I have been requested to provide a survey of evangelical life in England and Wales since 1945, offering my utterly unbiased (!) opinions concerning men and movements that have, on the one hand, encouraged the revival of historic Christianity during my lifetime, but on the other hand mentioning those who in the name of evangelical religion actually have not helped it. The end of this exercise – my giving this lecture today – was that we will all better understand our times, or at least understand how one elderly Welshman sees things. The promise that is implicit in this paper of a man getting up and putting the record straight of how we have got to be where we are today fills any Christian with excited anticipation. When I told my family and friends of this December engagement they were enthusiastic, “Oh I want to hear that.” The execution is bound to be something rather different. This subject necessitates the speaker making the broadest generalisations. He will have blindspots, overlooking what are to others the most obvious personalities, movements and influences (‘how could he say nothing about such and such?’). Then there is the fear that we’re going to get a chronicle of pessimism and negativity? Only a very wise and modest man, or a vain fool, would agree to attempt such an overview, knowing he will probably live with the guilt of conference disappointment for the remainder of his life. This is no unfamiliar experience for him. Every minister here is thinking, “Rather him than me.” But I’ve always enjoyed having ministers in my audience as those most sympathetic and appreciative of a fellow preacher who has to inspire and illuminate a congregation of mere believers week after week. How little any of us know of the spread of the kingdom of God. I will be reminding you of the obvious I am afraid, but I will also try to be positive. We are here today at this annual conference, most of us characterised by our deep love for historic confessional Christianity, for the men and movements who have left their mark on us, and there are tens of thousands of others just like us all over the land. How did they appear? Where did they come from? From whence this hunger? We can’t keep up with the arrival of great books year after year. How has that come about? Fascinating forces are at work. We don’t gather as despairing men from our two nations of England and Wales in the year of our Lord 2016. We may not and cannot say that the former days were better than these, and certainly we may not be despondent when we are looking across our borders to other parts of the world.
The year 1945 is an interesting year to choose as the starting line of this survey. I remember it well. I was seven and recall VE Day, the celebration bonfires, the street teas. The war had ended. I lived in a large town and I did not know of any gospel pulpits there. Certainly the church I attended never preached the gospel of Christ to me as I was growing up. The churches were fuller than today, but there is a clean way to hell as well as our own dirty way. The year 1945 is approximately a couple of centuries after the beginning of that period in intellectual history known as the Enlightenment. You see immediately the ploy of the god of this world in labelling a movement who opposed all the progress of the Reformation, the Puritan period and the Great Awakening as a movement of enlightenment! The proud suggestion was that all the poor suckers who opposed it were unenlightened, blind, ignorant people. For two centuries Enlightenment psychologists – academics, economists, psychologists, poets, scientists and even theologians – opposed the love of God in Jesus’ saving work, and they denied the authority and truthfulness of the Bible. They proudly anticipated all the extraordinary things that the human mind could accomplish if it were increasingly set free from bondage to religion. Intellectual autonomy was the goal of the Enlightenment, and of course that movement was nothing really new. It was the same attitude that the apostles were meeting in Greek philosophy almost 2,000 years ago, and that the Reformers also met in Renaissance humanism fifteen centuries later, and that Evangelicals will always meet to the end of the age wherever people have made man’s thinking the measure for knowing origins, moral values and human destiny. ‘Who needs salvation from sin? What relevance has ‘redemption’ to enlightened men and women? We are not sinners. We decide what sin is and we know that we’re not guilty of it.’ That was the attitude of the Enlightenment.
1945 is an arbitrary date picked by committee men that is willingly taken up by me, I select it quite arbitrarily as the year of the rise of another intellectual movement which moved from Enlightenment’s modernism a step further down to what is known as ‘postmodernism’ or post-Enlightenment. Rudolf Bultmann was then proclaiming that Christianity must come to terms with the Enlightenment. One of his claims was that one couldn’t believe in angels and demons if one used a telephone or flew in a plane. He never explained where the connection lay between those two. They never do. Bultmann is now gone and knows better, but his attitudes are still with us – as anyone who listens to the BBC Radio knows. But what we have today is the powerful legacy of the Enlightenment, but now as it is viewed through the lens of post-Enlightenment or postmodernist attitudes. The postmodernists are academic leaders who have separated themselves from the more cerebral attitudes of pure Enlightenmentism by acknowledging that the intellect isn’t everything. They declare that human brain power alone can’t discover final or absolute truth. They give a place to intuition, and the affections, and the feelings, that these things, they teach, have an important place too. The Enlightenment was sceptical about the supernatural and the miraculous, while the postmoderns claim that they appreciate the preternatural. They value the contributions of Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Celtic religion, and Brazilian tree spirits. An Archbishop of Canterbury may not commend substitutionary atonement but he will commend the meditative techniques of yoga. Psychic phenomena are also commended, astrology, channelling and past-life regression – all are considered as acceptable paths to truth.
