Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Holy Spirit and Working With Christians from Other Denominations

The following is an extended quote from Iain Murray's most excellent work, Revival and Revivalsim (Banner of Truth, 1994. Pages 26-30).

Murray is describing one of the primary effects of genuine, Spirit-wrought revival - true Christians of different stripe working together for the progress of the Gospel. Reminds you of something, doesn't it?

"If love is the gift of the Spirit, it follows that an eminent degree of the Holy Spirit’s working will be marked by eminent degrees of love between Christians. A narrow party spirit cannot coexist with a larger giving of the Spirit whose communion extends to the whole body of Christ. Exclusive attention to denominational interests may prevail among Christians in a period of spiritual decline; it never does so in days of enlarged blessing. Thus Davies, like Whitefield[1] and other evangelical leaders, was marked by catholicity of spirit to a conspicuous degree. Some of the most fervent words he ever wrote were called forth by the suggestion that he was primarily interested in building dissent from the Church of England in Virginia. He wrote to the Bishop of London on that subject:

For my farther vindications, my lord, I beg leave to declare that in all the sermons I have preached in Virginia, I have not wasted one minute in exclaiming or reasoning against the peculiarities of the established church; nor so much assigned the reasons of my own non-conformity. I have not exhausted my zeal in railing against the established clergy, in exposing their imperfections, or in depreciating their characters. No, my lord, I have matters of infinitely greater importance to exert my zeal and spend my time and strength upon; — To preach repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ — to alarm secure impenitents; to reform the profligate; to undeceive the hypocrite; to raise up the hands that hang down.

These are the ends I pursue and if ever I divert from these to ceremonial trifles, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.[2]

Davies went on to declare that he made no effort to win over any true Christian from the Church of England and that he would rather that men were ‘made members of the church triumphant in the regions of bliss’ by the preaching of a minister of the Church of England than that they should remain unconverted in a Presbyterian church. But it was his distress that the clergy of Virginia did not prepare men for eternity:

I find to my sorrowful surprise, that the generality of them, as far as can be discovered by their common conduct and public ministrations, are stupidly serene and unconcerned, as though their hearers were crowding promiscuously to heaven, and there were little or no danger; — that they address themselves to perishing multitudes in cold blood, and do not represent their miserable condition in all its horrors; do not alarm them with solemn, pathetic and affectionate warnings, and expostulate with them with all the authority, tenderness and pungency of the ambassadors of Christ to a dying world, nor commend themselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God; that their common conversation has little or no savour of living religion . . . that instead of intense application to study, or teaching their parishioners from house to house, they waste their time in idle visits, trifling conversation, slothful ease, or at best, excessive activity about their temporal affairs ... The plain truth is, a general reformation must be promoted in this colony by some means or other, or multitudes are eternally undone: and I see alas! but little ground to hope for it from the generality of the clergy here, till they be happily changed themselves; this is not owing to their being of the Church of England, as I observed before: for were they in the Presbyterian Church, or any other, I should have no more hopes of their success; but it is owing to their manner of preaching and behaviour. This thought, my lord, is so far from being agreeable to me that it at times racks me with agonies of compassion and zeal intermingled: and could I entertain that unlimited charity which lulls so many of my neighbours into a serene stupidity, it would secure me from many a melancholy hour, and make my life below a kind of anticipation of heaven. I can boast of no high attainments, my lord; I am as mean and insignificant a creature as your lordship can well conceive me to be: but I dare profess I cannot be an unconcerned spectator of the ruin of my dear fellow mortals: I dare avow my heart at times is set upon nothing more than to snatch the brands out of the burning, before they catch fire and burn unquenchably. And hence, my lord, it is, I consume my strength and life in such great fatigues in this jangling ungrateful colony.’[3]

In these passages compassion for men and women are more prominent than catholicity, yet the two belong together, as Davies himself asserted elsewhere. He believed that a real concern to see people made Christians would keep believers from any primary desire to see their own denomination advanced. His own practice certainly exemplified that belief. His preaching in Virginia and North Carolina prepared the way for numbers of Christians who were to be of Baptist, Methodist, and other persuasions in their church connections. A few years later it was common for converts joining Baptist churches to say, ‘At such a time and place I heard the Rev. Mr Davies preach and had my mind deeply impressed.’[4] Had Davies given more prominence to the distinctives of his own church it would have been to the numerical advantage of the Presbyterians, but his prime concern was to serve a much greater cause. And he sought to implant that same cause in his hearers. In a sermon on Acts 11.26, ‘The Sacred Import of the Christian Name’, he argued:

