Nostalgia Is the Enemy of Faith: Learn from Your Heroes’ Warts

Remembering the past is good and biblical. That’s why the Word repeatedly calls us to remember God’s great acts of deliverance, such as the Exodus and the Cross. That’s also why the pastor of Hebrews warns his congregation to remember the faithless Israelites who wandered in the desert for 40 years (Heb. 3:16-19). Remembering bolsters our faith in God even as it cautions us against disobedience by reminding us of the consequences.

But nostalgia is the enemy of faith. By lamenting the good ‘ole days, nostalgia tempts us to forsake the present day as beyond the scope of God’s redemption, out of reach from his intervention. And hagiography is the handmaiden to nostalgia. When we venerate the saints of yesteryear as titans of faithfulness, without paying proper attention to their sins, we elevate them to a status only God possesses. As they increase in our memory, God must decrease. Even Jesus seems unfit to tie their sandals.

Thankfully, Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). He worked through flawed men like Abraham and Elijah, Peter and Paul. And he works through our flawed heroes of recent history. That is the much-needed reminder provided by two recently released books, among the first scholarly treatments of great 20th-century evangelical leaders John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Yes, we can—indeed, must—draw inspiration from their examples of steadfast faith when many others abandoned the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ. But we must also remember them for who they really were, imperfect men whose visions clashed, and learn from their mistakes.

Unity or Secession?

Stott and Lloyd-Jones lived consequential lives guided by God’s unmerited favor. Alister Chapman tells us in Godly Ambition how Stott, educated to assume a favored position in the British Empire, eventually invested in educating and empowering leaders in the Majority World. And the many scholars who contributed to Engaging with Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Life and Legacy of “The Doctor” explore several dimensions to his life, from his lifelong hunger for revival to his painful split with fellow Puritan admirer J. I. Packer.

Lloyd-Jones, the longtime pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, grew increasingly discouraged during the course of his life watching the Church of England’s theological trajectory. Independent evangelicals like Lloyd-Jones and many of us today tend to assume the worst of such state churches. But Stott and Packer, reared in the age of empire and schooled in the historical role of the favored church, continued to hope for reform along the lines of what the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter cultivated in Kidderminster in the 17th century.

Lloyd-Jones spoke in October 1966 at the second National Assembly of Evangelicals about his desire for visible unity to match evangelicals’ spiritual unity. He lamented, “We meet like this, I know, in an occasional conference, but we spend most of our time apart from one another, and joined to and united with people who deny and are opposed to these essential matters of salvation.” He continued, “I am a believer in ecumenicity, evangelical ecumenicity.”

While intended as a call to unity, his address struck many Anglicans as an ultimatum for secession. Indeed, Stott, who chaired the event, warned the crowd not to respond to Lloyd-Jones and make a “precipitate decision.” Raising the stakes, he argued, “I believe the Scripture is against [Lloyd-Jones] in that the remnant was within the Church and not outside it.”

How differently nostalgia remembers their stories. Lloyd-Jones, an ardent critic of ecumenism along the lines of the World Council of Churches, has been lionized as a zealous defender of truth for the sake of a pure church. But many have neglected his longing for evangelical cooperation, inspired by a love for the transatlantic awakenings of the 18th century that so shaped the spiritual heritage of his native Wales. Stott, meanwhile, has been recently eulogized as gentle Uncle John, the passionate bird watcher. Yet the man who expended decades of his life fighting the advance of liberalism in the Church of England, costing himself the bishop’s mitre, has become in our memory a paragon of lost evangelical statesmanship. Truth is more complicated than memory.

Hardball Tactics

Nostalgia doesn’t do subtlety. We pound the third dimension out of our heroes, turning them into cardboard cutouts suitable for display at our favored conferences. We don’t so much learn from them as deploy them in our contemporary polemics. Beside the fact that we dishonor their legacy, we forsake a great opportunity for humble appropriation. Lloyd-Jones failed in his call. Divisions in British evangelicalism deepened. Those fault lines are still visible today. Could he have done anything differently? Learning from the Packer episode, how should we handle deep disagreement with longtime friends? Is even loose evangelical fellowship necessarily elusive until Jesus’ return, despite his prayer in John 17?

Stott even recognized to some degree his culpability in the split. He later apologized for abusing his chairmanship of the National Assembly of Evangelicals meeting to rebut Lloyd-Jones. But Uncle John knew how to ensure his views carried the day, even if others sometimes resented his tactics. Many remember Stott’s commitment to social action, immortalized in the Lausanne Covenant. Billy Graham, whose global ministry and fundraising made the gathering possible, initially counseled focus on evangelism and missions. But when Stott threatened to resign from the Lausanne Committee unless his views were adopted, Graham stood down and advocated compromise. Graham, in fact, went so far as to affirm his respect, love, and admiration for Stott, even though his British counterpart jeopardized the Lausanne unity he worked so hard to foster. Could Stott have registered his protest by others means? Did he need to resort to such hardball tactics? How do we know when threats are warranted?