Does this mean that the postmoderns are more open to the Bible than the moderns were? Are they more favourable to the idea that the Son of God came to earth in human history by a virgin birth, that he taught with absolute authority, that he said nothing wrong, that he raised the dead, the winds and waves obeyed him, that he lived a sinless life and gave himself as a sacrifice to appease and placate the anger of a sin-hating God towards all those that the Father had given to him to seek and save? Are postmodernists willing to bow the knee before him, the ‘risen from the grave on the third day’ Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the only Lord and Saviour of men, our only mediator with God? Not at all. Under their skin they, too, are Enlightenment men. They don’t want to bow the knee to anyone, but especially will not bend the knees of their minds by chaining every one of their thoughts captive to our Saviour, the Son of God. So until 1945 (give or take a few decades each side of it) moderns followed the autonomous secular intellect, but the postmoderns after 1945 subsequently added their claim that they had the right to follow their own affections and intuitions. They could accept odd beliefs such as yours and mine, and smile condescendingly and nod at your own experience and testimony to trust in Jesus Christ, though they reject your interpretation of it. They accept all kinds of views by their own credulous criteria. They believe what they believe on their own authority. They are utterly repudiating the idea of absolute truth. What is the word that so recently, on 16 November in fact, was named as word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries? It was the word “post-truth.” The consequences of coming to accept that undermines the foundation of civilised interaction and a nation and society governed by law. If whatever anyone says is to be distrusted then our futures are grim indeed. Man’s god is found within himself, not the God of the Bible, but the god of man’s own inner feelings, the god that is his own inner self. That then is the huge background, against which, since 1945, evangelical Christians have lived, their children received state education, their fancies tickled by the TV they watch, the marriage counselling they receive, the denominational seminaries that their preachers have attended and been instructed. We are constantly being confronted by Enlightenment and postmodern attitudes. We are confronted in education, and marriage counselling, and in the newspapers and publishing houses in our European society, by an ethos where the self is god, where self is worshipped.
We live in an age, where man’s feelings are magnified and trusted, where we are urged to go with the flow. Such attitudes have had an enormous influence upon evangelical Christianity. How often have I preached reminding the congregation, “Your feelings didn’t die for you. Your repentance didn’t rise from the dead for you. Your faith isn’t interceding in heaven for you and saving you to the uttermost. That is Christ. Have no hope in anything but him. Your conscience is no safe guide as to what you’re to accept and believe. Consider the conscience of the cannibal. This same Lord Christ, the Son of God, taught a doctrine of Scripture, that it cannot be broken, and God’s Word is truth. He quoted from the Old Testament and said, ‘It is written . . . it is written . . . it is written . . .’ The infallible Christ has spoken and offered to the world an infallible Scripture.” However we regard the waves that have been caused by individual men, their books and movements the tide we are constantly resisting is that of the Enlightenment and postmodernism. Our conviction is the surrender of all the Protestant denominations to Enlightenment values, the way they sold historic, truthful Christianity to the unbelief of the Enlightenment is the reason for the unbelievable extraordinary decline of the faith in this period, 1945 through 2016, though for the same period of time before 1945 the gospel foundations had been undermined and the battle to the death with secular values is vigorously being fought today. How many evangelical students enter denominational seminaries to leave them three or four years later as Enlightenment men.
Let us proceed by first considering . . .
- THREE MOVEMENTS THAT HAVE AFFECTED EVANGELICALS DURING THIS TIME.
[i]The Ecumenical Movement. The World Council of Churches, and local councils of churches were particularly vocal in the 1940s and 50s, at the time of the birth of the United Nations and the fledgling European Union. Ecumenism was valued by bureaucrats for presenting to governments, media, educational authorities and decision making organisations one single entity that they could deal with when they had to respond to religious requests and influences. Ecumenism was considered the official and ultimate representative of Christianity. That is one of the prime criteria for judging a request officially in council chambers and schools and the BBC was whether it came from a group belonging to the British Council of Churches?
The problem for Evangelicals was that the theological and confessional basis for ecumenical activities was studiously vague except in the single area of church government. In the doctrine of the government of the church it was relentlessly and zealously episcopal. There could be no discussion or negotiation over this. The coming large united church would be ruled by bishops. Other than that doctrine it allowed membership to Unitarian and to sacerdotalist groupings and to those who denied revealed truths. The W.C.C. never faced up to our Lord’s warnings of false prophets, of ravaging wolves coming in sheep’s clothing and demons appearing in angelic garments of light. If one challenged the ecumenist concerning the nature of these divisive dark forces that our Lord referred to then what the ecumenist defined as wolves seemed to be anyone who opposed ecumenism. It sounded suspiciously like ourselves, people who held to historic confessional Christianity, but what they dismissed as ‘fundamentalists;’ we were the wolves disturbing the peace of the flock of God! So there was our fear that membership of such a body – submission to its authority, identity with its Enlightenment opinions as being as acceptable and valid as our own confessional Christianity – would confuse, dilute and destroy the unique testimony of the gospel. So we wisely separated from it, and in the past decades the ecumenical movement has waned drastically in significance and influence as it lacks the oxygen of evangelicalism. Over these sixty years it has proved to be – at least in our eyes – a paper tiger. But its damage lives on. It has created tensions for those servants of God who hold to historic Christianity when they discover that the churches they have been called to serve are involved in an annual week of united services and prayer meetings, united to pulpits and congregations that tolerate or even deny revealed doctrines, people that preach baptismal regeneration and universalism and another gospel. They offered unity in fellowship but not unity in truth.
