What faithful ministry looks like

In Acts 20:17-35, Paul exhorts the Ephesian elders/pastors to be faithful in discharging their duties. It is the mid-50s AD, he is on his 3rd missionary journey and on his way to Jerusalem, and takes a break at Miletus[1]. Paul had previously spent time in Ephesus, preaching the gospel and appointing elders for the church there. Miletus was only a day’s journey from Ephesus, and so he asked the Ephesian elders to take a trip to meet him there. It would turn out to be a tearful, poignant meeting as Paul urges them to be faithful in his absence[2]. There are at least five things that he puts forward about what faithful Christian ministry is like:

Firstly, ministers need to be examples to their people. In Acts 20:18 and 34, Paul declares that the Ephesian elders “know” how his manner of life. In Acts 20:28; he exhorts them, “Pay careful attention to yourselves…” Paul is urging them live a life worthy of imitation. They must serve humbly (Acts 20:19a), endure suffering (Acts 20:19b), eschew covetousness (Acts 20:33), work hard (Acts 20:34-35a), and help the weak (Acts 20:35b). As the 17th Century Puritan, Richard Baxter soberly put it:

“It is a palpable error of some ministers, who make such disproportion between their preaching and their living; who study hard to preach exactly, and study little or not at all to live exactly”[3].

Secondly, ministers need to preach all of God’s Word to all people. Paul did not “shrink (back) from declaring” (Acts 20:20,27) “anything that was profitable” (Acts 20:20), but rather declared the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27b), that is “all that is part of God’s plan as it is tied to the preaching of the gospel”[4]. He called them to “repentance toward God” and “faith in our LORD Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21b), and preached “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24), commending them to the “word of his grace” (Acts 20:32). He did so to “Jews and Greeks” (Acts 20:21a), to the extent that he can say he is “innocent of the blood of all” (Acts 20:21).

Thirdly, ministers need to recognise God’s call upon them. In Acts 20:22-24, Paul gives a glimpse into the inner workings of his spiritual life. He speaks of being “constrained by the Spirit”, and how the Spirit “testifies to Him”. He experienced a kind of “divine constraint” in his ministry[5]. Charles Bridges calls this a “special kindling”, “burning fire in the bosom” that causes one to “rise above difficulties”, “take pleasure in sacrifices” and “quicken to a readiness of mind”[6]. Ultimately though, Paul saw ministry as a gift, “received from the LORD Jesus…” (Acts 20:23), not an entitlement.

Fourthly, ministers need to genuinely care for God’s people. The mutual affection between Paul and the Ephesian elders is palpable. In their parting, they weep, embrace and kiss (Acts 20:36-37). Likewise, Paul exhorts them to “care for the church of God” because they are “obtained with his (God’s) own blood” (Acts 20:28). If God loved His church enough to shed His blood for them, the church is precious to Him. If so, the church should be precious to God’s under-shepherds too.

Fifthly, ministers need to refute false teaching. Finally, Paul urges the elders to be alert of false teaching, and to warn the flock. They “will come in among you”, “among your own selves” (Acts 20:29), and will speak “twisted things” to “draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). Paul speaks with an air of certainty: they will appear, and they will draw the disciples away from Christ[7]. False teaching is subtle and dangerous. And so, the minister must teach God’s Word, and warn against error[8].

Paul presents for us what seems to be the very high and difficult call of a minister of God’s church. The stakes are so high – the concern the very souls of people. The great consolation we can have is to be assured that God does supply what the minister needs to be faithful. And He does this through the Gospel. That “gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24), and “word of his grace” (Acts 20:32) that they are to preach is the very same message that they need themselves! Ultimately, they are commended to God not by the faithfulness of their ministry, but by the sheer grace of God. And it is through that sheer grace that they are then able to carry out a ministry faithful to God, according the God’s Word.

References

[1] Darrell L. Bock, Acts (BECNT; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007), 589.

[2] John R W Stott, The Message of Acts (BST; Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 323.

[3] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (edited William Brown; East Preoria, IL: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 63.

[4] Bock, Acts, 629.

[5] Bock, Acts, 628.

[6] Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry with An Inquiry into the Causes of Its Inefficiency (Edinburgh, UK; The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 95.

[7] Bock, Acts, 631.

