The president of the Christian Union – the IVCF – at Lampeter University called me to ask if I could take part on 8th February in "Grill a Christian." A University was established in Lampeter in 1822 to prepare clergymen for the Anglican Church. So it is the oldest in Wales , almost fifty years older than the next one to have been set up which was at Aberystwyth. Today it is a liberal arts college with two thousand students. Lampeter has a population of three or four thousand people and is inland from Aberystwyth about a 45 minute drive. There were a few keen students thirty years ago who would drive to worship with us each Sunday morning, but their desire was to establish a free grace testimony in Lampeter which eventually they did. It still exists, though inevitably having passed through a number of trials. Dr. Gareth Edwards, who was the leading student who set up the church, is a pastor in Haverford West and a dear friend to this day. There is also a Pentecostal church in Lampeter which was set up a couple of years earlier. The town is at the heart of the most Unitarian area of Wales .
So off I went to that event, thinking I was going to be in the hot seat with questions coming from all directions. "You’ll enjoy that," one of my members said with a knowing look. Of course. No preparation needed – except the forty years of preparing three messages a week. I got there to discover that there were three others on the panel, two students and the CU staff worker Sian who is a member of our congregation. So we four, plus Tim Pickles the chairman, sat behind the tables on one side of the table and the ten students who attended sat on the other side. "Welcome," said Tim, "Any questions?" Now when I have been to Lampeter in the recent past the chairman of the Christian Union has begun with an embarrassingly stupid question, "If you were not a minister what animal would you like to be?" Oh dear. When I told the Aberystwyth students here about this they nodded quietly; "they also ask what vegetable or fruit you would like to be," they warned me. Where does this sort of thing come from? Why does it catch on? Imagine a press conference questioning a cabinet minister and beginning with such trivia. But none of this folly that night, and the majestic questions starting rolling in from the magnificent ten.
"How could evil have ever originated if a holy God made everything? Should women preach in church? Do you pray to the Virgin Mary? How can you reconcile the sovereignty of God with man’s responsibility? Doesn’t ultimate authority lie with the church as it determines the canon of Scripture, rather than with the Bible? Is the Pope the anti-Christ?" On and on like that, for two hours. Yup. The pattern of questions was established early on in the meeting; the three others being asked to give their generally sensible answers first of all and then I was turned to. I, of course, went on and on and on. I tried to be good; I can only plead some thought on those subjects for years, and a considered response. The dynamics of the meeting were affected by the presence of a humanist student, a pretty able guy, and two Roman Catholic students. They were great kids, nice looking, earnest and gracious. They did help the discussion to be civilised. They made a vital contribution. I was conscious of how much it had become a "Geoff Thomas shows how smart he is" occasion by the end and so I hung around and ate popcorn with them and spoke to the humanist and the Roman Catholic boys and the other panel members and Tim Pickles (who is going into the army) and anyone standing alone. I apologised if I had dominated or been too sharp, but they did not think so, which was kind of them. I was the age of their grandfathers. I drove Sian back to Aberystwyth by 10.15 and we went over things a bit. She is a gem working for a year with the Christians at the university here. It was her first introduction to the Christian Union at Lampeter.
The previous week we had had a day conference in Bala of the evangelical ministers of North Wales . Twenty four ministers turned up; all the non-retired ministers present have started since I have been in Aberystwyth and it has been grand to see the spread of the truth and the establishment of free grace churches across the former wilderness of north Wales . The work has been slow; this is a day of small things, but not a day of nothing at all. The men there at the present are deeply theological and thoughtful men. The principal of the London Theological Seminary, Philip Eveson, was the speaker on the theme of justification in the light of the new perspective on the apostle Paul especially challenging Tom Wright’s reconstruction of Paul. This new movement teaches justification by works, universal covenant grace to every child of believing parents if not to every person sprinkled with water in the name of the triune God, and an election unto grace that fails to save. It confuses justification and sanctification as the Roman church does. "Justification is never merely declaring a verdict," it says. ‘Merely?’ Merely? For the Judge of all the earth to declare me righteous is a pretty tremendous verdict I reckon. Merely! Do they know the terrors of a divine condemnation? They also teach say that justification is also a sanctifying work of God enabling a sinner to perform good works which then become part of his righteousness with God – as Rome has been teaching for hundreds of years. This heresy is deep and broad. It penetrates the heart of the gospel, but it has not made much progress in our little Principality where we’re labouring hard to survive, but we do survive. The new perspective would be our death knell. Philip Eveson was in cracking form. What a loss he will be to the London Seminary in the next couple of years when he retires.
I enjoyed some things that a Protestant Reformed man wrote recently about the focus of the hope for the future of the church of Jesus Christ in Wales , that it lies in powerful, sound, biblical, confessional and doctrinal preaching. That is how the Reformation of the sixteenth century came. Only by fiery and faithful preachers instructing the people in truth by way of expository sermons can a new reformation come about. I agree. The need is for congregations of the faithful to be established according to principles of New Testament church government in the context of word-centred worship. Then churches will arise from the ashes. I was glad to read all of that, but not his evident disdain for the need of a great awakening. I have sought to preach in the way he commends throughout my ministry, but my impact on the community has b
een minimal and there is no fear of God in the land. I once said forty years ago that if ten men were converted from the world to Jesus Christ in this town it would make an enormous impact. I have yet to see that. The coming of the soundest theology must be accompanied by the coming of the convicting life-giving Spirit. When this brother says about a great awakening, "Pinning all their hopes for the future of the church in Wales on revival they are fastening their hopes on a mirage" then he is speaking ignorantly and too severely. He is writing out of the abundance of the North American context into the wilderness of the European situation.
