“Lloyd-Jones: Messenger of Grace”
Lloyd-Jones: Messenger of Grace by Iain H. Murray
Banner of Truth, 2008 (274pp, hbk)
Iain Murray is too careful an historian to indulge in thoughtless hagiography, so how does he approach the topic of the legacy of Martyn Lloyd-Jones (often ‘ML-J’ to Murray, which I shall sometimes adopt for the sake of brevity rather than familiarity), whom he knew so well and esteemed so highly? We find swift relief in Murray’s gentle assertion that “some have spoken inadvisably of Dr Lloyd-Jones as though he was an all-sufficient model for others to follow” (xi). Throughout the book it becomes apparent both that ML-J recognised particular shortcomings in his character and that Murray is not afraid graciously to disagree with his subject and to identify those shortcomings, as well as simply recognising that ‘the Doctor’ was an individual who is not to be aped, and could not be if one tried.
The author takes a topical approach, and the volume is divided into two. The second part consists of a collection of titbits: a letter (with some notes) from Lloyd-Jones to Jim Packer regarding the end of the Puritan Conference; a catalogue of pithy quotations; an inventory of ML-J’s sermons; an analysis of the sermons on Ephesians; and, a deservedly unsympathetic review of Noll and Nystrom’s Is the Reformation Over? Included in this hardback edition is a CD of Lloyd-Jones preaching on John 8.21-24: here the interested reader/listener will find an example of that swelling tide of gospel rhetoric that seems to have characterised the preaching of the man, and will sense at least something of the power of his public ministry.
It is, nevertheless, the first part that will attract most interest. This is an eclectic collection of more substantive essays treating issues held together by the character at the centre. Chapter 1 is a fascinating survey of six legacies which ML-J left behind him, most of which are related to the church’s declaration of the abiding truth of the gospel. Chapter 2 concerns “Preaching and the Holy Spirit” practically and theoretically, drawing from ML-J’s convictions and declarations and pointing to his example and demonstration. It is a clear treatment of the matter, well-organised and warm. Murray helpfully addresses the matter of unction as it relates both to the pulpit and the pew.
The third chapter takes up the evangelistic use of the Old Testament. One of the constant correctives in this volume is that ML-J’s public preaching ministry is not reflected in his published works. He was an evangelist, and his evangelistic preaching was often drawn from the first two-thirds of our Bibles. ML-J recognised evangelistic preaching as a special category of preaching, and we are given the why and the how of his use of the Old Testament. Chapter 4 carries us further into the realm of homiletics. The mischievous title “Skeletons in the Cupboard” will disappoint those with a nose for conflict and scandal: the chapter is about the importance of a clear framework for a sermon, with reasons for that significance and several examples of ML-J’s own efforts.
Chapter 5 consists of notes on a Westminster Fellowship meeting which took place on October 9, 1968. ML-J had recently returned to public preaching following recovery from a significant illness that led to his retirement from the pastorate at Westminster Chapel. During the interim, he had unusual opportunity to hear others preaching, and this address was the result. There is significant substantive commonality with the opening chapter. ML-J considered what was missing that needs to be present, and what is present that needs to be missing in the preaching that he was hearing. These observations need to be considered, not least by those who consider themselves as standing in the Lloyd-Jones tradition.
There follows a comparison between Lloyd-Jones and Spurgeon. The thrust is that these were two unusual individuals with some gifts in common, but essentially different men with different callings at different times and in different circumstances. It is in these differences – bearing in mind that ML-J began to preach only thirty-five after the death of Spurgeon – that the most fascinating issues come to light.
Chapter 7 addresses Lloyd-Jones’ doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the experience of the Christian, especially as it relates to the matter of assurance. A few years after his death, sermons dealing with this matter (but preached in the mid-1960s) were published in two books, Joy Unspeakable and Prove All Things. Taking up the first volume, Murray engages with ML-J’s teaching and followers. This is one of the more controversial chapters in the book, and the author is likely to be sniped at from several sides. Murray begins by putting the sermons in the context in which they were preached, specifically identifying that – at that time – there was no “charismatic movement” that existed to which Lloyd-Jones could have been sympathetic (this must be borne in mind by those on both sides of this divide). In fact, ML-J’s attitude when that movement was coming to prominence was one of distinct concern (133-134). There follows a review of the Biblical data, a survey of ML-J’s pronouncements on ‘the baptism of the Holy Spirit’ (the definite article is important), and a series of conclusions in which Murray recognises the shortcomings of ML-J’s approach, while appreciating that he was originally drawing attention to a vital topic. Murray declares that
it was a mistake to make an issue of terminology that cannot be substantiated from Scripture. A few have heavily criticised ML-J on this account, almost to the point of questioning the value of his work as a whole. I think that is absurd. If he went too far in his remedy for what he saw as the main need, the manner in which he drew attention to the need of the Holy Spirit did much good. . . . Many of the works of ML-J – especially those published in his own life time – have joined with those of the tradition to which he belonged as a permanent heritage for the Christian church. To accept that there was a flaw in his presentation of assurance is not to question that he was drawing needed attention to a vital subject; and if he failed to prevent excess in some quarters, we may believe this episode in history will serve to make others more watchful in the future. (162-163).
