How should Christians respond when they are suddenly struck down with an illness? In the midst of suffering, are we to run away from medicine and trust only in prayer, or should we view prayer merely as a means of psychological comfort whilst trusting only in the prognosis of the medical professionals? Or, is there a faith-filled position which embraces both prayer and scientific medicine? And what about the Devil’s role in all this, and the role of vigourous resistance?
This message is by PJ Smyth who leads GodFirst Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was preached at the Newfrontiers ‘Together on a Mission’ conference in England in 2011.
It’s not a message on healing as such, but rather covers the broader range of pastoral issues that arise when we face serious sickness – including the source of sickness, and how we handle our approach towards recovery.
But it’s not merely academic. PJ was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, which was successfully treated. He tells the story in the message.
In terms of an overview of the Christian approach to the challenge of sickness and healing I think it is probably the best message I have heard on the subject, and which, in my opinion, reaches the correct conclusions.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve had a kind of love affair with India for most of my adult life.
Nevertheless my admiration for Indian scholar Vishal Mangalwadi is anything but sentimental. I am genuinely impacted every time I hear him speak. It’s the same kind of impact I felt when I first read the works of Francis Schaeffer.
Somewhat guided by his notes (!), but also peppered with stunning digressions and off-the-cuff insights, his teaching energises me every single time.
He is currently working on a book about the central influence of the Bible in the development of the Western World, which, coming from an Eastern perspective, is intriguing.
This message is part of his material for that book. To be honest, I could have chosen any one of these messages but I thought the title alone might grab your interest.
If you’ve never heard anything about the background work that’s being done on the New Testament manuscripts, or on the reliability of the NT, or on discoveries of ‘new’ old NT fragments then listen to this!
When I first heard this interview I was moved with gratitude to God! I don’t think I am an over-emotional person but I was moved and inspired by the following:
Dirk is now one of the world’s leading authorities on the New Testament manuscripts, and he describes his personal journey into textual criticism which came from a common and genuine concern: is the NT reliable?
I was impressed by the blend of curiosity and clarity, of pursuit and precision, in Dirk’s analysis of the material that ultimately led him to confidence in the trustworthiness of the New Testament
I was grateful to God that the process of scholarship behind the compilation of the New Testament manuscripts, is governed by such a high level of integrity. We’re not trying to hide or cover up anything. The integrity of the academic discipline behind the New Testament commends itself to the conscience, and caused me to give thanks to God!
OK, so enough with the emotive introduction. I trust you will enjoy this interview with Dirk Jongkind very much.
Dirk is Research Fellow in New Testament Text and Language: Fellow of St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge
Annoyingly, ‘Textual Criticism of the New Testament’ is temporarily unavailable…
We’ve already seen how the first major contribution William Carey made to India was to teach that reform was not only necessary but possible.
Indian intellectual, Vishal Mangalwadi argues that the process of Indian Modernisation began with Carey’s rejection of Karma in favour of the Christian concept of a personal God who is the Creator:
‘The idea of Karma is that an impersonal law rules our destiny and automatically gives us the consequences of our actions.
‘According to the Bible, sin is breaking the laws of a Person – our loving heavenly Father. Therefore it is possible to find forgiveness and to be delivered from sin and its consequences.’ (Mangalwadi, William Carey and the Regeneration of India, Good Books, Mussouri, 1997)
Access to knowledge for all
Following the example of the Protestant Reformers of the 16th Century, Carey knew that in order to achieve spiritual and social liberation, the Bible must be translated into the languages in common use (vernacular).
Mangalwadi argues that this was the first step towards modernisation – the availability of knowledge in the language of the people.
This meant the possibility of education for the masses as well as their protection from exploitation through ignorance. To Carey it was obvious that the most important text to translate was the Bible.
Mangalwadi writes: ‘A key factor in modernisation which Carey tried to popularise is that the spoken language of the people should also be the language of learning, the language of industry, of marketing, and of governing.
‘A feature of a medieval society is its use of an elitist language as a means of discriminating, and also as a method of granting to an aristocracy unearned privileges.
The preservation of indigenous languages – what Carey’s work enabled
‘It became possible for India to make the transition from Persian as the court language, to Urdu, and then to the regional languages (at least in the lower courts) because of Carey’s labour and leadership in turning the vernaculars into literary languages through Bible translation.’ (ibid p.79-80)
The promotion of indigenous languages
Carey became utterly consumed with the need to record, write and understand the local languages – in order that he might deliver the Bible to the people.
He translated and published the Bible into nearly 40 different languages. He started more than 100 schools and began the first college in Asia to teach in an Asian language (Bengali).
