Our Church Made a Fresh Start

For one thing, my preaching changed. My pulpit
had been a bully pulpit for the law - a veritable
Mt. Sinai from which I thundered a message of
obligation. Now it was a place from which the
Cross was lifted high as the power for both
salvation and obedience - real obedience out
of love for God, obedience from the heart.

"And now being freed from that which
bound us (the Law) we serve in the new
way of the Spirit, not in the old way of the
Written Code."
(Rom. 7:6)

Meaning what? That now we are free to break
God's law? Heaven forbid! The Gospel supplies
us with the power of the Spirit to keep it - our
outward obedience flowing from a heart of
love. The painful lesson of Phariseeism - be it  
Jewish or Christian - is that a slavish focus on
the law leads to spiritual pride and lawless-
ness. Learning that, the character of my
preaching from law to gospel focused. What's
more, we started four
Sonship groups in which
I could disciple my people (and my own heart)
in the Gospel. The effect was that our church
became a veritable "Gospel sauna."

That we used
Sonship was not the point and
the same is true for
Grace4Life today. The
power is not in the material but in the Gospel
in the material. A study of the Gospel makes us
more intensely aware of God's unconditional
love for us.
That is what changes us. The
Gospel creates a climate in which it is safe to
face the deeper sin-patterns in our lives - sins
that may have lain hidden and unrepented of
for years. A living faith in Jesus' righteousness
as our righteousness is the fountainhead of
obedience. (Again, "the obedience that comes
from faith. Rom. 1:5)

For years, I had been labouring under
the delusion that my Christian life was a mess
because I was not strong enough. The truth
was, I had been much too strong, self-reliant
and self-sufficient. Strength through weakness
is not a new idea. (See 1 Cor. 12:9). But, it is
revolutionary to actually live that way - to shed
one's mantle of "looking my best to convince
people that I am better than I am".

Back to 1991. God was working in such
amazing ways in us I couldn't keep quiet. I
began sharing with other pastors what God
was doing in my heart and in the life of our
church. When many of them heard my
confession, they had the same sins and
struggles.

Ministry Expansion

Pastors and people from other churches heard
the buzz that God was at work at Altadena
Valley PCA, so we began to disciple whoever
came (asking them to remain in their own
churches and train others). After two years of
soaking in the Gospel and teaching it to
others, World Harvest Mission ("the Sonship
people") asked Becky and me to consider
returning to East Africa where we had worked
from 1973-77. They wanted us to contextualise
Sonship for the African continent. That meant
writing the course, teaching it, and then
training others to teach it - Paul's 2 Timothy 2:
2 model.

We moved back to Nairobi, Kenya in late 1993
and stayed until late 2003. I recruited a team
of three other American families to work with
us - the ART - Africa Renewal Team of World
Harvest Mission. While the others concen-
trated on reaching the church at large in
Kenya, I focused on writing, teaching at pair of
seminaries, and expanding the work to other
countries and languages. Becky and I traveled
to five other countries to train groups of
national pastors and/or missionaries with
Becky discipling the wives. (See the AFRICA
MINISTRY link if this interests you.)

From 1996 TO 1998, I shuttled back and
forth across the Atlantic to complete a Doctor
of Ministry degree under Richard Lovelace and  
Ray Pendleton at Gordon-Conwell Theological
Seminary. A degree in "Christian Spirituality" is
as ludicrous as it sounds because it does not
sanctify the bearer one whit.

During this time of study while reading about
the Great Awakening in Great Britain and the
Americas, I was struck with the thought:
"What
if the theology of the Awakening - (that we are
both justified and sanctification by faith) was
embraced in the British Isles again? What might
God do in and through his Church?"
But, there
was work to do, so such thoughts were put on
the back burner. But, by December 2003, we
had published
SONSHIP for Africa in English and
Amharic, had trained a small army of volunteer
disciplers in five countries, so we disbanded
ourteam and scattered to the four winds.

In mid-2005, Becky and I moved to London,
England where I wrote Grace4Life, a renewal
course for leaders and laypeole in the UK.
After six years in London and a battle with
cancer (Johnny), with an uncertain future
health-wise, we moved to the USA, built our
house in Western North Carolina
(Hendersonville - near the Blue Ridge
Mountains), and continue full-time writing,
discipling and training workers in the USA,
Africa and elsewhere. Since 2011, our work
has taken us to Spain, Chile, Ivory Coast, and
a sensitive country somewhere in the
Mediterranean region, the recipients of my
current writing project. (Sorry to be so hush-
hush.)   

