Baker, 2009. (Available in Australia from Koorong Books)
A. W. Tozer once rightly said, “Next to the Holy Scriptures, the greatest aid to the life of faith may be Christian biographies.” Can I supplement this by saying that next to a good Christian biography, the next most helpful aid is a series of brief biographical sketches.
That is what Warren Wiersbe has provided us with here: a set of short yet inspiring and helpful mini-biographies of fifty great saints of God from the past few centuries. It is a great collection of articles about a number of leading Christian evangelists, pastors and preachers.
Some of those featured here include F. B. Meyer, Charles H. Spurgeon, G. Campbell Morgan, D. L. Moody, A. W. Tozer, Fanny Crosby, Oswald Chambers, Amy Carmichael, Jonathan Edwards, James Hudson Taylor, George Whitefield, and R. A. Torrey.
The majority of these figures are Protestant pastors and preachers of the last two centuries. Thus not too many Catholics or women are found here, but there are some of each. The selection of course reflects the ministry of Wiersbe – he is a pastor, preacher and writer who for many years was pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.
He has written numerous books on preaching, and has edited a series of books on great sermons. The 50 biographical sketches offered here first appeared in several Christian magazines. They are arranged by birth date, so Katherine von Bora (b. 1499 – the wife of Martin Luther) is the first, while William Culbertson (b. 1905) is the last.
Reading them in sequences is valuable for various reasons. One can clearly note the way in which one person had a marked influence on others. Indeed, many of those featured here worked with or supported the ministry of others also found in this collection.
Some common themes emerge as one reads all fifty stories. For example, it is interesting to note how many of these great leaders struggled with depression, were filled with self-doubt, or had a low view of their own ministry and success. Many were lonely, and some were tempted to give it all away at times.
One can also see the very important role that reading played in the lives of so many of these spiritual giants. It is a well-known truth that leaders are readers. Many of those mentioned here had a deep love for books, reading, study and theology. Spurgeon of course had a library of some twelve thousand volumes.
Or consider the great Scottish preacher W. Robertson Nicoll (1851-1923). “He read an average of two books a day and edited a weekly journal, three monthly magazines, and a steady stream of scholarly books.” Indeed, “he managed to write over forty books of his own, and compile, edit, or supervise the publication of over 250 more titles.”
One often gets a laugh out of some of these figures. Wiersbe informs us that during the winter months in Scotland, Nicoll was basically confined to his home and his books. Nicoll later said, “I always look back with pleasure to my three months each winter there, when I was a prisoner alone with my cat and my books.”
At least he was not married at the time. But he could say this at a time when he was married, while in England: “I feel rather lonely and depressed here away from my books.” Says Wiersbe, “His books and his cats and his publications were his life”. He tells us that “Nicoll’s library contained twenty-five thousand volumes, including five thousand biographies! ‘I have for years read every biography I could lay my hands on, and not one has failed to teach me something,’ he wrote.”
Of course a major theme found throughout these mini-biographies is the importance of holiness, the deeper life, total commitment to Christ, and the need for personal sanctification. The many quotes along these lines which Wiersbe presents are alone worth the price of the book. Here are a few choice nuggets:
“It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likenesses to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” (Robert Murray McCheyne)
“We cannot make up for failure in our devotional life by redoubling energy in service for Christ. Our work will never rise higher than our devotional life. As water never rises above its level, so what we do never rises above what we are. And in our preaching we shall never take people one hair’s breadth beyond our own spiritual attainment. We may point to higher things, we may ‘allure to brighter worlds,’ but when we ‘lead the way’ we shall only take them just as far as we ourselves have gone. We shall never take people beyond our own spiritual attainment.” (W. H. Griffith Thomas)
“The work will never go deeper than we have gone ourselves.” (Amy Carmichael)
“You can never give another person that which you have found, but you can make him homesick for what you have.” (Oswald Chambers)
“Preaching that costs nothing accomplishes nothing.” (John Henry Jowett)
“All the calls of the gospel are calls to hardship, to sacrifice, to battle. Christ would have no man follow him under the delusion that he was going to have an easy time of it.” (Welsh preacher J. D. Jones)
“Power for service is second; power for holiness and character is first. The first, second, and third requisite for our work is personal godliness.” (Alexander Maclaren)
There is just an enormous amount of helpful and encouraging information here. We can always learn so much – and grow so much – when we study the lives of great men and women who have gone before. As we do, we see that total dedication and obedience to Christ is really the only secret of Christian success.
There are no magic bullets here; no quick fixes to spirituality. Only the old and true methods will do: dying to self, taking up our cross, and serving others, just as our Lord had demonstrated. As Wiersbe rightly notes, “Far too many Christians are scurrying around looking for special meetings, thinking that extraordinary experiences will make them better Christians.”
As you move through this book your appetite should be whetted for more. And Wiersbe does not disappoint – he provides plenty of recommendations for further reading for each of these fifty saints. He mentions numerous books both by and about these great men and women of God.
This book is simply a delight to read. It is a tremendous faith-builder and a spiritual eye-opener. It helps to set the bar higher, so we are not content to settle for second best. When we get a glimpse of some of these radiant, Christ-centred lives, we will no longer want to embrace mediocrity, but move on to the very best we can have, and be, in Christ.