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By Thomas S. Kidd — 12 months ago
ABSTRACT: Some Christians presume the story of evangelicalism in America to be one of steady decline, from the robust faith of the founding generation to the increasing secularism of today. In fact, America was far more evangelical in 1860 than it was in 1776. The Second Great Awakening of the mid-1800s brought a surge of new members into the nation’s churches, especially its Methodist and Baptist churches, both of which sought to reach the masses on the frontiers and among the slave populations. Whether America on the eve of the Civil War can be called a “Christian nation” is doubtful; nevertheless, in 1860 the nation was more deeply influenced by evangelical faith than it ever had been before, or ever has been since.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Thomas Kidd, Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, to trace the development of evangelical faith from America’s founding through the Second Great Awakening.
Brilliant as he may have been as a writer, Thomas Jefferson was a lousy religious demographer. In 1822, he wrote to his friend Benjamin Waterhouse about the future of American religion, and his preference for a non-Trinitarian, naturalistic version of Christianity. After denouncing the “demoralizing dogmas of Calvin,” the former president issued a bold prediction: “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the U.S. who will not die a Unitarian.”1 If there were a list of the all-time worst religious predictions in American history, this would have to be at the top of it.
“By the eve of the Civil War, America was as deeply influenced by evangelical faith as it ever had been before.”
Even as Jefferson wrote — much to his chagrin — the Second Great Awakening was turning America into a heavily evangelical nation. By the eve of the Civil War, America was as deeply influenced by evangelical faith as it ever had been before, or ever has been since.
Scarce Among the Founders
Evangelical Christianity was not inconsequential at the time of the American founding, of course. For example, we can thank evangelical Christians, especially Baptists, for many of the Revolutionary-era gains in religious liberty. Non-evangelical politicians such as Jefferson and James Madison depended on rank-and-file Baptists to pressure state governments to drop their official state denominations, or “establishments” of religion. Virginia abolished its official tie to the Church of England (or Episcopal Church) in 1786, guaranteeing all Virginia citizens liberty of conscience. This created a veritable free market of religion in the state. Virginia’s move was a critical precedent for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, with its prohibition on a national established denomination, and its promise of “free exercise of religion” for all. It was not only evangelicals who wanted full religious liberty, but it would be hard to imagine America achieving religious freedom to the extent that it did without the aid of evangelical Christians.
Yet evangelicals did not have anything like the dominant religious and cultural position in 1776 that they would enjoy by the 1850s. Among the major Founders, evangelicals were rare. To find clear examples of evangelical believers, one has to look to lesser-known leaders such as John Jay of New York, author of a few of the Federalist essays, and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Then there’s the devout Roger Sherman of Connecticut, the only person to have signed all four great state papers of the American founding: the Continental Association,2 the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. Among the most recognizable Founders, there were moderate but deistic-leaning Anglicans such as George Washington, wandering and reticent figures such as Alexander Hamilton,3 Unitarians such as Jefferson and John Adams, and self-described deists such as Ben Franklin. Dyed-in-the-wool evangelicals were scarce.
Born out of the Great Awakening in the 1740s, the evangelical movement was growing across America in 1776, but it remained a minority within most segments of American Christianity. The dominant denominations in America prior to 1776, including Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists, usually had a conflicted attitude toward the revivals and revivalists of the First Great Awakening. Church of England officials had an especially rocky relationship with George Whitefield, the leading evangelist of the Great Awakening, who died on his last visit to America in 1770. By the mid-1740s, many Congregationalist ministers in New England also had denounced Whitefield as a rabble-rouser. These “Old Light” Congregationalists had their counterpart in “Old Side” Presbyterians, who worried that revivalists would splinter the churches and bring established ministers into disrepute.
Even many of the pre–Great Awakening Baptist churches in America opposed the revivals. But the Separate Baptists changed that stance. The Separate Baptists were former Congregationalists who not only supported the revivals, but who questioned the validity of infant baptism. Separate Baptists started to become the most dynamic evangelical group in America during the mid-1740s. By the 1750s, they transported their fervor from New England, where they originated, to the southern colonies. This began the century-long transformation of the South into America’s “Bible Belt.”
