Many American churches annually celebrate Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Castle Church, Wittenberg on October 31 1517. It was the Reformer’s protest against the scandals of the indulgence traffic. The Reformed and Presbyterian congregations hold a Reformation Sunday on the last Sunday in October. A number of Baptist churches do the same. In eleven years’ time it will be the five hundredth anniversary service of that event. I have just watched a DVD on Luther which I found accurate and moving.
I had been invited to Laurel, Mississippi, to speak along with Joel Beeke at a week-end Reformation Celebration at the Aubudon Drive Bible Church pastored by Jerry Marcelino. He has been there for fourteen years having pastored a church in Baltimore for five years before that time. He has seven children, five boys and two girls. It was winsome to see a pew full of those professing Christian children with him and his wife right at the front of the church. The congregation has also launched the Aubudon Press, eight books having appeared, six new ones this year including their first hardback, a two volume memoir (1100 pages) of the life and labours of Adorinam Judson now given the title Pulling the Eye Tooth from a Live Tiger. This is the first time in 150 years for these volumes to be reprinted. It is a great achievement and indicates the serious-mindedness of the press. The new title comes from a phrase of Judson’s where he was writing of the difficulty of winning a Burmese man for Christ; “When any person is known to be considering the new Religion all his relations and acquaintance rise en masse; so that to get a new convert is like pulling out the eye-tooth of a live tiger.” Judson went to Burma in 1812, compiled a Burmese-English dictionary. In 1826 he lost his wife and two children. He remarried but his second wife died in 1845. Judson married again, but in 1850 he died at sea aged 62.
The church is discerning, warm and full of children and their families. I guess there were about 200 at the opening meeting on Friday night. Joel spoke on such subjects as the History and Spirit of the Reformed Faith, John Calvin as an Evangelist, The Puritans on Sanctification, the Five Solas of the Reformation and the Imperative of the Reformed Faith. There are few men who can speak on such themes in a living way full of application. Sinclair Ferguson can do it, and Bob Godfrey excels in the Reformation period, but Joel moves seamlessly on from Reformers to the Puritans a century later showing the same gospel themes which both groups preached. I spoke on Scripture infallibility, authority and sufficiency and so on. Some were better preached than others. I wish I had wrapped up the Conference on a more powerful note. I’m often like the Thermopylae minister:
A pastor who preached in Thermopylae
Could never take conferences properly.
It is delightful hearing Joel speak of his pilgrimage. In his background a reverence for God and an awareness that salvation is of the Lord had resulted in a denial of the desire of God to see all men saved, Jesus Christ was not offered to men to become their Saviour. His conversion as a teenager surprised the whole family and was greeted with a measure of suspicion. Old people joined the church and came to the Table, never teenagers. God helped him with tender wonderful answers to prayer – the discovery of a lost car key in the middle of a forest. His father’s example of consistent godliness was terrific. He was a carpenter and one summer when he worked with him his father said to him as they began working, “Here is a hammer and it is designed to hit nails; here is a saw and it is designed to cut a board. Don’t try to use a saw to hit a nail nor us a hammer to cut a board. So you too have been made by God for a special purpose – to glorify and serve him.”
His conversations on planes are also humbling. He recently talked to a girl who is nominally R.C. but disenchanted with it. She would like to become a Protestant but that would offend her mother who was a more earnest R.C. But Joel urged her not to use her mother’s feelings to prevent her coming to the truth. He spoke at length to her and then sent her some literature. She wrote to him a week or so later, devouring the literature and wanting more, but more wonderful was her mother’s response, she too had read it and it transpired was as unhappy with Rome as her daughter. She too wanted more.
On the plane home from Jackson to Atlanta I sat across the aisle opposite a student reading a New Testament Greek primer. “What seminary do you attend?” I asked him. It was the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville. I mentioned the men I know there, Tom Nettles, Al Mohler and Don Whitney. I commended to him Dr Lloyd-Jones’s Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. He had not heard of either the author or the title. We had a good visit for that hour and 25 minutes.
The next section of the journey was quite different. On the London-bound plane an older man sat next to me, unsmiling and non-talkative. I made some small talk but he said little. He wanted to watch the movie but grew tired of it and we slept. In the morning – after a few hours of darkness, he got up and brought down from the overhead compartment his Bible. I did not recognise the version and I asked him what denomination he was. Roman Catholic, and ernest. He never mentioned his wife; he read the Bible for 30 or 40 minutes. He has a place in his home where he sits each morning and there he reads the Scripture. He meets with 16 or so men each Thursday at 6 a.m. for discussion. Fascinating. I was reading Edwards and showed him one part where Edwards commends daily Bible reading. The man commended his church to me. He may well have been a true Christian – just as long as all his hopes were in the Redeemer, and sadly I never got into that area. We had a happy conversation but I never made the progress that Joel made. He was dealing with a seeker but I was dealing with someone who thought he had found it all.
I am overwhelmingly a fan of the USA. I love its wide streets, its food, especially its crab gratin, mashed potato, its vegetables and fruit, its hugeness and wide open spaces. I love its service, its value for money, its opportunities. I love its conspicuous consumption. I love its homes and bathrooms, the clothes its men wear both casual and formal. I love the cities’ steaming manholes in winter. I love the American accent and their turn of phrase. What a privilege to have friends all across the states and churches where I can preach to well taught godly men and women. I love its seminaries and their scholars who send their books to be published by our UK presses. I love its Christian schools. I love its non-Anglicanness. I don’t love US visa queues, the long forest lined motorways . . . mile after mile after mile. I hate its political correctness, conspicuous consumption and the fuss about politicians and politics and elections. I love its spiritual people, its large families, but I’m not fussed about the serious hair of the women. I am sorry about the way Iraq is sucking in all our attention both there and here. What did the news programmes used to talk about?
I come back refreshed and thankful to God that they love Britain. More love than hates, by far.