[8] Stott, Message, 328.

The Lord’s Prayer & Our Needs

This Friday, 12 August, 7:30-9pm, we’ll be gathering for our 5th Prayer Meeting, and praying through the phrase, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11).

Prayer Meeting 5

This is part of what has come to be known as “The Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:8-13), a prayer that Jesus taught His disciples. We’ve been praying through this prayer phrase by phrase, and have 3 prayer meetings, and 3 phrases left to go. Then we move to the next exciting phase of the church planting journey in September (watch this space!).

Why?

As we noted previously“The Lord’s Prayer” gives us a paradigm for how Christians people should pray. For example, Richard F Lovelace points out that the prayer begins “first with worship”, and then moves on to “the doing of his [God’s] will on earth”, the “coming of his kingdom”, and then, and only then does it turn to “immediate personal concerns”.

Some teaching on prayer today almost exclusively focuses on our “immediate personal concerns”, as if God’s will and God’s Kingdom is only ever to meet our needs. Other teaching may come across disdaining any hint at all of personal concern, as if it is somehow evil to ask God for what we need. “The Lord’s Prayer” is remarkably nuanced, and hence very instructive for us. It couches our personal concerns within the context of worship, of God’s will, and God’s kingdom. We are guided to “seek first the kingdom of God” (as it is put elsewhere, Matthew 6:33), before we are led to ask for our needs. That way, we ask for what we truly need, rather than what we think we need. So, the Scriptures ask us to ask God for what we need: “give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7), “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God” (James 1:5) etc. And the Scriptures promise that God “gives generously to all without reproach” (James 1:5) and that He will give us, “everything we need for a godly life” (2 Peter 1:3). 

And so, we’ll come together to take God at His word this Friday, and ask Him for what we truly need as a community, and as His dearly loved children. Won’t you join us there?
Note:

Please do note some slight changes to the schedule for the 3 remaining prayer meetings. The last 2 will be on consecutive Fridays (26 August and 2 September) rather than every other Friday.

Changes to Prayer Meeting Dates

Lessons from the life of John Stott (1921-2011)

Last week, 27th July marked the 5th anniversary of the death of the influential British Anglican Evangelical leader John Stott (27 April 1921 – 27 July 2011). Less known to the current generation of evangelicals, his legacy has nonetheless left an oft-hidden mark on much of the evangelical Christian world we know today.

I had the privilege of listening to him while at university in London in the late 1990s. He was in his 70s by then, mostly retired, but still a member of his life-long church, All Souls, Langham Place. His messages were never flashy, but always clear. And, the church would be packed to overflow. However, I don’t think I understood the extent of his influence then. It was only later, when I went into pastoral ministry, that I found his books to be a thoughtful guide to both Scripture, and contemporary culture.

So, who was John Stott?

He was born on 27 April 1921, the youngest son of Dr Arnold and Emily Stott. The elder Stott was a Consultant Physician at Westminster Hospital, and the London Chest Hospital. He was known to be a meticulous teacher, feared examiner and stickler for accuracy of language[1]. He was also a humanist, with a strong social conscience, a genuine commitment to philanthropy, and a fervent belief in education[2]. Emily, on the other hand, had ambitions to become a medical missionary, but gave that up to care for her mother and younger brother. She was strong, highly principled, competent, and creative. She too had a strong social conscience. And so, Stott’s ministry would also be marked by a strong social conscience.

Emily was raised Lutheran, and so taught the children to go to church, read the Bible and pray[3]. She was also the one who took the family to All Souls, Langham Place[4]. And then there was Nanny Golden. She was a devout Christian, and taught the children hymns and choruses. She was of course very happy to hear, many years later, that John had converted to Christ[5]. And so, not unlike the biblical Timothy (2 Timothy 1:5), Stott was nurtured in the Christian faith from a very young age.

Stott went to Oakley Hall, a prep school in Gloucestershire[6]. He was not always happy there, by the time he left, he had excelled academically, become head boy, and won a scholarship to Rugby School[7].