[ii] The Charismatic Movement. Erupting in America in the early sixties in modernist dominated denominations, and in the Roman Catholic church, this movement claimed that the apostolic gifts of revelation – the sign gifts of the supernatural, validating their message – were not in fact the church’s foundational gifts. No, rather they were to be sought for and obtained and to be manifest in every congregation throughout the history of the church, and that without them churches would be boring, cerebral, cold, lifeless, sad failures in evangelising. The insistence that the Spirit of God was present in Pentecostal and charismatic congregations uniquely – there and then – often resulted in displays of liveliness and music, rhythm, drumming, dancing, shouting, glossolalia and swooning which congregations were told were the evidences of a great work of the Spirit of God going on there and then. “Why pray for a revival. We have a revival in our midst today!” There arose an authoritarian type of leader, women as well as men, who demanded total support and financial rewards, sometimes of unimaginable riches especially in America, but in Nigeria, India and the Philippines too. Fabulous wealth came to religious figures who yet lived alongside great poverty. It is important to maintain the distinction between revival and revivalism, though some Reformed Christians in the USA are sniffy about this separation. We have every obligation to test the spirits, to question the claims that Pensacola and Toronto and Cwmbran have witnessed great awakenings. We must ask what uncontrollable laughter, and swooning, and making animal noises like crowing and barking, have to do with godliness.
Yet the charismatic movement has circled the globe. Without the explanation of its growth being that there were outstanding leaders, or that it came out of certain theological seminaries, or through the influence of one book or one magazine, it has yet thrived and it is quite an amazing phenomenon. All of our church members have friends or even family who go to those churches in their great variety. There are many Christian mothers who have devout and prayerful Christian friends who attend charismatic churches. They stand alongside our Mums at the school gates waiting for their children, and they seem to have more love for the Saviour, more prayerfulness and godly living than that possessed by some members of these Mums’ own congregations. We are glad that we know the Saviour that they know, and we are unembarrassed when we’re passing through loss and illness and they sympathise with us if they ask that they may pray with us. And then they will also want to lay their hands on us. That is fine. They are more tactile than we are. We are thankful for their sympathy and praying. They will hold open air preaching services, and organise Christian schools and they give generously to the work of the Lord. We respect them greatly, but still we are not persuaded that tongues-speaking today is the same as tongues speaking in the apostolic period. Our consciences are not bound by any claims that messages given in their meetings are ‘prophecies’ that come from the throne of the universe, binding our consciences to receive them as such, and we have still to meet a healer or a miracle-worker that can heal the Downs’ child or one suffering from advanced Alzheimers. How dreadful when they blame lack of faith for the absences of resurrections! Theirs is a delusional theology in those areas – those claims they make. And when someone has to tell you that they have been baptised or filled with the Holy Spirit – and you wouldn’t know it talking to them or listening to their preaching – yet they’re claiming a hyper-dimension of preaching power, then something is amiss. But in the Christian living of many of our charismatic brothers and sisters we are impressed, and we wish that some of our members had the love for the Saviour and the spirit of service and sacrifice that our friends have.
We affirm that we non-charismatics don’t suffer from the absence of the miraculous in our services on the Lord’s Day. We meet each Sunday in the presence of a miracle. The Bible is itself a miracle, a book from God that is his breath. The holy men who wrote it were moved by the Spirit of God, and if you ask to what extent they were moved then the Son of God tells us that it’s to the Book’s very jots and tittles. Here is a Book that knows me, that describes me, that can change me by regeneration, and it informs me of my chief end in life and directs and empowers me to fulfil that end. That is a miracle. I will not say, “If only our church had a miracle this Sunday.” Gospel churches have miracles every time they meet in the name of the Lord Jesus, with our mighty Saviour present in its midst, and the declaring of his infallible Word as the climactic aspect of our worship.
[iii] The Reformed Movement. The re-emergence of the Reformed Movement in the fifties in England and Wales came about from God sovereignly dealing with individuals (many quite anonymous – what James refers to as a brother of low degree) – and all quite independent of one another, and God prospering some ideas that he planted in their minds. Magazines, Bible rallies, conferences, big reel-to reel tapes, fraternals of ministers, publishing houses, student meetings and of course Dr Lloyd-Jones, all had their role in this emergence. Old publishing houses were most helpful. It is through the Inter Varsity Press I first read Warfield, Dr Lloyd-Jones, John Murray, J.I.Packer and Edward J. Young. They produced a mixture of the best English Anglicans and Westminster Seminary professors. But then there was the Banner of Truth and its books. One important contribution the Reformed Movement gave to Evangelicals was a perspective to the Christian life and its labours. I picked up a catalogue from a publisher fifty-five years ago and it announced its books chronologically. I had not seen that done before. It told me of the 16th century, John Calvin on the book of Joel; the 17th century The Body of Divinity by Thomas Watson; the 18th century Whitefield’s Journals; the 19th century the life of Robert Murray M’Cheyne and the New Park Street sermons of Spurgeon and J.C.Ryle’s books; the 20th century was present in some best-sellers, Berkhof’s Systematic Theology and John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied. And there I sat thinking of that spread of preachers, considering that tradition of historical Christianity, feeling a dwarf in the presence of giants, at the end of such a momentum of this great crowd of witnesses. I had to make my confession with my life and run with patience the section of the race set before me. The modern Reformed movement gave us perspective. It also gave pastoral understanding of conversion, and the nature of the Christian life, and it endorsed and clarified the hope of real revival, but also the need for church reformation and the link between revival and reformation.
So those are the three movements of our period, and now let me turn to . . .
- THREE OUTSTANDING PERSONALITIES OF THIS PERIOD.
