Aspects of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones' Legacy: Some Personal Observations
It is hard for anyone who did not grow up in England or Wales during the period 1950 - 1981 adequately to appreciate the dominant influence of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on British Nonconformist Evangelicalism. His preaching at Westminster Chapel, his extensive itinerant ministry, his chairmanship of the Puritan/Westminster Conferences and the Westminster Fellowship, as well as his literary output, made his authority inescapable. As a child of seven or eight I was enthralled as I listened to his sermon on the Rich Fool. His forcefully repeated words, "Thou fool! This night!" sent a chill up my spine never forgotten, making his sermon one of the earliest spiritual influences I can recall. His pastoral touch extended far beyond Westminster Chapel. As tea was served after a meeting in Shropshire, my mother once found herself elbow to elbow with the doctor. He asked if she had children. She said two sons training for the ministry at the South Wales Bible College. Years later, in a very different context, he remembered and asked how we were getting on.
There was also an attractive and infectious good humour about him. In his itinerant ministry the doctor excepted a large pulpit type Bible to be provided, but at a meeting in Ripon, Yorkshire, an oversight meant the Bible was absent. A friend of mine offered the use of his large Schofield Bible and afterward asked Lloyd-Jones to commemorate the event by autographing it. With a twinkle in his eye, he complied. It was then mischievously used as evidence that the Schofield Bible had at last been given Lloyd-Jones' imprimatur. On the other hand, people were powerfully impressed with his sense of gravity. Some family acquaintances once attended at a meeting in Belfast at which he refused to preach at all, owing to the inordinate amount of time lost to trivial preliminaries such as testimonies and solos. Such things endeared him to serious Christians everywhere. And then there were his books. As they came hot off the press, my father, like so many others, avidly devoured The Sermon on the Mount, the successive volumes of Romans and Ephesians, Faith on Trial, and Preaching and Preachers. Perhaps most appealing to those disillusioned with the state of the British church at the time was ML-J's contagious longing for revival and the godliness which he hoped might be its precursor and would be its aftermath.
It is evident that I grew up in a home where it would have been disloyal to have uttered any negative opinion against Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones. But as a young Christian, trying to grapple with questions of baptism and ecclesiology, I found his reticence on these matters immensely frustrating. Other sources of help had to be found, and I turned to the incisive John Murray, and turned out a convinced and comfortable Presbyterian. My mind has often returned to ML-J's attitude to these questions and at times I have speculated on what might have been his rationale for this seemingly calculated ambivalence.
Who knows what Lloyd-Jones privately thought about baptism and ecclesiology? It stretches credulity to think that as a man who had opinions on most things -- from how often one should bathe or shower to the composer whose music was most conducive to concentration -- could possibly have been indifferent to such important issues. What we do know is his public stance. I have come to believe that it might be best to view Lloyd-Jones' public statements as in some sense interim. Acutely aware of their potential explosiveness, I believe he wanted British evangelicals to set these matters to one side and, in a spirit of cooperation, attempt to create circumstances favourable to the coming of revival. I'm not convinced either that he was looking for some settled parachurch federation, as has been suggested, but rather interim fellowships, perhaps modelled loosely on the Methodist society, itself originally a tentative arrangement.
Surely, he wanted to see fellowships formed of serious-minded Christians who were not distracted by programmes, plans and campaigns, but who rejoiced in the kind of preaching that he believed heralded revival, called on God in earnest prayer and lived in loving fellowship. These groups should advertise themselves simply as Evangelical Churches. When asked if that was sufficiently descriptive, the doctor argued that it was, adding, that when people wanted to know what you believed, you invited them to come and find out. To use an illustration he so often favoured, it seems to me that Dr. Lloyd-Jones saw the formation of such fellowships across England and Wales as laying a fire, putting together the paper, sticks and coals, ready for the ignition of revival to fall. In a revived state, and only in that state, might the Church be able properly to deal with such potentially conflict-ridden issues of ecclesiology and the sacraments.
Inevitably, questions arise both as to the general soundness of this advice and the ability of ML-J's followers to execute it. I think answers may be explored in two areas: first, the short history of the Lloyd-Jonesian independent Evangelical Churches, and, second, the influence of ex-Westminster Chapel members and adherents on the congregations in which they settled.