What an endless variety of denominations, taken from some men of character, or from some little peculiarities, has prevailed in the Christian world, and crumbled it to pieces, while the Christian name is hardly regarded?. . . what party-names have been adopted by the Protestant churches, whose religion is substantially the same common Christianity, and who agree in much more important articles than in those they differ. To be a Christian is not enough now-a-days, but a man must also be something more and better; that is, he must be a strenuous bigot to this or that particular church.

Every man will find that he agrees more fully in lesser as well as more important articles with some particular church than others; and thereupon it is his duty to join in stated communion with that church; and he may, if he pleases, assume the name which that church wears, by way of distinction from others: this is not what I condemn. But for me to glory in the denomination of any particular church, as my highest character; to lay more stress, upon the name of a presbyterian or a churchman than on the sacred name of Christian; to make a punctilious agreement with my sentiments in the little peculiarities of a party the test of all religion; to make it the object of my zeal to gain proselytes to some other than the Christian name; to connive at the faults of those of my own party and to be blind to the good qualities of others, or invidiously to represent or diminish them: these are the things which deserve universal condemnation from God and man; these proceed from a spirit of bigotry and faction, directly opposite to the generous catholic spirit of Christianity, and subversive of it. This spirit hinders the progress of serious practical religion, by turning the attention of men from the great concerns of eternity, and the essentials of Christianity, to vain jangling and contest about circumstantials and trifles. Thus the Christian is swallowed up in the partisan, and fundamentals lost in extra-essentials...

Endeavour to find out the truth, even in these circumstantials, at least so far as is necessary for the direction of your own conduct. But do not make these the whole or the principal part of your religion: do not be excessively zealous about them, nor break the peace of the church by magisterially imposing them iupon others. ‘Hast thou faith in these little disputables,’ it is well; ‘but have it to thyself before God,’ and do not disturb others with it. You may, if you please, call yourselves presbyterians and dissenters, and you shall bear without shame or resentment all the names of reproach and contempt which the world may brand you with. But as you should not be mortified on the one side, so neither should you glory on the other. A Christian! a Christian! let that be your highest distinction, let that be the name which you labour to deserve. God forbid that my ministry should be the occasion of diverting your attention to anything else.’[5]

If this emphasis is the New Testament’s own emphasis, it may well be wondered why it has too often ceased to be as prominent in preaching as it was in the ministry of Davies and Whitefield. The answer is surely that catholicity thrives in the large measure of love that marks the churches in days when the Spirit of God is poured out. With few exceptions, the leaders of the work of God in days of revival have always been men of this type.

[1] ‘Happy they, who, with a disinterested view, take in the whole church militant, and, in spite of narrow-hearted bigots, breathe an undissembled catholic spirit towards all’; ‘Do not tell me you are a Baptist, an Independent, a Presbyterian, a Dissenter, tell me you are a christian, that is all I want; this is the religion of heaven and must be ours upon earth’. Works of Whitefield, vol. 2, p. 226; Sermons on Important Subjects (London, 1825), p. 684.

[2] Quoted in Foote, Sketches, p. 194. The letter, dated 10 January 1752, at Hanover, ‘was never submitted to the Bishop’s inspection’. Further on the above theme see Samuel Davies, Charity and Truth United; or, The Way of the Multitude Exposed in Six Letters to the Rev. Mr. William Stith, ed. T. C. Pears (Philadelphia: Department of History of the Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1941).

[3] Ibid., pp. 204—5.

[4] Quoted in ‘A Recovered Tract of President Davies’, Biblical Repertory (1837), pp. 349—64. Baptist causes spread rapidly in Virginia in the 176os and ‘70s, aided by preachers of similar spirit to Davies. Their liberty of worship was eloquently defended by Patrick Henry who sat under Davies’ ministry in his youth. See Foote, Sketches, pp. 314-18.

[5] Davies, vol. i, pp. 298—300."

This is a passage that deserves careful re-reading and prayer for the same to happen in our day and age!