Learning from the past
Learning from the past I want to share something I read this morning (Monday) from John Newton which wonderfully sums up truths I believe to be vital for healthy church life. He is famous as the converted slave-trader who wrote ‘Amazing Grace’. I have found reading his letters, published in several volumes, some of which are found in: ‘Wise Counsel – John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr.’ (Banner of Truth) to be a great blessing. Ryland was a Baptist minister Newton writes to as a spiritual father. The letter I quote explains what he sees as really important in ministry and church life to produce healthy churches:
As far as I can judge, my call in this city (London), besides preaching the salvation of God to
sinners is twofold:
1. To inculcate peace and love among those who are set upon the one foundation, though in some points they are not all of a mind.
2. To insist much upon the life of God in the soul, and to show that the power of religion is something different, from an attachment to systems, or modes or forms.
These principles draw together a motley sort of assembly, and church folks (Anglicans) and
Dissenters (non-conformists) of different kinds. (He also mentions Calvinistic Methodists,
Wesleyan Methodists and Moravians – a sect from Germany).
Why take up what he writes about that particular ministry?
It is relevant to us in the 21st Century. When John Newton was writing in 1780 there was little movement of population outside of London, which was a growing city with a mobile population. Nowadays the population in the UK is very mobile and churches change because people move in and move away. His London congregation is very like the ‘motley sort of assembly’ that most evangelical churches are nowadays and this inevitably means that we are those, ‘who are set upon the one foundation, though in some points (we) are not all of a mind.’ So we may all be in Christ but we have different backgrounds - Anglican, Baptist, Congregational, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, Pentecostal or a completely independent church. We have different influences. Calvinistic, Charismatic, Expository Bible Ministry, Body-Life all of which have myriad variations within them and we haven’t yet touched on nationality!
What do we need to learn from John Newton? I think there are several lessons:
1. The Gospel Comes First as Regards the Existence of a True Church
We mustn’t pass over what Newton says, ‘besides preaching the salvation of God to sinners’.
Agreement on the gospel, and commitment to its proclamation must come first. Unbelievers need the gospel to come to peace with God through faith in Christ – believers need the gospel because without it they will drift away from God’s grace. Without the gospel as central to church’s life it will not be true that we are, ‘those who are set upon the one foundation’ and it is fundamental that we need to be.
2. Love and Peace are Primary Values for the Church’s Health
‘To inculcate peace and love among those who are set upon the one foundation, though in some points they are not all of a mind’ was John Newton’s aim and we need to appreciate why. We are fallen, finite creatures and so we will never fully agree on non-gospel issues this side of heaven. So we need to love those from whom we differ on significant issues and to seek to be at peace with them. That must be true if Jesus’ words to his disciples are taken seriously (John 13: 34 + 35), ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ Love must express itself in commitment to building one another up not in putting one another right at every opportunity. Churches need to have a Statement of Faith and a church’s teaching and practice will be controlled by this. The preaching and teaching however should concentrate on, ‘the main things’ – that is on fundamental gospel truths rather than matters of controversy. When we need to speak on what we disagree about it must be done with love, respect and a clear commitment to unity.
3. True Christianity is fundamentally a matter of spiritual life not structures
‘To insist much upon the life of God in the soul, and to show that the power of religion is something different, from an attachment to systems, or modes or forms.’ All churches will have ‘systems’ = a Statement of Faith, ‘modes’ = ways of doing things, and ‘forms’ = patterns of worship. However if these are mistaken for the heart of true Christian faith rather than the heart of Christianity being God at work by his Spirit in the minds and hearts of those who believe in the Lord Jesus, the result will be that people delude themselves that outward changes will make them a Christian. For all of us it is all too easy to settle for outward conformity rather than the massive inner change being born of the Spirit must bring about. True faith will centre on the Lord Jesus Christ and the fact that only from him can true spiritual life and acceptance with God come. Preaching which doesn’t highlight, ‘the life of God in the soul’ will inevitably lead to false assurance though outwardly conforming to Christian belief and practice.
Why this should matter to us
I am writing about this because it is vital for the church’s present welfare and health and, equally importantly, its future welfare and health that we see the importance of what John Newton was standing for. It is that we must take the words of our Lord Jesus, given shortly before he died and rose for us, (John 13: 34 + 35), ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ as the basis for our church life. I am grateful to John Newton that he spelt out how we are to practise these things but I have sought throughout my ministry that these values should control it. I trust that whoever succeeds me here will share that set of values because without it spiritual flourishing and health cannot be a reality.
Yours in the Lord,