Lecture Three

Simpson and the Origins of Alliance Thought

This lecture needs to bring our discussions of last week into focus, particularly about the connections between Simpson's spiritual crises and Alliance doctrinal emphases. As you are reading this, remember that you will be preparing a Position Paper on the role of experience in Alliance thought. It is easy to error on both sides in considering the legitimate role for experience. Dismissing experience altogether does not account for the importance of experience to our understanding of the world. The credibility we give to explanations of any type depends a great deal on whether or not the explanation can make sense of our experience. On the other hand, an excessive reliance on experience in theological reflection narrows our perspective unduly and tends to discount outside critiques. As we look again at Simpson's experience, consider the ways it brought life to his thinking and for ways it may have led him astray.

We need to return to the documents you worked with and answered questions on last week. Simpson's accounts of his crisis of sanctification and of his healing suggest that before these experiences, he had an inadequate understanding of these doctrines and the Biblical teaching regarding them. Remember Simpson's account of his early religious education in which he stressed there was no one to tell him the simple truth of trusting in Jesus. In his message to his former Hamilton congregation celebrating the 50th anniversary of his ordination Simpson indicated that something was missing in his early ministry. In a confessional tone Simpson admits "even after 9 years of his active ministry in Hamilton, he had not yet learned the deeper lessons of the spiritual life and the power which God was pleased to open to him after taking him from this place." So what was it that was missing?

Group 1 was commissioned to work through the "Dedication" which Simpson transcribed and signed in 1861 paragraph by paragraph. This type of analysis reveals a very complete understanding of God's saving work and its application to the individual sinner in salvation. There was clear recognition of the need to change ones pattern of life and to live under the governance of God and for his glory. Simpson committed himself personally and emphatically to all this.

In his description of entering into this covenant Simpson wrote, "I remember a certain special blessing which I included in my request and specifications and I often wondered how literally God has fulfilled them to me in his gracious providence through my life." Group 1 was to guess what aspect of the covenant this referred to. I ask this question to my Alliance History and Thought students every time I teach the course and rarely does anyone pick it up - so I should probably recognize it is just a bad question. But there is a point I want to make here. I think Simpson was referring to the section of the covenant which reads: "May a double portion of the Spirit rest upon me, and then I shall go and proclaim to transgressors Thy ways and Thy laws to the people. Sanctify me wholly and make me fit for heaven. Give me all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ Jesus." In a couple of sentences, this summarizes the central themes of Simpson's life. The emphasis on the need for sanctification by the work of the Holy Spirit, that this empowering must give rise to going and proclaiming to those who don't know, even the theme of identification with Jesus which is central to his thought are all reflected here. This is all present way back in this 1861 document. So what is it that changed, that needed renovation for Simpson to launch out with new spiritual vigour as he does in 1874?

Now we'll move ahead to 1874 and look at the spiritual crisis which Group 2 considered. What do we make of Simpson's experience of sanctification, what changed, and how did it happen? We've already mentioned that in 1915 (Simpson in Hamilton see Reading 2.2) Simpson wants his former congregation to know of the great blessing of God he received after he left them. He describes having "his own nothingness" revealed to him "very thoroughly, very patiently, very inexorably." The first lesson he had to learn and, as he suggests, continually learn was to die, to be annihilated. This is a good Biblical idea from Romans 6 which speaks of our dying with Christ. But we die with Christ to be also raised with him, so the first lesson Simpson told his congregation led to the second, the "all-sufficiency of Christ." The account given in "A Larger Christian Life" (Reading 2.3) follows the same two-fold model. Simpson describes his state before this new revelation grips his heart in graphic terms. He speaks of "the lonely and sorrowful night when, mistaken in many things and imperfect in all, and not knowing but that it would be death in the most literal sense before the morning light…" This is contrasted with "thrill of joy" which came with following Sabbath morning. The difference between the night and morning Simpson captures in a few lines of poetry:

'Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow thee;
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my All shall be,'

To return to the questions posed above, What changed? and then once we have mastered this, How did it happen?  What changed seems to be described as an new awareness of the presence of Christ. In his 1915 address Simpson describes this change that happened some forty years earlier with great immediacy.

