The River of Grace
WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY COMMENCEMENT MAY 2011
I am honoured to be given this Doctor of Divinity degree along with my old room-mate A. Donald MacLeod and Wayne Grudem. Some preachers have been disdainful of the D.D. degree. You recall the rhyme
An old Baptist preacher called Fiddle
Once rejected this honoured degree;
‘It’s bad enough being called “Fiddle”,
Without being Fiddle D.D.’
I arrived here as a student fifty years ago, in 1961. When I was a boy, fifty years seemed a virtually endless period of time. I want to tell you that it’s a moment. It speeds by like a weaver’s shuttle. I praise the mercy that’s prolonged my days. The great truths I believed before I first arrived, I believe yet. Here I was given tools – methodological, academic, theological, homiletic but also affectionate tools – as well as directives and inspiration to tackle the calling which, by 1964, I knew was to be mine: to be the pastor-preacher of a church somewhere back home in the Principality of Wales. In coming to an assurance of that vocation, Ed Clowney’s counsels were particularly helpful. I returned home two days after graduation pausing to look round the New York World Fair. ‘Sail on the Queen Mary,’ John Murray had exhorted me, but the boat was all booked up and I sailed from those famous moorings on the Hudson river, past the Statue of Liberty and into the Atlantic on the liner the United States travelling east 3000 miles to Wales.
Within six weeks I had married the girl who was waiting for me and who is with me today, and the following year I was called by the church I still serve to become its minister. Last Sunday I preached there in the morning on Luke 15 and in the night on Genesis 40, as I systematically expound those books, and in ten days I will preach there again, God willing. My conviction is that all Christians need to hear every part of the Bible expounded and applied to them throughout their lifetimes, because that is why God has given us the Scripture. I have preached on almost very part of the Bible, but I will never finish this calling. That will be the task of another and then he will have all the remainder of revelation before him. I have yet to preach on half the Psalms, the entire book of Proverbs and the second half of the books of the Exodus and Isaiah. But I am now preaching on the most crucial books for the second time. I also pause when I come to the great texts and we taste all they declare; ‘Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest . . . For we know that all things work together for good to them that love God . . . What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? . . . I know that my redeemer liveth . . .’ It would be a tragedy not to stop and expound such verses intensely. I deplore the fact that much evangelical preaching has turned into glorified Bible studies.
Aberystwyth is a small town of 18,000 people, 9,000 of whom are students; a university town divided into town and gown, further divided into two languages, Welsh and English – what has been dubbed the cultural capital of Wales. There I have built two churches, our own, and the one everyone goes to. You understand that there were lines that I couldn’t cross, ethical lines, theological lines, ecumenical lines, liturgical lines. Others were happy, indeed zealous to cross them, but for me there were issues through which a salvation all of grace in its conception, continuance and consummation would have been compromised if I had crossed those lines, as would have been a worship which must be characterized by reverence and godly fear, for our God . . . our God . . . is a consuming fire. How could I ignore the Holy Spirit, and grieve him, when his presence and work in the church was totally indispensable? Without him I can do nothing . . . and nothing means nothing. The possibility of a mega church at the cost of modifying a free grace gospel was not a difficult option to reject. You wouldn’t want the reputation of becoming a ‘communicator’ whilst not communicating God’s sovereign work of redemption would you? That’s not a name to be savoured is it? You wouldn’t have asked me to speak here today if you were looking for such a ‘communicator’ would you? In the words of your most famous lyricist, ‘That’s not me babe, oh no, no, it’s not me babe. I’m not the one you’re looking for.’
