During Coronavirus lockdown people have said that we can’t go back to where we were before the outbreak. Many claim too that we have learned positive lessons during lockdown that we need to learn for when we return. Yet unless there is a clear Biblical Spirit led foundation in what we will do then we will go seriously wrong and end up with something that is different but equally wrong to that we have left behind or just another version of it in disguise. How then can we ensure that the changes we make are for God’s glory and kingdom?
In 1959 Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones (MLJ) preached a series of sermons to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the great 1859 revivals that restored to the Church a profound Biblical understanding of revival. A number of these were preached on Genesis 26:17-18, the account where Isaac, needing the most fundamental physical need of water redug the wells that his father Abraham had dug and found what he needed. To do so he had to do a vital thing, that of removing the rubbish the Philistines had blocked the well with. Dr Lloyd-Jones then contended that the problem with the modern church (and the situation hasn’t improved since 1959) was that the Philistines had been at work and we needed to remove the Philistine rubbish (the work of the world) from our wells and in doing so return to the source of God’s word and truth. This is a sobering but vital key to how we can go about reconstructing our witness post coronavirus and avoid the pitfalls of more human error that detracts from God’s truth.
What Philistine Rubbish did Dr Lloyd-Jones refer to?
MLJ first of all emphasised that Isaac had a great need as does the church and the church’s problem is that she does not realise this. Especially in the Methodist Church the need for renewal is profound in a denomination suffering catastrophic decline for too long. Key areas of the work of the Philistines MLJ identified as:
- Ignoring church history and the Biblical truth about the human condition by believing that the problems in the world and church are something new and thereby not returning to the past and Scripture for the answer. MLJ pointed out that revival is always a return to the Acts of the Apostles. His predecessor Campbell Morgan once said that we do not need anything new but a new application of the old.
- The denial of fundamental doctrine such as the authority of Scripture, the deity, incarnation, substitutionary atonement and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and regeneration.
- The failure to place the Lord Jesus Christ at the centre.
- Concealing the person and work of the Holy Spirit.
- The church entertaining people rather than preaching the great doctrines of salvation and preaching for conviction.
- Having rigid programmes that leave no room for the expectation of an extraordinary visitation of the Holy Spirit.
- A lack of burden for the lost (compare this to Wesley’s conversion hymn)
MLJ points out that there has never been a revival with these issues prevailing!
What can we learn today?
If we want to see our church renewed, we have to admit that the above whilst written in 1959 is still very relevant to our situation today and particularly as we emerge from coronavirus. We need to dig back into the old wells of revival and undo the work of the Philistines and we have opportunity to do so. When David Watson was interviewed for his epic ministry in York, taking over a congregation of 12 he told a sceptical panel “If anyone comes to this church and preaches the simple Gospel of Christ, believes in the power of prayer and trusts in the Holy Spirit, this building will be full in no time” (and it was). Significantly apart from the Sunday services he had only one mid-week meeting to start with, that of Bible study and prayer.
Now is the time to review what we do and separate out that which is truly to the Glory of God from tradition. There is a danger that post Covid we will just add new traditions. There is even the danger that given the discovery of how easy meetings are by Zoom that we will have even more meetings. During lockdown I have not seen any questioning of having meetings, just its conduct via Zoom. I suggest several principles to re-examine ourselves post coronavirus
Be clear on what we believe
Paul wrote in 1 Cor 14:8 “Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?”. There may be secondary issues on which we may differ such as the subject and method of baptism and our millennial views, but we need to be clear on our key doctrines. In the 1920s in the USA evangelicals such as A. C. Dixon and Campbell Morgan drew up what they regarded as the fundamentals of the Christian faith. The idea that the crowds will flock in because the church doesn’t know what she believes is an untenable argument. Look at the order in Acts 2:42 where the foundation for fellowship and prayer is the Apostle’s teaching.