[i] Billy Graham. In the decade following 1945 one figure dominated evangelicalism not only in England and Wales. That man was the American evangelist, Billy Graham. He had visited the U.K. occasionally in the 40s and 50s. He was already considered in the UK the number one evangelist in all of the USA, if not in the world, and so a committee of men daringly booked Haringey Arena for a couple of months and invited all of London and indeed all of the UK to come and hear him preaching the gospel in the year 1954. These meetings had an impact on the country and raised the morale of Christians. Particularly people who had been raised in gospel churches or were married to Christians or who came from Christian parents – prayed-for people, those who had been borne witness to, even for years – made professions of faith in the Billy Graham meetings and went on as true Christians for the rest of their lives. There were others too from no Christian background who came to scoff and were changed by the word. Many others made a profession but turned out to be stony-ground hearers once some testing times came, as Jesus told us would happen. But the gospel being preached to thousands in a big arena in London, the newspapers reporting it, Billy Graham preaching live on BBC TV on Good Friday in 1955 and how that impacted two boys in my year in school – but it was not long before they fell away. This all gave to many Christians some encouragement to believe that there could be another great awakening in the 20th century, this new so-called ‘Elizabethan age.’ I heard Billy Graham the following year, 1955, in Wembley stadium, a bus load of us went from the Rhymney valley and it was a thrilling evening. I was a 16 year old and I had been a baptised Christian and a church member for a year. Those realities – and they were very real to me – prevented me getting out of my seat and going to the front. I was saved already. It would be hypocritical of me to go to the front, but I sang for thirty minutes in the tube train going back to where the bus was parked with all my Welsh Christian friends, “Blessed assurance.” I was unashamed of the gospel, and I felt there was a touch of God in the meeting. Though I heard Billy Graham a few more times in the next decades I never had those feelings there again, but I do have the conviction that an evangelist, another Whitefield or a Spurgeon, preaching with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, would be a gift to the church today, and that it would be so helpful to have such a nationally known figure preaching to multitudes in your area in meetings to which you could invite your friends and where you would spot your non-church neighbours. But should we be favoured with such a time it would not be with the flawed methodology of inviting people to get out of their seats and walk to the front, the dangerous identifying of an outward physical action with the inward spiritual reality of coming to Christ, something that no man is able to do unless first that man is drawn by the Father to his Son. Nor would we follow the Billy Graham insistence that all sorts of pulpits, sacramental pulpits and anti-evangelical pulpits, had to act together to send an invitation to the evangelist to preach in their city before he would consider coming. So it became increasingly clear that that form of stadium mass evangelism was not the means God was appointing to revive his work and bring the nation to the feet of King Jesus. It is not being planned anywhere today.
[ii] John Stott. The leading Anglican evangelical was the vicar of All Souls, Langham Place, London, John Stott. He was the leading figure of a group of outstanding intelligent and godly men, for example, Alan Stibbs, Alec Motyer, J.I.Packer and Dick Lucas. His piety, clear preaching, conservative theology, organisational skills and above all literary output made him the most well-known Anglican preacher in the world. He became Mr. UCCF, and Mr. Keswick Convention, and Mr. International Organiser of evangelicalism, supervising their concluding statements. All of us have his books; I treasure his commentaries; I appreciate almost all he has written. If there is a John Stott book in a charity shop then I am pleased to see it there, even if it is his book on bird-watching, and I purchase it immediately, if only to pass it on to someone else. He did not stand where I came to stand on the design and purpose of the atonement. The note of a definitive redemption made by the Lamb of God of all that the Father had given to the Son to save is sadly absent in his book on the cross, though inconsistently he exalts the substitutionary work of the Lamb of God. He has also confused evangelicalism by identifying religious involvement in social work as being gospel evangelism. I prefer the marks of personal fruit of the Spirit, and involved membership in a gospel congregation, and establishing a Christian home, and being involved in every kind of biblical word and spirit evangelism.
But consider the fine influence that John Stott had on the old errors of the Keswick Convention’s view of holiness whereby men were considered to have Christ as Saviour but not as Lord. They were considered ‘carnal Christians’ who behaved like the world behaves, not even attending church, but because they had made some decision years earlier, they had been confirmed or baptised, then they were to be considered ‘believers’ – strange disciples who did not attend church or pray or have any love for the Lord Christ. People at the old Keswick Convention were then urged to come out of this wilderness living of a sub-Christian lifestyle into the promised land of victorious obedience, to come out of Romans 7 and into the triumph of Romans 8, and this action they were to be engaged in by their simply believing. God’s hands were tied until they took such a step. The old structure of the Convention was that on the third day of the meetings this view of holiness received by faith was promoted. Then John Stott’s exposition of Romans chapters 5 through 8, later entitled Men Made New and published by IVP, was given over four mornings at the Convention in Keswick, and it dismantled that position graciously and unanswerably, and now, though it is still taught elsewhere, it has been marginalised in the Keswick Convention itself. Dr Lloyd-Jones was scornful of the theology and methodology and promises of the old Keswick view of holiness and could not identify with it and so refused every invitation to speak at the Convention. Only John Stott had the authority to address the error and show the Scriptural way.
Then came the bombshell, when John Stott let it be known that he did not believe in hell as defined by eternal conscious torment. He was not alone in doing this. Clark Pinnock, the Baptist, became another unbelieving preacher of hell, but that man’s on-going wanderings took him much further away from confessional Christianity than John Stott, and he was not well known in England and Wales. John Stott had the influence of his fame when he requested that the “ultimate annihilation of the wicked be accepted as a legitimate, biblical founded alternative” to eternal torment (David L. Edwards, Essentials: with a response from John Stott, a liberal-evangelical dialogue, Hodder & Stoughton, 1988, p.320). This disavowal of this point of confessional Christianity limited and restricted Stott’s influence in evangelical circles; some conferences were closed to him; he would no longer be welcomed to lecture in many American Presbyterian seminaries. His espousal of the most popular objection of the Enlightenment to confessional Christianity – the existence of the terrible place of woe – must have weakened the impact of the preaching of hell in the evangelical pulpits of the land. “Well, John Stott does not believe in that,” your opponents in the congregation could say. You could take it or leave it. Hell became the subject of controversy, and so it was a secondary doctrine and should be omitted from gospel pulpits. How dangerous! How sad! How divisive! One affirms that preachers should keep their doubts to their own secret counsels and take them to the throne of grace not publishing them in their books. We will live long with the consequences of that dilution of Christ’s unforgettable and vivid words of warning.