WRAPPING IT UP

Over twenty years ago our lives and our
ministry were turned around by the teaching  
of grace. We are still a work-in-progress, but
we are learning to take baby-steps in what it
means to live and minister on a grace
foundation. As a pastor and missionary, having
spent so long doing ministry wrong (using a
law-based approach) I am perhaps more able
than most to lead others through the minefield
of potential ministry disasters. This much is
certain, I understand and can sympathise with
the struggles you have in the living the
Christian life and labouring in Gospel ministry.

- THE END –
of this tragic-happy not-so-short Long story
____________________________________
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO LEARN MORE about
how we might serve you, click on our
REFERENCES link. Talks to some of the men
you see listed there, and if your fears are
sufficiently allayed, shoot me a quick e-mail or
give me a call. I'll be happy to travel to where
you are in the UK, treat you to lunch, and, if
you would like to meet with us as a couple,
Becky says she would be delighted to join in.
_____________________________________

Altadena Valley Presbyterian Church (PCA)















The Gospel revolution that began at AVPC
in 1990 continues today under the able
leadership of Dr. Brad Allison, a member of
the board of World Harvest Mission (now
Serge) USA. See the church website at:
www.avpc.org/ .
This lady and I have been in love (well, most
of the time) since we first met at university in
1962 - the Late Cretaceous Period.

IN 1990, twenty-five years into marriage and
ministry, I hadn't the foggiest notion that I
was in desperate need of spiritual renewal. As
senior pastor of Altadena Valley Presbyterian
Church (PCA) in Birmigngham, Alabama, in my
not-so-humble opinion, it was others who
needed changing. I was always on the lookout
for the "magic bullet" - the perfect discipleship
tool I could use to change all the imperfect
people in my life.

THEN, when a very needy couple (read: a
basket case) in our church were greatly helped
by a discipleship seminar called "Sonship," I
wondered if this might be the tool I had been
searching for. Written by Dr. C. John "Jack"
Miller of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia
USA and his son Paul, the course was
designed to bring the sweetness of the Gospel
to bear on the hearts of weary Christians. So,
in 1990 November, Becky and I flew 900 miles
north to New Jersey where World Harvest
Mission was to host their SONSHIP Week '90.

SONSHIP WEEK HELL

Believe it when I say this week was more than
I had bargained for - a lot more. The lectures
by Dr. Miller and his colleagues were not what
we expected. They taught with an openness
and sincerity of heart we had never witnessed
before. They freely shared their weaknesses
and struggles with sin. It was frightening and
attractive at the same time - attractive
because it was authentic, frightening because
their honesty exposed my total lack thereof.

Despite his being a seminary professor, author
of several books, founder of World Harvest
Mission and a very successful church-planter,
Jack had a palpable sense of being an adopted
son of God. I believed the same, but was living
in such denial about the secret sin in my life
(we Yanks have a term for it - "lust bucket")
the Spirit's "Abba-Father!" cry in my heart was
inaudible. I spent a great deal of my time and
energy every day trying to give people the
impression I was better than I really was. Jack
sensed that he had a Mighty Christ - a Great
High Priest interceding for him at the Father's
right hand - a Saviour that so covered his sin
and shame he had no need to play the hiding
game. I was a Grand Master at the hiding
game. Jack boasted in his weakness.

Unbelievably, at one point, the leaders
seperated us men from our wives, herded us
into a room, had us sit down and said,
"Gentlemen, during this session, we're going
to talk to you about the idol of your ministry."
My mouth went dry. They had nailed me.  

A horrible truth was becoming clear: this
seminar was for me. It was not my congre-
gation that needed changing, it was me. I
desperately needed the kind of "working
Gospel faith" these people had.

My dear Becky, on the other hand, like so
many daughters of Eve, knew she was needy.
(See her article "A Perfect Mess" and our
jointly written "Christians Come in Flavours" in
SAMPLE LESSON BITS.) While Becky was crying
out for spiritual help to anyone who would
listen, I was shoring up my defenses - fighting
to survive. I felt as if these people were trying
to kill me. And, that is precisely what they
were doing - trying to lead me to say with
Paul, "I have been crucified with Christ,
nevertheless I live!" and, "May I never boast
except in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ
through which I have been crucified to the
world, and the world to me."