Iain Murray writes some helpful things in the March edition of the Banner of Truth magazine, which is the 25th anniversary edition celebrating the death of Dr. Lloyd Jones. Iain writes, “We have allowed too much to divert us from this emphasis on revival in Lloyd-Jones’ ministry. Sometimes the diversion has to do with discussion over the exegesis of particular texts, as though his point depended on one or two verses. Sometimes the diversion has to do with confusion over revival, as if the issue could be reduced to the question, ‘Do you believe in revival?’ That question is not as straghtforward as it might appear. Some think that in Dr Lloyd-Jones’ teaching we are shown how the church or nation can experience 1742, or 1859, or 1904 again today. Others, doubting, say, ‘We have prayed for revival for thirty years and have not seen it.’
“Both parties are wrong. The New Testament teaching on the Spirit is related to individuals or individual churches. There is no promise, for instance, that if the church at Ephesus recovers her first love there will be ‘revival’ across Asia Minor . Promises are not to geographical regions. It is true the word ‘revival’ has generally been understood to speak of a widespread work of grace, but the New Testament emphasis is on the giving of the Spirit in individual and local situations. The promise is not that God will give ‘revival’ to those who ask him, but that he will, not may, ‘give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him’ (Luke 11:13). These further givings of the Spirit, to be received from Christ, are not in order that believers might have happy experiences. They are given that God may be glorified in all the varied circumstances appointed for his people: it may be to endure suffering with patience and joy (Col. 1:11), or for greater boldness in witness (Acts 4:29). An infilling of the love of God meets all eventualities.
“Of course, Dr Lloyd-Jones believed that God may so bestow his Spirit upon many at the same time (the traditional meaning of revival). But he did not teach that enduements of the Spirit belong only to times of revival. As in the New Testament, the point of his teaching was for the individual and the local situation. There can be personal ‘awakening’ to the glory of Christ and a local giving of the Spirit. This he saw, this he knew; and for him this was the essential for churches to be brought into closer approximation to the New Testament. The Christian’s love and compassion to the souls of men are the overflow of Christ’s greater love. Evangelism is not to be postponed until there is another revival. Spirit-filled Christians are to be an evangelistic force at this present time, and to question that possibility is to cast doubt upon the word of Christ. Man-centredness and low views of God, arising from remaining indwelling sin, are our great enemies. If any message comes to us this quarter century after Lloyd-Jones’s death, it should be, ‘Cease from man.’ ‘From whence cometh my help? My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.’ The effect of his help is to humble, to restore the true fear of God, and to put us in constant dependence upon him. ‘God is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.’”
A group of men at the Baptist Tabernacle in Blackpool established The Biblical Library in a part of that magnificent Victorian building. They hold quarterly study days and on Saturday I gave three papers from 11 to 3 pm on Horatius and Andrew Bonar and in the afternoon on Robert Murray M’Cheyne. I left Aberystwyth at 6 a.m. and saw the dawn rise on a bright winter morning, the fields white with frost, the sheep huddled still together. It was magnificent. I got to Lancashire in plenty of time. There were fifty people gathered together from Yorkshire, Manchester and Liverpool , many of whom were known to me. There was a good happy spirit. The weakest of my papers was on Andrew Bonar through lack of preparation, while the life of M’Cheyne moved me again. In the next 8 years we shall be celebrating the bi-centenary of the birth of those three men. I expect there will be fresh insights in some of the papers and books devoted to them.
I went on to Lancaster after the meetings were over to the 25th Anniversary of the founding of the Free Grace Church. I met the leaders of the Lancaster Church at a Banner of Truth family conference in Largs , Scotland , in 1969 when Al Martin was the main speaker. Four Christian couples longed for a free grace witness to be established in this university community of Lancaster . They began by holding monthly rallies which I addressed once a year for a number of years. “Why have this teaching just once a month? It is needed twice a Sunday,” they agreed. Then in 1980 they covenanted together to start a church; Stuart Olyott and Erroll Hulse preached at its opening. Soon they bought their own building, a former Co-op grocery shop. Then they called Phil Arthur to be their p
astor. What a splendid ministry he has. There were eighty present on Sunday morning and over fifty in the night. Nine years ago they planted a church in Ulverston across Morecambe Bay led by one of their members, Steve Wood, and that has been blessed and has grown to 18 members with three elders and a deacon. They themselves are now praying about planting a church in Barrow, a larger town a little further away. When the Lancaster congregation sent that group of members to Ulverston they felt the pain of numerical decline for some years. At such times the leaders must not loose heart or nerve, and trust in the word and Spirit to build a congregation once again, and that indeed happened. It was enormously encouraging to be with them.