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The Virtue of Reading Ordinary Christians

Reading about the lives of ordinary Christians from the past gives hope for how to have an impact on our own generation today. While many read about the luminaries, the virtue of reading about ordinary Christians often goes overlooked. Reflecting on the history of ordinary Christians helps preserve our faith, deepen our theology, deepen our understanding of contemporary culture, and is, in fact, an enjoyable venture. Yes, enjoyable.

Reading History Preserves Our Faith

I recently published Thomas Patient: the Father of the Irish Baptist Church. Prior to my research, I had never heard of Patient. In many ways, he was an ordinary Christian rather than one of the luminaries of his generation. In my research I had difficulty determining his family of origin and his date of birth since he was just a common man. Little has been written about his life, even within Baptist studies. However, his story built my faith.

His journey is inspiring. Patient left his native England for a difficult journey to the American colonies. He embraced the New England faith only to then be convicted of the doctrine of believers’ baptism. As a result, a warrant was issued for his arrest causing him to flee back to England. He was a man whose biblical convictions led to greater hardships in his life. When I first learned of his trials, I was also dealing with some hardships of my own due to my biblical convictions. I saw this man “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12), which in turn inspired me to greater faithfulness. 

Reading History Deepens Our Theology

After Patient returned to England, he eventually connected with William Kiffen. While pastoring with Kiffen he helped shape the First London Confession of 1644. This confession was the initial Particular Baptist statement of faith. It was modeled after the separatist confession (A True Confession) of 1596. Most of the articles in the 1644 confession mirror the 1596 confession. However, the Baptists expand on their treatment of the triplex munus Christi. They also add articles on the nature of faith and the gospel. Furthermore, they also clearly define their doctrine of believers’ baptism by immersion. Taking the time to compare those confessions deepened my theology on each issue. 

After traveling to Ireland, John Owen returned to England and preached a sermon entitled “Steadfastness of Promises, and the Sinfulness of Staggering” to Parliament on February 28, 1650. Owen proclaimed in his sermon that there was only “one gospel preacher for every walled town in the English possession in Ireland.”[1] He then explained that Ireland “mourneth and the people perish for want of knowledge” [2]. As a result, Parliament designated funds to send ministers to Ireland.

Thomas Patient answered the call to carry the gospel to the Irish. As an ordinary Christian, I was inspired by Owen’s and Patient’s evangelistic fervor. As I read Owen’s sermon and saw how Patient took the difficult road of being both an army chaplain and a church planter, my zeal was stoked. I was in the middle of planting a church and was encouraged that I was doing what Christians have always done. I was getting to participate in the same mission that Owen and Patient participated in so many generations ago.

While in Ireland, Patient wrote one of the earliest full-length books on the doctrine of believers’ baptism. He faced controversy over the doctrine and wanted to explain his position. He worked to simply provide “clear Scripture evidence” to make his case [3]. In addition to explaining and applying Bible passage after Bible passage, Patient addressed the theology of the covenants.

In many ways, the Puritans were still in a season of solidifying their views of the covenants. As I studied Patient’s views, I found many unconvincing. Even though I hold to believers’ baptism, I reject many of the ways he sought to distinguish covenants in the Old and New Testaments. However, instead of hindering my theological development while wrestling with Patient’s views, I found that reading this history only deepened my theology by compelling me to search and meditate on Scripture. 

Reading History Deepens Our Insights about Our Contemporary Culture

As the Protectorate fell apart, Patient returned to England. He then experienced the persecutions of the Clarendon Code resulting in a time in jail. Patient refused to submit to the Book of Common Prayer and continued to lead outlawed congregations. Reflecting on these laws evoked a shift in my perspective: we are not persecuted in America and Canada. We might be vilified, but pastors are not thrown in jail for organizing their churches according to their biblical convictions. However, it also gave me historical warnings that persecution can come to America and Canada. Watching closely the religious liberty laws being debated and handed down is an imperative for all ordinary Christians. 

Reading History Is Enjoyable

We all love good stories. Good history is about telling good stories. Even young children have fun learning about the lives of past Christians. While the historical Christian luminaries are inspiring, the stories of common Christians can be just as edifying. I was thoroughly encouraged by the history of Thomas Patient, and I commend the story of his journey to the ordinary Christians of today.

 


[1] Thomas Russell (ed.), The Works of John Owen, D.D. (London: Richard Baynes, 1826), 1:91.

[2] Works of John Owen, 1:91.

[3] Thomas Patient, On the Doctrine of Baptism, And the Distinction of the Covenants (London: Henry Hills, 1654), ii.

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