A Morning Meeting with Ralph D. Winter: Repentance, Restitution, and the Value of Revisiting Older P
This is a partial transcription of a talk Ralph Winter gave to the staff of the US Center for World Mission on June 16, 2000. In this talk he quotes extensively from the memoirs of a man who was 85 at the time, to illustrate the value of a discipline taken seriously by Christians in the mid-20th century that is now not commonly practiced.
In this brief audio excerpt, Winter concludes: "It would be helpful to us to realize as we go around the world as missionaries that we’re preaching a kind of Christianity that we’ve inherited and perhaps not looked at closely and not compared to any other previous time and not evaluated in any objective way. And yet we assume, this is the Bible. And yet there may be a very great discrepancy between the different kinds of Christianity down through history. And it’s a luxurious wealth to revisit some of those other forms of Christianity."
Transitions in recent church traditions: • Use of organ that used to be only in bars
• Wednesday night prayer meetings came in—gone now.
• Sunday night services came in—gone now
• Youth group meetings came in—it’s still around
The most important transition in American church history—a radically different form of Christianity but it looks exactly the same—is the shift from rural to urban. It makes a huge difference. The idea of church discipline went completely out the window—for obvious reasons. It wasn’t because there was a laxity or falling away from Christ. But simply because in a rural church everybody knows everybody. They are in a very good position to exhort one another. In an urban church, nobody knows anybody. You don’t really know the people. You see them on Sunday but you just see a portion of their lives. It becomes very unreasonable for any kind of a church discipline system to continue.
So all of the church discipline flowed out of the churches in American life and we don’t even have books on that subject anymore. We do have books that talk about what to do with a pastor who falls into immorality, but that’s about all we talk about when it comes to church discipline.
One of the features that also went out the window was the idea of restitution. Looking closely at Acts 26, Paul is explaining to Agrippa what he is up to. He says he kept declaring to Gentiles everywhere that they should repent. Notice that the word “faith” doesn’t occur. They should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.
This sounds like some kind of works, doesn’t it? It sounds like you’re tagging all kinds of things onto the gospel. Where’s the faith? Well, when you think through what the Bible means when it talks about faith, you realize this is precisely the evidence of faith: repentance, turning to God, performing the deeds appropriate to righteousness. This is the best New Testament evidence of faith. “Show me your faith by your works.” Not that the works save you but the works verify that there is something there in a person’s heart.
Now this phrase, “perform the deeds appropriate to repentance,” would seem to include the idea of restitution. Dr. Stanley Tam, who was with us a few weeks ago, 85 years old, has given 100 million dollars to Christian missions in his lifetime, this is what he wrote (I’ll try to get through it): “Believers should assume that the price of spiritual power, the true beauty in the Christian life, is going to involve pain. This could be pain caused in numerous ways, including suffering and disappointment. Yet I have discovered that when someone gets serious about obeying and serving God, pain inevitably precedes happiness and fulfillment. Why? Let me illustrate from experience. One night when our children were still at home, I felt overwhelmed by debilitating weakness in my Christian life. Things were going well in the business. All our bills were paid. Juanita and I had just purchased a new car, updated some of our kitchen utilities, the children were happy, doing well in school. Deep in my heart, though, I felt like an empty gourd. I had become a candidate for the kind of spiritual power that comes when I have no strength of my own but must reach out in honest desperation for the will of God.
"I remember sitting at my desk in spiritual anguish. I would go, walk around my shops and see all the material blessings God had given. My heart, with its increasing level of distress was a different matter. Most of our staff are believers. So at times in the past I have felt like calling the work day to a halt and gathering them together to share my concerns. But this matter was too personal for that. This was Stanley Tam standing in the need of prayer, as the song goes.
"Finally one day I looked up from my desk and prayed, “Lord, I’ve got to get this thing settled. Please help me.” I meant that. Long ago I learned not to pray such a prayer unless I truly was ready for business with God. … I sprawled on the floor. “God,” I prayed, “show me how to have power in my Christian life.”
