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There are preachers and theologians whose sermons we listen to and whose publications we read. They fill our hearts with joy because they excel at pointing us to Christ. They move us to tears when we hear them preach, or they instill zeal in our hearts when we read their thunderous prose. We elevate and admire them—we esteem them as our heroes. And I believe there is nothing wrong with having theological heroes.
Some Christians pretend their heroes are flawless, while others completely excommunicate them for their sins.
At the same time, we probably don’t have to look very hard before we find flaws—we discover that our heroes had shortcomings. There are different reactions to such discoveries. Some people (and publishers) do what they can to hide the flaws. They close their eyes and stop up their ears in the effort to pretend that their theological hero never said or wrote the problematic statements.
Some publishers, for example, only release select works by an author and ignore the troubling things that a theologian has said. Others respond to this situation by completely rejecting everything the theologian ever said. If they made one error, then everything the theologian ever preached or wrote is automatically off limits. Is there, however, a better way to approach this situation? Must we either pretend our heroes are flawless or completely excommunicate them for their sins?
Every single one of our heroes is flawed.
I think we must come to grips with the reality that every single theologian, and thus every single one of our heroes, is flawed. They are all sinners, which means they will have theological, moral, and personal shortcomings. If we fail to acknowledge this truth, then we flirt with the real danger of turning a hero into an idol. A hero is someone we appreciate, someone who inspires us, whereas an idol is something or someone we worship. We should never worship any human being—we must reserve worship for our triune God alone.
We must always, therefore, hold our heroes up to the standard of Scripture and Christ. We can follow them as far as they follow Christ; but when we detect that they cease to follow Christ, on the point in question we must bid them farewell. Such an approach, I believe, allows us to esteem our heroes but at the same time maintain the supremacy of Christ and Scripture in our theology.
We can rejoice that Christ has gifted the church with teachers and preachers who slay theological Goliaths.
In the end, give thanks to Christ for giving us theological heroes. We can rejoice that he has gifted the church with teachers and preachers (Eph. 4:11-12), who in their Davidic might slay theological Goliaths and inspire us to serve Christ in like manner. But even though our Davidic heroes are people after God’s own heart, they also have their Davidic sins and are in need of the grace of Christ and the forgiveness of sins.
Follow your heroes, therefore, as they follow Christ, but never let your heroes become an idol. Moreover, never think you are any better than your heroes. True, you may not falter at the same place where they stumbled, but you undoubtedly fall into sin in many other places. Consequently, never take your eyes off Christ, and rejoice that he has no flaws or sins and that he is not merely a hero but our perfectly righteous redeemer who deserves our unfettered worship and praise.
This article by J. V. Fesko is adapted from “A Pastor’s Reflections: Flaws” at Westminster Seminary California’s Valiant For Truth blog. For more helpful content by Dr. Fesko, please visit jvfesko.com.
J. V. Fesko is Professor of Systematic Theology and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi. He has written numerous books on the Christian faith, including Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights and the newly released commentary, Romans (Lectio Continua).