It was at Rugby that Stott was both converted, and sensed a call to Christian ministry[8]. The Reverend E J H Nash, a Scripture Union staff pointed Stott to Revelation 3:20, Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me God used this passage, to convert Stott[9] [10]. Bash also took a special interest in Stott and corresponded with him weekly, nurturing him in the faith[11]. He also quickly gave Stott opportunities to speak, and Stott soon mastered the ‘camp talk’[12]. Barely six months from his conversion, at age seventeen, Stott became sure of his calling to ordained ministry[13]. Nash was a single man, never married, and a key influence on many of the evangelical leaders of Stott’s generation. Stott himself also never married, dedicating himself wholeheartedly to the ministry.

Stott studied modern languages at Trinity College, Cambridge. There he was involved in the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU)[14]. Graduating with a double first in French and Theology, he transferred to Ridley Hall to train for ordination. The theology at Cambridge was “liberal”, but this drove Stott to examine the original sources, and to dig much deeper into detailed Bible study[15]. As he gave the “Bible readings” at CICCU groups, he began to develop his understanding of expository preaching[16].

Stott was ordained in 1945 in the Church of England and became a curate (1945-1950) at All Souls, then Rector (1950-75)[17] [18], and Rector Emeritus (from 1975)[19]. From this base, he would exercise a long, wide-ranging and influential ministry until his death in 2011.

What can we learn from him?

His influence is so expansive, that it is hard to answer this question thoroughly. However, looking at him through the lens of a preacher, there are at least four things that stand out to me:

Firstly, he had deep conviction. In a context where it was difficult and unpopular, he was a man deeply convicted about the fundamental truths of Christianity[20]. With regard to preaching, he stressed that preachers had to be firmly convicted that God is light, and had acted and spoken[21]; Scripture is God’s Word, through which He speaks powerfully[22]; God created and keeps the church with this Word[23]; Christ still gives overseers to his Church, with the chief responsibility to teach[24]; and true preaching is expository preaching[25].

Secondly, he was committed to preaching. He once described himself as, an “impenitent believer in the indispensable necessity of preaching both for evangelism and for the healthy growth of the Church”[26]. In particular, he was committed to Bible exposition, which he described as follows:

To ‘expound’ the Word of God is so to treat a verse or a passage from the Bible as to draw out its meaning, its application and its challenge. Exposition is the direct opposite of imposition. The expository preacher comes to the text not with his mind made up, resolved to impose a meaning on it, but with his mind open to receive a message from it in order to convey it to others[27].

The preacher was hence a “herald”, given a message to proclaim; a “sower”, who broadcasts the precious seeds of God’s Word; an “ambassador”, commissioned to serve as God’s envoy; a “steward”, put in charge of God’s household and entrusted with the provisions they need; a “shepherd”, whom the Chief Shepherd has delegated the care of his flock, charged to protect them from false teachers and lead them to sound teaching; and a “workman”, skillful in his treatment of the Word[28] [29] [30].

Thirdly, he built bridges. In the 1960s, Stott had a curate from New Zealand by the name of Ted Schroder who challenged him to “relate the gospel to the modern world”[31]. Stott described him as someone “determined to relate the gospel to the modern world”, although he “wasn’t much good at biblical exposition”[32] In his four-years with Stott, Schroder would encourage Stott to enter the mind-set of contemporary society, and relate the gospel to youth culture[33]. It was then that Stott clarified his practice of ‘double listening’[34] [35]. He sought to pay close attention to both the biblical text, and to contemporary culture, for relevant application. Two observers, returning to All Souls in 1970 after two years away noted the change in Stott:

Previously in sermons… John would use contemporary world events by way of anecdotal illustration; after the period of the late 60s he addressed himself more thoroughly and fully to some of the items on the world agenda, with a full, biblical and theological interface[36].

Stott saw that preaching was not just exegesis and exposition, but conveying a God-given message to living people. He saw it as “bridge-building”[37]

“Conservatives”, he observed, tended to be biblical, but not contemporary, and prone to irrelevance[38]. “Liberals”, wanted to restate the Christian faith in intelligible, meaningful and credible ways, but were not Biblical[39]. Stott did not see why the two concerns could not be combined. He wanted “liberals” to conserve the historic, fundamental truths of Christianity, and for “conservatives”, to relate those truths “radically and relevantly” to the real world[40] [41].

