The Aberystwyth Conference 2003
by Geoff Thomas
The annual Aberystwyth Conference of the Evangelical Movement of Waleshas taken place in the second week of August for almost fifty years, and it isa peak of the year’s Christian teaching, fellowship and outreach into the townfor local Christians. The meetings from the Monday are held in the Great Hallof the University. On the opening Sunday Alfred Place Baptist Church(Independent) has to move out of its building (as it’s too small for such amultitude) to the Welsh Baptist Church on the other corner of the street. About600 – 700 pack it, with an overflow downstairs, while there are other servicesgoing on at the same times in another church lower down the little hill. Allthis is to cater for the 1200 worshippers who want Bible truth. A fan in thepulpit helped to keep me cool. One window alone in the Welsh church can beopened. They normally have small congregations. I preached on definitive andprogressive sanctification at the two services, and then on the Monday morningon Nahum 1:7, the God of sanctification: "The Lord is good; a strongholdin the day of trouble; he knoweth them that trust in him"
Fifteen years ago a lady had a stroke in the Conference, and I visitedher and her husband in the hospital for the days she had to remain inAberystwyth when everyone else had gone home. The first verse I recited to herwas Nahum 1:7 and it stuck to her and her husband like glue. In the years thatfollowed when I saw George he would say to me, "Nahum 1:7."
There was a full young people’s programme of 18-25 year olds working intandem with the conference, their meetings starting at around 9.30 each night.One day fifty of them did extensive evangelism and tract distribution aroundthe town. On the final Friday night 200 of them had a question session withJoel Beeke until 11.20 pm Some of them were also prominent in the Open Airmeetings. Gareth Davies was speaking to about 200 people on the promenade andtold those people walking by the seaside of the warnings of the Bible, and howimportant it was to heed them. He works in a call centre for the Gas Board, anda woman had called in: "I can smell gas in the house," she said."Right. Give me your name and address," Gareth said. Then he asked,"How long have you smelt gas?" "Three weeks," she said."Oh," said Gareth, "Don’t do anything. Don’t switch on anylights until our men have come." "Is it dangerous?" "Itcould be," said Gareth. "Oh dear," said the woman, "I mustsit down and have a cigarette." "Don’t light a cigarette!" criedGareth. The amused crowd drew in to hear all this, and then to listen to othermore important warnings that God has given us: "With many other words hewarned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation,’"(Acts 2:40). The members of the Conference faithfully witnessed to collegecleaners and overseas’ students. I gave copies of "UltimateQuestions" in Korean and Chinese to people who were brought to me
At the same time as this Conference is going on most of the OrthodoxJews of the United Kingdom gather in Aberystwyth staying in the University fora month’s holiday. They have done this for many years, and they make acolourful and distinctive spectacle as they wander around the town in their homburgs,ringlets, and black suits. In a large tent they have set up a synagogue. Theirtables are outside their rooms where the boys in their round black hats sit inthe sunshine and study the Talmud. All their bikes are put away for the Sabbathon Friday night. They bathe in the sea in what looks like Victorian bathingcostumes. The younger women are approachable, asking questions for directionsetc. Some of the women from the Evangelical Conference tried to talk to themen, asking for literature to learn more about them. "No information! Noinformation!" cried the men as the averted their eyes from looking atthem, refusing to stop and speak. There must be almost a thousand of them, andthe University has to purchase new refrigerators for their use, which they takewith them when they leave.
The Conference morning prayer meetings are held at 9.30 in a couple ofthe university lecture rooms, tiered rows of seats in windowless rooms. Rev.Teify Ebenezer of Brynmawr, who was leading the session in one such room,experienced the teething troubles of settling into an unfamiliar venue. Just ashe started to speak, the words, "TESTING. ONE. TWO. THREE. FOUR . .." came over the public address system. No sooner had that ceased and hehad begun to speak again when someone began to play a cassette of Ted Donnellypreaching on Union with Christ over the public address system. Ted was quicklygetting into his subject, so that Teify praying or speaking was animpossibility. Then someone came from the body of the prayer meeting to thefront to examine the control panel of lighting switches and volume knobs on thefront of the large desk. Could Ted’s voice be switched off? When he pushed onebutton the room was plunged into total darkness. Even finding the switch wasn’teasy, but the lights all eventually came on again. But in the meantime anotherswitch had been hit which set the blackboards merrily moving up and down. Thecassette of Ted’s preaching was continuing on in the background of all thisactivity. Eventually they had to send a man over to the Great Hall controlcentre to tell the Conference technicians that the cassette of Ted, which theywere quietly listening to, was actually being beamed all around the campus ofthe University. When peace was restored and the prayer meeting started againanother slip of paper was given to the chairman to say that at 10 am therewould be a fire alarm test. Teething troubles with a vengeance.
The week was a record breaker for the hours of sunshine we had. At whatother Aberystwyth conference were the people standing in the open air meetingstold to wear sun hats? Four or five people fainted in the Great Hall andparamedics were needed to take them out, but none remained in hospital.
What of the main morning conference addresses? From Tuesday throughFriday at 11 a.m. Joel Beeke spoke on the nature of saving faith studying fourbiblical characters. The messages were very greatly appreciated. Much good wasdone by what he said. I have been attending this Conference since 1963 when EricAlexander was the speaker. I would judge this year’s to be amongst the verybest.
