'I am willing to go anywhere, provided it be forward,' David Livingstone declared. Progress is to be the Christian Church's concern at all times. Yet what is progress? Do we mean merely numerical strength? Or are we thinking in terms of the number of people reached with the gospel?
It came as a moment of enlightenment to discover the description the New Testament gives of progress. The early Church certainly knew growth. The Lord added continually to their number those whom He was saving. But, significantly, progress is not described solely in terms of the Lord adding to the Church. Instead, on four occasions in the Acts of the Apostles it is described in terms of the Word of God growing and multiplying. It is said to have spread, increased and grown in power (Acts 6:7; 12:24; 13:49; 19:20).
We may believe that God the Holy Spirit caused Luke to use this way of assessing progress for our instruction. Progress is to be thought of in terms of the growth and multiplication of the Word of God. It is not to be thought of primarily in terms of either the growth of Christianity or of the Church - and not even of the gospel.
God's standards have not changed. Progress today ought to be viewed in the same terms as in the Acts of the Apostles. It not hard to see the reason for this stress on the Word of God growing. The fundamental reason is that Christianity, the Church, Christian organisations and the gospel are all subject to the Word of God. The voice of God speaks when the Word of God speaks.
The same cannot be said, however, when either Christianity or the Church are said to speak. The test of the genuineness of what is declared to be Christianity is its conformity to God's Word. The voice of the Church is to be listened to only when she speaks what God declares.
An interesting illustration of this is found in the letter to the Galatians. Paul speaks of Peter as a 'pillar' of the Church. But in two verses further on he says that he 'opposed him to his face, because he was in the wrong'. This, at first glance, seems a dangerous thing to do if Peter was indeed a pillar of the Church. Paul goes on, however, to say what demanded this action: 'I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel' (Galatians 2:9,11,14). Paul's understanding of God's Word made opposition essential.
Unfortunately, there are today, as there have always been, distortions of and misunderstandings about the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The understanding we have, therefore, of the gospel and of our task must be subject to God's Word. The gospel must be what the Bible declares, otherwise it is another gospel, and false. History has consistently revealed that God's Word is the best safeguard of the gospel. When the Word of God has been neglected, so has the gospel. When the Word of God has been rediscovered and faithfully preached, the gospel has gone forth in power.
Witness to Christ
Another obvious reason for the Holy Spirit's emphasis on this concept of progress is that the Word of God always points us to the Lord Jesus, the living Word. It is the Father's will that the Son should be foremost and supreme in everything.
This fact is expressed most forcibly in the Scriptures. Whether we consider the earliest events of human history in Genesis, or the deliverance of God's people in Exodus, or the sacrifices of Leviticus, or the work of the prophets, we find ourselves always directed to the Messiah who was to come. And the New Testament is rightly described as that 'of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ'.
All who live in Edinburgh or visit the city know that it has a very special central feature - the castle. It is floodlit every evening of the year. However, when it is floodlit, it is not the floodlights of which one is aware, but of the castle. The Holy Spirit is the One who puts the floodlight on the person and work of the Lord Jesus as we read and study the Bible. He says to us, 'Look - Go - Listen - Trust - the Lord Jesus.'
We please the Spirit, therefore, when in considering any part of the Bible, we always ask, 'What is the relationship of this part of the Bible to the Person and Work of our Lord Jesus Christ?' We long for the growth of the Church and of Scripture Union's contribution to that growth, for we believe this to be God's will.
It is essential, therefore, that we should recognise that the power for growth is not in us, but in God's Word. It is the Word of God that gives rise to the people of God. As we recognise this, and give priority to the Word - not by lip service but in practice - the Holy Spirit may be depended upon to support our testimony and to cause the Word to grow and multiply.
Martin Luther wrote, 'Everything that is done... should serve the purpose of allowing the Word to have free course... It is better to neglect anything rather than the Word. And we can do nothing better than proclaim the Word.' He explained his own role in the events of the Reformation: 'I simply taught, preached, wrote God's Word; otherwise I did nothing... I did nothing. The Word did it all.' It is not without significance that the first parable the Lord Jesus told, the parable that set the pattern for His ministry, was that of the sower. And what did the sower sow? The word of God!
This article is based on a talk given by Derek Prime to the SU staff conference at Gartmore in December 2004 and was first published in @SU in June 2005. Rev Derek Prime was minister of Charlotte Baptist Church in Edinburgh for many years. He is now retired, but continues to write and speak. His book on Acts, ACTive Evangelism was republished by Christian Focus in 2003.