Fourthly, he was committed to study. The organisers of the Keswick Convention noted that Stott “spent much of his time in Keswick in his room, writing on this improvised desk, and was very little seen in the public rooms of the hotels[42]”. Prior to that he had worked “furiously in the back seat of the small car” while being driven to Keswick.[43] Underlying all this, was a deep sense of the importance of study:

If we are to build bridges into the real world, and seek to relate the Word of God to the major themes of life and the major issues of the day, then we have to take seriously both the biblical text and the contemporary scene… Such exploration means study. There is no doubt that the best teachers in any field of knowledge are those who remain students all their lives[44].

To him, the preacher’s responsibility to study was twofold: Firstly, the preacher’s responsibility was to study Scripture. This study had to be “comprehensive”, knowing the diverse particulars of the Scriptures; “open-minded”, with a genuine desire to hear and heed God’s Word; and “expectant”, trusting that God would indeed speak[45]. Secondly, Scriptural study had to be supplemented with contemporary studies[46]. Stott recommended reading a daily or weekly newspaper, watching some television, perusing secular book reviews in order to discover the most influential contemporary books to read, and seeing some of the most notable films and plays[47].

Stott prescribed a “minimum” time of study of one hour every day; a morning, afternoon or evening every week; a day a month; and a week a year[48]

He also ran “monthly reading groups” with a dozen young graduates and professionals who met to share their reactions to a book they had read to develop a Christian response[49]. Stott also had “ad hoc resource groups” of specialists who were willing to spend a few hours with him. He would identify key issues, and formulate questions to ask them. He also obtained well-informed, up-to-date literature with accurate facts and figures[50].

Stott was a “one of a kind” churchman, prepared well in advance by God for a unique and lasting global impact. He leaves an intimidating legacy. But most of all he leaves the vision of a man wholly dependent on God, ever mindful of His grace, and in pursuit of His glory. Hung on the wall of Stott’s study was this prayer:

When telling Thy salvation free

Let all-absorbing thoughts of Thee

My heart and soul engross:

And when all hearts are bowed and stirred

Beneath the influence of Thy word,

Hide me behind Thy cross.

1 Cor. 1:31[51]

When asked, what he thinks about as he prepares to mount the pulpit to preach, Stott replied,

“As I make that journey to the pulpit I say over and over again, ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit.’”[52]

Stott once prayed that God would,

…Raise up a new generation of Christian communicators who are determined to bridge the chasm; who struggle to relate God’s unchanging Word to our ever-changing world; who refuse to sacrifice truth to relevance or relevance to truth; but who resolve instead in equal measure to be faithful to Scripture and pertinent to today[53].

May God be pleased to answer his prayer. Amen.

 

References

[1] Timothy Dudley-Smith John Stott: The Making of a Leader A Biography of the Early Years (Leicester, England: IVP, 1999), 24-25.

[2] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 41.

[3] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 44.

[4] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 29.

[5] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 40,44.

[6] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 53-54.

[7] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 55-56.

[8] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 67.

[9] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 92-93.

[10] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 94-96.

[11] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 97.

[12] Timothy Dudley-Smith John Stott: A Global Ministry (Leicester, England: IVP, 2001), 333.

[13] Dudley-Smith Early Years, 87.

[14] Roger Steer Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 48-49.

[15] Steer Basic Christian, 56-59.

[16] Dudley-Smith, Global Ministry, 333.

[17] Dudley-Smith, Early Years, 205-208.

[18] Dudley-Smith, Early Years, 244-253.

[19] Dudley-Smith, Global Ministry, 148-149.

[20] Dudley-Smith, Global Ministry, 31.

[21] John Stott I Believe in Preaching (London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1982), 93-94.

[22] Stott, Preaching, 96-109.

[23] Stott, Preaching, 109.

[24] Stott, Preaching, 116-125.

[25] Stott, Preaching, 125-134.

[26] Stott, Preaching, 9.

[27] Dudley-Smith, Global Ministry, 333.

[28] Stott, Preaching, 135-136.

[29] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 333.

[30] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 129.

[31] Stott, Preaching, 12.

[32] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 27.

[33] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 27.

[34] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 29.

[35] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 290.

[36] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 29.

[37] Stott, Preaching, 137.

[38] Stott, Preaching, 140-143.

[39] Stott, Preaching, 143-144.

[40] Stott, Preaching, 144.

[41] Stott, Preaching, 144.

