Posted by Andrew Webb
“Is there anything of which it may be said, “See, this is new”? It has already been in ancient times before us.”
Although the FV is sometimes presented by its advocates as something of a “new Reformation” a quick review of the history of the church will quickly indicate that movements emphasizing reliance on membership in the corporate church, ritual, and sacraments rather than personal faith and trust in Jesus Christ are nothing particularly new. We see it in Israel just prior to going into exile and again at the time of Christ’s birth. We see it abundantly manifested in the medieval church and we see it cropping up again and again in the Reformed Churches since the 16th century.
One of the most obvious examples of this was phenomenon was a movement in the Church of England in the mid-19th century described variously as the “Oxford Movement”, “Tractarian Movement” or sometimes “the Liturgical Revival.” The leaders of this movement were by no means liberals. Men like Bishops Pusey and Newman were both bible scholars and strong believers in inerrancy and conservative doctrinally. At times they even argued that their movement, which advocated “sacramental efficacy” and a revival of all the ancient traditions and rituals of the church, would be a bulwark against modernism and the loss of faith. Although the movement was begun in the Anglican church, I have frequently been struck by the similarities in doctrine and argument between the FV and the Tractarians. The only possible difference being that the Tractarians weren’t concerned to reconcile their movement with the Westminster Confession.
Then as now, this Liturgical Revival was vigorously opposed by evangelicals in the Church of England like Bishop J.C. Ryle. Many of his popular works are shot through with warnings against the errors inherent in the movement as he rightly felt the “liturgical revival” to be irreconcilable with, and potentially fatal to, the gospel revival he was striving and praying for. Because of this Ryle was frequently lambasted by his enemies as a “Low Churchman” and various other equivalents of the modern charges of being “baptistic.”
As an example of how little practical difference there is between Ryle’s struggle with the “Liturgical Revivalists” in the Anglican Church and the FV advocates in the PCA, OPC, etc. please allow me to share a section from the chapter entitled “Visible Churches Warned” in Ryle’s Holiness where he is commenting on the Lord’s warnings to the Seven Churches in Asia. Compare his two systems of Christianity below and his final conclusions, and you will see that the current quarrel really is “nothing new under the sun.”
“I ask my readers to observe that the Lord Jesus, in all the seven epistles, speaks of nothing but matters of doctrine, practice, warning and promise.
I ask you to look over these seven epistles to the churches, quietly and at your leisure, and you will soon see what I mean.
You will observe that the Lord Jesus sometimes finds fault with false doctrines and ungodly inconsistent practices, and rebukes them sharply.
You will observe that He sometimes praises faith, patience, work, labor, perseverance and bestows on these graces high commendation.
You will sometimes find Him enjoining repentance, amendment, return to the first love, renewed application to Himself, and the like.
But I want you to observe that you will not find the Lord, in any of the epistles, dwelling upon church government or ceremonies. He says nothing about sacraments or ordinances. He makes no mention of liturgies or forms. He does not instruct John to write one word about baptism, or the Lord’s Supper, or the apostolical succession of ministers. In short, the leading principles of what may be called ‘the sacramental system’ are not brought forward in any one of the seven epistles from first to last.
Now why do I dwell on this? I do it because many professing Christians in the present day would have us believe these things are of first, of cardinal, of paramount importance.
There are not a few who seem to hold that there can be no church without a bishop, and no godliness without a liturgy. They appear to believe that to teach the value of the sacraments is the first work of a minister, and to keep to their parish church the first business of a people.
Now let no man misunderstand me when I say this. Do not run away with the notion that I see no importance in sacraments. On the contrary, I regard them as great blessings to all who receive them ‘rightly, worthily and with faith’. Do not fancy that I attach no value to episcopacy, a liturgy and the parochial system. On the contrary, I consider that a church well administered, which has these three things, and an evangelical ministry, is a far more complete and useful church than one in which they are not to be found.
But this I say, that sacraments, church government, the use of a liturgy, the observance of ceremonies and forms, are all as nothing compared to faith, repentance and holiness. And my authority for so saying is the whole tenor of our Lord’s words to the seven churches.
I never can believe, if a certain form of church government was so very important as some say, that the great Head of the church would have said nothing about it here. I should have expected to have found something said about it to Sardis and Laodicea. But I find nothing at all. And I think that silence is a great fact.
I cannot help remarking just the same fact in Paul’s parting words to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:27–35). He was then leaving them for ever. He was giving his last charge on earth, and spoke as one who would see the faces of his hearers no more. And yet there is not a word in the charge about the sacraments and church government. If ever there was a time for speaking of them, it was then. But he says nothing at all, and I believe it was an intentional silence.
Now here lies one reason why we who, rightly or wrongly, are called evangelical clergy, do not preach about bishops, and the Prayer Book, and ordinances more than we do. It is not because we do not value them, in their place, proportion and way. We do value them as really and truly as any, and are thankful for them. But we believe that repentance towards God, faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ and a holy conversation are subjects of far more importance to men’s souls. Without these no man can be saved. These are the first and most weighty matters, and therefore on these we dwell.
Here again lies one reason why we so often urge on men not to be content with the mere outward part of religion. You must have observed that we often warn you not to rest on church membership and church privileges. We tell you not to be satisfied all is right because you come to church on Sunday, and come up to the Lord’s table. We often urge you to remember, that he is not a Christian who is one outwardly, that you must be ‘born again,’ that you must have a ‘faith that worketh by love,’ that there must be a ‘new creation’ by the Spirit in your heart. We do it because this seems to us the mind of Christ. These are the kind of things He dwells upon, when writing seven times over to seven different churches. We feel that if we follow Him we cannot greatly err.
I am aware that men charge us with taking ‘low views’ of the subjects to which I have adverted. It is a small thing that our views are thought ‘low,’ so long as our consciences tell us they are scriptural. High ground, as it is called, is not always safe ground. What Balaam said must be our answer ‘What the Lord saith, that will I speak’ (Num. 24:13).
The plain truth is, there are two distinct and separate systems of Christianity in England at the present day. It is useless to deny it. Their existence is a great fact and one that cannot be too clearly known.
According to one system, religion is a mere corporate business. You are to belong to a certain body of people. By virtue of your membership of this body, vast privileges, both for time and eternity, are conferred upon you. It matters little what you are and what you feel. You are not to try yourself by your feelings. You are a member of a great ecclesiastical corporation. Then all its privileges and immunities are your own. Do you belong to the one true visible ecclesiastical corporation? That is the grand question.
According to the other system, religion is eminently a personal business between yourself and Christ. It will not save your soul to be an outward member of any ecclesiastical body whatever, however sound that body may be. Such membership will not wash away one sin, or give you confidence in the day of judgment. There must be personal faith in Christ, personal dealings between yourself and God, personal felt communion between your own heart and the Holy Spirit. Have you this personal faith? Have you this felt work of the Spirit in your soul? This is the grand question. If not you will be lost.
This last system is the system which those who are called evangelical ministers cleave to and teach. They do so, because they are satisfied that it is the system of Holy Scripture. They do so, because they are convinced that any other system is productive of most dangerous consequences, and calculated to delude men fatally as to their actual state. They do so because they believe it to be the only system of teaching which God will bless, and that no church will flourish so much as that in which repentance, faith, conversion and the work of the Spirit are the grand subjects of the minister’s sermon.
[J.C. Ryle, Holiness, Charles Nolan Publishers (2001) p.274-277]