Believe in the Authority of the Word and let the Word do its work
Fundamental to recovering our doctrines is the authority of Scripture. The problems we face today are really symptoms of a deeper problem that the church today fails to pay regard to the authority of Scripture. The Bible is inspired and revealed and is utterly trustworthy and I believe we need to recover our belief in this eternal truth. Paul in 1 Cor 1:21 writes “…God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” This is still our message today. Martin Luther spoke passionately of letting the Word do its work explaining in typical Luther style that he did nothing, the Word did everything, that whilst he slept or drank beer with his friends the Word was doing its work.
Let God be God
In 1517 Luther produced his famous 95 theses that started the chain of events that led to the Reformation. These were however just a protest against the abuse of indulgences and really contain no Reformation theology. Yet a short time before Luther had produced his less famous 97 theses (Disputation against Scholastic Theology) and these were dynamite, full of prototype Reformation thinking. One of these, number 17 declared that man’s fundamental problem is that he does not want God to be God, he himself wants to be God (from Genesis 3 onwards).
Evangelicals are often not exempt from this when we organise in human terms often behaving like a business and ask for God’s Blessing on it. In contrast dig back to the wells of the early church, Wesley, and our Primitive Methodist forefathers where they prayed first before doing anything not afterwards. Thus, in our response to coronavirus may we let God be God in all we do.
Review what we have been doing
The modern church has never been more organised. She has never had so many resources albeit many plundered from the business world. She has never been busier or saturated with training and meetings and events. Yet she has rarely been weaker and so ineffective. Now is the time to review all we do our meetings and activities. Sometimes there is a danger that we are a community centre with little Gospel proclamation. The metric is often the weekly footfall of the number of people coming into the building but how many of our activities bring people to receive the Lord Jesus? Dr Sangster asked the question “Is Methodism a machine or a message?” This question was a chapter in his 1938 book “Methodism Can be Born Again” dedicated to the “People called Methodists with much affection and warm gratitude but in deep concern.”. Here is the opportunity to review through Scripture and prayer all we do.
Recover Evangelical Zeal for Social Justice
The use by liberalism of the social gospel as a gospel substitute has to a great extent caused evangelicals to neglect social justice. Yet this was a hallmark of the consequence of the evangelical revivals as evidenced by Wesley, Whitefield and Spurgeon. It is however vital to get things in the right order. Luther also took on Aristotle in the 97 Theses when he pointed out that we do not become righteous by doing good deeds but having been made righteous we do good deeds. As Wilberforce and Shaftesbury demonstrated evangelical conversion precedes social action. Yet such a responsibility must not be neglected.
Humbly seek Revival
Our land needs revival so much and we long for it. This was the passion of MLJ, and that passion was not contradictory to his knowledge that revival is a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit not men or women. Church history shows how revival follows declension. MLJ was wise to remind us of the immense damage caused by Finney in the 19th Century that has led to a common prevailing view that that men and women can make revival happen. Perhaps at times we need to stop thinking about the things to do to make revival happen and instead prayerfully consider the things we may be doing to impede revival. To avoid such impeding we need to believe in God’s Word and the foundational doctrines of Christianity, repentance for our disobedience and our re-commitment to letting God be God, that the Word may do its work once more.
We live in challenging but exiting times as we emerge from Coronavirus. There is a wide consensus that things need to be different but these need to be the right things that they may be to God’s glory. Here is the time to dig the old wells again that proclaiming that faith once delivered to the saints as Jude exhorts, faithful to God’s Word and our doctrines we may by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit be instruments of renewal in our land once more.
Lloyd-Jones, D Martyn. Revival: Can We Make It Happen? London: Marshall Pickering, 1986.
Luther, Martin. “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, 1517.” Pages 3-16 in Career of the Reformer: I. Edited by Harold J. Grimm. Translated by Harold J. Grimm. Vol. 31 of Luther’s Works, American Edition. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957. Or available via this LINK
Sangster, W. E. Methodism Can be Born Again. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938.
Watson, David. You Are My God. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1983.
Watson, Philip S. Let God be God: An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther. London: Epworth Press, 1947.