John MacArthur’s blog article last week surprised me. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t go any further with this article until you’ve read his profile of William Wilberforce- Obsessed with Sanctification: William Wilberforce.
I was genuinely surprised by Wilberforce’s interior life and overarching priorities. History remembers Wilberforce as a champion of social change: a political giant who led the fight against slavery. But those public pursuits—though noble—were not Wilberforce’s ultimate passion. He thought of himself primarily as a man in relation to God. He certainly cared about his work. But what really mattered to him was his personal sanctification. How holy was he? How close was he to God, both in public and private? Wilberforce was obsessed with those questions.
As I began to see Wilberforce more as a man of personal holiness than an agent of social change, I started thinking about legacy: the story that is told about a person’s life after he or she is gone. Fact is, the story we tell about Wilberforce was not central to his life, or his eternity. That made me wonder: Is legacy something I should care about? Should I design my life so that history will remember me in a particular way? If so, what would I want that legacy to be?
Of course, Scripture is the first place to go for answers to those questions. Does the Bible have anything to say about legacy? The English word for it does not appear in any translations. Proverbs 13:22 does talk about financial provision across generations. “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children.” But while inheritance is financial, legacy is reputation.
Too many times to count, the Bible talks about having a spiritual influence on the next generation. Here are a few examples:
Deuteronomy 6:5-7: “You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”
2 Timothy 2:2: “And the things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
2 Timothy 1:13: “Retain the standard of sound words, which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 4:9: “The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Believers must teach the next generation truth, prepare them for spiritual leadership, and fight battles with spiritual enemies so their children will not have to. But passing the baton to the next generation is different than aiming to build a legacy that will endure for generations to come. In the first, the ministry is the focus. In the second, a future reputation is what matters.
Scripture does command believers to care about their present reputation, especially among non-believers. 2 Peter 2:12 says “by keeping your conduct excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good works, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.” But again, this is different than what we typically think of as legacy. It is about relational influence, for the good of others and the glory of God, not future reputation.
Of course, many men and women in the Bible left profound legacies behind. Hebrews 11 is the best-known example of this. Thousands of years after the lives of Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Moses, and so many others, we still look to them for guidance, and remember their lives, because of their faith. As verses 39-40 say “And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.” Over and over again, these figures were commended for their faith, and are remembered not because of their earthly accomplishments, but because of their faith and devotion.
Earlier in Hebrews 11, I think we begin to see an answer to my introductory question: should I design my life so that history will remember me in a particular way? The heroes of the faith did not design their lives with future reputation in mind; they did design their lives with future glory in mind. Life on this earth was full of hardship. Verses 36-38 say these heroes experienced “mocking and floggings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword. They went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, mistreated (of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in desolate places and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.” I doubt these heroes of the faith would have endured such hardship if they were only doing so for the sake of their future reputation- their legacy after death. Their source of endurance and strength was a higher calling. They instead knew their need for a future home and a God who would meet them there.
In the hall of faith, and the life of Wilberforce, we meet saints with extraordinary legacies, but we see no record that these heroes thought much about how history would judge them. Instead, they prioritized obedience.
They knew that one day they would meet their Creator, and when they did, the only thing from this life that would truly matter would be how conformed they were to the image of the Lord.
That message is particularly timely today. As the world talks about social justice, as it longs to “be on the right side of history,” it prioritizes a legacy of activism that is not unlike that of Wilberforce, yet ironically, Wilberforce himself didn’t care much about that legacy. He simply wanted to be like Christ. He would have been just as happy to have that happen and live in obscurity, but that was not God’s will for his life. Obscurity may be God’s plan for you and odds are history will likely forget you. Your great-great-grandchildren may not even know your name (I don’t know the names of my great-great-grandparents). This fact we must humbly accept. But if you are conformed to Christ’s image, your life will have as much value as Wilberforce or the other great heroes of the faith. You will achieve the same extraordinary goal as the greatest men and women who have ever lived- to live as a breathing testimony of Christ.