It was sometime in the late months of 1973 while I was seeking prayer and financial support for the church planting ministry I anticipated with Worldwide European Fellowship (now Biblical Ministries Worldwide) in England and eventually Nova Scotia, Canada, that a pastor who I highly respected asked: “Your mission doesn’t expect some kind of major revival in England before the end of the age, does it?” I replied, “No, but we do need to keep preaching the gospel and planting churches even though things will continue to get worse by the day.”
I was neither surprised nor bothered by the question, since both of us were convinced dispensational premillennialists, expecting only a worsening of world conditions, certainly not a worldwide revival. The branch of Christianity in which I was raised and trained for ministry held a generally pessimistic view of the future. As Christians we needed to hunker down, stand for the truth, and wait for the Rapture.
As I mentioned in my last post, through the kindness of Pastor David Bugden, I was introduced to the pastors meeting as the Westminster Fellowship. When I attended my first meeting, at Westminster Chapel in London, I discovered the church had a book room, stocked with reformed literature, much of it published by the Banner of Truth Trust.
So, what does a book room at Westminster Chapel have to do with my pessimistic view of the future, you ask? It was in this book room that I discovered The Puritan Hope: A Study in Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy, a fascinating book by Ian Murray published by the Banner of Truth Trust.
As one reviewer wrote:
Murray’s thoughtful book challenges evangelicals to re-examine their thinking about the return of Christ. He carefully develops the basis for the sense of conviction and purpose that motivated Carey, Wilberforce and many others to do great works for Christ. Arguing that the “fullness of the Gentiles” must precede the conversion of Israel as prophesied in Romans 11, and that both of these events have not yet occurred, and that they portend far greater influence and triumph for the Church on the Earth, Murray lovingly challenges those who are of a “sit at home and wait for the rapture” mentality. He explains how and why the Puritans came to their eschatological beliefs; how these were perverted, primarily in modern times, by men like Edward Irving and J.N. Darby; why we’ve stopped thinking critically about these theories; and how we must recapture the confident expectation of Christ’s triumphant end-time revival of Gentiles, then all Israel, before his return in glory. Excellent and thought-provoking.
For the first time, I was exposed to proponents of a post-millennial view.
“Postmillennialism” comes from a term that means, literally, “after the thousand years”. Thus, it is essentially a way of interpreting Revelation 20, which six times mentions a period of a thousand years, during which Satan is bound and believers reign with Christ. Postmillennialists believe that Christ will return after a future golden age of prosperity on the earth, during which time the gospel will have been fruitful in all the world, bringing peace and security to all. Postmillennialists look to the many prophecies in the Old Testament which speak of a coming time of great blessing and prosperity (e.g. Psalm 22:25-31; Psalm 72; Isaiah 2:1-5), and see those passages as demanding a future period of gospel success that will be vastly greater and fundamentally different from what Church history has displayed so far, of the Kingdom spreading in the midst of much affliction and persecution. In the Postmillennial interpretation, Revelation 20 is a
passage which describes this future period of blessing that the Old Testament prophets look ahead to.
While some Postmillennialists believe that the future golden age of the earth will be literally and precisely one thousand years in duration, many of them see the “thousand years” as a more poetic way of speaking, and only believe that there will be a lengthy time of peace and well-being on the earth in the future, but not necessarily exactly one thousand years.
Several things came together for me in this discovery. First, though I was not then, (and am not now) a postmillennialist, I realized that a good many godly men and women did hold this view – a view routinely discounted among my Christian friends and colleagues. Secondly, I discovered that these Puritans – ardent Calvinists – were energized by their postmillennial convictions. Refusing to succumb to pessimism, they pushed forward, confidently believing in the power of the gospel to change everything. This may seem insignificant, but it contributed to my openness to consider theological positions I had been taught to reject out of hand.
I regularly visited the book room during the monthly meetings of the Westminster Fellowship. During one of those visits I came across another Ian Murray title, The Forgotten Spurgeon. I grew up hearing about Spurgeon, the great evangelistic Baptist pastor, so I wondered what Murray meant by “forgotten”. I soon discovered the “forgotten” part of Spurgeon was his fervent Calvinism. Who would have thought that the man who led thousands to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, baptizing over 14,000 in his London ministry, was a 5-point Calvinist?
A third Banner title which was formative in my thinking was a little book entitled, Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic, by Walter Chantry, a reformed Baptist pastor in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Chantry challenged my evangelistic methodology by exploring how Jesus dealt with the inquiries of the rich young man who wanted to know how to inherit eternal life. At that time, I would have simply led the young man in reciting a sinner’s prayer. Jesus, however, challenged this inquirer with who God is, along with the crucial need for repentance from sin and the necessity of acknowledging the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It was a far most robust evangelism than my “making a decision for Christ.”
As I mentioned in my previous post, when we left England in1976, I was not reformed, not yet a full-fledged 5-point Calvinist, but the three books mentioned above, the relationships formed through the Westminster Fellowship, and the realization that there were many godly men and women who did not embrace a dispensationalist hermeneutic were all leading me to rethink my theological convictions.
My wife and I, and our two small children (we would be blessed with a 3rd during our years in Nova Scotia), emigrated from Philadelphia to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in the spring of 1978. I was there with the same church planting mission, now renamed WEFMinistries because the mission had branched out into countries beyond Europe. My goal was to plant an independent, fundamental Bible preaching church that embraced a dispensationalist hermeneutic. It was an exciting time as I was finally in the province where I had wanted to plant a church since graduating from the New Brunswick Bible Institute in 1970.
While I’ve only noted three Banner of Truth titles, I was being profoundly influenced by other Banner titles – commentaries, histories, and collections of sermons. As I read these works, Bible in hand, my thinking was undergoing changes that would radically alter my future ministry.