THE SALISBURY CONFERENCE, THE THEME OF THE JUDGMENT OF GOD, A VISIT TO ULSTER AND A BURGLAR ON MY BIRTHDAY
This autumn is special meeting and conference time. There have been trips to London and I was preaching near Catrin and Ian Friday and Saturday in early October in Wiltshire. I was speaking at the old ‘Corsham Bible Witness’ which no longer meets in the Town Hall in that village but is now held in a modern church building in Chippenham. We have developed the pattern of calling in at a Chinese restaurant for a take-away at the end of the evening, and then Ian and Catrin give up their bedroom and en suite for us – so kind. Ian then makes pancakes for breakfast Saturday morning covered in fresh strawberries, but this Saturday there was something else. The tenth Salisbury Conference was taking place. I had never been, and was in the area and the speaker was an old friend Sam Waldron from Kentucky. The three lectures he was giving were all on important subjects, the new perspective on Paul, the new covenant theology and its view of the law, and finally the claims for the continuance of the miraculous and redemptive gifts. So we took the 45 minute drive south to the beautiful city of Salisbury – as did 200 other people making it the largest number in the ten years of the conference’s history to be in attendance. I appreciated Sam’s messages and have summarised them and sent the summary to the Banner of Truth website. They are there for all to read. They were basic theological statements of the better way found in the old truths, well preached and well heard.
We got home to Aberystwyth on Saturday night at 9 p.m. I was ready for Sunday and was glad to see at the morning service how the increased numbers have kept up. Most of the first year students have returned and are settling into the congregation and now some second and third years are joining us with some hunger for Bible food. I am still preaching through the Flood in the morning service while in the evening Romans 14 is bringing my attention to one great truth after another. I want to preach them experientially; I sat with one student for an hour today. He feels he has left his love for the Lord. He was in church on Sunday night, and wanted to benefit from the sermon on the dying and rising of the Lord Jesus, but was unmoved. I take it responsibly – as we must – and want to touch him next Sunday. We all long for burning hearts.
Can you believe that it is almost fifty years since the Banner of Truth printed Thomas Watson’s A Body of Divinity? I remember the world it opened up of fresh living theology full of practical counsel and understanding. I soon shall reach the verses in which Paul proceeds to speak of the Day of Judgment. You know those fearful words, “we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: ‘As surely as I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’ So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.” When I read them I remembered how A Body of Divinity ends, with three or four pages on the Day of Judgment. Though it has been many years since I first read them that long ago impact lingers on. I just went upstairs to the top floor, got Watson off the shelf and read those paragraphs through again, and was touched, thank God. I could see that there will be much help from them for preparation for Sunday. I wondered what other Puritan works will present the living thoughts of their authors on this theme. I found a convicting few pages on the day of judgment in George Bethune’s Lectures on the Heidelberg Catechism – the opening pages of the second volume – what a beautiful preachy style. Robert Martin’s index book (so valuable) lists in two pages messages and books on judgment from Bunyan, Bates, Baxter, Boston, Brooks and Burroughs through Edwards and then John Newton – a long letter on the question whether the sins of believers shall be publicly declared at the great day – via Griffin, Payson, and Ryle to Paul Helm. Enough!
So I got cracking on Wednesday, and then disaster struck. Computers are wonderful when they are working . . . and so what went wrong with mine? The socket to receive the lead which charges the battery was giving me constant trouble and it was fixed for the third time on Monday. On Wednesday I completed that sermon on the Judgment Seat of Christ, but when on Thursday morning I tried to check the sermon out and improve it the machine wouldn’t switch on. It has been in the repair shop ever since and so on Sunday I preached a message which I had preached years before to the church. I explained to them how this came about. I believe the old sermon did good; it was God’s way of bringing those truths on that Sunday to the congregation. Now I await a call from the repair shop to explain what the situation is with the lap-top – all my peerless thoughts . . . locked up on some implacable hard drive.
I had had no time to rewrite it because I had another sermon to prepare on Genesis on Thursday and then I took the train to Birmingham airport on Friday and flew to Belfast in the afternoon. I spoke at a Congregational Church conference on the three friends, Horatius Bonar, Andrew Bonar and Robert Murray M’Cheyne. The Horatius Bonar message was on Friday night and it was the weakest I’ve given it. I think it was the sight of four teenage boys in one pew and my wish to communicate to them that affected me. Maybe then I made it simplistic; I patronised the audience. I had worked on the message on Andrew Bonar for Saturday morning, reading that magnificent diary, and there was so much in that talk that was fresh for me. Of course the life of M’Cheyne is tremendously moving. What new material has come out on him in the past few years. Two new biographies, which I bought in the conference, and half a dozen books of his sermons, three or four of which have never before appeared – all taken from his archives in New College, Edinburgh.
At 1.20 the pastor took me back to Belfast City Airport (where he had picked me up the previous day) and I waited in line to check in. I gave in my passport but there was no name ‘Geoff Thomas’ on the list of passengers. “Can I see your booking form?” he asked and I handed it to him. He searched it out for a minute. “This is the wrong airport,” he said. “You are flying from Belfast International.” So off I went at a brisk walk to find a taxi, and soon we were speeding along the 20 miles to the other airport. “It happens all the time,” said the driver. We made it; £30 less well off for the taxi fare I checked in at the desk and arrived in Birmingham at 4.30. The next handicap to overcome was engineering works on the railway line between Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury. Off to Wolverhampton station car park and bus station I walked to stand at the end of a long line of 75 dispirited and grumbling people waiting for a bus. That sight of their complaining faces was enough to cheer me up. I have learned to be content in whatsoever state I am. Would we make it for the train connection from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth? After 45 minutes I got on a bus and the young driver drove forcefully and firstl
y in and out of Telford depositing and picking up passengers, and again at Wellington. I had less than fifteen minutes to get to Shrewsbury station for the Aber. train; surely not; but Jehu did it with five minutes to spare. I was home by 9.30 to a newly decorated hall . . . the things Iola gets up to when I go off for 36 hours.
That was not the end of this full week-end. The Lord was with us in the services, though there were some I had hoped would be there who were absent. It has been 40 years of such disappointments and joy – as it must be in a fallen world – disappointments by the spoonful and joy by the ladleful. We had four great young people for lunch and over a dozen students returned for the fellowship in the Manse until they left at 10.30. When we went into the kitchen Sunday night the little window was right down and some plants had been knocked off the shelf. We had had a burglar, but he had only taken £12 from Iola’s purse, and nothing else. No mess. He had not taken her credit cards – and all my books were safe!!!! We must lock that window next time. It is called closing the stable door after the horse has gone . . .
It also happened to be my birthday; 68 years of age, and the four ladies in my life gave me such sweet gifts and good wishes. Loads of people in the congregation wished me many happy returns, and the students sang Happy Birthday last night. What fun. Poor burglar; he will get caught one day and then what a desperate future for him. I was glad neither of us surprised him; it would have been upsetting for us and would I want to put someone behind bars for taking £10?