Rise of Methodism
Arguably the key factor in the story of American evangelical ascendancy was Methodism. Going back to his student days, Whitefield was considered a type of Methodist, because of his association with John and Charles Wesley, and with the so-called Holy Club of pious students at Oxford. But the Wesleys spent little time in America, and John Wesley and George Whitefield had a terrible split during the Great Awakening, due to differences over their respective Arminian and Calvinist beliefs. For a quarter century, they would struggle even to get back on speaking terms. Thus, Wesleyan Methodism had almost no impact on American revivals until the 1760s, when Wesleyan preachers began to appear in Virginia and Maryland.
In the early 1770s, John Wesley vociferously opposed the burgeoning American Patriot movement. The small numbers of Methodist preachers in America accordingly had to lay low, or return to Britain, during the American Revolution, for fear of Patriot reprisals. After the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) ended, Wesleyan Methodists came to the fore again. Wesley granted the American Methodists their functional independence in 1784, ensuring that the denomination would remain nimble and responsive to local American conditions. By the mid-1780s, the Methodists were seeing massive numbers of conversions and new church members, especially in the mid-Atlantic states.
One of the Methodists’ converts-turned-preachers was the former slave Richard Allen, who would go on to become one of Methodism’s most formidable leaders and the organizer of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Bethel was one of the founding churches of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first African American–led denomination in the country. Few African Americans were affiliated with any churches at all during the American colonial period. By the 1780s, groups such as the Methodists and Baptists began to make great evangelistic inroads among African Americans. They were especially effective when these groups employed blacks such as Allen as preachers and evangelists. When most enslaved African people had arrived in America, they had no Christian background whatsoever. The Second Great Awakening represented a major pivot in the mass conversion of most of the African American population, at least nominally, to some kind of Protestant faith.
“The Second Great Awakening represented a major pivot in the mass conversion of most of the African American population.”
Before the Civil War, some of those African American Christians attended black-pastored churches such as Richard Allen’s. In the South, it was more common for black Christians to formally attend white-pastored congregations. There were also functionally independent (and often secret) “brush arbor” meetings, held by enslaved people in isolated groves on the plantations. We often think of early America as a time of pervasive Christian commitment, but that was decidedly not the case for the enslaved population of the colonies. But the Second Great Awakening began to change the religious character of the American enslaved population. By the 1840s, the evangelization of the African American population (free or slave) was hardly complete, but the church had already become the most important social institution in the African American community.4
Methodism experienced the most remarkable growth of any of the evangelical churches between the Revolution and the Civil War. Methodist organizers such as Allen, Francis Asbury, and countless other itinerants and “circuit riders” kept up with the breakneck pace of population growth in the early American republic. Their tireless evangelistic and church-planting efforts explain much of the Methodist surge during the era. By 1784, there were around 15,000 American Methodists. Within six years, that number had increased fourfold to 60,000; by 1810, there were some 150,000 Methodist adherents in the nation. By the 1840s, as the sectional crisis over slavery loomed, the Methodist Church had become the largest denomination in America.5
Were it not for the Methodists, we might regard the Baptists’ expansion before the Civil War as the most remarkable story of religious growth in American history. The Baptists had an older history in America than the Methodists did, dating back to the early colonial period. Some of the Regular Baptists did support the Great Awakening, at least tentatively, but the Separate Baptists put the denomination on a path of massive revivalist increases on the trans-Appalachian frontier. Baptists claimed about 35,000 members as of 1784, but grew to 170,000 by 1810. The Methodists soon exceeded Baptist membership, however, only to be overtaken again by the Southern Baptist Convention as the nation’s largest Protestant denomination during the mid-twentieth century.
