The Faith of our Fathers

Transcription of article published in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by Thomas Graham

THE new evangelistic activity in the Church is just a revival of the conditions of early Primitive Methodism. For several decades the ideals and aspirations of our forbears were almost purely evangelistic. Doctrine and method of service, sermon and song, all alike bore upon the one point of securing decisions for Christ. The teaching of Primitive Methodism in the early times was intensely evangelistic. The descriptive phrase “General Redemption” brackets several items in the creed of our fathers, which included:—

  1. All have sinned; 
  2. All are redeemed; 
  3. All may be pardoned; and 
  4. All may be cleansed, renewed and preserved by the manifold grace of God. 

If the faith of our fathers had to be expressed in one word, that word would be “Conversion.” It may be worth while to review in detail the general teaching on conversion, which may conveniently be indicated under five propositions.

All need to be converted. Man is bad at heart, they declared, and it is to be feared man was sometimes described as all bad. As between classes of hearers, Paul’s words were often quoted with pungent emphasis, “There is no difference; all have sinned.” A radical change was imperative, both in outward and inward life. Were they right? There may be a finer discrimination at the present time in the treatment of sin, and the working of mind and heart maybe more fully understood, but do not all agree that man needs to be born from above? There must be a change in a man if he is to be a true-hearted and thorough Christian.

Conversion is a threefold change. Our fathers were quite clear that conversation meant a change of heart, of conduct, and a change in relation to God. The new conduct that followed decision for Christ often extended to mode of dress. “Changed life, speech, deed, pursuit, and pleasure?” Certainly. And a change in the cut of the clothes and style of bonnet, too! The man or woman who joined the Primitive Methodists was a marked character. And the change simply reflected the exhortation of the preachers. But the transformed external life had its origin in a renewed heart. Our fathers unfailingly insisted upon the fact of inward sin—sin in will, purpose, thought, imagination, and impulse. Conversion, they said, would change the inner life and make the springs of conduct clean and wholesome. One recalls poor Johnny Oxtoby, whose illness was due to a sense of internal defilement. Equally strongly did our fathers insist that conversion was a change in relation to God. One cannot resist the conclusion that in those days men had harder ideas of God than now. Men thought of God with a great and sometimes paralysing fear, and religious awakening was a terrible experience. The work of the Gospel and of the preacher is to get men to think rightly of God. What a change when people yielded to “love’s resistless power and fought against God” no more! It may well be called a transition from darkness to light and from death to life. If this side of the Gospel had a place in the preaching of our fathers, it found even more striking embodiment in their experience and deportment. They vividly described the peace and joy of the saved man, and at the same time let the new light shine from their faces and the gladness burst from them in mirthful praise and exuberant song. Did conversion make a man right with God? Their prayers proved it. Did it make them happy? The songs showed it. Did it loosen the heart and quicken the spirit? Their hallelujahs were impressive testimony. Conversion brought sinners to sonship and turned craven fear into the confidence and gladness of children. “My soul’s full of glory” they sang, and the song reveals the happiness that springs from the new relation to God which comes from conversion.

Conversion is by faith. Change could only come from believing. What is faith? Faith, our fathers said, was believing that God can save, and will save, and does save. And the emphasis fell upon the last word. What struggles there were to “rise into faith!” How poor, burdened, stricken souls would believe that God could and would, but hesitated to say that He did save them. “I can, I will, I DO believe,” they would sing. In his hour of spiritual crisis, William Clowes, in an agony of wrestling prayer, believed that God would save him, then that God was saving him, and then that God had saved him. Conversion is by faith, and probably for most to-day the nearest way into the Kingdom is by the three steps along which our fathers led their penitents. God is able, willing, and He does save.

Conversion is instantaneous. With our fathers sudden conversion was not one way, but the only way. It would seem that experience largely determined their theology. Most of the missionaries had been suddenly converted. Under their ministry thousands were converted “on the spot,” as General Booth puts it. Were our fathers right in teaching sudden conversion? Undoubtedly; at least as far as they went. On this point, however, we feel that they had not all the truth. There is room for other types of conversion. Even the principal founders exhibit two distinct types of experience. Clowes’ conversion was instantaneous, but Bourne’s was gradual, although necessarily there was a crisis.

Conversion is accompanied by assurance. Wesley had taught that “a man might have his sins forgiven and know it.” But the truth had not become generally known. The common idea among the more religious seemed to be that one must be good and leave the rest. The fathers were very sceptical of any conversion that did not carry assurance. If you are converted, they would say, you know it. They sang of being saved with “a certain salvation.” Many prayer meeting choruses echo the same truth. The experience of the change was in many cases so vivid that converts testified that they had felt the burden fall away. Then there was the impression made upon the heart by the Holy Spirit which brought acceptance to the stage of certain knowledge. Possibly we need to-day to emphasise more insistently the privilege and practical necessity of assurance. Assurance implies a very definite surrender and adherence to the Lord Jesus. Usually, the testimony is “brightest” where confession has been bravely made. Salvation comes by faith and assurance by confession.

With such teaching as this the fathers did exploits and turned many to righteousness. By the reproduction of the same truths spoken in the language of to-day and addressed to the thought of the times will conquests now be made for the Kingdom. These are not truths the Church has left behind, so there can be no going back to them. In essence, they are living thoughts and experiences.

References

Primitive Methodist Magazine 1911/951

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