We have clear scriptural warrant for emulation. We see this through Jesus’ earthly ministry; He made disciples and in the Great Commission, He instructed us to make disciples (Matt. 28:19). We see this precedence all throughout the New Testament. We will look at a few examples to establish the usefulness and biblical grounds for Christian biography.
The writer of Hebrews instructs us to be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:12). He also encourages us with the thought of all the saints that have gone before us. He says, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race set before us” (12:1). Of course, he wisely reminds us that our supreme example is Jesus (12:2). Again, he says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (13:7). I think here, we can deduce that many times it is a good principle to wait to imitate leaders until we have considered “the outcome of their way of life.” This also shows us that we should not imitate them wholesale but evaluate them. We can emulate good Christian leaders, that is fine, but we must always remember that only “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8).
Paul tells us to “honor such men” (Phil. 2:29) that are faithful in service to the Lord. Paul even urged people to imitate himself (1 Cor. 4:16), but only in as much as he imitated Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).* I wonder if one reason for this is proximity. It is one thing to ask, “what would Jesus do,” it is another thing to see someone who by our evaluation tends to do things that Jesus would have done had He faced similar circumstances. It is easier to understand what love is when it has flesh on. Paul continues to say imitate me, but not just me, but also those who follow my example (Phil. 3:17). Thus, in as much as Edwards, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, and others follow Paul as he followed Christ we should seek to learn from biography’s and emulate them.†
It is helpful for most human beings to see something demonstrated before they attempt to do it themselves; it is just how we tend to learn. This is also what we see when it comes to spiritual matters. We need someone to imitate because we are naturally imitators but not just anyone. Imitator (mimetes) simply means ones who follows. We see this in some of its related words: a “mime” is someone who acts out an imitation of another person. A “mimeograph” is a machine that makes copies from a template. Thus, we see the template/person we chose to copy/imitate is vital because if we do our job well we will be a lot like them.
Look at what an impact your football coach, teacher, or parent has had on you, good or bad. The New Testament also shows us the importance of discipleship and there is even a sense in which those who have died can still teach us.‡ Look for example at the impact that Jonathon Edwards has had on John Piper or the impact of both Edwards and Spurgeon on Lloyd-Jones.§
Then look at the impact that Piper has had on many others. It reminds me of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy (2 Tim 2:1-2). Obviously, Paul is an apostle and Edwards is not but the principle still applies. We in the 21st century have an unprecedented opportunity to entrust good teaching to faithful men (and women!) who will teach others also. Biographies are a good source to use when discipling men. It is helpful for us to see men that though they are dead, still speak by the life of faith they lived. However, we must remember to evaluate them in light of Christ and see where they succeeded to follow Him and where they failed.¤ It is important that we learn from both the good and the bad.
That is why I promote biography and not hagiography. We must remember Paul’s words here, he said, “follow me, as follow Christ.” In the same way, we should follow these men, learn from them in as much as they are biblical, and follow Christ. However, we must keep in mind that they are not Christ and thus they mess up. We should not have blinders on so as not to see their blunders but rather note where they have diverged from the path and seek not to ourselves. If we keep in open eye as we follow them as they follow Christ we may avoid pit falls that they did not. Thus, we also can learn from their mistakes but this is only if we keep an open eye like the Bereans (Acts 17:10-11).
*In Philippians 2:29, in the Greek, we see the present imperative so Paul is commanding them to continually honor faithful men, in this case, Epaphroditus. In both the verses from First Corinthians, we also see the present imperative tells us to habitually follow the command. It is to be our long-term commitment, our lifestyle, to imitate Paul as he imitates Christ.
†We could look at many other texts here to establish the legitimacy, indeed, the blessing of biographies however; we do not have the space for that here. Here are some further texts to look at Phil. 4:8-9; 1 Thess, 1:6, 7; 2 Thess. 3:9.
‡The Hebrew writer reminds us that we can learn even from Abel though he has long since been dead. Even Abel “through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Heb. 12:4).
¤As J. C. Ryle has said, “The best of men are only men at their very best. Patriarchs, prophets, and apostles,—martyrs, fathers, reformers, puritans,—all, all are sinners, who need a Saviour: holy, useful, honourable in their place,—but sinners after all” (Murray, D. M. Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith, 752).