And to make matters worse, for one
unbearable hour every day, Becky and I met
with a "mentor" whose job it was to  help us
process what we were hearing in the lectures.
Can you believe it? We had actually elected to
do this. When we had registered months
before, not having the foggiest idea of what
"mentoring" was, I had signed us up - and our
church was paying extra for the privilege! It
gets worse.  Our mentor was none other than
the Rev. Rick Downs, a chap with a Masters in
counselling with Dr. Larry Crabb. Only later did
we discover that Rick had a well-earned
nickname in World Harvest circles... "The
Assassin".  But, Rick loved me, in spite of my
resistance to his attempts to help me. He
questioned and listened intently, trying to find
a way into the fortress that was my heart - a
heart that feared being needy, feared being
exposed. Others were needy. I had no needs.
I had been a pastor for twenty-five years. I
was The Great Need-Meeter.

What finally got to me? It was during our
third session when Rick said to me,
"Johnny,
tell me about your relationship with your father."
"You mean with my earthly father?"
, I asked. I
was a bit stunned by the question. After all, I
was forty-eight years old at the time, but,
staring down at the table between us, for the
first time I was honest - painfully so. (I must
say here that the difficult relationship between
me and my father dated back to my university
days and was as much my fault as his, so no
disrespect is intended.)

Rick understood that many who have strained
relationships with our earthly fathers are guilty
of "transference" - unconsciously assuming
that our heavenly Father treats us the same
way as our earthly father. As for me, I never
felt that I could "dance hard enough", never
measure up to my Dad's expectations. I was
doomed forever to be a disappointment - the
eldest son who didn't become a surgeon like
him - what we had dreamed of early on.

When my sad tale of woe was done (one  in
which I had expressed a good deal of pain and
anger), I glanced up at Rick, a big hulk of a
man, and a tear was running down his cheek.
He was weeping - for me, the unloved son, the
wounded child, the spiritual orphan. He said
sadly, "Johnny, There's more; there's so much
more." I hadn't a clue as to what he meant -
but I wanted to know. The SONSHIP Week
speakers confused me. They used the term
"Gospel" in ways that were foreign me. And,
they made much of the value of repentance -
and "seeing your sin." Those were things I had
done at the beginning of my Christian life but
had steadfastly avoided since. Gradually,
however, I came to suspect that the "magic
bullet" for which I had sought might actually be
the Gospel. Whereas I had devolved into
thinking of it as the door through which one
entered the Christian life, these people were
teaching that it was the room in which we
should live, and, to mix metaphors, the road
we were to walk for growth.

Jerry Bridges calls the Gospel "the
atmosphere of the Christian life." And Luther
said, "To progress in the Christian life is to be
always beginning again in the Gospel." The
venerable Dutch theologian G.C. Berkhouwer
put it this way
: "Faith is as much at the heart of
sanctification as it is of justification".
Hi. JOHNNY & BECKY LONG here - recovering
pharisees gradually being transformed by the grace  
of God. If you have a few minutes, dive into this mini-
novel. It's quite shocking really - a 21st Century
version of St. Augustine's Confessions? I found
myself alternately chuckling and weeping while writing
it up, so chances are, you'll not find it overly boring.
He was talking about faith in the Cross of
Christ - Gospel faith. Surely that is why Paul
said he was commissioned to preach among
the Gentiles "the obedience that comes from
faith." (Rom.5:1) The witnesses all agree: It is
believing the Gospel that saves us, and
believing the Gospel that makes us holy.

The Lost Gospel Found!

I woke at around 4:30 am the last day of the
conference, Friday 9 November 1990. I was
having a terrible-wonderful daydream (some
might call it a "vision," something very much
against the rules for us Presbyterians). I "saw"
my heart - suspended above the bed - covered
in layers of sugar (like a Jordan Almond) - being
washed clean by great warm waves of the
love of the Father for me. When the sugar
(which was my pride in the hard work I had
done "for God" for twenty-five years) was
washed away, we were left with my dark,
rotten heart. What I deserved was judgment. I
could see the mixed motivations with which I
had done ministry for twenty-five years - the
ultimate treason - doing "the right thing, for
the wrong reason." (T.S. Eliot, Murder in the
Cathedral) But the Father assured me, "This is
what my son died for. Let me be your
righteousness." It was like being born again -
again. I surrendered.

