I recently heard that one of my favorite authors, Sinclair Ferguson, has written a new series of biographies for children. The first three books in this “Heroes of the Faith” series (there are more to come) tell the stories of Polycarp, Ignatius, and Irenaeus. I am really excited about ordering these for my youngest son. I’ll probably read them before he does!
In an introductory note for the series, Ferguson wrote:
Many of our children enjoy having heroes, but they are living in a world that encourages them instead to have ‘idols’. Sometimes, perhaps, the difference is simply a choice of words. But today it is usually more. For the ‘idols’ our children are encouraged to have – whether by media coverage or peer pressure – are to be ‘adored’ not because of their character, but because of their image.
By contrast a ‘hero’ is someone who is much more than a ‘personality’ about whom we may know little or nothing. A hero is someone who has shown moral fibre, who has overcome difficulties and opposition, who has been tested and has stood firm.
That is, I think, a critical distinction, and one with which most who read this will readily agree. Ferguson goes on to say that true Christian heroes are those “whose lives remind us of the words of Hebrews 13:7: ‘Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.'” It’s not only appropriate to look up to men whose character and lifestyle magnify Christ, it’s even appropriate to imitate them.
There is a difference, though, between having heroes—between imitating or honoring godly men and women—and idolizing them, as Francis Chan recently pointed out. Sometimes it’s a very fine line between the two.
While it is good that people are talking about what they have learned from “Piper, Driscoll, Keller, Chan, etc,” I am concerned about how much we speak those names rather than the name of Jesus. It has gotten to the point where I believe we have taken glory away from Jesus. Personally, I am intentionally trying to mention human names less and speak often the matchless name of Jesus.
In that short paragraph, Chan offers a simple, helpful way for us to test our hearts. Do we find that we are more passionate and more apt to talk about our favorite preachers, or about our indescribably gracious and glorious Savior? There’s nothing inherently wrong with having heroes, provided we look up to them for the right reasons. But we will always have to guard against idolatry, because no matter what you think of John Calvin, he was right about this—our hearts are “a perpetual factory of idols” (Institutes 1.11.8).