Forty Years In Aberystwyth
It is an unusual privilege to stand before you today (November 12, 2005), at the 40th anniversary of my commencing my ministry in this church. In some ways it is like being present at one’s own funeral service! Certainly it is a foretaste of that event, as family and friends have gathered here from far and wide, but today I am speaking and smiling at you as you smile back at me. No one is weeping, but all of us must be conscious of a certain transient quality to all such anniversaries, and of your generous assessment of me which has brought you here, for “Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is” (I Cor. 3:13). I do appreciate the fact that many of you have travelled some distance from south and mid Wales, from London, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, the Midlands and even from the Netherlands. We are celebrating a loving congregation who have clung to their pastor for 40 years, a church which continues to say, “Preach to us the word of God;” you are the people I constantly address saying, “Hear the word of God!”
GREATLY BLESSED YEARS.
Forty years ago I inherited some families who were committed to the gospel. One deacon was an enormous support when I arrived. A minister needs only one man like that and in a sense he is home and dry. He is with us this afternoon and now a son and grandson are deacons here. But I had also other men who within seven years became elders in the church, and there were numbers of godly women. They are all the focus of my deepest gratitude, patient with me in my early learning to be a pastor-preacher, checking and encouraging me. For them Christians everywhere are also most appreciative. They know that I could never have survived in a church for so long without the support of older wise men who would rise up and be counted during the inevitable battles.
I also have been blessed with a wife of consistent godliness and prayerfulness. She accepted my absences and kept me in the pulpit. She was trained in Biblical studies and skilled in teaching the Scriptures. The women’s work was utterly safe in her hands. God blessed us with three daughters who from their earliest age became models of Christian grace, quite extraordinary girls who soon professed faith and loved the Lord Christ, the oldest of whom is now over 40 years of age. We have seen out first grandson live to confess his repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
I had lived in the company of preachers from my earliest age. My father’s twin brother was a preacher, and my father’s sister married a preacher whose brother was also a preacher. I was relaxed in the presence of ministers, but then I moved into a different theological world. I heard evangelical preaching and was favoured to listen to the very best, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones while I was still a teenager, and at Seminary the teaching of John Murray and Cornelius Van Til. I had a cluster of role model pastor-preachers in the UK, men like John Thomas and Iain Murray in the first ranks. The men who identified with the Evangelical Movement of Wales were the best men in the Principality. My own peers whom I met at University in Cardiff showed me the possibility of going with them in their intention to become preachers. They had an evangelistic zeal, a cheerfulness and also a seriousness about serving God that was quite contagious. Much should be expected of any man so favoured as I was.
Also I began university at the beginning of the great explosion of the publishing of books that endorsed and illuminated historic Christianity. There was a time when I could get every reformed book as it was printed. How definitive those early publications were in my formulation of the Christian vision. Whitefield’s Journals, the Early Years of Spurgeon, Ryle’s lives of the Reformers and also the 18th century leaders, Lloyd-Jones’ Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Ryle’s Holiness, Iain Murray’s Forgotten Spurgeon, Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, Edwards’ Religious Affections (read on the cargo boat that took me to Philadelphia in 1961), the life of Jim Elliot, Walt Chantry’s Today’s Gospel, Al Martin’s What’s Wrong with Preaching Today?. The preachers and such books formed an ethos of confessional historic Christianity, holy living, church reformation, a belief in the possibility of great awakenings, a contending for the faith, family life, and the importance of evangelistic concern. There were one or two conferences a year where some of the men who authored those books could be heard and they were unmissable occasions. Today there are many similar conferences, all very worthy, but none have the feel of a breakthrough. There were once magazines for which one would drop everything as they came through the letter box and landed on the hall floor. One would pick them up, sit down and read them immediately. Today there are many more good magazines but none that one must drop everything to get (certainly from the perspective of being in the ministry for forty years).
Some conferences need to be challenged and their vaunted significance downplayed. Consider the deleterious influence that certain large Easter-time conferences have had over the last thirty years especially over students. A few men in a committee have planned and organised them and the whole church has suffered as a result. The value of ministerial conferences is in that mysterious influence one preacher can have over another in conversation and friendship; the messages are the bonus. Publishing houses too are only servants of the pulpit and pew. We live in an age in which we have all been made aware that we preachers are on an equal level of Christian service. There is not a man you can send for today who will fill a church on some Wednesday night. None has an awakening ministry today not anywhere in the world. How grievous is such an assessment.
An enduring ministry is helped by its location. If a church is set in an area where there is some economic stability or in a city, or the place has a history of an earlier grace then there is more expectation of growth. If our building had been set in a valley miles outside Aberystwyth then the impact of the pulpit would have been muted, and the duration of my ministry would have been considerably briefer. However, our church was situated ideally, in the middle of town, a block from the sea, in a community of 13,000 people where today an additional 8,000 students are attending the university. The discipleship and consecration of 40 years of students have been an inspiration both to myself and the congregation. They have warmed the wintry months of the year.