[42] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 35.

[43] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 36.

[44] Stott, Preaching, 180.

[45] Stott, Preaching, 187-188.

[46] Stott, Preaching, 190.

[47] Stott, Preaching, 192-193.

[48] Stott, Preaching, 203-204.

[49] Stott, Preaching, 194-195.

[50] Stott, Preaching, 198-199.

[51] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 336.

[52] Dudley-Smith Global Ministry, 156.

[53] Stott, Preaching, 144.

Characteristics of a Genuinely Surprising Work of God

How do you know if dramatic events taking place are truly genuine works of God’s Spirit? Is this even a legitimate question? Well, Jesus does warn that not everyone who claims to come from Him are genuine (Matthew 7:21).

What criteria do you apply?

In the previous post, we summarised Jonathan Edwards’ book, the “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton”. Edwards’ works on revival were highly influential. They became a sort of manual for ministers on the subject of revival[1] [2]. So much so that even those who did not agree with Edwards on matter matters, nonetheless found his work on revival beneficial. Hence, John Wesley, who disdained Edwards’ Calvinism, nonetheless revised “Religious Affections” and published it in 1773 with the caveat that though it was “one of the most complete systems of… spiritual diagnostics”, it was nonetheless “much wholesome food… mixed with so much poison.”[3]

And so, it seems at least legitimate that we distil six characteristics of a genuinely “surprising work of God” from Jonathan Edwards:

Firstly, a surprising work of God is a sovereign work of God, and not the product of human ingenuity. Contra Charles Finney who did not see conversion as “a miracle, or dependent on a miracle”, Edwards insisted only the miraculous nature of conversion. It was something only God could do. Hence, when vast numbers are converted, it is a “sovereign” and “surprising” work of God, not the result of human cleverness. God can give it, and God can withdraw it at will [4][5].

Secondly, in a surprising work of God, conviction of sin is emphasised. Edwards differed from the earlier Puritans who insisted that “humiliation” or even “terror” had to come before conversion. Instead, he saw “very great variety as to the degree of fear and trouble that persons exercised”[6] [7]. Having said that, to him, the “drift of the Spirit” was the same. The Spirit brought a “conviction” of the “pollution and insufficiency” human righteousness and wrought an “absolute dependence” on God’s “sovereign power and grace”[8].

Thirdly, in a surprising work of God, the work of Christ in the atonement is exalted. Christ alone is evidently exalted as the answer to sin, not any human attempt at getting right with God. That is why, during the season where God brought about a widespread conviction of sin, it was Edwards’ series on “Justification by Faith Alone” that sparked off the revival. This series “manifested in the gospel, and shining forth in the face of Christ”, and brought about “calm of spirit”, and “gracious discoveries”, soothing the convicted consciences[9][10][11].

Fourthly, in a surprising work of God, there is real and lasting change. Edwards, no doubt, emphasised the affections. But, he also noted that affections alone were not enough to ascertain true conversion. He noted that those genuinely affected by God’s Spirit would “quit their sinful practices”, and would earnestly apply themselves to “reading, prayer, meditation, the ordinances of God’s house, and private conferences”[12]. Even as the surprising work declined, Edwards still detected an “abiding change wrought” on those who were truly converted[13].

Fifthly, even in a surprising work of God, excesses are close at hand and need to be guarded against. Edwards’ noted that even as the awakening progressed, excesses also increased.Is this not evidence of the extent of human depravity? So, the emphasis on the immediate experience of the Holy Spirit led some to reject the legitimate authority of the church. Others abandoned Christian morality, and become antinomians[14]. Hence, Edwards cautions against placing too much emphasis on “any ideas of… outward glory” or the “external thing”. Following the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 12) Edwards even cautioned against talking too freely about one’s spiritual experiences, noting that it was “desirable” to choose “the time, manner, and occasion”[15] [16].

Sixthly, in a surprising work of God, discernment is coupled with yearning for the work of the Holy Spirit. Scholars detect a “progression of thought” in Edwards’ revival writings[17]. In “The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God” (1741), Edwards’ was optimistic, and cautioned against revival detractors. In “Some Thoughts Concerning Revival” (1743), he became more cautious, warning against spiritual pride. Here, he even sought to limit the role of non-ordained “lay exhorters.” In “Religious Affections” (1746), his focus shifts to correcting the errors of “the enthusiasts”. Yet, it must be said that in the “Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer” (1747), notably written in a time of decline, Edwards sought to “stir up the dying embers of the former revival”.