Someone said to me as the week came to a close that he was thanking Godfor the growth of experiential Calvinistic preaching which he had observed inthe past years, that is, the old preaching of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism. Sucha ministry was very evident this year, not only in the four mornings but in thesermons of most of the evening preachers. What did my friend mean by’experiential Calvinism’? It is certainly easy to say what that does not mean.There is no attempt to soften up people and ‘warm up the atmosphere’ by music,the group and lots of singing. It does not equate feelings and glossalalia withthe operations of the Spirit of God. The preaching does not major insentimental stories. There is no appeal to people to get out of their seats andwalk to the front for all kinds of deliverances and blessings. There is toomuch fear of grieving the Holy Spirit to engage in practices like that. Thefocus of the preaching is not upon the will, in order to get people to make adecision, but on sin to show them their guilt and need, and on the beauties ofthe person and the work of Christ to persuade people why they should come tohim
Positively, experiential Calvinism certainly involves the reverentexegesis of the text, so that what is said is clearly derived from the passageitself. It also means that the insights of biblical theology and the placing ofa narrative in the history of redemption are also taken into consideration andapplied to the congregation. It also would mean that the focus of theapplication is through the listeners’ minds to their consciences and affectionsso that they repent of their sins and love the living God for his grace to themin Christ. Experiential Calvinism also requires a submission before theabsolute sovereignty of God while not neglecting man’s responsibility. It alsomeans the preacher will be aware of the tensions of the life of the believer,pressured by remaining sin, the world, the testing providences of God and thedevices of Satan, so that Mr Christian is frequently limping and staggering,falling and getting up again, on the road to heaven. Thus there will be varietyin the exhortations, to the lukewarm and also to the disconsolate. It alsomeans the commands to repent and believe are addressed to the unconverted andthe good reasons for coming to Christ are provided, and that they be pleadedwith to trust in Christ immediately. Experiential Calvinism also means thatthere is an awareness of confessional Christianity that permeates one’s wholeapproach to the faith, and that we are sure than nothing in any passage of theBible is going to contradict what is found in our great confessions.Aberystwyth 2003 was a week where this attitude to the Christian faith wasparamount. It was not that we met together and agreed that this is whatexperiential Calvinism should be. This is the kind of ministry that dominatedthe week, and those of us who love it and long to see its spread and revivalwere humbly thankful to God.
By the end of the Conference there was evident deep affection for JoelBeeke’s ministry. It was not for his own considerable duende, but for hispastoral attitude and application. Of course, pastoral preaching is important, butif it lacks the big theological structures it will become sentimental and wishywashy. That is the reason why Lloyd-Jones’ pastoral preaching has enduringvalue. During the first Conference address there was some apprehension fromordinary folk, both young and old, that they would not be able to understandJoel Beeke’s preaching because of his scholarship. The first address was lucidand helpful, so that everyone relaxed and gave themselves to the next threemessages.
The evening preaching began with Andrew Swanson speaking on what Christsaw when he looked at the man who was born blind. The next evening Stephen Reesspoke relentlessly and awesomely on the wrath of God being revealed from heavenagainst the sinner. The third night we heard Peter Milsom speaking on believingon the Lord Jesus Christ. The fourth night Ian Hamilton spoke on Ezekiel 33:11,"Turn from you evil ways". During the week he also gave a lecture toa packed congregation on Samuel Rutherford. On the final night Dafydd Morrispreached on the man who dug a hole in a field and discovered treasure. Most ofthese sermons were particularly fine. It was a privilege to be in Aberystwythfor the 2003 Conference of the Evangelical Movement of Wales.
One incident stood out for me. Dafydd Morris was preaching on the Fridaynight, while Eluned Thomas was sitting in the congregation listening to him.There could not have been more than three people there who knew the remarkablelink between them. Joel Beeke was sitting next to me, and after the service Itold him the story. Eluned Thomas is the widow of John Thomas, the finest ofour preachers who died of a brain haemorrhage in his early forties at the endof the 1960s. He was the pastor of Sandfields in Aberavon, Dr Lloyd-Jones’former church, and John was a splendid evangelist. He was one of my role modelsas a young pastor. The church in Sandfields was packed for his funeral service;I have never wept so much at a funeral as then. Hundreds of us went to thegraveside where Andrew Davies’ father, I.B.Davies preached, and we sang IsaacWatts’ hymn, "There is a land of pure delight where saints immortal reign;Infinite day excludes the night and pleasures banish pain."
A Congregationalist minister from the community, out of respect forJohn, came to the cemetery, and brought his 14 year-old son Dafydd Morris withhim. The boy stood there impressed by the occasion, the preaching, the crowd,the hymn, but most of all he looked in wonder at John’s widow, Eluned, singingwith all her heart as she stood over the coffin of her husband, "There isa land of pure delight . . ." Then and there God put an arrow in Dafydd’sheart and converted him from that very day. After the Friday night service wasover I pointed out Eluned to Joel and told him of the link with the preacher.Then I watched as Eluned walked to the front and thanked Dafydd. She cameacross in our direction and I beckoned her and introduced her to Joel Beeke,telling her that I had been talking to him about Dafydd’s link with her. Shereplied, "I just went and thanked Dafydd now, but he replied to me that hewouldn’t have been here tonight but for me. I told him, ‘It had more to do withyour name being written in the Lamb’s Book of Life from before the foundationof the earth.’" Isn’t that relationship remarkable?
Next year is the centenary year of the 1904 revival, and Andrew Daviesof London is announced as being the Conference speaker. The Conferencecommences on August 8, God willing.
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