As of 1800, almost all Baptists were moderate or strict Calvinists.6 The new Freewill Baptist denomination had begun to challenge Calvinism’s supremacy among the Baptists, however. By the 1820s, doctrinaire Calvinism waned among many mainstream Baptists. Hard Calvinist conviction became more characteristic of the Primitive Baptists, who also opposed newfangled national missionary societies, such as ones sponsored by the Baptists’ Triennial Convention. The Primitive Baptists regarded these missionary societies as unbiblical and elitist.7 Many Presbyterian and Congregationalist pastors remained Calvinists, though, and revivalist Christianity and Reformed theology found important institutional homes in new schools such as Andover Theological Seminary (1807) and Princeton Theological Seminary (1812). Older divinity schools such as Harvard’s came under the influence of Unitarian and Transcendentalist thought.
Overall, evangelicals during the Second Great Awakening took a big step toward becoming more theologically Arminian, due especially to the increasing dominance of Wesleyan Methodism. This is an aspect of the Second Great Awakening that Reformed or Calvinist readers might well view with concern and ambivalence. The evangelical faith of the First Great Awakening in America (less so in Britain) was almost uniformly Calvinist. That of the Second Great Awakening was a mix of Calvinist and Arminian convictions. If Jonathan Edwards’s theology was representative of the First Great Awakening, John Wesley’s was more typical of the Second. Calvinist revivalism certainly retained an important place on the Anglo-American religious scene, but Calvinism’s former dominance was becoming increasingly contested by Arminian perspectives on free will, the atonement, and other doctrinal issues.
This turn toward popular Arminian theology was capped by the enormous success of Charles Finney in the northern states in the 1830s. Finney was not the most precise or consistent theologian, but there can be no doubt that his philosophy of revival was more human-centered than Edwards’s. It clashed with Edwards’s well-known emphasis on the sovereignty of God in conversions and awakenings. Finney’s wildly popular Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835) reviled the notion that people needed to wait on God to do anything in revival. God had given churches and ministers all they needed to see revival happen; the only contingency was whether people would obey God by praying for and preaching revival. With Finney, the concept of a planned revival, foreign to Edwards’s view of the “surprising” nature of true awakening, became a standard feature of American evangelical culture. “Religion is the work of man,” Finney explained. “It is something for man to do.” Finney regarded the notion of the church waiting on God to send revival as devilish. Instead, God was waiting on the church to obey him in seeking revival.
Finney became famous (or notorious, in critics’ eyes) for his use of “new measures” to induce revival, such as protracted, multiday meetings. The characteristic new measure was the “anxious seat” or bench, where men or women wishing to break through to assurance of salvation could come to the front of a sanctuary and receive prayer and exhortations to believe. Finney also followed John Wesley in his emphasis on holiness, and the prospect that devout believers could achieve a virtual state of sinless perfection in this life. This state did not necessarily last forever, or render it impossible for the believer to sin. Yet Finney and his followers taught that God’s call to holiness was not impossible to meet. After conversion, there was an opportunity to consecrate one’s life entirely to God, and to live for stretches of time with no taint of sin at all.8
The evangelical movement always had powerful female figures, such as Whitefield’s patron Selina Hastings, or Sarah Osborn, whose small home became the epicenter of a remarkable revival in Newport, Rhode Island, in the 1760s. Limited numbers of women were chosen as deaconesses or eldresses in certain Baptist congregations in the mid- to late 1700s. But virtually all evangelicals understood that there were biblical and historic limits on women’s formal authority in congregations. Most obviously, women were not permitted to become ordained ministers. The Arminian proponents of revivalist Christianity — again following the example of John Wesley — tended to be more open to informal speaking and offices for women than were traditional Calvinists. These roles even led occasionally to arguments for the legitimacy of women serving formally as pastors and preachers.
One such advocate for female preaching was Jarena Lee. Lee, born to free African American parents in New Jersey, worked as a domestic servant in Philadelphia, and experienced conversion under the preaching of Richard Allen. She was baptized in 1807. Lee was inclined toward charismatic piety, and she believed that God called her in a vision to become a preacher. She requested that Allen and the Methodists appoint her as an evangelist, a request that Allen denied. This did not stop her from becoming a sought-after exhorter and an independent Methodist itinerant. Allen later relented and ordained her in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Lee wrote, “If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one?”9 Despite such occasional protests, it remained far more common for evangelicals to adhere to limitations on women’s public teaching, guided by passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12 or 1 Corinthians 14:34–35.