[iii] Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. ‘The Doctor’ as we call him, is the towering figure in England and Wales both at the ending of the pre-1945 Enlightenment era and also in our postmodern period where we’re finding ourselves today. I grieve over some of my past little sniffiness with him concerning one or two of his views. It was not until I read the valuable volumes of his biography that I saw how alone he was. He had this view of the need for preachers to be baptised with the Spirit, and who can deny that it is essential for every preacher to be filled with faith and the Holy Spirit, that as any of us enter the pulpit we find ourselves crying to God, “If you are not with me in the pulpit don’t let me say a word.” I suppose it would be some of the texts he used that I wouldn’t use to emphasise a future yet ungiven gift bestowed on those who ask and agonise for it. If he challenged me (as he challenged some of you when you expressed your reservations with him about the baptism he promoted) he could respond by going on the offensive, “Has the love of God been shed abroad in your heart by the Holy Ghost?” I would now cry confidently, “Yes! I have not been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies with the exception of the love of God being shed abroad in my heart by the Spirit. Every spiritual blessing in Christ is mine.”
Yet how we need that dimension of help from God in our preaching, a heavenly unction, a pathos and a power coming to us from the Saviour’s throne as we speak in his name. We may never preach in any other way. Too much preaching is shallow and ineffectual, the best is a glorified Bible study, the worst a display of human ego. That, I guess, is what Dr Lloyd Jones was pleading for in us preachers who would be picking up his baton after his death and be running this next section of the race into the 21st century. We had to do so by Holy Spirit energy and enabling.
We may not absolutize other dimensions of the work of the reformed pastor, such as exegesis, and diagnose that it is the absence of history of redemption insights and correct exegesis that is the reason for ineffectual and boring sermons. Welcome exegesis, and welcome biblical theology, and welcome new covenant insights, but most of all may the gospel we preach come not in word only but in power and the Holy Ghost and in much assurance. You have to get under their skin, as he did. May it come through Spirit-filled men! Who would drink pure water when it comes to us in a rusty mug? Blest are the pure in heart for they, and they alone, shall see God and through them God is seen. Where have you earlier heard that your people’s greatest need is your holiness? That is what Dr Lloyd-Jones encouraged and manifested in his own life in and out of the pulpit.
The Anglican J.I.Packer is helpful here as he speaks of the 1940s when he attended Westminster Chapel on Sunday evenings and listened to Dr Lloyd-Jones; “It seems to me in retrospect that all I have ever known about preaching was given me in those days . . . What I received then still shows me what to look and hope and pray for in listening, and what to aim at and pray for in my own preaching . . . it was Dr Lloyd-Jones’s ministry that under God gave me my standards in this matter” (Leland Ryken, J.I.Packer, Crossway, 2015, p.371). Much that was good and enduring throughout England and Wales was affected and encouraged by that ministry. So we have looked at three movements and then three personalities that have left their mark on evangelicalism in the past decades.
- SIX CHALLENGES TO CONFESSIONAL EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANITY.
i] The so-called ‘new perspective’ on the teaching of the apostle Paul. In a book entitled Paul and Palestinian Judaism by Ed Sanders which appeared forty years ago the thesis was promoted that the Jews of Pauline times were not a legalistic, works-oriented community. They were men who considered themselves saved by being God’s chosen, covenant community, the children of Abraham, and their remaining in the covenant depended on their keeping the law. Law keeping was the badge of covenant membership. James Dunn and N.T. Wright were among the leaders who developed and modified and popularized this idea for ministers and theologians, not that it has ever become either a simple teaching affecting the praying of the mid-week meeting or being turned into hymnology.
The New Perspective claimed that the apostle had nothing negative to say about human effort and works. It claimed that when Paul writes of being justified by faith he did not mean flying from our sins and our works to trust in Christ’s life and death, but rather our being declared righteous by our faithfulness to God’s covenant requirements, and that the day of judgment would be a day of vindication for those who have been faithful. The focus of the preacher then moves from exhortations to trust in Christ’s blood and righteousness for salvation to exhortations to go on living faithfully, just as Christ did. This approach is commonly linked with infant baptism as an ordinance putting the child into the family of God, and thenceforth instructed to keep being faithful to him. This emphasis on being saved by faithfulness has brought the movement into common ground with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox teaching on justification. It is an emphasis on a linear process of life-long justification rather than in an act of entrusting oneself to Christ in punctiliar justification. Teachers who have propounded this view in American Presbyterian seminaries have gained a following amongst some students, but have been dismissed from their callings.