Hear the voice of a modern Indian scholar: ‘Their passion for reforming India by making the Bible available in the vernaculars motivated the missionaries to develop grammar for many Indian dialects, and eventually, to develop Hindi as a literary language for the majority of the citizens of India.’ (ibid p.80)
We know that mistakes were made, but the next time you hear the legacy of self-sacrificing, good-hearted missionaries slandered in the lecture hall, or classroom, in conversation or on TV, remember the work of William Carey and Vishal Mangalwadi’s assessment of his contribution to India.
For the first part of the William Carey story click here
Make the most of every opportunity
OK, OK, maybe I’m being a bit unfair to the Charismatics here but this is a fascinating little experiment that Wesley attempted for two days.
Fortunately for multiplied thousands he gave up the attempt, but, unnervingly, many Christians actually do their personal evangelism like this.
I’m not going to preface this with many scriptures. Just one:
Paul writes, ‘Pray that I may proclaim [the gospel] clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.’ (Col 4:4-6 NIV)
Our goal should be to graciously seek to make the most of every opportunity to share our faith with others. Obviously the application of wisdom will help us determine what and how much we should share. If we are with folks we regularly see we are clearly not to exasperate them with constant mini-sermons, but if we are with folk briefly, say on a plane, or purchasing something at a check out, there may be a moment to bring encouragement or to leave a Personal Tract.
‘For these two days, I had made an experiment which I had been so often and earnestly pressed to do: speaking to none concerning the things of God, unless my heart was free to it.
‘And what was the event?
Why, 1. That I spoke to none at all for fourscore miles together: no, not even to him that travelled with me in the [carriage], unless a few words at first setting out.
‘2. That I had no cross either to bear or to take up, and commonly in an hour or two fell fast asleep.
‘3. That I had much respect shown me wherever I came; everyone behaving to me, as to a civil, good-natured gentleman.
‘O how pleasing is all this to flesh and blood!’ (JW Journals, Vol 1, Baker edition, p.313)
Why pick on the Charismatics?
Well, the phrase ‘unless my heart was free to it’ is equivalent to ‘unless the Spirit prompts me’ nowadays, and you tend to hear Charismatics use that kind of language more often, and particularly with regard to evangelism.
But maybe I’m wrong. After all, those urging his change in behaviour may have been merely embarrassed by his boldness: ‘I had been so often and earnestly pressed to do’ this, he says.
In other words, John Wesley’s default position was that he was always on a mission, and every appropriate opportunity should be taken to help others understand the gospel and maybe come closer to Christ.
This was something he was ‘often and earnestly pressed’ to abandon in favour of more particular promptings. Maybe that’s not just a ‘charismatic’ weakness but affects most evangelicals who are either nervous of getting things wrong or who are fearful and would be helped by being filled with the Holy Spirit (see Acts 1:8).
Either way, we can be thankful that Wesley gave up the wretched experiment. May God give you and I grace to likewise give it up and ‘make the most of every opportunity.’
After the rediscovery of Justification by Faith and the key doctrine of the New Birth the genius of the 18th Century Awakening was outdoor evangelistic preaching!
That may not sound very radical to us but in those days church was confined to…well, church! Church buildings were the legitimate context for church services and the few that gathered did so without making any noise or disturbing the culture outside.
There was, however, one Welshman who arose to shake up the status quo. Born in 1714 and born again in 1735 (the same year as Whitefield), Howell Harris could not stay silent!
In fact, Harris would not shut up! He had a job as a schoolmaster, but had not yet gone on to University or to ordination in the Church of England in Wales. Later on, he was rejected for both.
The failure of legalism and the triumph of faith
His youth was filled with rebellion and he lamented, ‘no one told me that I was on the way to hell.’ (Richard Bennett, Howell Harris and the Dawn of Revival, Evangelical Press of Wales, p.16)
Bennett tells us that ‘the majority of the clergy were content to leave their parishioners to live just as they pleased.’ (ibid p.19)
But in 1735 Harris became powerfully convicted of his sinfulness and then, like George Whitefield, launched into a highly legalistic and superstitious set of ritual and religion that brought no relief whatsoever. He later described it as ‘being in hell for five weeks’ (ibid p.25)
Finally, as he was taking communion one Sunday, he was enabled to ‘believe that I was receiving pardon on account of that blood.’ He describes the freedom that followed: ‘I lost my burden. I went home leaping for joy, and I said to my neighbour…I know my sins have been forgiven!’ (ibid p.26)
Baptism in the Spirit
He was truly set free and yet his soul yearned for more. About three weeks later he experienced what many would describe as a ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ and this truly marked him out and empowered him for service.