Splits and Sects
Biblicism was a defining mark of the evangelical movement, but as seen in Jarena Lee’s struggle to preach, or in Wesley and Whitefield’s feud over Calvinism, biblicism did not end disagreements among evangelicals regarding what the Bible taught. This problem became more acute during the Second Great Awakening. American evangelicals grew more individualistic, and confident about the power of reason to interpret Scripture, without the aid of creeds, confessions, or church tradition. This kind of populist biblicism led to an incredible proliferation of new denominations and sectarian movements in the first half of the nineteenth century. The end of established state churches also fueled the centrifugal trend within evangelicalism. Before the Revolution, the established Church of England, and the Congregationalist churches in New England, kept a lid on disruptive church practices or aberrant theology, and they could employ the force of the state to suppress dissent. Now, the same freedom that allowed for the phenomenal growth of the Baptists and Methodists led to the virtually unchecked work of other new religious movements, prophets, exhorters, and visionaries.
Some of these movements developed jarringly innovative theology, and in the case of the Mormons, entirely new scriptures. Other movements, such as the Churches of Christ, would go on to become standard fixtures of the American Protestant landscape. The Churches of Christ, led by figures such as Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, were the ultimate products of the evangelical “Bible alone” ethos. Stone and Campbell imagined that through an unaided, plain reading of Scripture, they could take their movement back to the simple purity of the New Testament church. This effort led to distinctive priorities such as prohibiting the use of musical instruments in worship services. Not even members of the Churches of Christ could agree whether such strictures were truly biblical, however, leading to a split that divided the Churches of Christ from the Disciples of Christ in the late nineteenth century.10 Evangelicals were finding that sola scriptura, while an indisputable first principle of Protestants, was more difficult to practice in a unifying fashion when it was unmoored from Christian history and creedal traditions.
Reaching the Masses
For better or worse, then, the Second Great Awakening was arguably more formative than the First in American religious and cultural history. The first reason for its massive impact is that by the mid-1800s, white and black Americans were far more “churched” than they had been in 1776. In 1776, church life in America was more urban-centered and exclusively white than it was by 1860, when evangelical churches had made much progress in reaching frontier white populations and the African American community, both free and enslaved. Whites remained the leaders of most churches and denominations, yet African Americans not only were surging into Baptist and Methodist congregations but sometimes led their own churches and even denominations, as Richard Allen did. The vast church-planting initiative led by Baptists and Methodists not only facilitated the conversion of untold thousands of Americans, but it also provided basic social structure to the burgeoning frontier. For many frontier settlers or enslaved people on plantations, the church was the only social support outlet they had.
“The Second Great Awakening was arguably more formative than the First in American religious and cultural history.”
The second reason that the Second Great Awakening was so consequential was that it led to a range of ambitious missionary and moral reform initiatives. The formal evangelical missionary movement had begun in Britain in the 1790s, but American evangelicals readily adapted to missions too, initiating evangelistic works in city slums, in Native American villages, and to the ends of the earth. Through agencies such as the American Bible Society (founded in 1816), evangelicals made physical copies of the Bible nearly ubiquitous in American homes. Finally, Christians in the Second Great Awakening era took on moral reform causes, such as ministering to the homeless and to prostitutes, curbing alcohol abuse, and opening countless schools and colleges. Some evangelicals engaged in antislavery activism, too, though their influence among evangelical whites was exceeded by proslavery sentiment, especially in the South.
To conclude, let’s return to Jefferson’s faulty prediction. Unitarianism may have been growing in 1822, but on the broader American religious landscape, it was hardly the main event. Americans, especially devout Protestants, tend to recall the American founding as a time of intense Christian fervor, and maybe even evangelical dominance. Sometimes they imply that American history has been a story of decline and decay from that idyllic origin of 1776. As usual, the historical truth is more complicated. America was far more churched and more evangelical in 1860 than it was in 1776.