In summary, a genuinely surprising work of God is a sovereign work of God’s Spirit in exalting Christ as Saviour and Lord. It is primarily about God saving sinners, reforming and remaking them in a widespread and intensified manner. It is not something that we can do, it is a sovereign work of God. Yet, it is certainly something we can yearn for, pray for, watch for, and hope for.

References

[1] Michael J McClymond, and Gerald R McDermott Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 432.

[2] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, xix-xx.

[3] J I Packer “The Glory of God and the Reviving of Religion: A Study in the Mind of Jonathan Edwards,” in A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards eds. John Piper, and Justin Taylor (Wheaton, I.L.: Crossway Books, 2004), 83.

[4] Michael J McClymond, and Gerald R McDermott Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 376.

[5] F L Cross and E A Livingstone “Finney, Charles”, 615–616.

[6] Michael J McClymond, and Gerald R McDermott Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 432.

[7] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 50.

[8] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 53.

[9] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 35.

[10] R W Caldwell III, and D A Sweeney, “Edwards, Jonathan”, 203.

[11] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 61-62

[12] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 49-50.

[13] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 107.

[14] Caldwell III, and Sweeney, “Edwards, Jonathan”, 201–205.

[15] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 85.

[16] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 86-87.

[17] Michael J McClymond, and Gerald R McDermott Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 430.

Jonathan Edwards and the Surprising Work of God

Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) was Congregational minister, theologian and intellectual, ordained to the ministry in Northampton, New England in 1727. His book, the “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton”, chronicles a series of revivals that took place from 1734 [1] [2]. In its preface, Isaac Watts and John Guyse exclaimed, “…never did we hear or read, since the first ages of Christianity, any event of this kind so surprising as the present narrative” [3] [4].

Northampton had previously experienced “five harvests” under the ministry of Edwards’ grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. After his death, came “a time of extraordinary dullness in religion”[5]. 2-3 years later, however, the young people started showing “unusual flexibleness” in yielding to advice[6]. Then, a series of deaths in 1734 greatly affected many of them with a “fear of God”, and a “deep concern” to be accepted by Him[7]. It was during this time that Edwards gave a sermon series on “Justification by Faith Alone”, which resulted in hundreds coming under a deep conviction of sin[8][9]. Emotional outbursts, remarkable changes in life, and increases in devotional practices followed to an extent that by 1735, Edwards could describe Northampton as being “full of the presence of God” [10] [11].

People were affected in a “vast variety” of ways[12]. Some were “suddenly seized with conviction” while for others it happened “more gradually” [13] [14]. And yet, Edward’s could note that “it seems evidently to be the same work”, that is “the same Spirit that breathes and acts in various persons” [15].

There were two particularly gripping examples: Abigail Hutchinson, and Phebe Bartlet[16] [17]. Abigail was a young women, who, even in her long illness experienced such a conviction of sin, and yet an assurance of forgiveness so tangible that “thoughts of dying were exceedingly sweet to her”. When her disease finally took her, she died fearlessly and “without struggle”[18]. Phebe, on the other hand, was only 4-years-old. Even so, she exhibited an extraordinary knowledge of her sinful state, to the point that she was “crying exceedingly” and “writhing her body” with “anguish of spirit”. Yet, a “sudden alteration” occurred, and she became instantly convinced that she could “find God”, and that He loved her deeply[19] [20].

Edwards’ account ends on both a sobering and hopeful note. The work seemed to “decline” in the May, as the Spirit of God seemed to be “gradually withdrawing”, and Satan, in turn seemed “more let loose” [21] [22]. A melancholic that seemed to be under conviction committed suicide without finding release. This sparked off similar temptations in others[23] [24]. Still others were led away into “strange, enthusiastic delusions”[25]. Conversions also became rarer, and the peoples’ attentions seemed to be diverted away from spiritual things[26]. In Edwards’ analysis, though disappointing, the decline simply showed that God was sovereign over the work of revival[27]. And so, his narrative ends on a hopeful note, beseeching prayer for yet another “interest in them for him, who is” in Northampton[28].