While not quoting Harris verbatim (which is disappointing) Bennett conveys Harris’ experience: ‘when he was at…the sacred spot where he had given himself to God, God now gave Himself to him…The richest biblical terms are heaped one on another in an attempt to give expression to his experience at that time. He was cleansed from all his idols, and the love of God was shed abroad in his heart. Christ had come in previously, but now He began to sup with him; now he received the Spirit of adoption…’ (ibid p.27)
Harris himself tells us the result: ‘I devoted myself to exhorting everyone I met to flee from the wrath to come!’ (ibid p.36)
Rejected by men
In 1736 he offered himself as a candidate for ordination within the Church of England but it had become known that Harris was already preaching evangelistically (Harris preferred to call his preaching ‘exhorting’ or ‘reading’ out of deference to the fact that only ordained clergy were really authorised to ‘preach’).
This unofficial preaching was considered inappropriate. Preaching to the people in streets, and at fairs and in homes was irregular and unrefined. Not the dignified behaviour for a potential vicar, or priest of the Church of England. His application was rejected.
His brother was keen to try and get him to Oxford so that he might be ordained after having obtained a degree. But things were moving way too fast for the hero of the Welsh awakening: ‘I could not rest, but must go to the utmost of my ability to exhort. I could not meet or travel with anybody, rich or poor, young or old, without speaking to them of religion and concerning their souls.’ (ibid p. 41)
What is the source of your authority?
The question for Harris, and one that troubled him for much of his life, was this: ‘What is the source of your authority?’ – not ordained by the establishment church, not having obtained a degree, therefore unrecognised by both English religion and English academia, was the power of the Holy Spirit really enough to authorise this young man to preach?
And could that young man really awaken a nation and bring his people to Christ? And could that young man really begin a preaching phenomena that released the gospel from the confines of religious walls to actually impact and shape the surrounding culture?
Oh yes! The answer is yes!
The source of authority was the word of God and the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of God calling him to the work, but I must refrain.
The disappointing ‘missionary’ attempt by the Wesley brothers to serve God in America made them realise they themselves were in real need of salvation (see, John Wesley: the non-Christian).
Charles, the First!
Charles was the first to experience the new birth, the main topic about which Whitefield was now preaching. He heard Whitefield in London and records at the time, ‘Mr Whitefield [preaches] not with persuasive words of man’s wisdom, but with the demonstration of the Spirit and with power. The churches will not contain the multitudes that throng to hear him,’ (Charles Wesley Journals, Vol 1. P.79 Baker)
The brothers had been impressed with the faith of the Moravians on board ship during a storm, and John had received a surprise grilling by the Moravian leader, Augustus Spangenberg, in America. Following these encounters they began seeking them out once they had returned to England.
The Moravian Peter Bohler was leading a regular meeting in London’s Fetter Lane. Dallimore writes, ‘Charles and John were in almost daily contact with Bohler.’
He asked Charles ‘Do you hope to be saved? He replied, ‘I do!’
‘For what reason do you hope it?’ ‘Because I have used my best endeavours to serve God.’
Charles reports, ‘He shook his head, and said no more. I thought him very uncharitable, saying in my heart, ‘What, are not my endeavours sufficient ground of hope? Would he rob me of my endeavours? I have nothing else to trust to.’ (Arnold Dallimore, Charles Wesley, Crossway, p.58-59)
Power on Pentecost Sunday
Charles had discovered the vital doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone as he read Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians.
‘21 May was Pentecost Sunday…[and] the day of Charles Wesley’s conversion.’ Charles said he felt the Spirit of God striving with his spirit ‘till by degrees He chased away the darkness of my unbelief. I found myself convinced…I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ.’
John, in his Journal records on that day, ‘I received the surprising news that my brother had found rest to his soul.’
Indeed, Charles wrote: ‘I was in a new heaven and a new earth!’ (See Dallimore, p.61-62)
John Wesley’s ‘heart strangely warmed’
Finally, three days later, at one of the Moravian meetings in Aldersgate Street, John Wesley got his breakthrough. He had already discussed Justification by faith with Peter Bohler, but this was different.
At 34 years of age (more than ten years older than Whitefield) he was finally born again.
He wrote in his journal:
‘In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.
I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’ (John Wesley Journal, May 24th 1738, Vol. 1. p.103)
After this Wesley followed Whitefield’s example and began preaching both justification by faith and the new birth in the churches. And one by one, the Anglican church leaders resisted him. (see here for further examples of Wesley following Whitefield’s example)
It wasn’t long before these newly converted ‘Methodists’, George Whitefield and John and Charles Wesley, began to gather others together to seek God for greater blessings.
1739 was approaching, and little did these men know what a significant year it was to be!
To read something of the amazing influence of the Wesleys click here
From Whitefield’s personal experience of salvation to his first efforts in sharing his faith
The first sign of a breakthrough came when George Whitefield, after months of legalism and misguided fervency, was finally born again at Oxford University in 1735.
He immediately returned to his home town of Gloucester where he joyfully preached the gospel. Several young people were converted and he organised them into a small group (or, ‘society’ as they were called) based on Wesley’s ‘Holy Club’ at Oxford.