COMMITMENT TO CHANGE
I am as much committed to change today as I was forty years ago, to change myself, and the entire congregation, the churches of the town, the community of which we are a part and Wales as a whole. The Christian wants to change the world, and the one great instrument for change which we have been given is the Bible. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16&17). As it is preached it is comes under God the Spirit constantly teaching, and rebuking, and correcting, and instructing us in those divine requirements for righteous living. That is because it is the breath of God; it is part of the saving work of God. So the Lord’s requirement is that all of the God-breathed Scripture be preached and applied to all of the people of God. That is why he has given it. There is little use in saying correct things about bits of Scripture, a truth here, a verse there. All of this embarrassing Book has to be preached on. The opening 11 chapters of Genesis are to be received as a word from Heaven; Romans 9 and Ephesians 1; the book of Leviticus, the historical books with their record of inhumanity and weak leaders, the 42 chapters of the book of Job, the Song of Songs. All of the Scriptures are to be preached in proportion to their importance (he will hear the life of Christ preached four times as frequently as other parts of the Bible), and preached to every Christian during his lifetime, so that he may hear all the Bible expounded before he dies. That is why God has given it to us. It takes fifty years to preach through the Bible in two services each Sunday. Little is gained by hurrying that process. The purpose is that a congregation experience the power of a passage rather than get an outline down in their notebooks. The preacher is so to preach the Word that the congregation wants the Bible to be opened up, demands that the Bible be preached to them, and loves expository preaching. We are to seek such ministries and not sit under a pulpit where our prejudices are rearranged week by week. By such a standard a ministry and a congregation is to be assessed; other criteria – musical and numerical and emotional criteria – are inadequate. We must be committed to Bible-based change, and those refusing to change will move on, or while they stay they will grumble, but God will also use that to drive the preacher nearer himself to improve his preaching and make it lively, relevant, simpler and full of pathos.
I have preached about 55 of the 66 books of the Bible, including virtually all of the New Testament. I am not sure whether I will ever ‘finish’ the task God gave me to preach the word. Sometime I feel I have left for myself some of the more demanding books of the Old Testament (as far as a preacher is concerned), or the second halves of books once started which after a year or two were abandoned as, alas, wearying to myself and the congregation. Generally I have felt an unease about a number of books before I commenced them, or about verses and passages looming up ahead, wondering how I could preach on such passages. Yet in the discipline of study and meditation those chapters and books have come alive; they have been a delight. I wish I had had more role models of preachers and preaching through Old Testament books. I have proved to be an uncertain guide myself in that department.
Each congregation must be grasped by God’s sovereignty. It is one of the fundamental truths of the Bible. It is crucial for handling suffering, for true evangelism, for understanding the counterpoint of human responsibility – without it free will shall reign, for honouring the work of the Holy Spirit, for a spirit of worship to burst out of our congregations, for grasping the conflict with Rome and with modernism – not a modernist has ever believed in the sovereignty of God – and the nature of the history of the church. How will we know what is the future direction of the church of Jesus Christ unless we know that God reigns? The pulpit and the pew must be agreed in one thing, that salvation is of the Lord. How challenging it is to preach the Sovereignty of God so that people understand and love this truth; that is our vocation today. To preach with an awakening ministry so that sinners are saved – that too is up there alongside it in importance. To encourage a life of credible godliness in all who profess the name of Jesus is our third calling of equal significance to the other two. These are three of the chief goals of the servants of the Word, and it has taken most of my spiritual energy and consecration to establish them in this church, and often I feel that I am beginning in this duty all over again.
I have led the Sunday services myself. I announce the hymns, and I publicly read the Scriptures – I whose life uniquely in the congregation is spent in the Word. The pastoral prayer must be mine whose time is spent in healing, encouraging and correcting the people of God. All this is very acceptable to a congregation who accept one tremendous reality, that the Creator of the whole cosmos has summoned this man to bring his message to bear on these people, and it would be utterly woeful for me if they did not hear the Creator’s servant and I did not preach to them in a way that was most suitable to his glory. “Why do you take the entire service?” I am asked. “Because I have this calling from God and no one else in the congregation,” is my reply. People then can think about the God I am speaking of and not about a parade of personalities. At the mid-week meeting opportunity is given to anyone to share something with the gathering, though rarely do people speak.
For praise I choose the great hymns, old and new, because the words of many of them come from an era more filled with both the Spirit and great poets that our forlorn age. Their music is subtle and submissive to those truths. The heritage that reflects the whole dynamics of biblical theology has been poeticised, made memorable and delightful by the tunes sung.
A SINGLE EYE
As a husband and wife we had a single-minded commitment to establishing and strengthening and deepening the work of God in our congregation. There was a time when my wife was offered the headship of the Religious Instruction department in a local school. It was virtually hers for the taking; that is what she had done before our first child had arrived; those were her qualifications, but it was not an option for us, even though the salary and pension might have a certain attraction. We were both committed to life in our church and in the manse. The salary the church paid me was generous and quite sufficient.
