The majority of my readers will think that they are busy. That’s the world we live in these days; everyone keeps themselves very busy, moving constantly from activity to activity. In all this craziness, then, when I or someone else recommends a book to you about a person who died several hundred years ago that you’ve never heard of before or haven’t really thought about ever, you ask, “Why should I take the time to read this book? Why should I read a biography?” Today I’m going to try to answer that question! Biographies, particularly Christian ones, benefit you by providing examples, challenging your life, honoring those to whom honor is due, and illustrating the gospel.
Biographies give us examples. The Bible—particularly the Old Testament—is filled with biographical data regarding patriarchs and prophets, rulers and renegades, warriors and widows. Why are all these included? Paul gives us a suggestion:
“Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” (1 Corinthians 10:8)
“For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)
The Old Testament furnishes us with examples. These examples are sometimes very bad, like Ahab, Balaam, Joash, or Saul. These warn us of how not to live. Other examples are very good, for example, David was a man after God’s own heart, Abraham acted in faith, even Samson is held up as a hero in Hebrews 11. Their lives (and those of bad examples) teach us how to live our Christian lives. But the lives of those outside the Bible, those of people written about in biographies, do for us the same thing. You might think that the Bible has enough examples for us to consider, but the Bible actually tells us otherwise:
“Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.” (Philippians 3:17)
We’re commanded to mark those who follow after Christ and model our lives after their examples. Christian biographies are a great way to do this. In a Christian biography, you can see the entirety of a person’s life. You can see their trajectory from childhood to conversion, how after coming to Christ they then pursued Him and modeled their lives after Him, and how they continued in the faith until their deaths. The biographies of missionaries like William Carey or Jim Elliot or Amy Carmichael, of reformers like Calvin or Knox, of puritans like Bunyan or Edwards, of evangelists like Moody or Whitefield, of faithful pastors like M’Cheyne or Lloyd-Jones, all these provide great examples for us to follow. We can learn how to respond to sin from their mistakes, or better, we can gain wisdom to avoid the same pitfalls they found. Biographies in general provide great examples for our lives, Christian biographies of models to follow, and secular biographies of paths to avoid.
A corollary of the exemplary aspect of biographies is that biographies can challenge how we are currently living our lives. When we compare our lives to the example of a Christian life well lived, we see our own failings and weaknesses. When we read a secular biography and see someone fall into sin, we may see how we’re walking the same path. Biographies, then, furnish us real life examples of living that empower our self-examination by giving us parallels to our own lives. Furthermore, many believers in the past have sustained far greater trials than we ever will. Reading about Corrie Ten Boom teaches us to forgive even those who would have killed us, and who actually did kill those in our families and nation. Reading about George Mueller teaches us about a faith and prayer life that trusted God even when it was unclear where the next meal for the orphanage was coming from. These stories challenge us to pursue Christ harder in our own lives by trusting Him more.
Reading a Christian biography is an excellent way to render double honor to whom it is due. 1 Timothy 5:17 tells us:
“The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.”
This concept of elders receiving double honor, while particularly applied within a local church, isn’t limited to that sphere. One can, and should, recognize those leaders who serve well in other churches, other countries, or even other time periods. Christian biographies allow us to learn about and honor some of the most blessed and influential servants of Christ through the history of His church. We are good at rendering this honor to famous preachers and leaders in our own lifetime–John MacArthur, John Piper, Steve Lawson, Mark Dever, Al Mohler, Matt Chandler, David Platt, etc. How much more then should we strive to render honor to those who influenced them? How much more should we render honor to those whose books and lives shaped the theology of our favorite preachers—Jonathan Edwards, C.S. Lewis, Robert Murrray M’Cheyne, John Calvin, Charles Hodge, John Owen, Thomas Watson, Stephen Charnock, Charles Feinberg, John Murray, J. Gresham Machen, and many others?
Finally, Christian biographies illustrate the gospel for us. They illustrate the power of the gospel in the miracle of conversion. They illustrate the sustenance of the gospel in the lives of those who have persevered through great trials. They illustrate the importance of the gospel in living every portion of life. They illustrate the mercy of the gospel in the lives of those who accepted despite so much sin against God in their former lives. For those of use striving to live a gospel centered life, Christian biographies provide us food for thought and past triumphs to fuel future faith.
So then, for all these reasons, a biography, and especially a Christian biography, is worth your time. As you look ahead to summer and summer reading, consider reading a biography.