As Christians we are called to be witnesses to the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. That isn’t a minor calling, or one calling among many, but the central calling and mission of the church. It’s a calling that takes on increasing urgency as the day of Christ’s return draws near.

The calling to witness is closely connected to the calling to preach the gospel. We tend to separate those two but Jesus taught that they are intimately related. He instructed his disciples to “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt 28:19). Later he added, “…ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He linked those two callings again when he appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, “I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness” (Acts 26:16).

In light of that connection our witness ought to begin with support for the preaching of the gospel. We witness when we join ourselves to a church that boldly proclaims the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ alone, faithfully attend worship services, actively participate in the life of the church, and remember her in our prayers and with our gifts.

Our witness continues with lives that are lived out of the truth of that gospel. We are to be, “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). We confess that Jesus Christ is Prophet, Priest and King (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 31), and that those who are members of him by faith partake of his anointing (Q&A 32). In the office of all believers we witness to the gospel in our daily lives.

Hebrews 11 has much to teach us about that aspect of witnessing. We tend to think of the saints recorded there as “heroes of faith” but Hebrews 12:1 gives them another title, “so great a cloud of witnesses”. Their lives reveal the source of our witness, the substance of our witness and God’s purpose with our witness.

Hebrews 11 makes clear that our witness proceeds from faith. It introduces each saint by calling attention to faith as the source of their witness. “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain (v.4). “By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house” (v.7). “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac” (v.17). We can’t do anything in our own strength. Our witness begins with God’s gift of eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts to understand.

Faith is the bond by which those who are saved by Christ are “ingrafted into him, and receive all his benefits” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 20). Hebrews 11 calls it “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (v.1). Apart from Christ we would have no hope in this world. We would see only its sinful pleasures. We would set our hearts on those things and spend our lives in pursuit of them. By faith we know God and know ourselves to be citizens of his kingdom. By faith we strive to live as pilgrims and strangers in this world.

In order for faith to produce a witness it must become visible. The term witness implies that others must be able to see it. Hebrews 11 makes clear that faith becomes visible when it finds expression in obedience to God. “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain (v.4). “By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house” (v.7). “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac” (v.17). By faith we know God, love him and strive to live in obedience to him.

Our witness need not be grand or global in scale. We are called to witness in the particular circumstances in which God has placed us. We confess that he created the heavens and the earth and that he “upholds and governs the same by his eternal counsel and providence” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 26). God gives us life and health and so much more, but he is also sovereign over the trials that we face day by day. Some struggle with sick and elderly parents, others with difficult marriages, or children with special needs. Those are difficult trials and we can easily respond in anger or despair. In our own strength we certainly would. But in faith we strive to obey God even in those difficulties. We care for the parents that he has given us. We remain faithful in our marriages and strive each day to make them reflect the love of Christ and his church. We train up the children whom he has entrusted to us.

Our witness includes also a willingness to speak openly of the gospel. Faithful Enoch “prophesied…saying, Behold the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, To execute judgment upon all” (Jude 14–15). Faithful Noah was, “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). We witness by speaking of those things as we have opportunity with friends, neighbors and co-workers. We take seriously the instruction to, “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).

God uses our witness to accomplish several important purposes. The first is his own glory. In gratitude to God we do good works, “that he may be praised by us” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 86). Jesus taught us, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). The great goal of our faithful obedience is the glory of God’s name.

God also uses our witness to provide encouragement to fellow believers. That’s the point of Hebrews 11, as the beginning of chapter 12 shows: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily best us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (v.1). In the faithful obedience of others we see the power of salvation in Jesus Christ. In the light of that witness we find strength to “lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees” (v.12).

God also uses our witness to rebuke the ungodly. Hebrews 11 makes clear that the world despises faith and hates obedience. Unbelievers respond in opposition to our witness. Abel’s faithful obedience resulted in Cain’s murderous rage. Moses’ faithful obedience caused him to suffer, “affliction” (v25), “the reproach of Christ” (v.26) and, “the wrath of the king” (v.27). Others experienced, “trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented” (vs.36–37). We also can expect opposition, for “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12).

But God is also pleased to use our witness as the means by which he brings his people out of darkness and into his marvelous light. One of the reasons that God calls us to do good works is that, “by our godly conversation, others may be gained to Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 86).

Our calling to witness is fundamentally the same as it has ever been. It begins with support for the preaching of the gospel and continues with lives that are lived out of that gospel truth.  But as the day of Christ’s return draws near that calling takes on increasing urgency. Abel did not live in the last days. Nor did Noah or Abraham or Moses. But Jesus Christ has now come in our flesh. He has borne our grief. He has risen triumphant over sin and death and hell. He has ascended to God’s right hand. He has poured out his spirit upon his church. All that remains is the ingathering of his church, for “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise…but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

We see the signs of Christ’s return on every side. The gospel is reaching the nations. The world grows increasingly bold in its wickedness. The church descends into apostasy. The hour is late. Let us witness then, not in our own strength but, “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

The importance of remembering God’s works in history is a recurring theme of Scripture. In the intro­duction to the Law in Exodus 20:2 God reminds His people of His works in their history, “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”. The Psalms also urge God’s people to “Remember his marvelous works that he hath done; … He sent Moses … He brought them forth also with silver and gold . . . And gave them the lands of the heathen. . . (Psalm 105:5, 26, 37, 44). Also, Hebrews 11 and 12 remind us of God’s works through the faith of the Old Testament saints, who surround us as “so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Throughout the Bible God teaches us to remember the mighty works which He has done.