A season of growing and learning in Gloucester
Whitefield was overjoyed in his new found faith, much to the surprise of his friends who were expecting a glum, religious depressive. He began to diligently study the Scriptures.
He became clearer in his responsibility to preach justification by faith alone, rather than some of the more mystical teachings he had been exposed to by the Oxford group.
He writes, ‘Oh what sweet communion had I daily…with God in prayer..! How often have I been carried beyond myself when sweetly meditating in the fields! How assuredly have I felt that Christ dwelt in me and I in Him! And how did I daily walk in the comforts of the Holy Ghost and was refreshed in a multitude of peace!’ (GW Journals, BOT edition, p.61)
His personal relationship with God was the foundation of His own desire to serve God. He had many wonderful experiences of the Spirit at this time which began to govern his early view of ministry.
Promptings from God?
He had a dream of a prisoner in Gloucester coming to him for help and instruction. He went to the prison but could not gain access. A little while later, a letter arrived from Oxford saying that there was a prisoner who had escaped the Oxford prison but had been recaptured and was now held in Gloucester. Would Whitefield visit him? He did so and began preaching to a group of prisoners in the prison, providing for them and helping secure the release of some of them. (GW Journals, p.63)
He tended to respond to what he felt were definite promptings of the Holy Spirit and the immediate fruit was remarkable. Although cautioned on this point by Edwards a few years later, Whitefield instinctively knew that being ‘led by the Spirit’ was certainly preferable to John Wesley’s practice of casting lots for guidance.
After 6 months in Gloucester, he was ready to return to Oxford, ready to face the daunting possibility of being ordained as a Minister, and ready to face the challenge of bringing the teaching of the New Birth, of Justification by Faith in Christ alone, to 18th Century England.
So George Whitefield, merely months before becoming one of England’s youngest and most popular preachers, discovers that he needs to be born again in order to get right with God. He discovers that spiritual life is imparted by God through faith.
But strangely, he then acts in the opposite direction – throwing himself into a round of even more exacting religious exercises and good works, desperately trying to appease God.
Self-denial, satanic oppression, sickness and scaring Charles Wesley!
He increases his fasts, he stops eating fruit, giving the money he would have spent to the poor, he goes outside in rain and storm to cry out to God and confess his sinfulness.
Rather than finding relief from any of these exercises he becomes even more disconsolate, fearful and insecure. Feeling himself to be horribly oppressed by the devil he finally decides to ‘forsake’ all, including his new friends and stays in his study for days on end. He becomes physically ill and his tutor sends a physician.
His gloomy, depressed demeanour, the terrible loss of weight, all of this alarms the other students.
Charles Wesley is way out of his depth, doesn’t know what to do, and so refers him to his older brother John (already in his thirties, clearly the leader by this time, but not yet converted).
John painstakingly talks George down from the extremity of legalism in which he is bound and gives him Thomas a Kempis to read. Perhaps John realises even at this point that the strictness of the lifestyle he is promoting, the intensity of examination of every moment, is not working.
Locked in the second half of Romans 7
George seemed to have been caged in experience into what Paul merely illustrates in Romans 7:7-25.
There, Paul illustrates the inability of the Law to produce freedom from sin. Life is in the Gospel not in the Law. George Whitefield, having been awakened to the rightness of God’s Commands, then went on to try and justify himself through religious duty to fulfill those Commands. But Paul clearly demonstrates that the Law cannot produce life – only Christ can.
But, as in Paul’s illustration, so in real life, and as Whitefield was about to experience – the bondage of the cycle of sin and death is broken only by the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
Finally the breakthrough
Whitefield had come to that great pre-conversion cry, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me?’ (Rom 7:24)
In his Journal he records, ‘God was pleased to set me free in the following manner. One day, perceiving an uncommon drought and a disagreeable clamminess in my mouth and using things to allay my thirst, but in vain, it was suggested to me, that when Jesus Christ cried out, ‘I thirst!’ His sufferings were near at an end. Upon which I cast myself down on the bed, crying out, ‘I thirst! I thirst!’’
From Mourning to Dancing
Although it seems a small thing – to be desperately thirsty, and to somehow see that when Christ cried out that He thirsted, it was near the end of His anguish – yet, here’s the point, when George Whitefield cried out to God, God intervened and heard him.
‘Soon after this’, writes George, ‘I found and felt in myself that I was delivered from the burden that had so heavily oppressed me. The spirit of mourning was taken from me and I knew what it was truly to rejoice in God my Saviour; and, for some time, could not avoid singing psalms wherever I was…’
‘Thus were the days of my mourning ended. After a long night of desertion and temptation, the Star, which I had seen at a distance before [referring to the doctrine of the New Birth in Scougal’s book], began to appear again, and the Day Star arose in my heart.