My life had been taken up by the river of redeeming grace. Otherwise I would have been part of the flotsam of our lost generation, ignorant of its origin and destiny, carried along with the flow, tossed to and fro, ever seeking and never coming to a knowledge of the truth. I had begun to be borne along by grace early on as a child, principally through my mother. Her own mother’s brother, Mam’s Uncle Oliver, had been converted in the 1904 revival in Wales and served the Lord with zeal for the next fifty years, a shrewd antiques dealer by profession, but a servant of God by choice, a street preacher, a text carrier, an organiser of children’s meetings, the writer of hymns. During some Friday night children’s meetings that he initiated, my mother and her sister ‘gave their hearts to the Lord.’ That was during the First World War, and so I was raised in the atmosphere of keeping the Lord’s Day, attending church twice a Sunday and going to Sunday School in the afternoons – none of which was grievous to me. And there was always the background of my mother’s hymn singing; unconsciously and quietly she sang all day to accompany every household chore, hymns like ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear.’ I had suckled my mother’s milk to her singing. As she cooked and cleaned and ironed and washed she sang. Of course I thought, ‘Every mother does this.’ It was the security of a happy theocentric home, and so the river was carrying me along even before I knew what this joy was focused upon. Like Van Til I was being conditioned to trust in God, just as unbelievers are conditioned to distrust him.
The river would be taking me on in surprising places, for example, the super grammar school for boys where I spent seven years I could feel it. In the morning assembly we heard Scripture read each day; we sang a psalm and a hymn, and though the poor Students’ Hymnal had been bled of much of the authority, and the blood, and delight in God, it simply could not expunge it all from the selected hymnology, and so I would find myself singing words like these:
To him shall endless prayer be made,
and praises throng to crown his head;
His name like sweet perfume shall rise
with every morning sacrifice.
Ah yes. That is my Jesus! The words are from ‘Jesus shall reign where’r the sun,’ and then, at the end of every term, 600 of us teenage boys would sing, ‘Lord dismiss us with Thy blessing’ and there would be these words:
Thanks we give and adoration
for the gospel’s joyful sound;
May the fruit of Thy salvation
in our hearts and lives abound.
May we ever, may we ever,
evermore with Thee be found.
That had become my longing. By the end of my schooling I had made my public profession of my own life to count for Christ, no longer being a speck drifting along, but actively moving with that current. That profession had occurred in March 1954 as I sat in our little church. During those winter months of ’53 and ’54 I would be walking along the road to the Sunday services thinking, ‘I wonder if God would call me to himself today?’ longing that he might, but nervous, and yet certain that he must perform the work in me of making me a disciple. I didn’t know if I had him, but I knew that if I had him I’d be safe. So I’d become a Christian, but that one night in March, under the preaching, assurance of my interest in the Saviour’s blood was given to me, and that assurance has never left me for a day ever since, even when behaving as abominably as a child of God can behave. I knew on those occasions that it was as a Christian I was saying and doing those mean and fleshly things. I was going against the current of the river of grace.
Then I heard the students who were camp officers talking about a man they called the ‘Doctor,’ Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. They spoke quietly of him with gentle smiles and I wanted to know the reason for this respect and admiration from a characteristically iconoclastic group. Providentially in 1958 I saw a notice in a newspaper announcing that he was to be preaching and I went to hear him, and I understood. The intellectual and spiritual power; the God-centredness; the distinctive voice; the passion. Soon I was reading as a university student Dr Lloyd-Jones’ Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. I saw the beauty of a righteous life and not only wanted to preach like that but to live like that too. When he retired from Westminster Chapel and I was sent a copy of his letter of resignation, I wrote to Ed Clowney immediately, that very day I believe, and told President Clowney that Dr. Lloyd-Jones had ended his ministry at the Chapel and was ready to lecture on preaching. So Dr Clowney wrote and invited the Doctor to come here to give those 20 lectures that now have sold in their tens of thousands, entitled Preaching and Preacher. In that production I feel I had a tiny part.
