THE CHANGING SCENE IN THE UNITED STATES by Iain Murray

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The Banner of Truth Magazine released an excerpt of "John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock" by Iain Murray. With kind permission of Steve Burlew (if you have not prayed with this man in the midst of a crowded and busy conference, you have not experienced it all), I offer the following with thanks.

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THE CHANGING SCENE IN THE UNITED STATES 1

 

Iain H. Murray

Author, Co-founder and Trustee of the Banner of Truth Trust

 

Nations do not stand still, and by the last decade of the twentieth century there was much evidence of moral collapse in an increasingly materialistic culture. An age had dawned in which traditional Christian values were being shunned by many in public life. 'What are Christians to do,' MacArthur asked in 1993, 'when the government allows the wholesale slaughter of babies, exalts homosexuality, and denigrates any kind of moral standard?' Answers to the situation were diverse. Some thought a public relations campaign should be a priority. Others advocated the need for more social action, and the organizing of political pressure with demonstrations and protests. There were not lacking those who thought that psychology or mysticism could aid in reversing the decline in Christian belief.

 

For John MacArthur such proposals were only adding to the confusion.

 

Not the reformation of culture but the salvation of men and women is the church's mandate. But too many churches lacked a sufficient hold on truth to fulfill such a calling. They lacked the faith to assert that from Scripture

 

we can understand the ebb and flow of life better than all the educators, philosophers, politicians and social pundits combined . . . A look at the trends sweeping today's churches demonstrates just how small a god we've fashioned. How else can we explain the boom in Christian psychology, flashy, Las Vegas-style worship services, and high-tech church growth seminars?

 

In the midst of change, MacArthur saw no need for faithful churches to change what they were already doing. If any new development was to come to the situation at large it would only be by the power of God upon the witness to Christ and his Word. By the 1990s there were signs of a hopeful new development, and on this we must now comment.

 

I have already noted2 that Fundamentalism, in which so much of evangelical witness was to be found, had broken into two branches in the 1960s: one belligerent towards any change, and the other (the 'new-evangelicalism' as it was sometimes called) anxious for status and academic respectability. MacArthur never belonged to the latter, and from the time of the Lordship controversy he had also parted from many in traditional fundamentalist circles. While some would have still identified him with Fundamentalism in the 1980s, the publication of The Gospel According to Jesus in 1988 made a division plain. As a consequence of this parting, he might have been left an individual, semi-isolated in a sphere of his own, had there not been a stirring that would take numbers of Christians in a new direction.

 

By the 1990s there were congregations, small and large, across the United States, which were hearing preaching that forty years earlier would have been hard to find. The message sounded akin to the doctrines of the Reformation and Puritan periods, but it had sprung afresh from Scripture, from the literature of those earlier periods, and was gaining surprising support from the younger generation.

 

To call this development a 'movement' would be to misconceive it, at least in the normal use of that term. It had no particular starting point, knew no party planners, and made no public claims. Rather, streams of influence had risen quietly in different places, under different men, and in different denominations, yet flowing spontaneously in the same direction. In so far as there were leaders, they were usually conspicuous as preachers, not academics, for the influence was coming from pulpits, from men who believed it was the preaching of the Word of God that always brought fresh life to the churches.

 

The powerful ally for these men was surprising. It was the evangelical authors of an older school, long unsought and unread, but now in print again and in many hands. In the 1950s Dr Wilbur Smith commented on the absence of the titles of Jonathan Edwards and other Puritans from all book lists. In the 1990s Edwards was not only widely available again but being read by thousands. Other authors in the same tradition--John Owen at their head--came back as though from the dead. The few contemporary writers who also contributed to this change have, for the most part, already been named in these pages.

 

Books alone cannot bring change unless there is spiritual hunger to read them, and by the 1990s there was such hunger. Dr J. I. Packer's treatment of the attributes of God had reached a comparatively small circle when first published in England in the Evangelical Magazine (c.1960); but, after being re-issued in book form in the United States in the 1970s under the title Knowing God, sales were to soar to approximately three million by 2005.

