed on April 9, 1945. During his time in prison, he wrote various letters and works. He would eventually write one of the most powerful and influential books on what the Christian’s disposition and response should be when following Jesus, even in the face of opposition. His book is called “the cost of Discipleship.” He taught that believers should prepare for the cost and sacrifice of following Jesus, even if that meant martyrdom. He rejected the notion of comfortable Christianity and considered the pursuit of comfort “cheap grace” that lacks genuine faith. Much of this book is centred around the relationship between grace and discipleship. That is to say, we have been saved from something, but certainly, we have also been saved for something. We cannot simply sit back in our salvation. We must live our lives outwardly in response to what has been done inwardly, even if that means we suffer.
This book flies in the face of modern Western church comfort culture that structures worship services around a pseudo-consumerism instead of biblical discipleship. Bonhoeffer taught that if believers are convinced of their position in Jesus and their heavenly citizenship, they “are truly free to live their lives in this world.” By this, he meant that if our hearts and minds truly belong to Jesus, we can engage with this world without becoming consumed by it or slaves to it; we would be able to stand for truth boldly even if it cost us dearly. This book will challenge any tendency to seek an easy life and help against the temptation to have an apathetic faith unmoved by the suffering and injustice around us.
John Bunyan (1628-1688): The Pilgrim’s Progress
This English preacher and writer was born in Bedfordshire, England, in 1628 (the middle of the Puritan era). He lived during a great turmoil in England, known as the Wars of the three kingdoms. He served in the Parliamentary Army during the First English Civil War.
Shortly after returning home, he joined a group of “Nonconformists” called the Bedford Free Church (a group of protestant Christians who did conform to the established doctrines or practices of the Church of England). Bunyan would soon be called to preach by the members of the Bedford Free Church, which landed him in trouble. Back in his day, only men formally ordained with the Church of England could preach inside a local parish, and only the Anglican Church owned and had access to local parishes. The law at the time stated that attending religious gatherings of more than five people outside your family was a criminal offence unless it was held inside a parish. Without a parish to preach in and without official permission from the government, Bunyan was arrested in 1660 for public preaching at a farm and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
In prison, he started working on one of his most famous books, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”
This book is an allegory that wrestles with what it means to be a Christian genuinely and what the Christian life really looks like. It illustrates the various trials, temptations, doubts, and spiritual warfare we can expect to endure while we run this race of faith.
The book uses biblical characters to tell a fictional story that encourages and equips faithful followers of Jesus in their faith journey. 1 Peter 2:11 says, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”.
This is the main idea behind Bunyan’s book. We are pilgrims passing through on our way to glory. The characters in the book travel from the “City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City,” and their pilgrimage represents a believer’s spiritual journey toward salvation and eternal life. Though allegorical, the book is filled with scripture and challenges readers to examine themselves and review their presuppositions and potential misconceptions about true discipleship.
This book will help to strengthen your resolve to follow Christ and live for eternity, not allowing yourself to be intimidated or discouraged by personal failure or external opposition. It is a must-read for any man who yearns to mature in their walk with God and who needs encouragement and guidance on following Jesus faithfully while carrying the load of life’s burdens and responsibilities.
Many greats have come before us, and these men have lived through immense difficulty and faced great adversity yet persevered. There is much we can take away from their lives and works to benefit us as we follow Jesus. It would be a wise investment in our development and a great benefit to those within our circle of influence if we took the time to learn from what these men have to say. Perhaps it’s time to invite these great men into your spiritual carpool.