ii] The teaching of Karl Barth, or dialectical theology, or neo-orthodoxy – it’s the same thing. Barth was a prodigious writer with a fine turn of phrase and some remarkable observations. He rejected the moralistic conclusions of German rationalistic theology. Christianity was far more than exhortations to live a bourgeois lifestyle. Good, but Barth didn’t accept most of Scripture as a historical record, rather the majority of it was ‘saga’; he did not believe in the resurrection as a fact. He also regarded Scripture as the exclusive way God reveals his word, existentially, to us. In other words, he had no place for God’s general revelation in creation and conscience. Barth seems to have been universalist in his theology; all men are in Adam, but all men are also in Christ. When I once heard him lecture in Princeton in 1963, that was what I gleaned. He was not easy to understand. That must be the case if you are at the most cool, as he was, to such basics as the law/gospel distinction and reject covenant theology. We must ask this, that if the theology of Karl Barth and his followers is what it claims to be – the 20th century rediscovery of the word, that it was God’s gift to those who stand in the pulpit – then where are the Barthian evangelists and preachers who have adopted this theology and thus have renewed dying churches and powerfully evangelised England and Wales, let alone in Germany and Switzerland?
iii] The rejection of substitutionary atonement. The Baptist, Steve Chalke, infamously described the preaching of the cross as ‘cosmic child abuse.’ The Church of Scotland minister, Scott McKenna, posted on his web a video of a sermon he preached in which he says, “I was asked if Jesus died for my sins. I replied, ‘No, no, no, no. That’s ghastly theology. You don’t want to go there.” What for us evangelical Christians is the very heart of the gospel, that Christ the Son of God became the Lamb of God who died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that he was buried, and that he rose again from the dead according to the Scriptures – the preaching of the cross – is for those men some dreadful teaching that should not be heard in any pulpit. It is in fact for them anti-Christian, and they claim to be Evangelicals.
iv] The Openness of God. This teaching is also known as ‘open theism’ or ‘free will theism’ or ‘openness theology.’ It is the belief that God does not exercise meticulous control of the universe but leaves it ‘open’ for humans to make their own independent significant choices by their free will. Such decisions then impact their relationships with God and their neighbours. Open theism is the belief that God has not predetermined the future. He does not know the future exhaustively. Openness theology acknowledges that God is omniscient, but it rejects the inference that this means that God knows everything that will happen.
Open Theists like Clark Pinnock argue that people are created to be in meaningful relationships with God and their fellow men, and as moral beings they must have the ability to make real, responsible choices in their lives. This, they claim, cannot be accomplished as long as God is believed to be exercising exhaustive control of the universe, or that he predetermines the future, because this would remove man’s free will. However, we have to ask if open theism is actually, truly reflecting the full teaching of the Bible. Is this what you learn from the life of Joseph or the death of the Lord Jesus? If God is not exercising meticulous control of the universe reaching to the fall of sparrows or numbering the hairs on our heads, and if he does not exhaustively know the future, then surely Jehovah cannot be said to be in total control, and we’re not able to completely trust in God’s loving omnipotence in the hundred little things that happen to us hour by hour. How much hangs on little things! The big question remains, will the God of open theism actually triumph over evil? Open Theists answer these critiques lamely and inconsistently by noting that while God doesn’t exercise meticulous control, he is somehow ‘ultimately’ in control.
v] Feminism. There are terrible ways in much of the world today in which women as the ‘weaker vessels’ who are half the human race are treated from the time they are infants and mutilated, on to the time they are taken as child brides, and then on into being abandoned when they are worn out with work and a new younger woman is taken into the home. The plight of a billion women on this planet is outrageous and we Evangelicals are to address that sin on every kind of mission field.
My concern with feminism is where it clashes with divine revelation and so I remind myself and you all that the church is the body of Christ. It is not the body of the Enlightenment or the body of the world. It has to register and assert its head’s personal convictions. For us he can say no wrong. We are to teach that woman was made in the image of God, by a separate act of creation, from man, and after man, and for man, to be his helper. She is equal to man in creative honour, in native depravity and redemptive privilege. Marriage is the union of a man and a woman, with their becoming the heads of any children God gives to them, man being the head of the woman, Christ being the head of the man, and God being the head of Christ. The church has to reflect that headship-reality in its structures and services. God does not gift one single man so that he can bear a child in his womb or nurse a child at his breast. God gives that privilege exclusively to the woman. God also discriminates by giving to man alone the privilege of preaching the Word at designated services. When that is denied by a woman who is actually leading and governing the congregation as the pastor-preacher then for that time, in that activity, in that congregation, it is not being the body of Christ. Christ’s body on earth is ruled by male elders. Our resistance to British feminism is also due to its intimate link with lesbianism.
vi] The dumbing down of worship. God has prescribed for us how he is to be worshipped. Your taste might be to things Gregorian, or to things contemporary, or Celtic or cowboy. But your taste is not the issue, rather what does God require of us? He has made it plain; there is to be prayer, and the singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (of which, incidentally, there is little example and not much emphasis in the New Testament), the preaching of the apostolic word (of which there is much emphasis in the New Testament), the enjoying of apostolic fellowship, the receiving of our offerings, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and being in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day. There may be all sorts of minor variations and combinations of these elements but there may not be an abandonment of any of these things, nor an absolutizing of any one of them to distort what gives pleasure and glory to God. A larger crowd may be gathered if certain things are done differently, but that is a great price to pay for grieving and quenching God the Holy Spirit. Such hymn books as Christian Hymns have put the church into their debt by gathering the best hymns from 3,000 years of Christian doxology and making this praise available and attractive to our generation. We can sing on Sundays a psalm of Moses written 3,400 years ago or a hymn written recently by Vernon Higham.
- TWO DELUSIONS AVOIDED IN EVANGELISM.