Did this mean that America was a “Christian nation” by 1860? The brutal nature of chattel slavery, and the ruthless expropriation of Native American lands, should give us pause about making unequivocal claims to Christian identity for the nation, even by 1860. In terms of religious adherence, however, America on the eve of the Civil War was probably as Christian as it ever has been in its history. Indeed, the era of the Second Great Awakening demonstrates the incredible capacity of churches focused on the Great Commission to transform the religious character of a nation.
By John Piper — 12 months ago
There are many levels of pleasure in thinking back over 150 years of the life of Bethlehem. The pleasure of actually looking at the pictures of 20 of the 23 charter members in 1871, and discovering that there were 14 women and 9 men in that first membership. And that on June 24, they held their first service at the home of Eric and Anna Hernland on Hennepin Island.
The pleasure of seeing among those old photographs the picture of August Malmston, the grandfather of one of our living members, Marlys Arenson.
The pleasure of learning that there were 61,000 Swedish immigrants in this 14-year-old state of Minnesota in 1871. And these 61,000 immigrants were served by 20 Swedish-speaking churches in outstate Minnesota, but by only one Swedish-speaking church in Minneapolis — namely, Augustana Lutheran, whose old building, interestingly, one block from the downtown campus, is now occupied by a Bethlehem church plant — Hope Church.
The pleasure of discovering that our first pastor John Ring had been imprisoned in the 1860s in Sweden because of his Baptist faith, and that he had to step away from that first pastorate of Bethlehem after only a year because of poor health.
The pleasure of seeing a picture of our first building completed in 1874 with the hitching posts for the horses clearly visible along the dirt street.
The painful pleasure of seeing the picture of the building destroyed by fire in 1885 and reading that pastor Frank Peterson’s text that next Sunday was Isaiah 64:11, “Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins.”
The pleasure of thinking that the church has passed from its origins of horse and buggy to the space-age. It has experienced the arrival in Minnesota of the telephone in 1880; electric streetcars in 1890; automobiles in 1902; a first radio station in 1921; 36 days in a row below zero in 1936; and 6,225 Minnesotan lives lost in World War II that ended in 1945 (the same year the church changed its name from First Swedish Baptist to Bethlehem Baptist); the first TV station in 1948; the first church computer at Bethlehem in 198 — and the emergence today of perhaps more smartphone Bibles than print Bibles in our worship services.
And let’s not pass by too quickly the pleasure of pondering that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Let it sink in that the Minnesota that we live in today is more different from the Minnesota of 1871 than the Minnesota of 1871 was different from the days when Jesus walked this earth. It is vastly more different.
“Christ has never ceased, through all of this change, to be infinitely relevant for every generation.”
Is it not amazing, therefore, that this church has been alive and flourishing under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in allegiance to the word of God through a century and a half of the greatest changes that the world has ever seen? Is it not amazing that this glorious Jesus Christ — the creator of the universe, the upholder of all things by the word of his power, the suffering savior giving his life as a ransom for many, the risen Christ sitting at the right hand of God, the head of the church and lover of his people — this Christ has never ceased, through all of this change, to be infinitely relevant for every generation through these changing times. Seeing that, savoring that, is a great pleasure.
How Does a Church Endure?
How does that happen? None of the people who made up Bethlehem Baptist Church in 1871 are part of this church today. And yet it is the same church. How does that happen?
It happens because even though the individual members of the living organism called Bethlehem come and go, the enduring life of that organism does not consist in any one member, or group of members. Rather it consists in the life of the living Head of the church, Jesus Christ, who calls shepherds and sheep in every generation to himself and to this organism.
It consists in the power of the Holy Spirit moving among the people bearing his fruit. It consists in the reality of faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It consists in the worship of God the Father and prayer to him in Jesus’s name. It consists in a consistent mission to reach lost people with the good news of Jesus. It consists in the biblical structure of leadership and accountability formed by the word of God.
Individual members come and go, but these realities that make up the organism called Bethlehem do not come and go. They remain.
God Sustains Churches
Why do they remain? Or, more urgently, will they remain?