 

Only the existence of this same hunger can explain the growth and multiplication of conferences of a new kind across the United States. At these the speakers no longer majored on such themes as 'How to be Contemporary', or 'How to Build a Successful Church', but on doctrinal teaching and the exposition of Scripture. A renewed reading of history and biography was also showing how doctrinal beliefs had formerly changed the history of the English-speaking peoples. When MacArthur first held a Shepherds' Conference for pastors in 1980, the original chapel building in Sun Valley was large enough to hold the few hundred who attended; and there were few other conferences like it. But in the next twenty years such conferences multiplied across the land; they included the Philadelphia Conference, the Bethlehem Conference (at Minneapolis), the Bolton Conference in New England, the Ligonier Conference in Florida, to name only a few. Even in the Deep South, where in the Southern Baptist Convention it had been axiomatic that 'Calvinism' and evangelism could not live together, a Founders Conference was inaugurated to point the denomination back to its roots. By the end of the century Tom Ascol, editor of the Founders Journal, could speak of 'the extent to which the revival of the doctrines of grace is sweeping across the churches of our land'.

 

Although not belonging to the same denominations, the leaders of these conferences were drawn together by shared convictions. James Montgomery Boice, organizer of the Philadelphia Conference, was one of MacArthur's earliest friends from the Reformed side. He lectured at Talbot Seminary in 1979, and he preached at the Thirtieth Anniversary of MacArthur's ministry in 1999, before succumbing to an aggressive cancer the following year. Prior to Boice and Packer writing Forewords to The Gospel According to Jesus (1988), MacArthur has said, 'I wasn't moving in Reformed circles.' A close friendship began with R. C. Sproul when John spoke at the Ligonier Conference in 1992; it was to be the first of many such visits to Orlando, Florida. Similarly MacArthur was in Minneapolis with John Piper in 1997. In turn, Sproul and Piper came to speak at Grace Community Church.

 

A shared faith in the sovereignty of God also brought MacArthur among a new generation of Calvinistic men in Southern Baptist circles. One of these was Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington DC, and another was Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, at Louisville, Kentucky. When an editor of Christianity Today visited the bookstore of that Seminary the first books he saw were not those authored within that denomination: 'Right away I noticed a prominent display of John MacArthur's commentaries. The noted Calvinist expositor does not belong to SBC.'

 

* * * * *

 

The ministry at Sun Valley had joined with a wider awakening to doctrinal Christianity. Far from being isolated, MacArthur's preaching and books were clearly an important part of a larger momentum and regrouping. By the first decade of the present century this turn round in belief was conspicuous enough to come to the notice of the secular press, first in Time magazine, and then in other journals read nationwide.

 

It also became the subject of a first book when Collin Hansen wrote, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008). Hansen, editor-at-large for Christianity Today, was enthusiastic about how the Calvinistic resurgence had begun to 'reclaim and reform evangelicalism'. He believed: 'Though today's Calvinists remain outnumbered, their influence leavens the evangelical movement . . . The growth of the Reformed ranks, especially among youth, portends significant changes ahead.' On the Southern Baptist scene, he quotes the words of Tom Ascol, 'The International Mission Board is flooded with Calvinists.'

 

Hansen's book gave particular significance to the first 'Together for the Gospel' conference that took place in April 2006, as marking a new unity:

 

Good friends Dever, Mahaney, Ligon Duncan, and Al Mohler, invited three of their heroes--Piper, John MacArthur, and R. C. Sproul--to join them in addressing a crowd of about three thousand pastors in Louisville, Kentucky . . . The four middle-aged Together for the Gospel hosts watched their heroes, each older than sixty, address a crowd mostly in their twenties and thirties.

 

From all this it might be assumed that John MacArthur sees in the recovery of doctrinal Christianity the prospect of a major advance in progress. Certainly the 'booming' of Reformed theology, which he noted in 1997, has continued; and the extent of the demand for his own books and radio ministry is part of the evidence. But his thankfulness is mixed with a measure of concern. It was reflected in his declining to be interviewed for Hansen's book.

