Peering through a jungle of scaffolding poles in Westminster Chapel, I first heard Dr Lloyd-Jones preach in 1950. The chapel had survived the war bet required considerable restoration work. But despite the distractions, as a young man of eighteen I had an overwhelming sense of the authority of God’s Word as I listened to him that Sunday morning. This was my first encounter with perhaps the greatest preacher of the twentieth century.
Twenty-seven years earlier, the preacher himself had started to attend that same chapel at the age of twenty-three. He said of the minister, Dr John Hutton, ‘He impressed me with the power of God to change men’s lives’. Within two years his own life had been changed by Jesus Christ.
By this time he was an eminent physician, and could see that what had happened to him was needed in the lives of his patients, many of whom were suffering the consequences of their sinful way of life.
After a tremendous struggle he was finally constrained by a call of God to return to Wales, the land of his birth, to preach the gospel to the steelworkers of Aberavon. His impact on the Principality was immediate. Before long many had been converted, and wherever he preached in Wales crowds converged to hear the message.
These were days when the social gospel was eating away at the life of the churches in Wales. Evangelicalism had become simplistic and sentimental — no match for the arrogant unbelief emanating from the theological colleges. This fresh voice, making known the authority of God’s Word, had startled Wales. But Dr Lloyd-Jones was called to Westminster Chapel in 1938 as an associate minister with Dr Campbell Morgan, and there, through the war years and afterwards, he preached the truth of a full-orbed gospel. The message was serious, doctrinal and mature.
In 1953 I found myself working in a north London factory. One of my workmates was a Communist Jew. I was fascinated by the mixture and urged him to come with me to hear Dr Lloyd-Jones. He agreed on one condition — that I first went with him to a British Soviet Friendship Society meeting in the Empress Hall. What a night that was! Apart from sitting with thousands who heartily sang ‘The Red Flag’, I was entertained by some amazing oratory, chiefly that of the ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury, Dr Hewlett Johnson.
My friend kept his side of the bargain and came with me to Westminster Chapel where he heard Lloyd-Jones preach the gospel with fervour and eloquence. He was much affected and went to see the Doctor after the service.
Every Sunday evening at Westminster Chapel one could be sure that the Christian gospel would be preached. Dr Lloyd-Jones knew how to secure the attention of the sceptic, the despairing, the careless worldling and the nominally religious — whether such a person was intellectual or just an ordinary fellow — and bring him face to face with the truth of God.
The 25th anniversary of the death of Dr Lloyd-Jones calls for some assessment of the evangelical scene in the light of his ministry — and gospel preaching is a good place to begin.
In many of our churches Christians can no longer be sure that the gospel will be preached should they bring a non-Christian to a service. The practice of regular gospel preaching has been virtually abandoned.
What has taken its place is what might be called ‘the Sunday school lesson’, a running verse by verse commentary on a passage of Scripture. To call this ‘expository preaching’ is to give it a dignity it little deserves.
Many excuses are made for this absence of gospel preaching. Some argue that the whole Bible is the gospel. This is plainly not the case. The law is not the gospel, nor are the Proverbs, and there is no gospel in Ecclesiastes though it can be used very effectively as a run-in for the gospel.
All the Bible is the Word of God, but not all the Bible is the gospel. So a preacher in the middle of a series on the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ must not imagine he is preaching the gospel, unless he chooses to introduce it from elsewhere in the New Testament.
Inviting unbelieving friends
Another excuse for not preaching the gospel is that unbelievers no longer attend our services. This is generally true, but it cannot be assumed that all professing Christians are true believers. So we should continue preaching the gospel.
Nothing has more power to inspire Christians to spread the gospel, and it will also serve to instruct believers as to how to communicate the Christian message. The preacher provides the bullets on Sunday for the church members to fire during the week!
Another reason for regular gospel preaching is that believers will know when to invite their unbelieving friends, and be sure that they will not be bored with something irrelevant to their condition.