But let’s make it more personal, as we try to answer this question. Not only, Will faith remain in the church? Will the church be the church? But also, Will we remain in faith? Will we be Christian?
If saving faith remains in Bethlehem, and she remains a church, and if you remain in faith, and remain a Christian, the ultimate reason will be the same in both cases.
We just sang the reason:
His oath, His covenant, His blood Support me in the ‘whelming flood;When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay.
The new covenant, the oath it contains, and the blood that bought it. This is our hope and stay. God’s people will stand, we will stay, because of the blood-bought covenant between God and his people.
“If Bethlehem is faithful for another 25 years, it will be because God did not let her turn from him.”
What covenant? Here’s what Jesus said at the Last Supper: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). This means that the terms promised in the new covenant, I will secure for you, my people, by shedding my blood tomorrow morning. So, if you belong to Christ, this new covenant is yours. Its terms apply to you. Now, what are the terms of this new covenant that answer the question: If Bethlehem is here for its 175th anniversary, and if you are a Christian in 25 years, what will be the decisive reason?
New Covenant Pleasures
One of the most beautiful and clear expressions of the terms of the new covenant is found in Jeremiah 32:40–41,
I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.
Here are five more pleasures to revel in as we look back over 150 years and see why it is that Bethlehem is still here, and why it is that we are still believing, and why it is that we will keep on believing until Jesus comes or until he calls.
>I will make with them an everlasting covenant. (Jeremiah 32:40)
A covenant is a set of promises and obligations between two parties.
Here God’s not saying, “I made with you a covenant when I brought you out of Egypt, and you broke it, and now you are under judgment in exile.” That’s true. That’s why there has to be a new covenant. A covenant that is not going to be broken by either side.
Therefore, it will last forever. It will be an everlasting covenant because both sides of the covenant-keeping are secured by the blood of Jesus. Hebrews 13:20 refers to the “blood of the eternal covenant.” In Christ, we are a people with whom God has made an eternal covenant. Now, what does it guarantee by the blood of Jesus?
I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. (Jeremiah 32:40)
This is exactly what the apostle Paul said God secured by the giving of his Son for his people. He said it in Romans 8:32, which was a restatement of Romans 8:28.
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose [his covenant purpose never to turn away from doing us good]. (Romans 8:28)
“Every hard thing that God brings into our lives is for our ultimate good. It is never destructive for the children of God.”
“He will work everything for our good” is the Romans 8:28 way of saying Jeremiah 32:40, “I will not turn away from doing good to them.” There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. There is no wrath. There is only mercy. Only grace.
Every hardship that God brings into our lives is for our ultimate good. It is never destructive for the children of God. To take you back to 1995, there was a little four-line rhyme that for several years the members of the church would quote to each other to explain this understanding of God’s unremitting, sometimes difficult sovereign grace in our lives:
Not grace to bar what is not bliss, Nor flight from all distress,But this, the grace that orders our trouble and pain, And then in the darkness is there to sustain.
I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts. (Jeremiah 32:40)
This is what I meant when I said that the blood of Jesus secures both sides of the covenant-keeping — God’s side to be faithful and our side to fear the Lord. The fear of the Lord stands for the whole humble, believing, reverent response to God and his promises.
What God is saying here is that he sovereignly takes the initiative to see to it that the hearts of those whom he has chosen are humble, believing, reverent hearts. We don’t first fear God and then get chosen by God because we met the qualification. He chooses us first and then puts the fear of him in our hearts.
Here’s how God says it in Ezekiel 11:19: “I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.”
That is how you were saved, Christian. You know that! This is what we call amazing grace. Amazing mercy: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4–5). We were dead. And God made us alive. He took out the proud heart and put in the fear of the Lord. Never cease to be amazed that you are a Christian.
The world today needs Christians whose lives have the aroma of humble amazement that they are saved.
I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. (Jeremiah 32:40)
There it is. There is the answer to our question, Why has Bethlehem existed in faithfulness for 150 years? Why are you still a Christian? What will be the decisive explanation if Bethlehem is flourishing at her 175th anniversary? What will be the decisive explanation if you are still a Christian 25 years from now?