 

I can think of reasons for that concern. For one thing, it is premature to be confident the advance will continue. As MacArthur surveyed the first decade of the present century he knew that all was by no means bright. If ground was being won in some areas, it was still being lost in others. He noted how, to gain larger audiences, Bible teaching on radio in the United States was losing air time to 'Christian music and live talk'. A similar compromise was 'at epidemic levels among Christian publishers'. There was no end of controversy in sight. He commented in 2008: 'When I came out of Seminary I really did not expect to fight the battles I have fought. I never thought I would spend most of my life on the broader evangelical front defending the gospel and sound doctrine.'

 

Instead of being excited at the new interest that journalists were showing in Calvinism and the Puritans, MacArthur remembers how 'promotion' of the gospel by the secular press had proved a dangerous thing in the past. The kind of thing that gains the attention of the world, especially excitement over numbers and personalities, is of small consequence in the kingdom of God. 'If a thing is successful, it must be true', is a maxim that has done much harm among evangelicals and he does not want to see it continued. History shows clearly enough that truth is often with the remnant.

 

Further, while Hansen correctly says 'the backbone of the Reformed resurgence comprises ordinary churches', that is obscured by his heavy concentration on those whom he considers to be the leaders. The book looks at things far too largely on the human level, and leaves the impression of a movement of 'New Calvinists', promoted by mass meetings and celebrity preachers. But this kind of treatment is misleading. A survey of the 'Hansen type' looks like something already familiar instead of something new, for evangelicalism has far too often indulged in the following of personalities. If this is indeed a recovery of Reformation belief, the Hansen presentation is out of harmony with the influence of the man who would not so much as have his name put on his grave in Geneva. Genuine Reformed faith teaches Christians to sing,

 

The glory Lord, from first to last, Is Thine, is Thine alone.

 

Every genuine work of God is incapable of being adequately explained on the human level. There is mystery in it. Truth 'springs from the earth' independently of what may be happening elsewhere. In so far as a new unity has come into being today--as we believe it has--it has not come from meetings or organizations. A true revival of God-centered Christianity has always had with it the biblical caution not to be called masters, and to cease from man. While recommending Hansen's survey, Don Carson had good reason to add: 'This is not the time for Reformed triumphalism. It is the time for quiet gratitude to God and earnest intercessory prayer, with tears, that what has begun well will flourish beyond all human expectation.'

 

In the present writer's opinion, a lesson from nineteenth-century German church history is relevant for us. Daniel Edward has written of how hope of a lasting evangelical revival in Prussia failed. 'The ten or fifteen years before 1848 spread out in bright sunshine in the remembrance of all Christians.' A galaxy of eminent teachers and preachers appeared to be turning the tide. 'They saw', Edward wrote, 'the excellence of the gospel as the divine scheme of redemption; they were strong for Christ as the only Saviour, but they rejected the law as the schoolmaster that leads to Christ. They set forth eloquently the privileges of the gospel to a people . . . who needed first of all to hear the voice, "Repent". . . These good men failed for want of what our forefathers styled "law work". They wanted a deeper knowledge of God's holy law, and a deeper knowledge of sin as the transgression of it.'

 

That lesson remains a warning for today. In the current recovery of Calvinistic thinking there is need for greater fear of God, of his majesty and holiness. Such features have ever accompanied a powerful work of the Spirit of God, and they are connected with the revelation of his character as Lawgiver.

 

There is not yet the evidence of such conviction of sin as has marked all the spiritual awakenings of history. For too long, in MacArthur's words, evangelical circles have been better at merriment than mourning. This is no argument against joy and song, but where the presence of God is felt there is also godly fear. When the Spirit of God is poured out men have better understood the text: 'The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him' (Hab. 2:20).

 

1 A brief extract from Iain H. Murray's new book, John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock, 272pp. clothbound, ISBN: 978 1 84871 112 9, £14.50/$26.

2 See chapter 6 'The Rediscovery of Old Truth'.

 

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Posted June 8, 2011 @ 10:37 AM by Robert Brady
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