People of all different types were converted under Lloyd-Jones’ gospel preaching. So let us get back to gospel preaching. Apart from anything else, believers need it. The gospel not only launches us into the Christian life, it carries us through and sustains us at the end.
The vertical dimension
One great characteristic of Lloyd-Jones’ preaching was the way in which he confronted his hearers with their Creator. We are puny creatures, and sinful ones at that. Sin, righteousness and judgement were constant themes in his preaching.
The hearers were always made aware of the vertical dimension — of the holy God before whom we stand, and to whom we are accountable. So much modern preaching is preoccupied with horizontal issues — this life and human relationships.
We need to be taken into the presence of God and then we will begin to get things into perspective. That was Dr Lloyd-Jones’ emphasis, and he would call us back to it today.
Neglect of the Holy Spirit
Another feature of Dr Lloyd-Jones’ ministry was the place he gave to the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church and the individual Christian. This was entirely in accord with the balance of the New Testament.
There is no Christian life apart from the presence and activity of the Spirit. And there is no vital church life, as distinct from mere activity, without the Holy Spirit’s energising power.
But today there seems to be a widespread fear of the Holy Spirit — so much so that some preachers scarcely mention him. These Evangelicals are virtually non-Trinitarian in consequence.
Overreaction against the Charismatic movement is part of the problem. Yet the most effective way to grieve the Spirit is to ignore him. In some Reformed churches the experiential side of the Christian life is quenched by a formal and legalistic emphasis.
False view of faith
Dr Lloyd-Jones would be saddened today by the strong cessationist position adopted by many with regard to spiritual gifts. It ensures that man is always in control, which is very reassuring in practice. All we need do is to apply the blanket rule that miracles and such gifts are at an end and, hey presto! — no thinking or discerning of spirits is required.
But the neglect of the Holy Spirit has had serious consequences beyond the issue of spiritual gifts. Dr Lloyd-Jones used to warn ministers that a failure to rely upon the Holy Spirit would lead to a false view of faith.
Merely to explain Christianity and to obtain a favourable response is often regarded as faith. But true faith is much more than a notional assent to the truth. In that sense ‘the devils believe and tremble’ (James 2:19).
Today more and more people are ‘believing’ without any trembling. This absence of repentance and of the engagement of the heart in response to the message is evidence that no true work of the Holy Spirit has taken place.
Separation from error
Perhaps the change in the evangelical scene which would give Dr Lloyd-Jones most sorrow is the gradual rejection of the duty to separate from error.
He called upon Evangelicals to come out of doctrinally-mixed denominations and enter into evangelical unity at a church level. He maintained that it was not good enough to be content with a Christian unity based merely on a common love of the gospel.
Many of the existing Evangelical churches were formed as a result of men acting upon this principle of separation.
But many have found the Doctor’s position uncomfortable and have wanted to re-establish contact with Evangelicals in the Established Church without facing them with the biblical irregularity of their position.
They have swept the separation issue under the ecclesiastical carpet and have sought to return to their former positions. And in addition they have maximised their emphasis upon their denominational distinctives which are issues of secondary importance in the main.
There are, however, developments which would have given Lloyd-Jones much encouragement. The expansion and growing influence of the London Theological Seminary which he helped to found is one.
Another is the continued strength and contribution of the Westminster Conference which he used to chair each year. The recent initiatives to improve and consolidate the work of the Evangelical Library, which was close to his heart, would have given him real pleasure.
Dr Lloyd-Jones’ voice had a prophetic character. This was not just due to his faithfulness to Scripture — his resolute purpose was to declare its doctrines fearlessly and to challenge us with the applications of those doctrines in our lives.
His preaching left us feeling uncomfortable; feeling that something needed to be done; feeling that face to face with God things had to be put right which were not right. This was true for the believer as for the unbeliever, and for the church as much as for the individual.
May God save us from our comfortable ways and bring us back to this again.