Now did the Spirit of God take possession of my soul, and, as I humbly hope, seal me unto the day of redemption.’ (GW Journals, Banner of Truth, p.58)
Well, he had wrestled and struggled and, at last, discovered God’s free and Sovereign grace. Being now certain of the new birth in his own experience he began to proclaim the message of it to the English speaking world.
While George Whitefield was doing menial tasks for the richer students at Oxford University, his own interests became intensely focussed.
He discovered that his experience in the ‘public house was now of service to me’, in that he was able to serve others diligently and humbly. Yet he could not throw in his lot with the other servitors, whom he felt would become a bad influence on him.
He was aiming for higher things.
Religion vs. Being Born Again
He began to read the books that Charles Wesley, his new friend, lent him. One small volume had a real impact on him, Henry Scougal’s ‘The Life of God in the Soul of Man.’ (see Piper on Scougal)
Whitefield realised that, to get right with God, he needed to be born again, not merely to increase his religious efforts.
‘At my first reading it, I wondered what the author meant by saying, ‘That some falsely placed religion in going to church, doing hurt to no one, being constant in the duties of the closet [ie. private prayer], and now and then reaching out their hands to give alms to their poor neighbours.’
‘Alas!’ though I, ‘if this be not true religion, what is?’
An inward change of heart was needed. What Scougal called, the ‘union of the soul with God, and Christ formed within us.’ Whitefield writes, ‘a ray of Divine light was instantaneously darted in upon my soul, and from that moment…did I know that I must be a new creature.’ (GW Journals, Banner of Truth, p.47)
A pre-evangelistic flurry!
At last he’d seen it! Not religious duty, but the life of God coming and changing us! And he immediately began communicating it to others even though he had not yet experienced it himself!
Whitefield realised that the New Birth was absolutely central for an individual’s relationship to God and for any hope of getting to heaven. It was a clear-as-day revelation to him – and it was to become the pivotal emphasis in his preaching.
The New Birth not a New Teaching
This doctrine of the New Birth didn’t begin with Whitefield, of course, nor with Henry Scougal.
In John’s Gospel we’re told that a highly religious man, Nicodemus visited Jesus one evening to ask him questions. Nicodemus was a well known teacher, and was a respected authority on Scripture.
Yet Jesus cuts across Nicodemus’ expectations by telling him, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
Faith Comes to Life
The new birth is, as Whitefield discovered, an inner work of God. As you learn more about Jesus Christ, on hearing about His perfect life, His sacrificial death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead – faith is aroused! Faith that perhaps wasn’t there before!
As it begins to dawn on you that Jesus truly and specifically died on the cross for your sins, to forgive you of every one, and present you before God as holy – faith is aroused, and springs up!
This faith, as it comes alive causes a desire for Christ and for His forgiveness. We find ourselves being drawn to God! We long for His forgiveness and for His purposes in our lives. We are willing to turn from sin and live for Him.
My friend, you can discover right now what George Whitefield discovered hundreds of years ago: that God loves you deeply, that He is willing to forgive your sins, and bring you home to Himself. You can have a brand new start and come into a right relationship with God today.
Why don’t you ask God to turn you around and make you into a follower of Jesus Christ?
You’ll need to find a church. You can begin by looking here.
When a revival of Christianity took place in Northampton, Massachusetts in the early 1700’s Jonathan Edwards unexpectedly became the apologist of the new movement, warts and all.
His discernment and level-headedness in the midst of much religious excitement and emotion have impressed Christian leaders ever since.
As a young Pastor in his early thirties he led the congregation and the town through a turbulent and spiritually explosive time with great ability.
Edwards defended the fact that a powerful apprehension of God’s glory does tend to affect people in noticeable ways, particularly in their emotions, but sometimes even physically.
Because this was a major cause of concern and criticism from those outside the town he tends to speak quite a lot about it when discussing that period.
‘Joy inexpressible and full of glory!’
He had himself experienced something of the overwhelming love of God. Iain Murray in his biography of Edwards records one such moment:
‘Another Saturday night (Jan 1739) I had such a sense, how sweet and blessed a thing it was to walk in the way of duty; to do that which was right and meet to be done, and agreeable to the holy mind of God; that it caused me to break forth into a kind of loud weeping, which held me some time, so that I was forced to shut myself up, and fasten the doors.
I could not but, as it were, cry out, ‘How happy are they who do that which is right in the sight of God! They are blessed indeed. They are the happy ones!’ (Quoted by Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards, Banner of Truth, p.146)
But not only had Jonathan had personal encounters of joy and delight in God’s presence; so had his wife!
And, certainly by the time he published ‘Religious Affections’ in 1746, he was surely drawing not only on his general pastoral experience but also on the experience of the woman he both loved and trusted.
He apparently urged her to write her story down. In this, and the next post, we’ll listen to her testimony of God’s presence and power. She was 32 when she wrote of her experience.
Justified by faith and free from accusation!