And the answer is this: “I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.” God keeps those whom he calls.
And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:30)
He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:24)
He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)
This is the amazing, blood-bought new covenant.
Why will you wake up a Christian tomorrow morning? Because by his blood Jesus bought this covenant-keeping promise for you: God will not let you turn from him. If Bethlehem is faithful for another 25 years, it will be because God did not let her turn from him. We are, as individuals and as a church, finally dependent on this promise in Jeremiah 32:40, “I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.”
God Rejoices in Our Good
I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul. (Jeremiah 32:41)
If you ever thought for a moment that God was begrudging in doing you good, let yourself be set free from that error! We have a happy God. And one thing that makes him happy is doing good to his people with all his heart and with all his soul.
This is absolutely breathtaking. “I will rejoice in doing them good . . . with all my heart and all my soul.”
Celebrating What Is to Come
As I close, I’m going to put on my old pastor’s hat that I wore for 33 years and celebrate three things.
First, without in any way detracting from the great work of God in the last eight years, I celebrate the call of Kenny Stokes as my pastor downtown. And I am thrilled with the ministry of Steven Lee at the north campus and of David Zuleger at the south campus. What a great leadership God has raised up for us.
I want you to know that I worshiped with great joy under the ministry of Jason Meyer for eight years, and I expect to worship with equally great joy under the ministry of Kenny Stokes. I was Kenny’s lead pastor for 15 years, and now I am privileged to have him as mine. This too is a great pleasure.
Second, even though there is a nostalgic downside to think of Bethlehem soon becoming three churches instead of one church, the decision of the elders to move in this direction is, in my judgment, strategic and wise.
From the beginning, I always thought this would be a good outcome to the multi-campus strategy: three strong centers of Reformed Christian Hedonism along the 40 mile stretch of I-35 from Mounds View to Lakeville. I think of it as robust church planting with the gestation periods of 19 and 15 years. Not to mention all the other churches that have been and will be planted from these three locations. This too is a great pleasure.
Finally, when I was pastor, for the last couple decades of that ministry, we would come to this point in the year almost always hundreds of thousands of dollars behind budget. I felt a special responsibility to remind the people that nothing is too hard for God.
He holds the world in existence. He stops the sun in the sky. He divides seas. He feeds five thousand with a few fish and loaves. He raises the dead. He puts gold coins in mouths of fish. Nothing — nothing is too hard for God. Let’s trust him with our lives and give to his cause like he is our Treasure. God met every need for 33 years — for 150 years. Watching him do this has been a great pleasure.
We are going to sing a signature song of Bethlehem. One of the greatest songs of “sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” And when we get to that final verse and crescendo into the Lord’s coming, remember, dear child of God, whether you see the Lord on the clouds, or hear his call in death, you’re going to make it home. He will not turn away from doing good to you. He will put the fear of the Lord in your heart, so that you will not turn from him.
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight The clouds be rolled back as a scroll.
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend.
Even so, it is well with my soul!
By Jon Bloom — 6 months ago
Scripture tells us that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). But have you ever received a good gift from the Father that arrived in a package that appeared to be anything but good?
Jesus came into the world to make the Father known to all whom “he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12, 18). He came to help us “see what kind of love the Father has given to us” (1 John 3:1), that “as a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13). He wanted us to know that the Father abounds “in steadfast love and faithfulness” toward us (Exodus 34:6).
This is why, when Jesus promised us, “Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23), he made sure we understood the Father’s heart toward us:
Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7–11)
It’s an astounding promise of astonishing goodness and faithfulness: “For everyone who asks receives” (Matthew 7:8). Why? Because our Father wants our “joy [to] be full” (John 16:24).
However, Jesus, of all people, also knew that some of the good gifts our loving Father gives in answer to our prayers — some of his best gifts, in fact — arrive in painful packages we don’t expect. When we receive them, we can be tempted to think the Father gave us a serpent when we asked for a fish, not realizing till later the priceless goodness of the gift we received.
“Some of the good gifts our loving Father gives in answer to our prayers arrive in painful packages we don’t expect.”