There are many claimants offering us instruction in something as basic as reaching out to our neighbours in the world with the message of Jesus Christ, as though there were not ample lucid teaching about this in all the Bible as to what the message is and how we are to live it and speak it. There are two delusions that have to be resisted, though very common amongst evangelical Christians.
i] “That it is parachurch ideas, leaders and activities that provide leadership and expertise in evangelism.” There are numerous agencies that address the gospel pulpit telling the man in the pulpit how he may more effectively reach students, sportsmen, people on vacation, women, Muslims, soldiers, Jews, children, people in prison, etc. We acknowledge that good is done by their activities, but nothing is as effective evangelistically as a worshipping congregation led by a man called by God to preach his word and declaring his gospel publically and house to house. Pulpit and pew together, formally and informally, we confront our neighbourhoods and neighbours to face realistically the problem of personal sin, and then that they are seriously to consider the one divine remedy provided by God, and then that all kinds of people are asked by the church week by week to comply with God’s terms for obtaining his provision for pardon by repenting of their sin and putting their trust in Christ alone. Then within the fellowship of that church the new Christian is asked to manifest in his life the reality of his claim to have done that, to have repented and trusted in Christ and daily they are following him. It is your local gospel church that does the work of evangelism far better than any other agency.
It may use ‘Christianity Explored’ to assist it, though it is not necessary. It may even use the Alpha Course, but it must be aware of the danger that those who attend respond by simply believing the system of teaching that is presented in such courses, and then being assured by the leader that then they have become Christians. System faith is no better than the faith of demons. The indispensable reality of regeneration by the Holy Spirit is to be manifest by repentance towards God and obedience to Christ and holy love for the Lord’s people, not by glossolalia.
Another parachurch error to avoid concerning evangelism is that social work, and the Christian church bringing pressure to bear on the government to assist the poor and needy and sick, and doing that work, is in fact evangelism. Mother Teresa’s work was not ‘evangelism.’ Evangelism is the declaration of a very defined message, that we deserve eternal death because we are sinners, but Jesus Christ because he loved us, lived his righteous life and died his atoning, propitiating death to save all who put their trust in him and his work. Entrust yourself to him and be saved! That is the evangelistic message, not the visible social outworking of gospel influences in a groaning fallen world.
Another parachurch suggestion promoted in its conferences and coming from its seminaries is that evangelism is simply Bible teaching (with correct exegesis and the interpretation of Scripture, enriched by the insights of the history of redemption, and particularly handling large chunks of the Bible, like entire chapters at a time.) Such glorified Bible studies, I say, may not be called ‘preaching the gospel.’ How often have we heard such preaching and we knew immediately that there had been no heralding of the good news of the Lord Jesus and no beseeching the hearers to repent and trust in Jesus Christ. So parachurch ideas from organisations and colleges and evangelistic agencies are to be challenged in the light of Scripture’s priorities, and social work is not preaching the gospel, neither are expositions from any part of the Bible. Then there is a second delusion . . .
ii] “That it is from America that we will learn to be experts in evangelism.” There is a lot of yeast in the barrel in the USA and so from there all sorts of religion has bubbled forth, creating all sorts of havoc all over the world, the four major Christian cults of the 19th century were all born there, similarly along came dispensationalism and the Scofield Bible. But again all three modern translations of the Bible (that so many English gospel churches are glad to use today), the NIV, or the New King James, or the English Standard Version – all are American productions. And then all the other movements come across the Atlantic and enter our neighbourhood in our global village, and each one attracts some supporters who listen to CDs and then watch the services on line. There seems to be a little group of adherents of each American para-church movement in every large city-centre church.
In America a successful preacher is so regarded because he has built a movement promoting his views. I am thinking of the Full Gospel Businessmen’s movement of Demos Shakarian, Jews for Jesus founded by Moishe Raen, Loren Cunningham’s YWAM, Rick Warren and the Purpose Driven life, Theonomy and R.J.Rushdoony, Navigators and Dawson Trotman, Willowcreek and Bill Hybels ‘seeker sensitive’ movement, Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel, Bill McCartney’s Promise Keepers, Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion, George Verwer’s Operation Mobilisation, John Wimber and the Vineyard movement, Bill Bright’s Campus Crusade movement, the Emerging Church of Mark Driscoll and Brian Mclaren – all of the above American-initiated movements, and others too of the TV evangelists, are all offering a silver bullet or a master key that promises to provide the secret for Christian living and how to accomplish evangelistic success. “Do it this way,” they say. The U.S. image of growth and vitality and enthusiasm and confidence is so far from what British Christians face Sunday by Sunday that it is little wonder that numbers of Englishmen get gullible in reading American religious propaganda. A few have even decided that watching the streaming of those services on line is in fact their own church.
- TEN ENCOURAGEMENTS FOR TODAY’S GOSPEL CHRISTIANS AS WE FACE THE NEXT 70 YEARS.
These are great days to serve the God of the universe and the Lord of redemption. These are the days the Lord has made. On a material level – and we dare not ignore that, when one definition of true religion and undefiled before God is to be caring for orphans and widows in their affliction – materially we are witnessing the greatest improvement in global living standards ever to take place and how much of this can be ultimately traced back to the influence of the Bible? Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in human history. Polio and other diseases have virtually vanished. Life expectancy at birth increased more than twice as much in the 20th century as it has done since the time of the patriarchs. The risk that any individual would be exposed to war, die in a natural disaster, or be subjected to dictatorship has become much smaller that at any other epoch. A child born today is more likely to reach retirement age than his forebears were to attain their fifth birthday. What we are witnessing in such places as Syria and in North Korea are the exceptions where once tyranny had been an international rule. Johan Norberg’s book Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (Oneworld Publications, 2016) is an important volume. Let me give you some of my own reasons for gospel encouragement.