Having described her longing for a more profound experience of God’s grace, she began reading Romans 8 once again, and particularly Rom 8:33f
‘Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth.
Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’ (Rom 8:33-35 KJV)
‘The words…were impressed on my heart with vastly greater power and sweetness still. They appeared to me with undoubted certainty as the words of God, and as words which God did pronounce concerning me.
I had no more doubt of it than I had of my being. I seemed as it were to hear the great God proclaiming thus to the world concerning me; ‘Who shall lay anything to thy charge’, and had it strongly impressed on me how impossible it was for anything in heaven or earth, in this world or the future, ever to separate me from the love of God which was in Christ Jesus.
I cannot find language to express how certain this appeared…My safety and happiness and eternal enjoyment of God’s immutable love seemed as durable and unchangeable as God Himself.
Melted and overcome by the sweetness of this assurance, I fell into a great flow of tears and could not forbear weeping aloud. It appeared certain to me that God was my Father, and Christ my Lord and Saviour, that He was mine and I His.’ (From ‘The Narrative of Sarah Pierpont Edwards’, Jonathan Edwards , Family Writings and Related Documents (WJE Online Vol. 41) also for pictures above)
More next time…I’m struggling to keep these posts short!
Expanding our Expectations of what God might do through His Church
There’s a somewhat tired caricature of the Reformed believer as an overly religious and narrow-minded fundamentalist.
Such a person supposedly takes solace in the Sovereignty of God in light of the failure of the message he proclaims. After all, it is supposed, not many are being converted because it’s ‘not the will of God’…so goes the caricature.
But actually, as we have seen already from the writing of Jonathan Edwards, an affectionate love for the doctrines of grace not only expands our view of the majesty of God (in His transcendence), but also includes real, passionate, personal experiences of God (in His immanence, His closeness).
And a Biblical view of the nature of God both as the One who graciously forgives us and as the mighty Head of the Church, will enable us to believe Him for new and perhaps even greater seasons of blessing in the world, through the Church.
We can get nervous when we hear preachers telling us we could limit God, somehow restricting what He could or couldn’t do. That kind of talk grates on our understanding of God’s ultimate freeness and our ultimate dependance. Jonathan Edwards was not merely a theologian, He was directly involved in an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Northampton, Mass in the early 1700s and was a witness to what appeared to be a rapid acceleration of normal evangelistic processes. Here’s his view on these things:
The Church’s Past Experience not the Ultimate Guide
‘What the church has been used to, is not a rule by which we are to judge; because there may be new and extraordinary works of God, and he has heretofore evidently wrought in an extraordinary manner.
He has brought to pass new things, strange works; and has wrought in such a manner as to surprise both men and angels. And as God has done thus in times past, so we have no reason to think but that he will do so still.’ (Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, from Edwards on Revival, Banner of Truth, p.89)
‘The Holy Spirit is sovereign in his operation; and we know that he uses a great variety; and we cannot tell how great a variety he may use, within the compass of the rules he himself has fixed.’
Don’t Limit God!
‘We ought not to limit God where he has not limited himself.’ (ibid p.89)
This reminds me of Martin Luther’s famous phrase, ‘Let God be God!’
Edwards is exhorting us not to settle and bring our expectations down to our past experience. Rather, we are to trust God for new initiatives and breakthroughs, and even new outpourings of the Spirit, in the mission.
May God continue to help you as you receive His grace in your own life and seek to serve others with life changing message of His mercy in Christ.
You can read a review of Edwards on Revival here
In 1735 there was a sudden outpouring of grace on the town of Northampton. Many came to Christ under great conviction of sin and revelation of the sovereignty and justice of God.
Having described some of the struggles that some converts went through in terms of a realisation of their sin and guilt before God, Edwards describes the longed-for breakthrough of personal salvation.
‘Conversion is a great and glorious work of God’s power, at once changing the heart, and infusing life into the dead soul; though the grace then implanted more gradually displays itself in some than in others.’
In some, converting light is like a glorious brightness suddenly shining upon a person, and all around him: they are in a remarkable manner brought out of darkness into marvellous light.
In many others it has been like the dawning of the day, when at first but a little light appears…and gradually increases.’ (Jonathan Edwards, A Narrative of Surprising Conversions, from Jonathan Edwards On Revival, Banner of Truth, p.40, 41)
The Newness of things
‘Persons after their conversion often speak of religious things as seeming new to them; that preaching is a new thing; that it seems to them they never heard preaching before; that the Bible is a new book: they find there new chapters, new psalms, new histories, because they see them in a new light.’ (ibid p.44)
‘While God was so remarkably present amongst us by His Spirit, there was no book so delightful as the Bible.’ (ibid p.47)
A love for God
‘Many have spoken much of their hearts being drawn out in love to God and Christ; and of their minds being wrapt up in delightful contemplation of the glory and wonderful grace of God, the excellency and dying love of Jesus Christ; and of their souls going forth in longing desires after God and Christ.’ (ibid p.44-45)
We’ve been seeing how the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Moravian believers in the early 18th Century led them directly into evangelistic passion.