Why would the Father do this? As just one in the great cloud of God’s children across the ages, I can bear personal witness that he does it so that our joy may be full. And I’ll offer that witness here, with the help of one of history’s most beloved pastors and hymn writers. Because both he and I know how important it is to trust the Father’s heart when we’re dismayed by what we receive from his hand.
Near Despair an Answered Prayer?
John Newton was the godly eighteenth-century English pastor most famous for penning the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which describes the best gift Newton ever received from the Father: the forgiveness of his sins and eternal life through Christ.
But at times he also received, as I have, gracious gifts from God that amazed him in a different sense. He expressed this amazement in a lesser-known hymn, “I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow,” which begins,
I asked the Lord that I might growIn faith and love and every grace,Might more of his salvation know,And seek more earnestly his face.
’Twas he who taught me thus to pray;And he, I trust, has answered prayer;But it has been in such a wayAs almost drove me to despair.
I remember vividly the first time I experienced the reality Newton describes here, just after I turned 21. Following an extended season of asking God for the gifts Newton described in his first verse, I received an answer that had the same effect as that second verse. It devastated and disoriented me. I found myself reeling.
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I hoped that, in some favored hour,At once he’d answer my request,And by his love’s constraining powerSubdue my sins, and give me rest.
Because my prayers reflected a sincere “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6), I assumed God would answer my prayers with a sort of download of growth in grace. And I envisioned this occurring as God led me through “green pastures” and along “still waters” (Psalm 23:2).
Instead of this, he made me feelThe hidden evils of my heart,And let the angry powers of hellAssault my soul in every part.
“I assumed God would answer my prayers with a sort of download of growth in grace.”
As it turned out, the holiness and righteousness I (and Newton) hungered for — greater freedom from sin and greater capacities for faith and love and joy — were not available in a download. Such sanctification is available only if we’re willing to enter a “training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). And apparently the best training environment for us was a “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4).
Lipstick on a Pig?
The season of disorientation and confusion usually lasts a while before we grasp what’s going on. And while it lasts, we feel dismayed. What’s happening? Did we do something wrong? Is God angry with us? Newton voices the confusion we feel:
Lord, why is this? I trembling cried;Wilt thou pursue this worm to death?
At this point, we can also be tempted to doubt God’s goodness. Having sincerely asked him for a good gift, a gift Scripture says aligns with our Father’s desire for us, and having received in return a severe trial or affliction, we can wonder if our attempt to interpret God’s answer as a good gift is like trying to put lipstick on a pig. Perhaps God simply gave us a serpent instead of a fish after all.
I mean, what kind of loving father intentionally gives his child pain when he asks for joy?
The Father often lets us wrestle with that question for some time, allowing the pain to do its sanctifying work. But when the time is right, he will reveal his answer, which Newton concisely captures:
This is the way, the Lord replied,I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I now employFrom self and pride to set thee free,And break thy schemes of earthly joy,That thou may’st seek thy all in me.
See What Kind of Love
Like John Newton, I had asked the Father for what I wished and found him faithful to give me what I asked for, though I didn’t expect it to come in the package I received.
But Jesus, the Son, the Firstborn, came into the world to help us, through his teaching and example, to “see what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1). And one manifestation of the Father’s love is to sometimes answer his child’s request for joy with a painful experience if it will result in his child ultimately experiencing more profound good and greater joy than if he withheld the pain. Because our Father wants our joy to be full.
And there’s a great cloud of God’s children bearing witness to the goodness of the Father’s painful gifts, each from his own experience. They would recite for us the famous proverb:
My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof,for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights. (Proverbs 3:11–12)
They would quote the famous epistle:
[Our earthly fathers] disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but [our heavenly Father] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:10–11)
And they would “Amen” the famous psalmist, whose painful discipline produced this prayer: “In faithfulness you have afflicted me” (Psalm 119:75).
For when our training in righteousness has done its sanctifying work, one of the peaceful fruits is that we learn to joyfully trust the Father’s hand because we’ve learned to trust the Father’s heart.