We learn of God’s works, first of all and primarily, in the Bible. That is why reading and studying the Bible should always have a central place in our lives. The often break-neck pace of this world must never hinder us from pausing to learn of God’s works through Bible study.

We also learn of God’s works in Church history. While the Bible is God’s divinely inspired record of His work, subsequent history also records God’s activity. We believe that God still “worketh all things after the council of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11). We confess that He continues to “rule and govern all creation according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment” (Belgic Confes­sion – Art. 13). God continues to watch over His peo­ple, preserve them, and confound their enemies.

A greater knowledge of Church history is a valu­able asset for any Christian. Too often, however, it is left only to those with a natural inclination for things historical. That’s unfortunate. An increased under­standing of Church history benefits all of us in many ways.

First, we see how God’s plan transcends all king­doms, nations, and denominations. God draws His people in every age and from every tribe and tongue. The nations of this world wage war against each other, one empire rises, another falls and God uses them all to further His purpose. As creatures of this earth we easily lose sight of this transcendent power of God. We are tempted to place our hope in earthly powers rather than the almighty God who uses them to fulfill His own will. The better we understand history as the out­working of God’s council the more we are in awe of the overwhelming breadth and scope of God’s plan.

Second, we gain a better understanding of the Church’s continual development in her understanding of the Truth. We see that Christianity is not something to be rediscovered anew by every generation but an inheritance passed down through the ages. Each gen­eration has built upon the understanding of those pre­ceding, giving due credit to the work of the Holy Spirit in ages past. Much like the generations of workers on a great cathedral, they did not start from scratch but built upon what had been accomplished before. This makes us more wary of theological innovation. It strengthens us against being “carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14).

Third, we gain a fuller understanding and deeper appreciation for our creeds and confessions. We real­ize that they were not conceived in some ivory tower of scholasticism but were formed on the firing line of dis­pute over the very heart of the Gospel. They were of crucial importance in defending and promoting the Truth against various errors and corruptions. The early creeds concerning the Trinity, for instance, were not simply rationalistic attempts to define God but were fervent defenses of Christ’s divinity and God’s unity against the claims of Arius, Marcion, and others. Similarly, the confessions of the Reformation set forth a valiant defense of the Gospel against Roman Catholic corruptions as well as the errors of the Anabaptists. When we study the history surrounding the formation of our creeds and confessions we gain valuable insights into the critical issues at stake in the doctrine and dogma of the Church.

Fourth, we realize that we stand with a long line of spiritual fathers with whom we share our faith and convictions. We see that throughout the Church’s his­tory men have had to defend the sovereignty of God against those who would make man the author of his own salvation. Without the study of Church history, we might imagine that we are the first generation to oppose the idea of a common grace of God for all men. We might assume that we stand alone in our rejection of the idea of a free offer of the Gospel. When we study Church history we see that these ideas have their roots in errors which the Church has rejected many times, beginning with Augustine’s rejection of semi-Pelagianism some 1400 years ago. There is some encouragement in the realization that we stand in agreement with men like Augustine and the Reform­ers, and that these men also faced ridicule for their beliefs.

There is, of course, also a danger that we put our Church fathers on too high a pedestal. We may never raise agreement with John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, or Herman Hoeksema to be the highest court of appeal. Despite their contributions, we must remember that they were sinful men and prone to error. The Bible is always our final authority. We must study the writings of our fathers as the Bereans of old studied Paul’s words, “they . . . searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). Also, we must always remember that just as God sent Moses (Psalm 104:6) God also raised up these men to do His work. To God only belongs the glory.

Fifth, we gain insight into the continuing develop­ment of error. We witness how seemingly insignificant innovations have led to massive departures from the Truth. We see that when people see Christianity as just a lifestyle, and not also a doctrine, they inevitably grow in ignorance. When the importance of right doc­trine is de-emphasized; soon also a holy life is consid­ered unimportant. We realize that new theological “discoveries” are often old, old heresies newly robed in orthodox sounding terminology. Further, we realize that the Church is always under attack; we must ever be on our guard.

Finally, we grow in our appreciation for God’s con­tinuing preservation of His people. The Church’s com­mitment to the Truth is continually tested, both from outside and from within. Only through God’s gracious care has the Church persevered through the persecu­tions of Nero, the darkness of the Middle Ages, the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and the materialism of our present age.

We have considered some of the benefits of study­ing Church history but in conclusion we should stress its purpose. Learning more about Church history for mere knowledge’s sake is vanity. Seeking to impress friends or family is similarly vain. Learning more about God’s works in history should not make us proud but profoundly humble. We are but earthly creatures and God is the Creator and Sustainer of us all. When the Bible instructs us to remember the great works which God has done for His people, its stated purpose is that we keep His statutes (Exodus 20), wor­ship Him in thankfulness (Psalm 105), and laying aside all sin, run the race which He has set before us (Hebrews 12:2). Obedience, praise, and a life of thank­ful service: this should also be our reaction upon delv­ing into the mighty works of God in the annals of Church history.

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