My life was to be one in which I would bring the whole word of God to the whole people of God both publicly and privately and never stop. God has given me grace to plod on, and the men who have entered the ministry from our congregation during these forty years have all displayed that spirit, whether missionaries in Kenya, or the south of France, or Latvia, or an inner city pastor in London, or church planters in Yorkshire, all such men have had a single eye to honour God by serving his word and his people.
How puzzling is the work of the minister. For years I secretly found myself muttering, “Is this what a minister does? Am I doing it? Is this what I should be doing, and saying?” The gulf between Richard Baxter and myself was the width of the Atlantic. What manifold challenges to Bible commitment we meet, and chiefly from within ourselves. One often feels like a plague doctor who himself is suffering from the plague. In other words, the greatest struggle is handling oneself, the weaknesses that beset one so easily, the frequent falls, the subsequent guilt, the disappointments, the sadnesses, the restlessness, the rejections.
How difficult many parts of the Bible are to preach on; the attraction of doing a Spurgeon and picking the big verses each week is tempting. I battled pretty fruitlessly with I John, and also with Galatians, soon wishing I had never started, but they were deceptively too short to give up before the end. The entire gospel of John, particularly the discourses, was another daunting task, and that was particularly frustrating because the truths were sublime. I have preached through the ten commandments three times and each time the congregation seems to have shrunk. Others have had very different experiences of those themes.
One distinctive feature of this particular period in the history of Wales has been an absence of an extensive outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It has certainly not been characterised by an absence of the Holy Spirit and his work, but there has been nothing at all of a widespread conviction of man’s sinfulness. Jesus Christ has not been extensively magnified before the world so that a fear of the Lord has fallen upon the land. Men and women have not been regenerated in their multitudes. The absence of the oil of the Spirit has meant that the wheels of a church groan and creek. It would have been a prayer answered to have been at the vanguard of a mighty work of God instead of this holding operation in which I have been engaged as militant atheism spreads over Europe. Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.
THE CHALLENGE TO CONTINUE.
I came across some tests of a man of God facing the pitfalls of the ministry, and I wondered how it was with me. i] Have you lost the wonder of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I can say, No, I haven’t. I still have a passion for ministry, and pastoring, and officers’ meetings, and the struggle of the two sermons each Sunday. The message is still wonderfully life-enhancing; the changes in the lives of men and women are still deeply encouraging. I shall be happy to give myself for another year or so if God wills preaching 84 sermons on Sundays and more than 40 during the week. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe.
ii] Are you neglecting your personal relationship with the Lord? That is the toughest of all issues; it is a terribly humbling question. I would confess it is the greatest area of failure in my life. M’Cheyne once said, “No amount of activity in the King’s service will make up for neglect of the King himself.” Business for God will not compensate for a distant relationship with him.
iii] Are you proclaiming a truth you are not living? I trust not. Paul asks every preacher, “You who teach others, don’t you teach yourself?” In other words, is my message part of me? Is there a divine requirement I am preaching to others but defying myself? May it not be so.
iv] Are you relying on gifts? Your fluency of speech, confidence, experience, resources, all of them natural? “Lord I was a preacher, and I stood before men for 40 years and I was orthodox, and straight.” “Depart from me, I never knew you.” Have I been relying on the merits of the Redeemer and declaring that incessantly in and out of season? I believe that that is my theme yet. How barren the mere fluency of sacred things when one is losing the congregation and sinners leave never to return.
v] As God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble am I prone too often to wander from the path of humility? Always remember the words of the prophet Samuel to King Saul, “When you were little in your own sight . . . the Lord anointed you.” God must keep me little in my own sight or I am dead meat. So it is that I find on most days circumstances and thoughts direct me to past failures. Many of a preacher’s mistakes are public mistakes, with 100 people watching and listening. They can be in a conference to which people have travelled for half a day, and spent money they cannot afford in order for their spirits to be lifted up and sent back to Rutville refreshed. I have misread the situation. They have rightly thought, “I could say that better than him.” Many such memories can be used of God for future usefulness.
All of us need to be deeply persuaded of this reality, that everything around us is being managed by a perfect wisdom. What has happened in our lives in these last 40 years has been done according to him who works all things by his divine counsel. We must say, “Our times are in thy hands. Do with me as Thou wilt, and how thou wilt, and what though wilt, and when thou wilt. Not my will but thine be done.”
,br> The highest degree of faith for the preacher is to be still and know that Jehovah Jesus is God. He who ordained that we should all be in this gathering today is managing all our lives with perfect wisdom. The affairs of our churches and families and nations are alike overruled by him. He chooses the portions of his people. If he blesses with growth then it is for our good; if he sends leanness then it must also be for our good.
One thing is certain, in 40 years’ time I will not be here, but the Lord Jesus Christ will be here as the one who is the same yesterday, and today, and for ever. He is building his church, and perfecting his people. He must be all our hope. “Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.”
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