In Their Steps

Learning from Those Who Have Gone Before Us

by Jonathon Woodyard May 4, 2017

Christianity is not a lone ranger religion.

We walk through the present evil age, “encouraging one another, and all the more as [we] see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25). We need those around us to help us fight the fight of faith, put sin to death, and walk worthy of the gospel. In other words, we need the church. That’s why Paul would write, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Philippians 3:17).

I’d argue, however, that we don’t only need those who are with us currently, but those who preceded us as well. The people of God, past and present, have much to teach the individual Christian and the church as a whole.

 Now, if that is true, if we need to learn from the example we have in God’s people in every age, then this includes Old Testament saints. Those like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and David all have something to teach us as we seek to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, and strength. John Frame writes, “the imitation of God, of Christ, and of godly human beings is a major biblical mode of moral instruction” (Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 293).

We learn how to live faithfully by watching the faithful. Past and present.

Now, I’m not merely talking about learning from the divine words that many of them have recorded and that are preserved for us in the Old Testament canon. Instead, my larger point here is that we learn from their lives. Their decisions, actions, and words offer instruction. We look at the narrative portions of Scripture and pay attention to the example we have in them. It could be we learn what not to do or we learn how to love the Lord and serve him more faithfully. 

Either way, whether by negative or positive example, the narratives of the Bible - specifically the Old Testament - instruct us in godliness. Individual readers of the Bible shouldn’t miss that instruction. And preachers shouldn’t cast such instruction aside in their zeal to preach a redemptive-historical sermon.

This, it seems, is something a generation of preachers may be leaning further and further away from. But should they?

All of Scripture is About Jesus

It is certainly true when any portion of Scripture is understood in its redemptive-historical context, it ultimately and finally points us to Jesus. When walking on the Emmaus Road with some disciples after his resurrection, Jesus showed them how all the whole Bible was about him. Luke writes, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

In all the Scriptures, from the Pentateuch to the Prophets, Jesus showed these disciples how everything points towards him.

Yet, in our desire to point to Jesus, have we too quickly jettisoned the ethical content found in various parts of the Bible? Our favorite Biblical theologian tell us that the Bible is about Jesus, not moralism. Then, in our zeal (and with good intentions, no doubt), we drive our exegetical train into the other ditch that casts off all moral lessons. I fear that might be the case with some, including myself.

Can we steer a better course? I think so.

Steering Between the Ditches: Learn from the Past, Run to Jesus

What I’m advocating for is that we make sure we are accounting for, and preaching, the ethical content that we find in the Bible. My main concern at this point, given the frequent cautions against moralism, is to sound the siren that says, “Don’t miss the moral lessons!” Of course, I’m not saying we ever stop at the moral lessons. The Bible is better than Aesop’s Fables. Instead, as Spurgeon once said, we make a bee-line for the cross. In our hastening to the cross, however, let us make sure we emphasize what a particular text is emphasizing in its own historical-grammatical context.           

John Frame introduces two terms that have been used in the past to refer to “preachers and sermons deemed insufficiently redemptive-historical” (Frame, 293). The term “moralist” and “exemplarist” are terms of derision. The “moralist” preaches a kind of salvation by works. He preaches the moral or ethical content, but makes it seem that if the hearer would simply live better, God would then accept him. The “exemplarist,” according to Frame, gives the impression that “it is somehow wrong to refer to a Bible character as a moral example” (Frame, 293).

But can you not take note of the moral lessons from the Bible, even point to a biblical character (other than Jesus) as a moral example, while at the same time steering clear of moralism? Yes!

John Frame has balanced this discussion a good bit. I’ll quote him at length.

It is true, of course, that Bible characters other than Jesus are sinful and therefore not always exemplary. It is also true to a point that when biblical characters are exemplary we must take into account their situation (i.e. their place in the history of redemption). The story of David and Goliath, for example, is not an exhortation to little boys to go out and kill bullies with slingshots, but it tells of David’s courage in carrying out his responsibility as God’s anointed, and thus points to Christ. But David’s courage is exemplary nonetheless, and we may apply his example to our circumstances, making appropriate allowance for the difference between our calling and David’s. (Frame, 293).

Frame highlights the point I’m trying to make. In a story like David and Goliath, it’s true that it ultimately and finally points us to Jesus. This does not, however, mean that we should fail to see the ethical instruction implicit in the narrative. Courage, faithfulness, and devotion to the Lord, are all things that a preacher should rightfully emphasize from this OT story.

David and Goliath isn’t about you. It ultimately points us to great David’s Greater Son. But you can learn a lot about godliness from the story!

In other words, learn from David, while running to Jesus.

Not Moralism, But Preaching the Whole Counsel of God

To be clear, I’m not advocating that a preacher fails to preach Christ from all of Scripture. I praise God for Edmund Clowney, Sidney Greidanus, and Graeme Goldsworthy. They are scholars who have rightly pointed us toward preaching Jesus from every text. To preach any moral portion of Scripture in such a way that it indicates we can earn the favor of God by simply trying harder or doing better is to preach a hellish message. I’m not steering us towards that ditch.

I am, however, asking a generation of preachers that are being introduced to a resurgence of biblical theological preaching, to preach the whole counsel of God. That means we always take our hearers to Jesus as we remember redemptive history. And it means that we help our hearers know what a life of godliness entails. We note, then, the moral lessons and the godly examples that are highlighted throughout the Bible.

In short, let us help our people (and ourselves) keep their eyes on those who have walked faithfully. Let’s pay attention to their morality, their action, and their motives and imitate them as they are found faithful.

Perhaps, we could say, sometimes it’s worth walking in their footsteps, even as we keep running to Jesus.