"I knew that trips to “God’s woodshed” often result from my own initiative. That is, when I come to be dead serious, when I tell Him how desperately I want to obey Him, I need to be prepared for discipline. God uses discipline to prepare His children. Through the years I’ve also discovered that when a Christian talks to God, he can expect an answer. Most often God speaks through the Bible—His guidebook. Some Christians have insisted that God has spoken to them in an audible voice. Such has never been the case with me, although at times God has communicated in my thoughts as clearly, if not more clearly, than if He had spoken aloud.
"As I prayed this night the Lord said to me: “If you want power, Stanley, you need to do four things. All relate to sins you committed as a young man.” First, after my purchase of a Model T Ford, I had made a practice of stealing gasoline from my uncle’s private pump. Second, being short on cash, but wishing to impress my girlfriend, I had cheated on tickets at a student carnival when I was still in high school, and yet the Lord brought it forcefully to my consciousness this night. Third, again involving the Model T, I had stolen spare parts from a junk dealer and was challenged to confess this wrong. Fourth I had attended a country church social where, with a bit of trickery, I was able to help myself to soft drinks without paying for them.
"Trivial issues some might say. Ahh—but that’s the crux of it. The Bible speaks of the little foxes that ruin the vineyard. The same principle works in a believer’s life. Little sins, wrongs I so easily overlook, but they poison my soul, numb my perceptiveness, my joy and obedience, and most devastating of all, hinder my witness.
"My first impulse was to argue with God. These wrongdoings had taken place years before. They seem so inconsequential. They involve more mischief than wrongdoing. I learned through this experience, however, that it is not for me to decide the measure of my sins. …
"Tossing and turning on my living room floor, I asked God to give me more power as a Christian. But God never gives a haphazard response to such prayers. If I wanted power, I had a price to pay. The more I wrestled with this trivia—as I tried to label it—the more certain I became that any wrong is a major entry in God’s computer. I had to make the wrong’s right, even though the matter seemed trifling.
"Finally I cried out, 'I will obey you Lord. You help me. You guide me. Please heavenly Father." Immediately my heart was directed to my uncle. God did that. On my own I would have left Uncle Glennis to the last. He was an unbeliever. Would attach no spiritual importance to such a small confession. He might even laugh at me and speak to others of my foolish religious notions. Yet Uncle Glennis was item one. So I went to see him. It would have been easier if I had stalked, unannounced, into the office of the governor of Ohio. My uncle listened in silence. As I stuttered and stammered about stealing from his gasoline supply, I felt miserable and humiliated. Even as I spoke to Uncle Glennis, the thought crossed my mind that maybe I was doing the wrong thing. My confession might only bolster his criticism of Christians and the phoniness he seemed to see in their lives. 'I want to pay you for the gas I took,' I said.
'How much did you take?'
'I don’t know?'
'Am I supposed to know?'
"I reached for my my billfold. My uncle turned away. Maybe he thought if I paid him I’d have license to put him on the spot spiritually and preach to him about his lost soul. Whatever his thoughts he grunted and walked away. My confession may have had little impact upon him. But it made a 20 ton impression on Stanley Tam. A weight lifted from my heart. Joy replaced that weight. It was wonderful.
"Even as I drove away from my uncle’s place the devil went to work on me. “Haven’t you made a fool of yourself?” the old deceiver seemed to ask. “After seeing how unmoved your uncle was, do you really see any sense in doing anything about these other three accusations?
"The devil was little late because I had begun a new discovery in my life. At issue is more than a correction of things with my uncle; it was a matter of making things right with the Lord. Cleaning up my heart so God could fill it with blessing.
"I discovered that when God asks us to do tough things that’s when he moves in and surrounds us with special love and strength. …
"[In making things right with the high school superintendent} I learned another lesson. When I take the initiative to make things right I can bring a trove of inspiration and blessing to others.”
"Next, the junk yard…"
But our time is up. …
It would be helpful to us to realize as we go around the world as missionaries that we’re preaching a kind of Christianity that we’ve inherited and perhaps not looked at closely and not compared to any other previous time and not evaluated in any objective way. And yet we assume, this is the Bible. And yet there may be a very great discrepancy between the different kinds of Christianity down through history. And it’s a luxurious wealth to revisit some of those other forms of Christianity.