Then there was Dr J.I. Packer who was another friend and influence. When I was in the Inter-Varsity group at university in 1959 we had got him to speak to us. We had devoured and argued over his ‘Introduction’ to Owen’s Death of Death, that little stick of TNT that reveals the DNA of redemption. But I did not meet him personally until 1963 and that was a curious incident. Home from Westminster for the summer I had borrowed my father-in-law’s car and was driving my fiance up a narrow path in the hills of North Wales to visit a famous country chapel called Salem. The road was single track with passing places, and a car came round the bend towards us and so I pulled into a lay-by, but while the driver drove past he slightly shaved the side of my father-in-law’s car. He stopped and got out and I too got out of Iola’s Dad’s car. ‘I’m very sorry,’ he said, ‘I’ve scratched your car. I’ve been driving for only six weeks’. ‘Dr Packer, isn’t it?’ I asked. ‘Do I know you?’ he responded. I told him that I was studying here at Westminster Seminary. ‘Good to meet you brother,’ he said, ‘Sorry about the car.’ ‘Think nothing of it,’ I generously said. I owed him so much for his books, for reformed writings – how mighty have been their influence particularly Iain Murray’s – for Packer’s Fundamentalism and the Word of God, which I read in school which kept me while listening to the Graf-Welhausen approach to Scripture during my three years at University. I knew that at Westminster Seminary I would find answers. Then for Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, and Knowing God. Iola and I quickly polished the marks off the side of the car and her father was none the wiser of my contact with Packer.
Then I was propelled on in the river of grace by my years here at Westminster. There had now developed a recognizable odour which came from this pure and vital river, an almost unvarying fragrance which I met, now in the Reformer William Tyndale, then a century later in the Puritan John Bunyan, then in another hundred years it was found in Whitefield and Edwards during the Great Awakening, and then on to another century, to 19th century Princeton, to M’Cheyne in Dundee, and to Spurgeon warming London in good Queen Victoria’s reign, and then I met it here again a century later enfleshed in Van Til, grave and enthusiastic and demanding, in Edward J. Young with a wonderfully mild and holy flavour, and in John Murray, the man most full of God I have known. When you saw him walking on the campus you longed to catch him up and talk to him; how welcoming he would be, putting his arm through yours as you walked around the paths of Machen Hall, inquiring about your family, but how careful you were in your conversation. Loving but also intimidating, just like God. I audited every course he gave. They all had that odour of life and heaven. I remember sitting on a bench in a railway station waiting for the Cardiff train in the summer of 1961 reading the chapter on ‘Sanctification’ in Redemption Accomplished and Applied, and grasping the distinction between Definitive and Progressive Sanctification – the moment being another elevation of understanding, another step forward, and saying to myself, ‘Think of it! John Murray will be teaching me in three months’ time.’
So the river ran on and I was irrigated and refreshed and washed and made clean by this stream of grace. New theories and perspectives have risen and they are immediately tested against this river, this body of Christian conviction and declaration down the ages. All the camouflaged implications of the new ideas have to be brought to light. Their ideas often can only be understood as part of a modern school of opinions coming from a number of writers and teachers, but they can only be properly judged in the light of the battles and confessions of the past.
You may have heard of C.S.Lewis’ illustration. You have joined a conversation at 10 p.m. that has been going on since 7 p.m. and so you are not understanding the dynamics and the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem very ordinary produce gales of laughter or cries of disagreement. The reason is that the earlier stages of the conversation have given those statements a colouring or a special point, but you can’t understand this because you weren’t there. If you had been then you also would have been indignant or enthusiastic – if you’d been present from the beginning, because then you’d have known the real significance of what was being said. That is how we can face and judge the maelstrom of religious ideas that we meet today both on a popular and scholarly level. Our only safety is in the standard of historic Christianity, the great confessions of faith, and the champions of orthodoxy that God has given to his people through the ages, this river of grace that has refreshed hymnists and preachers and theologians and missionaries through the centuries. It is thus that the controversies of the moment are put in perspective. We need such a perspective also because we confessional Christians are not without error. We need enlightenment and direction. God does have more understanding to bring out of his Word. Let me use an illustration.
