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Our Inheritance: Church History

Imagine with me a treasury. Many kingdoms had vast treasuries. Rooms were filled with the money and valuables the kingdom had obtained through conquests and taxation. The church has a treasury as well. But this is no ordinary treasury. It is not filled with silver and gold. It has not changed hands as does the treasure of a kingdom when it falls. Rather, it is a treasury that never has stopped growing since the creation of man. Through the ages rooms have been added to accommodate the vast wealth the church has accumulated.

Imagine walking through this treasury. What kinds of things do we see? The first thing we notice even before entering the treasury is the inscription above the main entry door: “I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly” (Gen. 17:2). Continuing through the doorway, we walk down a long hallway. The hallway opens up into a large atrium that is at the very heart of the treasury. From the atrium we can access all the rooms of the treasury. Every room is connected to the atrium. Every room must be connected to the atrium because at the center of the atrium is what connects all the rooms together. All the rooms have it common. The cross! The architect of this treasury designed it so that no matter which room we are in, we can always look out the door and see the cross standing in the center of the atrium. It’s in view no matter where we are.

Now let’s explore some of the treasure rooms. There are several stories in this treasury, each one built on top of the other as history of the church unfolded through time. The frame of this great building was always there, it just was not completed yet. From eternity the architect knew every level and every room that would be fitted to be filled with treasure. Let’s start on the first level of the treasury. Think of it as the foundation of the history to follow. There are many rooms to walk through. The first room we enter contains the creation of Adam and Eve, the first members of the church. We see their fall into sin and God’s clothing their nakedness with coats of skins. Immediately we notice the cross again through the doorway as we realize what those skins point to. As the blood of animals was shed to provide the skins to cover the nakedness of our first parents, so Christ’s blood was shed on the cross to cover our sins. We walk into another room and see Noah and his family aboard the ark, delivered from the wicked world as it was destroyed by God. The church had dwindled down to eight righteous souls, but God preserved his church. Again we look out the door and behold the cross and realize God’s deliverance through the ark as pointing to that cross. We walk into a different room and see Israel in bondage in Egypt and God’s gracious guiding of his people out of that land and delivering them from their enemies through the Red Sea. Again we behold the cross and the deliverance it signifies. We step outside this room and continue to find room after room full of events like these: God preserving his church! We now reach a staircase and climb up it to the next level of the treasury. We enter a room and see the disciples preaching the gospel of salvation in Christ alone. In another room we see Peter laboring with the Jews. In yet another room we see Paul and his work with the Gentiles. We see Augustine and his great conversion from a life of sin. We see Luther and Calvin and their work in the Reformation. We see Ursinus and Olevianus writing the Catechism. We see Guido de Bres and his work on the Belgic Confession. We see the great Synod of Dordrecht with its formulating of the Canons. Then we move closer to home and see our own history with Hoeksema and Ophoff. Throughout this entire level of the treasury we behold rooms of the work of the early church and on through the rest of the New Testament until now. The cross is still in view through it all. This second level of the treasury is still being built. We now return to the atrium. But we are not done yet. Looking up, we realize this treasury has a pinnacle. We see our part as the church in glory, but only faintly, because we are not there yet. We realize that as long as we are “at home in the body” (2 Cor. 5:6) we cannot clearly behold our heavenly home. And so we walk by faith and not by sight.

This treasury is so immense that we cannot possibly take it all in at once. We need to come back again and again to view it. Its vastness almost overwhelms us, but it all makes sense when we step back into the atrium and behold the cross. This treasury is so vast that people throughout all time cannot help but notice it. This treasury is the history of the church. This treasury is our inheritance! The lessons we learn from this treasury are countless.

When we study history, we see two sides involved: God and man. We see God in his infinite wisdom with a plan. We see man, elect or reprobate, directed by the providential hand of God. Man cannot take so much as one step without the appointment of God. Paul describes God and his relationship to man in his sermon on Mars Hill: “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation: For in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:24–28). God in his eternal counsel planned what nation would rise up at what time, where it would be located, and what its relationship to its neighbors would be. He planned for certain individuals to be born at certain times within that nation to have influence on events. He also planned the end of many nations. Article 13 of the Belgic Confession addresses God’s control of his creation throughout history: “We believe that the same God, after He had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that He rules and governs them according to His holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without His appointment.”

Throughout all of God’s plan for history he has a goal, namely, the glorification of himself through his son, Jesus Christ. Through the saving work of his Son, he preserved unto himself a church. His church is the golden unbreakable thread he wove through the fabric of history, and his Son is the needle leading his church through it all.  Article 13 goes farther and confirms that God uses even the ungodly and their wicked deeds in his sovereign plan, which includes the preservation of his church: “Nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed. For His power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that He orders and executes His work in the most excellent and just manner, even then when devils and wicked men act unjustly.”

The central aim of God’s plan in history is his glorification of himself through his son Jesus Christ. Christ is at the center of it all. The history of the church will end in this world when Christ comes again on the clouds of glory to judge the wicked and deliver his church militant from this wicked world and bring his church to heaven as the church triumphant. The church will remain in the new heavens and earth into eternity.

All of the history that God ordained from eternity to happen—the glorification of himself through his son and the preservation of his church—is our inheritance. The victories of Israel over their enemies are our inheritance. The defeats suffered by Israel are our inheritance. The great struggles over doctrine over the ages are events that God used to shape and purify his church. These too are our inheritance. The history of his church—a church we belong to—is ours to value. Do we value it? Does church history interest us? Do we really appreciate church history? Do we read about church history? Through reading church history we come to a better understanding of the struggles and battles the church has fought over the years. This in turn will give us a greater appreciation for the church of which we are a part.

Maybe reading church history seems like more of a task to us rather than enjoyment. But have we even tried? Church history isn’t dry. It’s not boring. It describes the origin and development of the many beliefs, practices, and realities—good or bad—that we see today. Many errors found in the church of today are just the same old heresies, just in different clothing. It would be extremely valuable for us to be well-versed in this history so that we are awake and ready defend.

In our progressive age church history and history in general are devalued greatly. The reigning thought is, forget the past and move forward! Forget history and all the lessons we can take from it. We finally have got it right. We are redefining history. After all the years of the church’s wallowing in controversy over this doctrine or that practice, our generation finally has it right! This is nonsense. Yes, the church must always be reforming. It must constantly be sharpening its understanding of doctrines and events in order to guard from error.

The Lord has given us our portion in the church of all ages. By treasuring the history of this church that has preceded us, we learn to cherish even more our own portion in the church. The history of the church is as that golden thread woven through the fabric of the history of the world with Christ as the needle leading his bride. Just as one pulls the entire thread end to end through the fabric, the thread is as the unbroken line of church history that connects us, who are at the end, to the very beginning.