In 1977 I was in Sri Lanka, visiting a Bible college and three Reformed Baptist churches. They worked me hard! I spoke forty-four times in fifteen days, including seven lectures a day for four days at the Bible college, where my task was to teach the prison epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon) to sixteen final-year BTh. students. This meant that I had to teach the very heart of my theology – how God, in sovereign grace, unites dead sinners to Christ and, in so doing, showers them with blessings, lavishes on them his grace and is rich in mercy and love towards them. This love and grace produces sons and daughters of God, empowered to live changed lives.
A whole week just talking about the unsearchable riches of Christ and seeing afresh the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord! By the end of the week I was overwhelmed by the glory of Christ, like monsoon rains coming to a dusty, dry desert. What is the application? When low, preach Christ until you see and feel his glory, even if it does take twenty-eight hours of lecturing to do it! I was beautifully looked after by Ben and Angel Monickam.
In war-torn Trincomalee I preached to a church, pastored by Muraleetharan, planted seven years ago and in need of a building. Then I went fifteen miles out of town to a village, on the edge of the jungle, which experienced two tornadoes about seven years ago: the tornado of war which nearly destroyed them, and a tornado of grace which transformed them. The Bible says, ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’ (John 3:8). The Spirit blew on these people and between one-third and one-half of this village of Gypsy people turned to Christ. They included people who had lived by fortune-telling or lived for alcohol. Here I was greatly privileged to ‘hear the sound’ which the Spirit produced.
Jeyakanth is the pastor who, under God, planted the church. He and I arrived late at the service because I could not face riding on the back of his motor-bike. Sixty to seventy people were sitting on the floor of a fine building they had built for themselves. They were singing God’s praise in a reverent and orderly fashion. The music, a tambourine and a drum, were gentle and discrete, and used to keep them in time; the words were the important thing. Then came open prayer, after which I preached through an interpreter on, ‘God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved’ (Ephesians 2:4-5).
They followed the sermon carefully with opened Bibles – I could have been at home! These were people who knew my God and shared my theology. Seven years ago they were illiterate, yet now were reading God’s Word. I heard some of their testimonies. One of them, a church leader now being trained by the church in Colombo, has named one of his sons John Calvin! Truly my heart was one with these brothers. In spite of our different cultures and languages, I have so much in common with these village Christians. We had alike been rescued from death and alike had the same Tutor. He is the great Counsellor, the wonderful revealer of Christ and the agent of sovereign grace. Who is he? The Holy Spirit, of course!
God saves sinners
Then I spoke at a church conference, arranged by Muralee. This included eight young men from the village I had visited. My task was to rework my systematic theology, all summed up in three words, ‘God saves sinners’. Finally I travelled to Colombo to the ‘Grace School of Theology’, at the Grace Evangelical Church. It was arranged by Suresh, the pastor of the Tamil congregation. I also preached to the church on Sunday. Again I felt at home in their worship, with all of us sharing in and rejoicing over God’s wonderful sovereign grace.
Throughout the two weeks God enabled me in a way that I have not experienced before. I discovered the experimental meaning of Paul’s words, ‘I can do all things through him who gives me strength’ (Philippians 4:13), and the value and effectiveness of the prayers of Christians in my home congregation. Please pray for your brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka, many of whom have suffered bereavement and material loss through the civil war.