This calls to mind the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk’s prayer in his day,

LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy. (Habakkuk 3:2).

Should we not follow in his and Edwards’ footsteps, and pray for yet another “surprising work of God” in our day, and time?

 

References

[1] F L Cross, and E A Livingstone, “Edwards, Jonathan” in The Oxford Dictionary of The Christian Church (3rd Edition) (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 535-536.

[2] R W Caldwell III, and D A Sweeney, “Edwards, Jonathan” in Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, eds. T Larsen, D W Bebbington, M A Noll, & S Carter (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 201–205.

[3] Michael J McClymond, and Gerald R McDermott The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 430.

[4] Jonathan Edwards Edwards on Revival: Containing A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton, A.D. 1735, also Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England, 1742, and the Way in Which it Ought to Be Acknowledged and Promoted (New York: Dunning & Spalding, 1832), xix-xx.

[5] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 33-34.

[6] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 35.

[7] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 35.

[8] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 35.

[9] R W Caldwell III, and D A Sweeney, “Edwards, Jonathan”, 203.

[10] Justo L Gonsalez The Story of Christianity (Volume 2): The Reformation to the Present Day (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 288.

[11] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 39.

[12] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 48.

[13] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 49.

[14] Michael J McClymond, and Gerald R McDermott Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 430.

[15] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 79.

[16] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 87ff, 97ff.

[17] Michael J McClymond, and Gerald R McDermott Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 431.

[18] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 87-96.

[19] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 98.

[20] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 102.

[21] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 104.

[22] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 105.

[23] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 105.

[24] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 106.

[25] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 106.

[26] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 107.

[27] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 109.

[28] Jonathan Edwards Faithful Narrative, 111.

Kingdom-centered Prayer

We begin our church planting efforts with 7 prayer meetings, taking each meeting to pray through a phrase in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). We’ve prayed through “Our Father in heaven”, and “Hallowed be your name”, and this Friday, 15 July, 7:30pm-9pm we will continue with “Your Kingdom come”. Do join us to hear more about our church plant, and also to pray with and for us. We’ll have a light dinner before, so do let us know if you’re coming.

But, why begin with prayer anyway?

Church planting is not just about gathering another group together, though that is vitally important. It is about seeking the good of our city through spiritual renewal. And some have observed, that a “non-negotiable” in times of spiritual renewal “biblically and historically”, is “corporate, prevailing, intensive and kingdom-centered prayer”.

One example close to us is that of the great Chinese evangelist of the previous century, John Sung. It was said that his preaching was “bathed in prayer”. He “preached for a verdict” but “prayed for one as well”. He rose early every morning, and prayed for 3-4 hours. And prayer for him “was like a battle”, and he “prayed until the sweat poured down his face”. How we pale in stark contrast!

What should shape our prayers?

John Smed tells us that vital prayer requires compelling purpose”, and points out that The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13, “Pray then like this…”) is “filled with Jesus”. It contains his “agenda” and his “strategy”. In terms of structure, Richard Lovelace points out that the Prayer, begins “first with worship”, “moves on to… the doing of his will on earth and the coming of his kingdom”, and “only then”, “turns to immediate personal concerns.” It seems to be a model, not just of prayer, but also of a Christian life. And, that’s where we want to begin, with Jesus:

7 priorities

Note: We’ve moved all our meetings to Friday nights, because it made it easier for those who wanted to be there, to be there.

All this talk of the great need for prayer may leave us feeling inadequate and burdened. You see, we can’t just see Jesus as a model for prayer. We need to remember that he is the one who  makes prayer possible in the first place! Christ, the “great high priest” has ushered his people into God’s presence by his sacrifice in our place (Hebrews 4:14-16). That’s why our prayers are heard. That’s why our prayers are effective. As Richard Lovelace put it, “dependent prayer is possible because we are united with Christ, received in his righteousness, sanctified by his life and attuned to his concerns by the presence of the Holy Spirit”.

Kingdom-centered prayer is no less gospel-centered prayer, and gospel-centered prayer, is no less Christ-centered prayer. So, come, and let’s “pray then like this” (Matthew 6:9).

 

 

A Christless Christianity?