This passion not only resulted in fervent prayer, but also in actual plans to reach the nations of the world with the gospel message.
These Spirit-baptised believers did not merely revel in their enjoyment of the experience of God’s power but got to work, began to plan and sacrificially left home and country to proclaim the good news to others.
Organised for Mission
For every 60 Moravian believers, one was a missionary! That’s a staggering statistic compared to estimates for the rest of 18th Century Protestantism, which has been put at 1:5000 (See Ruth Tucker – From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, Zondervan, p.69).
In 1727 (two weeks after the outpouring) they began a 24 hour a day prayer meeting that lasted all through the Great Awakening and on for over a hundred years!
It was while Peter Boehler was on his way to America that he met John Wesley (in 1738) in the Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street, London and sparked the Evangelical Revival by gaining Wesley’s conversion!!
Zinzendorf even planted a church in Geneva (in 1741), having moved 50 people from Herrnhut as the core group.
A ‘Missional’ Church
In 1862 Bost wrote:
‘The church of the United Brethren may indeed be called a ‘missionary church’. No other body of professing Christians can lay an equal claim to that appellation;
for the establishment of missions to the heathen is considered by them as part of the business of the church, as such, and one of the main designs of its existence, while every brother and sister stands prepared to go wherever the general voice shall determine, according to the opinion entertained of their qualifications and gifts.’ (A Bost – History of the Moravians, London, 1862, Religious Tract Society, p.400)
Jesus said we would ‘receive power when the Holy Spirit comes’ on us. But He didn’t stop at saying we were to enjoy God’s power. Something would happen. Something would change. And it is this: ‘you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8)
Are you seeking God for a similar outpouring of God’s ‘power’ on your life, and for similar results of His power?
The Bible encourages us not to worry. It’s a bit different from ‘Don’t worry – be happy’ because the source of our contentment is in the character and sovereignty of God. But still, we need to know the calming voice of God.
Philippians 4:6 says
‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.’ (NIV)
Proverbs 12:25 says
‘Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down,
but a good word makes him glad.’ (ESV)
As we finish our brief look into Jeremiah Burroughs excellent work, ‘The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment’ I hope you will find ‘a good word’ which will lift you out of worry and into worship.
So let’s travel back three and a half centuries and see what the prevailing Christian counsel was for troubled souls then…
On Anxiety, or ‘Fretting’
‘When you are in a ship at sea which has all its sails spread with a full gale of wind, and is swiftly sailing, can you make it stand still by running up and down in the ship?
No more can you make the providence of God alter and change its course with your vexing and fretting; it will go on with power, do what you can.
Do but understand the power and efficacy of Providence [the planned and protective care of God] and it will be a mighty means helping you to learn this lesson of contentment.’ (p.112-113)
On Learning from Life’s Tough Experiences
‘I make no question but you find it so, that your worst voyages have proved your best.’ (p.214)
How a fretting disposition can lead us into further problems
‘Contentment delivers us from an abundance of temptations. Oh, the temptations that men of discontented spirits are subject to! The Devil loves to fish in troubled waters.’ (p.126)
On the Unreasonable Nature of Discontent
‘Has God converted you, and drawn you to his Son to cast your soul upon him for all your good, and yet you are discontented for the want of some little matter in a creature comfort?’ (p.142)
On not becoming Bitter with God when things don’t go well
‘Oh, my brethren…retain good thoughts of God, take heed of judging God to be a hard master, make good interpretations of his ways, and that is a special means to help you to contentment in all one’s course.’ (p.225)
On the Goodness of God in all of Life
‘A believer…is set apart to the end that God might manifest to all eternity what his infinite power is able to do to make a creature happy.’ (p.147)
God will look to you, and see you blessed if you are in the work God calls you to. (p.217)
On not becoming Materialistic
‘Be not inordinately taken up with the comforts of this world when you have them.’ (p.226)
Should the Believer be an Overcomer or a Worrier?
‘The spirit of a Christian should be a lion-like spirit; as Jesus Christ is the Lion of the tribe of Judah (so he is called) so we should manifest something of the lion-like spirit of Jesus Christ.’ (p.148)
The Main Problem of the Human Condition
Generally speaking, the puritans have been collectively dismissed as harsh and even obsessive in their views on personal morality! The very word ‘puritanical’ gives you the idea! But let’s not be too quick to write these guys off.
The puritans had a passion for the Bible, a passion for the Church and a passion for seeing the gospel impact every area of life.
They also had a frank view of the primary problem confronting mankind which they unashamedly declared to be sin. To a puritan who was committed to Biblical thinking this was a clear as day.
