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Then and now

February 2017 | by Robert Oliver

‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed’ (Genesis 3:15);

‘These things I have spoken to you that you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33).

Over the past 50 years Evangelical Times has sought to promote biblical Christianity in an increasingly secular society. When the first issue appeared in 1967, independent evangelicals were becoming aware that the ecumenical movement was presenting a challenge for which they were not prepared.

Ecumenical movement

Most of them had previously stood aloof from this movement, perhaps watching it with a wary eye. Suddenly the scene changed. The newspaper opened with the story of a Strict Baptist church whose chapel had been compulsorily purchased by the local authority in an urban redevelopment scheme.

The usual promise of an alternative site was unexpectedly replaced by a proposal to accommodate them in an ecumenical centre, promoted by the local council of churches. The publicity given by ET helped to bring about a change to the advantage of the threatened church.

These events took place against a background of grandiose projects for the speedy reunion of the divided denominations, which it was widely hoped would be achieved before the end of the century. These plans were being driven through by theological liberals with little respect for evangelical doctrine.

The massive organisational approach to ecumenism seems now to have been abandoned, in favour of a low key, local church approach that promotes social activity at local church level, but still ignores vital issues of Christian doctrine.

One of the weaknesses of early twentieth century evangelicalism had been a neglect of theology. Dr Oliver Barclay, a prominent evangelical, commented on these years: ‘Conservative evangelicals of that time had serious weaknesses. Preoccupied with children’s work and basic teaching, which they did quite well, they rarely did enough to develop more work among older Christians, and to help them to apply the faith to other than basic personal morality’ (Evangelicalism in Britain, 1935–1995;Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 1997, p.27).

Reformed literature

Undoubtedly there had been a neglect of the great doctrinal heritage of the Christian church. This began to be addressed in the years after the Second World War. The powerful ministry of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones in London was used to build a congregation that was challenged by a powerful expository ministry, which was both doctrinal and enlightened by a grasp of the great history of the Christian church.

By the 1950s there were signs of a change for the better. Lloyd-Jones drew the attention of Christians to the forgotten literary treasure conserved in the Evangelical Library. From the mid-1950s the Banner of Truth magazine was calling Christians back to the Reformed heritage that underlay so much of the English-speaking evangelicalism. A few years later the Bannerof Truth, now a trust, began the republication of historic Christian literature.

One of the blessings we enjoy today is an abundance of good Christian literature. In the mid-1950s classic Christian works were occasionally found on the second-hand market and some good material could be bought from the USA, but that was not as easy then as today. There was no online shopping!

I recall, as an impecunious student, being shown a copy of the American edition of Berkhof’s Systematic theology and wondering if I would ever be in a position to buy it for myself. That was before the Banner paved the way, with cheaper reprints of this as well as other significant works.

Since then, other publishers have appeared, providing the reading public with long-forgotten works as well as new ones, and magazines and conferences have multiplied to stimulate our interest. But how much serious Christian reading is taking place today in the United Kingdom? It seems that Christians from other countries, especially in the developing world, are putting us to shame.

Thank God for serious readers and thinkers, but, for a variety of reasons, the present culture does not encourage this; a deliberate effort has to be made. Many congregations and church leaders seem to have accepted the idea that activity can be a substitute for prayer and meditation.

Superficial preaching

One has to ask whether the pulpit is partially responsible. Too often preaching has become superficial and anecdotal. There are situations where preachers seem to feel the need to tell a few stories, or make remarks seemingly intended to put the congregation into a relaxed mode, but which have little relation to the Scripture text that will eventually be announced.

We need to take account of the growing ignorance of Scripture in our society affecting evangelical congregations. The apostle Paul called upon Timothy to give attention to ‘reading’(1 Timothy 4:13) — almost certainly, the public reading of Scripture.

Is the reading of a few Bible verses enough? Should we return to a continuous reading through the Bible as was seemingly practised in the early church?

I am thankful for the present emphasis on evangelism. The gospel needs to be preached to Christians for their edification, as well as unbelievers for their salvation (Romans 1:15), but it seems that, at times, people want services organised to put people who are not present at ease, rather than to help those who are there to worship almighty God.