The last chapter asks whether ML-J was ‘the lost leader’ or ‘a prophetic voice’, referring to the most significant controversy that engulfed him during his lifetime: his call to separate from those who were unfaithful to Scripture. (This topic is addressed at greater length in Murray’s Evangelicalism Divided.) ML-J was heavily criticised at the time and subsequently, and Murray does not set out simply to exonerate him. Rather, he puts the issue in its historical context and identifies its core: the nature and basis of Christian unity, on which ML-J differed significantly from other leaders such as John Stott and J. I. Packer (notably, both Anglicans). In this respect, ML-J’s seminal address of 1966 (and Stott’s immediate rebuttal) was not the cause but the occasion of the division. Murray sets out to make plain that the issue is bigger than the labels of evangelicalism or even Protestantism: it has to do with the gospel itself. Related to this was the growing obsession among evangelicals with academic credibility that effectively resulted in a compromise of their principles. Murray generally does not set out to apportion blame, but sincerely seeks to bring the matter to light. In this respect, he defends ML-J from false and misinformed accusations while recognising certain shortcomings. Murray points to what he believes many have missed: that ML-J was governed in this as in all else by “his profound faith in the truth and finality of the word of God” (198), and was concerned only to be faithful to the Saviour. This was why he acted as he did, and it ought to be acknowledged whether or not one agrees with how he acted. Indeed, it ought to lead to a more careful consideration of whether or not he was right.
This book might be properly considered a companion volume to Mr Murray’s two-volume biography of Lloyd-Jones. It does not simply rehash the history, but highlights and assesses a series of important issues. It ought to be read by all who consider themselves to have inherited anything from the Doctor, especially those who tend to pick and choose. For those of us who did not know him immediately, and who might have picked up a second-hand opinion (either positively or negatively), it provides an opportunity to start making an independently intelligent assessment. For those who were closer to the action, it will demand a careful consideration, especially if some have been inclined to react – or, indeed, over-react – to elements of ML-J’s legacy.
It is here that the book will be most useful. Standing in this period’s slipstream, perhaps three groups can be identified among those with an interest in this man. There are those who tend to have a slavish attachment to ‘the Doctor’ (which he would clearly have abhorred), and for whom the vital question in any debate remains, “What would the Doctor have said?” In many respects, they are faithful to the bulk of his legacy, but perhaps struggle to move beyond it. Then there are those who might consider ML-J not quite Reformed enough, perhaps suspicious of his Methodism and concerned about the excesses to which his doctrine of the Holy Spirit opened a door. For some of them, everything about the man and his ministry is tainted by this. Finally, there are those – especially among the so-called “Reformed Charismatics” – who hold him up as a key forerunner of the modern charismatic movement, quoting selectively from his works, or imbibing or promoting an anachronistic interpretation of his teaching on the Spirit.
Messenger of Grace panders to none of these groups, and demands something of each. The first group must contend with ML-J’s feet of clay, and reckon seriously with the shortcomings of his thinking in significant areas, even while appreciating the wisdom and clarity of his legacy. The second group must recognise that wisdom and clarity, and appreciate more fully some of the keynotes of his ministry, understanding him in his context and learning to value what he contributed, even while they might feel vindicated with regard to what they would leave behind from his legacies. The third group need to appreciate that ML-J is not quite the poster-boy for their convictions that they hope him to be, and must consider tendencies to be gung-ho in their historical assessments and selective in their admiration.
Indeed, any who consider themselves heirs of ML-J in any degree need to understand what they are laying claim to, and – perhaps more importantly – what they can legitimately lay claim to. The instinct to pick and choose to suit our own convictions is soundly rebuked by this book. Stimulating in the best sense, controversial because of its clarity rather than its spirit, this is an outstanding treatment of its topic. As personal testimony and historical treatments of the later 20th century are making clear, Lloyd-Jones is a man who must be reckoned with. This book, fairly read, will be of great assistance in doing just that.