Is it possible to have a ‘Christianity’ without Christ? Michael Horton, professor at Westminster Seminary California, and author of the now slightly dated book “Christless Christianity” seems to think so[1]. In many churches, Horton observes that the regular diet is a “do more, try harder” message, where the emphasis is on the activity of the people, rather than that of God, in Jesus Christ[2]. In this way, they “moralize, minimize and trivialize Christ in different ways”. Horton co-opts sociologist Christian Smith, who calls this “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism”. In his research, Smith found that a therapeutic worldview had “triumphed” in popular culture: people are basically good, and merely in need of the right methods and instructions to get better[3]. They don’t need to be “rescued”, merely “assisted”[4]. The church, Smith says, has also imbibed this worldview. Basically Pelagian in orientation, this worldview denies original sin, and sees grace in merely terms of divine “assistance” rather than in terms of divine “rescue[5]. Horton sees three different, but related manifestations of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” in Christianity today:

Firstly, there is the “Smooth Talking” variety that tells people that they can have what they want if they simply believe hard enough. A previous generation found this in the “positive” and “possibility” movement[6]. Today, the “Word of Faith” movement has taken centre stage[7]. “Just declare it and prosperity will come to you” is the message[8]. This message sets people up for failure, and more seriously basically negates the need for Christ. This is because it tends to be “law-lite”. Someone is “condemned”, not for failing to fulfill God’s righteous law, but because of lack of “health and wealth”. So, there is no real need for justification, and the cross[9]. Ultimately, it makes a mockery of “God’s merciful descent to us at great personal cost” to bring sinners to glory[10].

Secondly, there is the “Good Advice” manifestation, where the gospel is confused with “a worldview, a way of life, or a program for personal and societal change”[11]. Or, in other words, they confuse God’s moral expectations, with his saving purposes and acts[12]. An older legalism did this by substituting it’s own regulations with what God commanded. No less guilty today, are some of those who urge us to participate in God’s “ongoing work of personal and global transformation and liberation from evil and injustice”. This is good and necessary, but unmoored from the atonement of Christ, where these are done as an outworking of grace received, this activism becomes another form of legalism[13].

Thirdly, there is the “Personal Jesus” manifestation, where a “personal relationship with Jesus” is all that matters. No one is denying the need for a “personal relationship”. However, many times, truth claims are sidelined or underplayed[14] and substituted with an inner experience, or a perception of direct communion with God[15]. Religion becomes a merely personal matter, and becomes resistant to any kind of external scrutiny[16].

What then do we need to recapture a “Christ-centered” Christianity?

Horton suggests that we need to firstly, get the “message” right. We need to recognise that its not just non-Christians that need the gospel, Christians need it too. We need to recover a biblical understanding of sin, and the law needs to be preached with all of its “gripping judgment”. It is only when the law diagnoses the human condition rightly, that the gospel can be seen as God’s radical solution[17], and be preached in all its “surprising sweetness”[18].

Secondly, Horton suggest, we need to get the “medium” right. Horton critiques the fascination for the fantastical and extraordinary, and highlights that God’s chosen means of reaching His people is incredibly “ordinary” but no less profound. This is what has traditionally been called the “ordinary means of grace”. That is to say, “the gospel is delivered through Word and Sacrament, and a people who witness to it in the world”[19]. So, the right message, the gospel must ring forth through the right medium, “Word and Sacrament”, in the right context of an outward-facing “genuinely evangelical church”.

So, why plant another church? Because God works extraordinarily through the ordinary means of ordinary churches. That’s what we want to see.

References

[1] Michael Horton Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008)

[2] Horton Christless, 17-18.

[3] Horton, Christless, 44.

[4] Horton, Christless, 44, 61.

[5] Horton, Christless, 44, 61.

[6] Horton, Christless, 66-67.

[7] Horton, Christless, 67.

[8] Horton, Christless, 68.

[9] Horton, Christless, 69.

[10] Horton, Christless, 68.

[11] Horton, Christless, 105.

[12] Horton, Christless, 109.

[13] Horton, Christless, 112-113.

[14] Horton, Christless, 168.

[15] Horton, Christless, 171.

[16] Horton, Christless, 175.

[17] Horton, Christless, 145.

[18] Horton, Christless, 62.

[19] Horton, Christless, 205.