In the second half of the twentieth century there was an intensified desire and prayer for revival, especially following the centenary of the 1851 revival. Perhaps some people thought this would surely accompany the then recovery of Reformed doctrine.

The writings of Jonathan Edwards, together with papers and discussions at Puritan Conferences, pointed to a sharp contrast between Edwards and men of the eighteenth century and the teaching of C. G. Finney that became prevalent in the nineteenth century.

The older teaching was that revival is a gracious and sovereign intervention of God, as against Finney’s view that the blessings of revival can be secured merely by the use of appropriate means. This later teaching was used to justify the ‘crusade evangelism’ of the late nineteenth century.

But the hopes aroused by Reformed teaching on revival in the 1950s and 60s seemed to fade towards the end of the century, in part, distracted by reports of claims of revival and extraordinary phenomena, first in North America and then in the United Kingdom.

Fleshly excitement

These included claims of the restoration of extraordinary spiritual gifts associated with the ministry of the apostles, and also claims, in some cases, that the order of apostles had been recovered. Instead of a pervading sense of the fear of God, in many cases there appeared to be a manufactured fleshly excitement.

But there were some who never lost their belief that the church’s hope was a sovereign intervention of God in revival. Among these was a group in the North of England. Inspired by the records of the Particular Baptist call to prayer in the late eighteenth century, they have established a Concert of Prayer for Revival that is being adopted by many other groups across the country.

Reports of these meetings are encouraging. One of the most significant results has been the appearance of a book by Dr Jonathan Bayes, Revival, the New Testament expectation (Resource Publications, 2016).This is a powerful call for prayer for revival that carefully integrates Old and New Testament teachings. It is one of the most significant studies to appear in recent years.

There is no attempt in the book to replicate what happened at various times in the past, but the author demonstrates that Scripture encourages us to expect the growth of Christ’s kingdom, for which we should labour and pray.

Dr Bayes writes, ‘It is indeed my prayer that God might be pleased to use the book to overcome what I perceive to be a widespread sense of despondency these days amongst Reformed Christians’ (Letter to Robert Oliver, 15 November 2016).

Persecution

A delusion that needs to be avoided is the belief that revival might immediately end the hostility of society. In fact, it might well intensify it. The devil does not sit idly by as men and women are delivered from the power of darkness and translated into the kingdom of God’s dear Son.

Some of the most remarkable advances today are in situations where the state or society generally is intensely hostile towards the gospel. The hostility between the people of God and the world goes back to the Fall of man.

It is important to remember that Christianity has survived bad times, sometimes periods of bitter persecution. In fact, the church made her early advances in the face of a hostile pagan society and empire. But that fact must not induce complacency. There are differences between then and now, and we must take account of them as well. For one thing, the early church was deeply concerned about doctrine.

The apostle Paul had urged Timothy to ‘take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you’ (1 Timothy 4:16). Frequent warnings against false teachers in the epistles underlined the dangers of heresy and need for constant watchfulness, as well as a high degree of Christian understanding.

This continued into the early centuries of Christianity with intense and vital debates about the person of Christ and doctrine of the Trinity. Christian doctrine was not simply an exercise for an intellectual minority.

Spiritual weapons

The distinction between the church and the world was well defined in the early centuries. The false religions that underlay Roman society were seen as dangerous and evil. Immorality was defined as sin, not condoned by the church. But the business of the church was seen as challenging the values of the world with spiritual weapons.

The apostle Paul makes this clear in the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians, where he rejects any suggestion that he should accommodate his message or methods to those of Romano-Greek society. Without resources or patronage, he continued his mission in dependence on the power of God (1 Corinthians 2).

May God help us to pursue the same path, remembering that ‘the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God to the pulling down of strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).

Robert W. Oliver was formerly pastor of Old Baptist Church in Bradford-on-Avon and lecturer in church history at London Theological Seminary. He also holds visiting professorships in church history at Westminster Theological Seminary Philadelphia and Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids.

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