Our heroes, then and today, endure tremendous pressure with limited human capacity to perceive the full consequences of their decisions. It seemed right for Stott and Packer to stand by the Church of England and against Lloyd-Jones in 1966. But as Chapman documents, Stott eventually tired of Anglican politics and refocused his attention on more encouraging developments in the global church. Packer, following his ecclesiological hero Baxter, committed to reforming the church from within. But in 2008 his church in Vancouver broke with the Anglican Church of Canada after that body blessed same-sex relationships. Had Lloyd-Jones been right all along about the futility of working within theologically mixed denominations? History tells alternative outcomes of this dilemma, but these are the questions we must confront, lest nostalgia rob us from valuable wisdom.

It does not insult our heroes to suspect their imperfection. Rather, we insult their God and cloud our faith with the fog of nostalgia if we ignore their mistakes. We end up the losers, because our own day will never measure up by comparison. But if we remember our heroes for who they were—sinners redeemed by a glorious Christ—we’ll learn their lessons and deepen our faith in a God who can powerfully work through us, too, even in this wicked day.

  • Truth unites… And divides

    Fwiw, IMHO Lloyd-Jones was correct

  • Matthew Rushing

    I think that this is what makes Scripture so brilliant; it shows us the heroes of the faith in all their flawed glory.

  • John S

    Recently went to a memorial for my Aunt. She had many faults, like us all, but it was sweet to hear all the comments at the open mic, of the grace of God evident in her life, including her firm belief in the gospel of Christ. much of what was shared I was not aware of. It was a time of worship. This was not the time to discuss her faults but to glorify God by remembering his hand in her life. We all knew she was a sinner.

    Perhaps with public figures and leaders like Lloyd-Jones and Stott it is appropriate to keep their errors and flaws and sins and specks fresh in our minds and pay ‘proper attention’ to them. But i think it appropriate to keep our own logs far fresher, and the grace in others far fresher, and rightly attribute their accomplishments primarily to Christ in them so as to avoid lionization. I think I just made up a word…

  • Ben

    I’m with Matthew. Scripture is clear that men were not chosen because of who they were, but because of God’s own purposes to prove himself strong through weak men.

    I think this lesson should be applied when spearing contemporary “heroes” as well. I can’t help but hear echoes of the Elephant Room controversy in some of these stories about Lloyd-Jones and Stott. The very people who venerate these deceased men with a nostalgic view are often the ones spearing people like MacDonald and Driscoll for being less than perfect. They forget their own heroes of the past were equally imperfect in how they handled situations like these.

    Lastly, I think this article contributes much to the “celebrity pastor” debate. So many who decry the “celebrity pastor” phenomenon trade living “celebrities” for dead ones. They lift up people like Edwards, Lloyd-Jones, Calvin, Augustine and others to much in the same way as modern people respect contemporary pastors for their writing and speaking abilities. Again, they conveniently forget the faults of their “heroes” by means of nostalgia.

    • Sally

      Well said Ben.

  • Mike Springstead

    This lesson is pertinent to every area of history, not merely that of our faith. Anyone wishing they could elect some president from the past this year, instead of choosing from among the available options? The same thing could easily have been wished then, as well.

  • Nicky

    There are many of the ‘greats’ that we refer to who have made their mistakes or had their own character flaws, but it doesn’t mean we have to air their dirty laundry in order to keep our own feet on the ground does it?

    I think I am just thankful to God that we have the fortune to learn from them rather than look at their faults and feel a need to keep reminding myself ‘they are all flawed human beings’.

    Spurgeon, Pink, Wigglesworth, Torrey, Calvin, Luther etc etc.. all had their faults, and yes, we can learn from them, but I don’t feel a need to search out their faults in order to keep them in their place. ;)

    • Steve Martin


      We know their faults and admit to them. But we focus on the good that they did, taught, preached…and not their sin.

  • Patrick

    I love this website so much.

  • Luma


  • littleGoose

    I have a lot to learn in history. Why did Stott and Packer part ways?

  • Bryan C.

    I think you would do well to study the following Scripture:
    Then the king of Israel replied, “Tell him, ‘Let not him who girds on his armor boast like him who takes it off.'” 1 Kings 20:11. You are criticizing this man who stands out as one of the greatest preachers of all time. Your record as a preacher and long-standing man of God is not fully written.