i] Modern English is the first world language, the most widely used language in newspaper publishing, book publishing, international telecommunications, scientific publishing and religious publishing. There is this remarkable juxtaposition, that English is both the world’s gospel language, but also it dominates scientific research. It is the language most often taught as a foreign language. A working knowledge of English is a requirement in such vocations as medicine, computing and preaching. 80% of all scientific articles and journals are written in English. 90 % of all religious publications are written in English. It is the language for wide communication all over the world.
ii] Books. I said to a friend who preaches, lectures, publishes and travels all over the world. “What a vast number of good evangelical books are appearing each year. It must be something like one each day.” “No,” he replied, “It is two a day.” Of course that includes children’s books, specialist books, commentaries, church history – but literature you would not be ashamed to have on your shelves. That fact of about 750 new trustworthy books being printed each year (and the number is increasing) is one barometer of the British and international vitality of evangelicalism (I would also add to the number of books the scores of magazines available).
iii] The worldwide web. The web is a horrible cesspit where unspeakable brutality and sensuality is recorded and made available to children. That is a barometer of man’s depravity. But also the web is full of gospel sites, preaching and information that can help every Christian. It has scores of sound sermons on each chapter of the Bible. A new great awakening of religion breaking out anywhere in the world would be immediately accessible on line internationally just days after it had begun.
iv] Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. There is no end to the influence of his publications, observations, evangelistic earnestness and summons to holy living. Being dead he still speaks.
v] The international scene. Look around you; talk to travellers. There is in first place the USA. It must have first place because of our common language and accessibility, but also its millions of Christian homes, unadorned gospel churches and pulpits, publishing houses, seminaries, Christian school and college networks and Christian radio stations. It produces from very different backgrounds outstanding men whose confessional Christianity causes them to stand together. From fundamentalism, John MacArthur; from Dutch Calvinism, Joel Beeke; from the Southern Baptist denomination, Al Mohler. Remarkable men all of them and standing in the vital tradition of Warfield, Machen, Van Til, Francis Schaeffer, Jay Adams and R.C.Sproul. What seminaries it erects, the vast Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville, with over 70 members of staff and a several thousand students, the dozen Presbyterian seminaries, all confessional institutions. America is full of encouragement. Something is going on there. God knows. But look around elsewhere in the world, to areas which are not influenced by the greenback dollar, and there is China with the bewildering statistics for the growth of Christianity in the last few decades to maybe 100 million disciples or far more and still growing. You will also consider Eritrea, Korea, Zambia and Brazil with their thrilling histories of gospel growth.
vi] Pulpits in the UK. Over fifty years ago how hard it was to find pulpits where the incumbent preached the whole counsel of God. It is not the case today. There are 14,000 towns in England and Wales, and there are very few of them that lack some kind of gospel testimony. Many have free grace pulpits and that is certainly the case in university towns. Then there are the villages, Stanton Lees, Great Ellingham, Clarbest Road, Halperton and hundreds more. France has 40,000 towns without any gospel witness at all. Of course it is a fight, a war, an endurance race, with a vicious enemy. There are not a lot of places enjoying numerical growth in the UK, but there is a lot of Christ-like testimony and living. There is not much great preaching – and that is what the days call for – but there is good preaching, as I have been hearing over the last nine months since retiring. These pulpits feed congregations. There are many gospel sermons preached in our day. And that preaching has led to a distinctive British piety, a godliness which is the light of England and Wales. I see it as a sweetness of nature, a humility, a warm affection, a kindness and thoughtfulness displayed when you are suffering, a truthfulness and dependability. Great graces. Immense graces – the life of heaven on earth! We all have our favourite Christians whom we visit in many communities and conferences. They are a blessed people who sit under blessed ministries.
vii] There are organisations like the ‘Christian Institute’ and ‘Christian Concern’ that are doing what no local church could do, and so are needed by all the congregations. They keep watch on politicians and law-making and discrimination against believers. They provide a network of articles and information so that week by week we are warned of what is happening. They defend the consciences of men and women whose humble opinions have brought upon themselves dismissal and unemployment and even charges of law-breaking. The shabby treatment of evangelical Christians is no longer being done in a corner.
viii] Creation convictions. There is a widespread awakening of interest in understanding the opening 11 chapters of the Bible. The facticity of those Scriptures is promoted by hundreds of books and large conferences and regular annual meetings in most churches. The historicity of Adam, the supernatural creation of Eve, a historic fall, that man did not die until he sinned and defied his Lord – all these are now declared to be non-negotiables among evangelical Christians.
ix] Theological seminaries. One does not have to think in terms of America to gain a good education and preparation for the work of the ministry. There is a variety of theological training in the four nations of the United Kingdom which we believe to be among the best in all the continent of Europe.
x] There is this conference at the end of the year, the ultimate gathering in a series of at least a dozen conferences in England and Wales that begin in January and then, on an average of one each month, continue through the year. You can attend such serious conservative evangelical gatherings, for ministers, for students and for families where the free grace of God is explained and proclaimed. Some are huge by British standards, but none is dominated by big personalities. All are barometers to the largely hidden work of God that is going on week by week in homes and congregations, on websites and fraternals, in magazines and publishing houses, in camps and beach missions, in Christian schools and home-schoolers, in universities and colleges, unknown and unrecognised by the world, but directed secretly and irresistibly by him who said that he would build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it.
Dr Geoff Thomas served Alfred Place Baptist Church in Aberystwyth for over 50 years until his retirement last year.
The above paper was given at the Westminster Conference in London, in December 2016. Reproduced with permission from the author.