Think of how rivers can become sluggish and start to meander. They seem to be going round almost in circles, with little vital progress. Then a mighty flood occurs and straightens them out with a powerful flow of directness and urgency. A narrow neck is broken through and this leaves behind an ox-bow lake, while the river itself flows on. Such stretches of water can develop some fascinating features. An ox-bow lake has its own life and water composition, plant forms and kinds of fish, but it now has nothing to do with the river. The river has passed it by. So it is with religious institutions that once were in the mighty flow of the river of grace. They used to be vital training schools of the prophets, sending preachers into the nation and missionaries into the world. Today they are ox-bow lakes, utterly incidental to the flow of sheer, vertical, sovereign grace. They have their own life, and they can be studied, their fauna and flora, their history and contemporary ethos. Books and learned theses are written about their origin, history, controversies and decline, but that has all become incidental and virtually irrelevant to the churches’ vital service, evangelism and growth. Neo-orthodoxy has never raised up a national evangelist. Has the religion of an ox-bow lake ever produced a local pastor with a vital awakening ministry?
Let me remind you of an induction service of a new professor in Princeton Seminary in November 1877 with Dr W. M. Paxton preaching and his famous conclusion:
The name of this Seminary is known in all the world. Its chief distinction is its biblical teaching. The ground of its faith is the Bible. Its only question is: ‘What has God said?’ Its only proof is God’s Word. Its professors have never reached the point of thinking that they knew more than the Bible. This Seminary has always taught that there are but two questions to be considered: (1) Is this the Word of God? And (2) What does it mean? This ascertained, there is nothing left but to believe and adore.
I hope that those words have often been quoted at these Commencements and will never be disdained.
The best contribution I can make to Westminster Seminary is to be the man of God I must be in my small town 3000 miles away. To visit the dying, and occasionally preach at the crossroads in the middle of town, between the bank and the Welsh book shop and there give out leaflets and tracts alongside my grandson who is the president of the Intervarsity group in the university, and preach the gospel from my 140 year old pulpit with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven. If a time came to favour us with a divine visitation then the global village would know of it within 24 hours. So too the events of this blessed institution are known world-wide, its image is revered as a custodian of supernatural religion. What is said in its lecture rooms is known in Wales a week later. Welsh Christians can benefit mightily from your insights and encouragements. Let us cry to God for his blessing and illumination.
Let me exhort you to thank God if he has put you in that river of living grace. There is no greater privilege than to be a pastor-preacher. In the para-church there is extraordinary fascination and vitality (but also there can be self-promotion), and you may well be drawn into some of its ministries, but consider the rich diversity and satisfaction of the work of the local minister. He teaches the Bible to all ages and states of men and women, boys and girls. He lives on to see the fruit of his ministry in their lives. He evangelizes, visits the dying, counsels, writes, organizes, goes to people’s homes, inspires, rebukes, stirs things up and cools things down, involves himself with the affairs of his congregation and denomination, attends conferences, assemblies and serves on committees. There is no richer or happier life. Its foundation is the donation of the ascended, reigning Lord who gives some pastors and teachers. Its boundaries and priorities are defined by the apostolic conviction, ‘We will give ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.’ Its sustenance is the divine river of grace. God never puts us where he is not present and where his grace cannot keep us. God never gives graces that he does not intend to be used for his glory and the good of his people. There is a need everywhere for sensible, caring, sound and holy ministers of the new covenant. God is their all sufficiency. May you be satisfied with him and be kept by him for long, enriching lives of Christian service. Prepare for the blessedness of such a vocation by daily appropriating your great High Priest.
On Eagles’ Wings January 20, 2023
In Exodus 19:4 God says that he bore his people on eagles’ wings. What does that mean? It’s a picture he returns to in Deuteronomy 32:11, where he says he dealt with Israel Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on […]
A Pastoral Mistake January 19, 2023
I often make the same pastoral mistake. It is not deliberate, it is often well-intentioned, sometimes it is even hopeful. It is this: to presume upon the biblical knowledge of the people to whom I speak. I do not at all mean by this to deliver a backhanded insult, appearing to confess a shortcoming of […]