    • Collin Hansen

      I suppose that view pretty much exemplifies my concern. I’m certainly not above criticism. Nor is anyone else. God alone is perfect. If we can’t learn from our our heroes, warts and all, then we’ve idolized them. I hope some day if the Lord tarries Christians can learn from our mistakes, too, since we’re probably blinded to many of them by our sin.

      • Rachael Starke

        Collin –

        That really gets to the heart of the matter. I’m almost afraid to ask if this has anything to do with recent, well, “scuffling: would be the charitable way to describe the forceful disagreement over “namebrand” preachers making choices that a particular group think is sinful. (There have been enough over the past few years that I hope you see I’m trying to be very general!!)

        It’s interesting that it seems that the one time we feel free to even raise these issues is after they’ve gone to Heaven, where all has been resolved and all that matters is clear. (Maranatha!) And that’s ironic because there’s no opportunity left to repent or seek unity.

        I am tremendously helped to consider the failings of Spurgeon (who though cigar smoking perfectly acceptable but was offended by theater-going) or Luther (who was the Mark Driscoll of his day, to name just one of his, um, challenges). They remind me that if the wisest and most godly have flaws in their thinking, so. do. I I have the opportunity to ask God for clarity, but also to show charity in the midst of disagreement with that in mind.

        • Collin Hansen

          I actually hadn’t thought about recent developments when I wrote this article. Though I suppose they would apply. I really appreciate leaders who are willing to publicly admit their error. I’m suspicious of those who don’t—not because they need to confess to me in a talk show era, but because they tend to attract followers blind to their faults and prone to repeat or even worsen them.

          I will echo other comments here, however, and say that I’m not terribly interested in fostering a judgmental climate, either. One reason we wait until after death (and then even a while longer, as in the case of the Lloyd-Jones essays I cited) is because our errors aren’t immediately apparent either to ourselves or anyone else. If we’re mindful of our sinful tendency toward sinful criticism, time gives us the distance necessary to deduce the proper lessons and still thank God for using our heroes. They do take a lot of unfair criticism in their lifetimes, and I’m afraid that’s why many leaders shut themselves off to anyone who disagrees.

      • Nicky

        It’s not true at all to say “if we can’t learn from our heroes, warts and all, then we’ve idolised them”.

        We pick up these books and read them because we want to learn from them, it doesn’t by default mean that we idolise them if we are unaware of their “warts”.

        We pick up the bible and read about men and women of God…do we idolise Enoch because we don’t know his faults?

        It just seems a bit of a negative statement that hasnt been thought through properly as well as it being untrue.

        • Collin Hansen

          That’s a good point, Nicky. I should have made the point more specifically to express concern with the willful ignorance of nostalgia. Of course many do and should learn from Stott, Lloyd-Jones, and others even if they pick up just one of their many good books and know nothing about the controversies.

      • Bryan C.

        I apologize for the personal attack on your character. I shouldn’t have directed my comments toward you. I should have spoken more about the nostalgia in the leaders your post was about. Thank you for sharing your concern, although I don’t think the issue is a gospel one as you are making it out to be. Some issues shouldn’t be brought up when we don’t know the reasoning behind why someone does what they do. The Bible says we all stumble in many ways but if one does not stumble in what he says then he is a perfect (complete) one and able to control his entire body. I think my words were not controlled toward you and not edifying. I am sorry.

  • Francisco

    Does this apply to Luther and Calvin? Because reformers sure make a huge deal about those guys! Sometimes I feel like too much of a deal

  • J.E. Williams

    People are never what we hyper them up to be; we never have the full story at first hand; and we definitely don’t seek out all the facts before we fall in love with our heroes. Everyone is fallen; a great premise to start off with. Great article, thank you for the humble insight.

  • paul Cummings

    how about the “romanticism” of the early church itself? I have heard “If we could just get back to the way the early church was…” more times that I can remember…and yet when you read the Epistles…it’s a mess, how did Corinth even survive and Galatia keep from pinning down every male and circumcising them on the spot!

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  • Mark D Patterson

    What disappointed me about this article was the apparent reluctance to state an opinion about if Lloyd-Jones was right in his analysis in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s? I appreciate the purpose was to challenge how nostalgia can cloud our reading of history but I’m so naive to believe that it’s possible to stand up and say “he was right, or he was wrong!”?? Forget the man!!! What was the message? We speak too much about Preachers and not enough about the power of biblical preaching. For me what our forefathers had in abundance and what we desperately lack today is courage. Everyone we can name from Christ Himself, Paul, Polycarp, Columbanus, Tyndale, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, the Scottish Covenantors, the 1662 ejected nonconformists, John Bunyan, Whitefield, Spurgeon to Lloyd-Jones weren’t afraid to stand up and be counted. Even prepared to be wrong!! But they were courageous. Let’s dare to be modern Daniels and not fear what men may think of us. It seems the policically correct spirit of our age had mellowed too many of us!

