On Spiritual Heroes

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg. Back in 1517, that event may not have seemed all that significant. But in hindsight, it is that action which has come to be seen as the ceremonial beginning of the Protestant Reformation, arguably one of the most important chapters of Western history.

On the one hand, I’m pretty fond of the Reformation. It was a valiant display of theological integrity and a courageous refusal to go along with what was seen as a corrupt church authority. But on the other hand, the Reformation is fraught with problems. Some really ugly things happened. And the people responsible for those ugly things were often the very people standing so resolutely for biblical truth.

How should we think about these contradictory realities? Do we focus on the good qualities of the Reformers, and leave all the bad stuff hiding in the corner somewhere? Or do we conclude that these people aren’t worthy of our respect and write them off as just another set of villains to be forever despised?

Recently I came across one answer to that question that got me thinking. It comes from a little book by Carl Trueman, and it presents a perspective that is filled with wisdom:

We must not approach the Reformers as if they could do no wrong; we must rather go to them with an appreciative but critical spirit, appreciative in acknowledging their insights into the Bible’s teaching, and critical in remembering that, like us, they were mere sinful mortals capable of disastrous mistakes as well as marvelous achievements.

Regardless of what you think about the Reformation, we all have spiritual heroes. Some are historical figures whose writings and ideas have shaped people through the generations. Others are living people such as parents, pastors, and mentors, who continue to exercise ongoing influence in our lives.

In any case, we can be sure of one thing: our spiritual heroes will let us down (if they haven’t already). They will show moral weaknesses. They will say things that are off-base. They will fall victim to the blind spots of their particular cultural moment. And when that happens, we’ll have to decide what to do. Do we write them off and go searching for new heroes? Or do we conveniently ignore their flaws and persist in an unrealistic view of their greatness?

This is where I think Carl Trueman’s perspective is so helpful. When he calls us to be “appreciative but critical,” he liberates us from idealizing people whose lives are marred with sin, while also liberating us from demonizing people whose lives have been used mightily by God. In the end, we’re able to be honest about those we look up to—honest about their strengths and their weaknesses.

But perhaps more than that, the benefit of being “appreciative but critical” is that it allows us to remain mindful of the fact that we have only one Savior. And although God may surround us with a great cloud of human witnesses whom we rightly respect and admire, ultimately their shortcomings and weaknesses will point us toward God’s own unique perfection and sufficiency in the gospel.

So the next time one of your heroes shows an unexpectedly ugly side, perhaps the appropriate response is to thank God for the opportunity to be reminded that your hope is anchored in someone who has no ugly side whatsoever. And we can be grateful for anyone—flaws and all—who helps point us toward Him­.

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