Mankind’s primary internal problem was sin, their primary enemy was sin, and their most significant hindrance in his relationship to God was sin.
The solution to this problem was not to be found in a strict morality but in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross. He died for sin, taking the weight of the just penalty of sin upon Himself, for our benefit. He did this so that, by repentance and faith, we might be forgiven and reconciled to God.
The hostility between God and Man would end, and sin could be defeated at last. And because He overcame both sin and death, we too might live a life pleasing to God.
The Plague of Plagues
It’s not altogether surprising then, to find amongst a bookshelf of puritan writings a volume entitled ‘The Plague of Plagues’ (1669), a startling assault against sin and its damaging effects on mankind.
Indeed, Ralph Venning, its author states that he was writing against sin because sin ‘is against man’s good and happiness.’
Venning, like Brooks, was educated at Cambridge University and pastored in London. He, like Brooks and others, was fired from his position in the Church of England, and became a minister of an Independent Church in London.
Here are some edifying examples of Venning’s clarity on the subtle dangers of sin. In urging his hearers to decide for Christ and holiness, he also restores clarity to the essential nature of mankind’s struggle against God’s goodness.
‘It cannot but be extremely useful to let men see what sin is: how prodigiously vile, how deadly mischievous and therefore how monstrously ugly and odious a thing sin is.’ (p.18)
‘It [sin] gives out false reports of God and goodness.’ (p.35)
‘Shall I not plead for God and your soul, and entreat you to be on God’s side, and to depart from the tents of wickedness? Poor soul! Can you find it in your heart to hug and embrace such a monster as this? Will you love that which hates God, and which God hates? God forbid!’ (p.36)
‘Oh, look to yourself, for sin, notwithstanding all its flattering pretences, is against you, and seeks nothing less than your ruin and damnation.’ (p.37)
‘Sin in the Christian is ‘a self civil war.’ (p.43)
‘Sin is the burden of every good man’s soul.’ (p.126)
All quotes are taken from Ralph Venning, The Plague of Plagues, now published as ‘The Sinfulness of Sin’ (Banner of Truth).
Almost any Dictionary of the English language will give you two definitions of the word Puritan.
The first should tell you that they were a group of English Christians in the late 16th and 17th Century who were convinced that the English Reformation was not effective enough and who wanted to bring about a true reformation, or restoration of the church along New Testament lines.
The second will say something like this (eg, the Oxford American Dictionary) ‘a person with censorious religious beliefs, especially about pleasure and sex’.
Censorious means ‘severely critical of others’ and is from the Latin ‘censor’, which meant, basically a judge (magistrate).
So that’s why there aren’t many Christians stepping forward and wanting to identify themselves as judgemental, severely critical, pleasure-denying ‘puritans’!
But, as with the generally undeserved negative feelings the word ‘Calvinist’ provokes, so we need to re-learn this word ‘puritan’, even though we know that ‘puritanical’ is probably past saving.
NB The Compact Oxford English Dictionary has ‘self-indulgence’ rather than ‘pleasure’, which is more accurate as the puritans were not against pleasure as such (deriving pleasure from the creation, pleasure in the presence of God etc) but they certainly were negative about self-indulgence.
English Puritanism is important in Christian history because of the wider influence the Puritans had on the church in many nations especially in relation to the massive revivals of the 18th century and the missionary outreach of the 19th century.
So we will take a brief look at these ‘restorationists’, these radical reformers, who wanted to purify the church of every unscriptural trapping and fancy and bring the word of God to the people of England.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) was born to a poor family in Eisleben, Saxony, Germany.
He was a bright scholar and entered the University of Erfurt when he was eighteen. While there, for the first time he saw a Bible and was greatly challenged by the passage in which Samuel was called to be a prophet to Israel.
It wasn’t, however, until he was 22 and had left his studies that he began seeking God. A combination of traumatic events (including nearly being struck by lightning) culminated in his promising to become a monk which, after a rollicking farewell party to the world, he did.
As a monk he was diligent, following the strictest rules and trying to make peace with God. He appealed earnestly to every saint he could think of for help including Mary, but no help came.
Once for a whole fortnight he didn’t eat or sleep. He was desperate to find peace and yet held under a terrifying expectation of God’s righteous anger against him.
In 1510 he had the rare privilege of visiting Rome. He had high expectations but was utterly shocked at the lawlessness he saw there. Nevertheless he said many masses and visited many churches.
Of this trip he says:
‘At Rome I wished to liberate my grandfather from purgatory, and went up the staircase of Pilate, praying a pater noster on each step; for I was convinced that he who prayed thus could redeem his soul. But when I came to the top step, the thought kept coming to me, ‘Who knows whether this is true?’’[i]
Next time we’ll see what happened when Luther began reading and preaching from Erasmus’ recently published Greek New Testament.