The Danger of Familiarity
By Brian Ellis, Manila, Philippines.
What do I mean? I must start with some personal testimony so that I can explain. My interest in religion began when I was in the 6th form at Grammar School and I began to attend the Student Christian Movement meetings each week. There we discussed all manner of matters connected with religion from Judaism to various Christian themes. Some of those who attended the meeting were obviously Christians.
It was during this period that I began to go to church. I had gone through a great disappointment and was looking for some meaning in life. The church I went to was a Methodist church because that was where an aunt worshipped. Every year I attended the school camp which was only for boys, although the school was a co-ed school. At the camp we always went to the local Anglican Church on Sunday. I asked to attend the Methodist Chapel in the village where we were camping. A young people’s camp run by a missionary society was using the chapel and an evangelistic message was preached with an appeal to stay behind for salvation. I stayed behind, was counselled and ‘led to the Lord’. I was told to read my Bible and attend church.
I became religious, taking an active part in the youth group in the Methodist Church as well as the Youth Choir. Whether I was truly converted and a true Christian at that stage, I do not know. Going on to college the Lord was at work. I was assigned to digs where my roommate was a member of the Brethren. Through him I joined the Christian Union and became active in their meetings, running the literature table. Was I truly converted? I do not know. When I finished college a group of us attended the Keswick Convention. One afternoon we set out to climb Skiddaw and I was not well. It was a fine summer’s day and I lay on the grass at the side of the path while my companions went on to make their way to the top. The Lord was dealing with me and after more than an hour I made my way slowly back to our lodgings. Whether it was then I was converted I do not know.
My parents moved to Laindon, Essex, and I joined them, becoming a Secondary School teacher on Canvey Island near Southend. I spent two years there. I attended the local Methodist Church where I joined the choir, became a Cub Scout master and became active in the social club. I was asked to start a youth meeting on Sunday evening and later approached by an older couple in the church to start a Bible Study and prayer meeting. Out of a membership of about a hundred only four of us attended that Bible Study: an older married couple, a lady who had been in a Pentecostal church and me. The long summer holidays regularly saw me active in children’s missions and other outreaches, such as a mission to the New Forest.
The Lord was dealing with me. I was a school teacher and to be a good school teacher I needed to really prepare my lessons well. I was not doing that because of all my church activities. Another interest that had slowly developed was in missions in the Far East through hearing missionary speakers and reading books. I began to attend missionary conferences and houseparties. Something had to go. As I prayed about it I knew it was the school teaching.
My next step was to apply to the Bible Training Institute in Glasgow for missionary training. In the two years while there problems began to arise in my whole thinking. What was the gospel? How should one apply it to unbelievers? Can a person make a decision and be saved? When I get someone to pray a prayer after me and ask Jesus into their heart are they really converted? I had been doing just that. A particular case in point was an after-church evangelistic meeting which several of us students took in a Methodist church. A number of young people came to the front following an appeal and I counselled one of the young men. We knelt at a chair and I led him through the familiar verses and told him to pray this prayer after me. I then, using John 1:12, told him that he had received Christ, that Christ was now in his heart, that his sins were forgiven and that he was now a Christian going to heaven. The next week he was not at the church. Neither was he there the week after so I went to find him at his home in one of the old ‘closes’ of Glasgow (tenements with a number of floors). I climbed the stairs and knocked at the door. His sister opened the door and I asked for her brother. She said, ‘He is not here.’ As she said that I saw him ducking down behind a sofa in the room. The door was then closed on my recent convert. That was not the only occasion; it was one of a number. What was I doing wrong?
I applied to a missionary society to work in the Far East and they assigned me to work for a year in a Methodist Church in SE London which had an evangelical pastor. I had only been a member of liberal Methodist Churches. During that year I was encouraged by the dear pastor who with his wife became blessed friends. He attended the Westminster Fellowship chaired by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Things began to happen to me as I struggled with the question of what is a Christian. What does God do in conversion? Does a man control his own destiny? Is it up to men, is the onus on them?
I finished my year in SE London and spent another six months with my parents, now in North Norfolk, before sailing for the Far East on a P&O liner. Three weeks on a luxury ship, four months in Singapore, where I met my wife, and then on to the Philippines, five months more language study and then I was assigned to further study in a fairly remote part of the country living with senior missionaries. Days were spent in language study and practice. I remember a missionary lady, who having attended a training seminar in a ‘new evangelistic method’, saying, ‘With this method you can get anyone converted.’
Can you? Surely that is all wrong? It was all so erroneous. My pastor friend introduced me to Banner of Truth books. I wrote to them to purchase books. They kindly sent them to me free. I asked for the little booklet by Iain Murray, The Invitation System, and a volume of Spurgeon’s sermons because I wanted to see how he applied the gospel to people. They also sent me the hard bound book, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ by John Owen.
Iain Murray dealt with the invitation system as used particularly by Billy Graham. Towards the end of the booklet he said something I had never heard before, ‘It is those who are born again who “see the kingdom of God” and thus believe the gospel. Regeneration by the Holy Spirit precedes conversion.’ I was gripped by this. At the same time I was reading Ephesians chapter one and the sovereignty of God became so clear. I also read right through John Owen’s masterpiece Death of Death, which brought me to understand and rejoice in particular redemption. It was what Erroll Hulse refers to in his book Crisis Experiences. He writes, ‘There are many Christians today who testify that the greatest crisis experience after conversion was the discovery of the sovereignty of God, sometimes called the doctrines of grace’. That was what had happened to me.
It is a joy to serve the Lord here in the Philippines and to see men and women coming to the same experience as they come out of extreme man-centred religion into the light and liberty of sovereign grace.
A GLORIOUS GOD
We will return now after this digression to the title of this article. I am so often troubled by some who have grown up in churches which officially hold to the ‘doctrines of grace’. Yet for them there is a familiarity with it but it does not grip them, as it does others and myself still after forty-four years. They have grown up with it, they are familiar with the doctrines but they are not absorbed by them. Some of them are turning to the entertainment element to get the young people in: the guitar groups and the drums on the stage and the bright lights and colours. They are mesmerised by the charismatic, their numbers and the methods which seem ‘to be working’. How sad to see Grace Baptist churches which in some places are little different to any other evangelical man-centred church. They have lost their message and have lost their sight of a glorious God and a mighty Saviour.
Some have come out of extremely high Calvinism and have reacted against it and are now throwing out the baby with the bath water. They no longer really stand for the truth of a sovereign almighty God who has chosen his people from before the foundation of the world. Yet his kingdom will prevail, not one of his people will be lost. He calls us to be faithful in proclaiming ‘the whole counsel of God‘ (Acts 20:27), trusting in him and praying to him to save sinners by his almighty power. Let us examine ourselves and let us read the Scriptures and ask God to show us his glory, that we may be humbled, gripped and exceedingly encouraged by it. May we all realise afresh that God is God, he will build his church and ‘the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).
Taken with permission from Grace magazine, November 2011.
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