  • Ken Stewart

    An interesting post, the thrust of which I say ‘amen’ to. Nostaligia is an issue for conservative evangelicals and reformed evangelicals today.

    But as to the particular instance focused upon, i.e. how new information brought to light by Chapman and Atherstone helps us to see DMLJ and JRWS’s 1966 face-off in an altered light, I believe this is considerably more complicated than is suggested here.
    Until the accounts of Atherstone and Chapman were offered to us, we had chiefly to rely on accounts provided by those who were overly-identified with DMLJ. One could call these DMLJ’s ‘spear-carriers’. One could have been justified in taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude about their version of the 1966 stand-off. Today, the confluence of the Atherstone-Chapman accounts enables us to see the whole affair in a clearer light and DMLJ’s stance is shown in a more favorable light. But two caveats…
    1. The 1966 debacle had the unforseen effect of giving the cause of evangelical collaboration (across the CofE-Independent evangelical divide) a terrible setback. It is not enough to blame this on Stott’s feistiness (as though he derailed the train). DMLJ should have been able to better perceive how his remarks of 1966 might be taken. The net result was that it is only since 2000 or thereabouts that the CofE evangelical collaboration with Independent evangelicals cheered on by DMLJ in 1966 has really taken off. One sees the result of this in the regional church-planting partnerships, the regional Cornhill courses and the openness of CofE colleges like Oak Hill to Independent evangelical teachers and students. The near and intermediate-term effect of 1966 was the opposite of what both JWRS and DMLJ prized. The hitherto friendship of DMLJ and JI Packer was evidently a casualty of this fraying of relations.
    2. Since Atherstone and Chapman have done us the favor of helping us to see the events of 1966 in a clearer light, it does not follow at all that in any comprehensive way DMLJ’s ‘stock’ rises and that of Stott falls. We are still left to consider both of these as tremendously complex figures. As for myself, I am struck at the stances of the two men in old age. DMLJ was still wedded to the KJV and of a noticeable ‘retro’ perspective, which involved a lot of romanticized notions of the Christian past — particularly the Puritan and Great Awakening eras. Stott turned into the international cheerleader of evangelical causes in the developing world and wrote vigorously, almost to the end.

    • Collin Hansen

      Thanks, Ken. I always appreciate your contributions. Certainly things are much more complicated than I could explain in a brief article, so I hope readers will pick up these important books.

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  • Tim Swan

    “Had Lloyd-Jones been right all along about the futility of working within theologically mixed denominations? History tells alternative outcomes of this dilemma, but these are the questions we must confront, lest nostalgia rob us from valuable wisdom.”

    Thank you for bringing us to this excellent question, but can we have more clarity on the answer?
    As an evangelical anglican caught between often opposing visions of church within my own denomination, this is not just a theoretical issue. The question still hangs before us: should we continue to commit ourselves to a denomination that at it best has tremendous strengths (eg Sydney), but at it’s worst is soul destroying? Or would we be wiser to invest our energies elsewhere?
    Do the books listed above on Stott and Lloyd Jones enter into this evaluation, or can you recommend something that does?
    Thank you again for an excellent post.

    • Collin Hansen

      Thanks for writing, Tim. Your situation has agonized many other Anglicans, and I pray that God will grant you wisdom. I don’t think there’s a clear answer to your question, I’m afraid. Many of Stott’s spiritual descendants continue to work within the Church of England. I mentioned that Packer’s congregation in Canada left. The Southern Baptists who worked against the odds to reform their institutions have been rewarded with a remarkable reformation, if incomplete. So Christians will differ on the wisdom of staying or leaving, depending on their personal situation and the state of the denomination. May God give us all wisdom, and may he work so others don’t need to make this decision.

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  • steve

    I dont get the meaning of this lesson. So does that mean that if I am seeking a move of God in my life, that puts me in a position of not having faith?? Didn’t Hannah pour herself to God until God intervined in her situation?? When the Israelites went back to the ruins in of Jerusalem. Did not the old generation remembered and cried over the old temple??

  • Zander

    Fragility is God’s design: 2Co 4:7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
    Neither Moses nor Jonah had the second name “Will”. Rather “Unwilling”. Those acutely aware of their weaknesses somehow seem to be useful. Seeing that is liberating. Even those instruments of special use were still “earthen vessels”. The departed saints mentioned would probably say about this article; “preach it brother!” amazing grace …to save a wretch like me

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  • Abigail Earle

    Could you give me a passage from Scripture that directly condemns nostalgia/sentimentalism?

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