The Old Me - a pretty sorry picture all round





























When we returned home to our church -
the church I had afflicted with a law-based
ministry for a decade, I was a changed and
changing man. (My primary motivational tools
had been guilt, fear, shame and pride). I stood
before my people and confessed my sins
against God and them, said that I had been a
fake, a pretender, a whitewashed tomb, and
asked their forgiveness. I told them that the
old Johnny had died - had been crucified with
Christ. I asked them to pray for me, that I
would learn to motivate them with grace and
love rather than law and duty. I invited them
to join me, if they felt they needed to, in
making a new start in their Christian lives with
me. I invited as many as wanted to come to
our house for lunch to come. (Becky had
bought a mountain of mince and had made
scores of hamburger patties - just in case.)

How did our church react? They could easily
have asked for my resignation. But... They
were overjoyed! After worship, as I opened
the front door of our house, I heard a
commotion. Inside, in our living-dining room
area, were more than sixty people. They filled
the sofas and chairs, were standing - or sitting
on the floor in groups praying and weeping.
They wanted to talk, to pray, to know more of
what it was God had done for me. One young
woman, Lori, spoke up:
"Johnny, we don't
understand what has happened to you, but
whatever God has done for you, we need,
and we're not leaving until you tell us
more!"

Odd isn't it, that the renewal our church had
been praying for years began when the bone-
headed pastor finally admitted that he was
just  a big sinner-struggler like everyone else.
My brokenness suddenly made our church a
safe place to be a sinner, and a safe place to
repent. So we did!

Was it difficult repent - as the leader?  Yes and
no. Humbling oneself it not "fun", but   I had a
fresh sense of the enormity of my sin and at
the same time, a great apprehension
of the love of Christ for me. I was especially
conscious of his intercessory work on my
behalf - that he was seated (as he is this
instant) at the Right Hand of the Father
presenting himself to the Father as my
beauty, as my whole and sole righteousness
(Luther). Indeed, when we look at Jesus -
really fix our eyes on him in faith, we are given
the power to repent - and more, to obey him
with grateful joy. As Jack Miller used to quip,
"Rejoice, you're worse than you think! And
rejoice because the grace of God is bigger
than you think!"

For twenty-five years I had been in ministry -
serving God as a slave in the Father's house
rather than as a son. It is one thing (and a
good and necessary thing) to lay hold of the
doctrine of justification by faith alone. But, one
can so focus on the legal aspect justification
that we miss its companion doctrine - adoption
and the "Abba, Father!" cry of sonship (Gal.4:4-
7; Rom.8:15).

Adoption, when properly understood, leads
us into an intimacy with God as his beloved
son or daughter - what had been so missing in
my life. Dr. Lloyd-Jones sensed this when he
wrote:
"The presence of the Holy Spirit
within us reminds us of our sonship—the
spirit of adoption whereby we cry, "ABBA,
Father!" That is our relationship to God, and
the moment we realize it, it transforms
everything."
J.I. Packer wrote something
even more radical:
"Our first point about
adoption is that it is the highest privilege
that the gospel offers: higher even than
justification. This may cause the raising of
eyebrows..."
(Knowing God, p. 186 ff.) Yes it
does. Maybe it's time to dust off your copy and
give Chapter 19 "Sons of God" another read.
Ladies too. Commenting  Galatians 2:20,
Luther wrote,
"The whole of religion consists in
personal pronouns - 'who loved me, and gave
himself for me.'"

That our church experienced spiritual renewal   
is not surprising when one considers that
every revival in Church history has been
marked by believers being touched with a
fresh sense of their sin - and a subsequent
repentance -
public repentance. When
believers sense the love of Christ for them
afresh, they are enabled to see and openly
confess their sins. Another of Jack Miller's
famous sayings goes like this:
"If the pastor/
teacher/parent is not the chief repenter,
the Gospel becomes a theoretical solution,
for the theoretical problem of sin, for
theoretical sinners - should there be any
present."
A Tragic-Happy Tale of
THE GOSPEL - LOST & FOUND