Although I was never a member of such a fellowship as Dr Lloyd-Jones advocated, I frequently visited them, even as they were being formed, and, later, preached in a number. Though attempts were invariably made to replicate the doctor's style of preaching generally it was poorly done. In the hands of less able preachers, exposition at a snail's pace through the major epistles is inclined to become both tedious and narcissistic. Fancying themselves as virtuosos of expository preaching, some of his devotees even flattered themselves on their ability to preach a sermon on the significance of a punctuation mark! Interestingly, however, the doctor's ambivalence on ecclesiastical and sacramental matters was rarely evident. I never found them indifferent to the question of baptism: the greater majority were persuaded immersionist credobaptists. Nor did I ever find them apathetic to questions of ecclesiology. The majority were confirmed independents, comfortably at home in the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC).
Arguably, it was the few Presbyterians, garnered from the Welsh Presbyterian Church in the late sixties and early seventies, who lost most by following ML-J's advice. Perhaps, this might not have mattered over much if the goal of revival had been attained, but it was not. During a week in the 1980s, in which he preached in my congregation in Northern Ireland, I once held a number of very frank conversations with a leading member of that first generation of seceders from the Welsh Presbyterian Church. He admitted disappointment that the formation of a confessional Presbyterian Church in Wales had never been adequately explored. The ex-Presbyterian Lloyd-Jonesian evangelical churches in Wales, he lamented, might be thankful for their Forward Movement Presbyterian credentials and for large parts of the 1823 Confession of Faith of the Calvinistic Methodists of the Presbyterian Church of Wales, but Presbyterians they were not, nor likely ever to become. Most of all, he complained that the doctrine of covenantal baptism had been virtually extinguished by being designated a personal preference, rather than a Church sacrament. It would seem that implementing the doctor's advice led not to revival, but to baptistic independency.
A second area that might repay research is the influence of ML-J's followers as they spread out from Westminster Chapel to churches across Britain. As they settled into other congregations, many were exceedingly hard to please. Instead of being the stay and support of weaker churches and less gifted ministers, these people often manifested a tendency to compare everything unfavourably to the Chapel and to Dr. Lloyd-Jones' ministry. Invariably outspoken, they were by turns irascible, restless, divisive, and, sometimes, subversive of church constitutions that did not give them the 'wriggle room' on matters of government and baptism to which they had become accustomed. Their influence thoroughly disheartened ministers and disrupted congregations who could not live up to their unrealistic expectations. Having said that, this generalisation ought not blind us to some very gracious and wonderfully supportive former members of Westminster Chapel, but as far as I can see they were the exception and did not counterbalance the effect of those who could not see beyond ML-J.
Dr Lloyd-Jones died on Sunday 1st March, 1981. I well remember announcing his passing to an emotional evening congregation. Two decades later came the end of the twentieth century; a century unique in the history of Britain as the only one since the Reformation without national revival. Today, many of the separatist fellowships established on the advice of Lloyd-Jones have become conventional independent congregations of baptistic persuasion. Thankfully, the influence of his more fractious followers is fading as that generation passes away. Looking back, it was, I suspect, the development of a sectarian spirit built on a personality cult, which he never sought and would have greatly deplored, that aborted his greatest hopes. Perhaps also on the wane is belief in the importance of a Great Leader, God's man for the hour. On the other hand, it may be that his ideas have not yet found their time nor come into their own. Perchance the Church is still too fond of attempting to find solutions to its own problems and has not yet come to an end of itself. As Britain slips inexorably towards its likely dénouement as a disunited group of atheistic republics, and as its national Churches stand in jeopardy of having their candlesticks removed, we dare not lose sight of Martyn Lloyd-Jones' confidence in God's intervention, in answer to prayer, as the true remedy for spiritual decline. If his message had currency in the 1960s and 70s, how much more relevant is it today.
John S. Ross is a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, currently teaching Church History and Missiology at Dumisani Theological Institute, King William's Town, South Africa. Over the last thirty years he has served in Nigeria, Northern Ireland, in Jewish Evangelism and latterly as minister of Greyfriars Free Church of Scotland, Inverness.
John Ross, "Aspects of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' Legacy: Some Personal Observations", Reformation21 (March 2010)
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