He had talked to his people about the deeper things of the Spirit, but there was a hollow ring, and his heart was breaking to know the Lord Jesus as a living bright reality. As he pored over this little volume (refers to Boardman's The Higher Christian Life), he saw new light. The Lord Jesus revealed Himself as a living all-sufficient presence, and he learned for the first time that Christ had not saved us from future peril and left us to fight the battle of life as best we could, but He who had justified us was waiting to sanctify us, to enter into our spirit and substitute His strength, His holiness, His joy, His love, His faith, His power, for all our worthlessness, helplessness, and nothingness, and make it an actual and living fact, "I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me." This was indeed a new revelation. Throwing himself at the feet of that glorious Master he claimed the mighty promise, "I will dwell in you and you in me." Across the threshold of his spirit there passed a Being as real as the Christ who came to John on Patmos, and from that moment a new secret has been the charm, and glory, and strength of his life and testimony... Henceforth it was not his struggles, his character, his ethical culture, his moral goodness, but his constant dependence upon the living One who has said, "Because I live, ye shall live also." And whatever has been accomplished these forty years in personal victory or public service, he counts it a great privilege to stand here today and say, "Not I but Christ." "I have learned the secret, I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me."

A new doctrine was not delivered to Simpson at this point. He says that he had often talked about the "deeper things of the Spirit" but did not know "the Lord Jesus as a living and bright reality." So the difference between 1861 and 1874 was not necessarily new and better knowledge or a different understanding. Simpson speaks of a revelation, something like what John experienced on Patmos. "The Lord Jesus revealed Himself as a living, all-sufficient presence" and it was this experience that brought Simpson's theology into focus. He suggests that, "he learned for the first time that … He who had justified us was waiting to sanctify us." Clearly this is not literally true. Simpson knew the Westminster Catechism,1 he was well read in the Puritan divines and had cried out to God to be sanctified wholly back in 1861. So what did Simpson mean?

What Simpson seems to be saying to his Hamilton audience is that there was a difference between knowing what is true and fully experiencing the truth. From childhood Simpson had been convinced of the power and love of God and the saving grace of Jesus Christ meditated to us by the Spirit. While he knew this to be true and he ministered on the basis of this truth, he was telling his audience that it was not until nine years into his ministry that he fully experienced the presence of the living Christ and knew the Biblical truth "I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me" as a "living fact." This was life changing, because now he knew that it was possible to experience Christ in an intimate and powerful way and he wanted to communicate it so others could know this reality too. Which brings us to the second of our questions: How did it happen?

We've looked at way this experience is presented in his writings. There is a dying and new life, a suffering which leads to joy, and Simpson also speaks of an emptying which is followed by a filling. These metaphors, taken together, seem to be the key to "how it happens." The consistent theme is giving up something we want to hold on to, something which keeps us from experiencing the riches of God's grace, and receiving something directly from God which brings life and joy and peace. The outcome of this death and new life, this emptying and filling, is new power for service and a new intimacy with Christ. The connection with Christ is characterized in a number of ways--holy living, the crucified consecrated life, the Christ-life, victory. And it is this relationship with Jesus Christ that enables service. Simpson writes, "this divine sufficiency extends to all our service for Christ and makes us efficient for and in the Master's work."  This is accomplished by "the Holy Spirit doing the works of Jesus because He works in us." Simpson is thinking within a trinitarian framework for understanding the work of Christ. We are indwelt by Christ through the Spirit and the Spirit who works in us does the works of Jesus through us. So Simpson's experience is described as giving up his own attempts to be holy and to please God through his ministry, and instead, relying on the power of Christ by the Holy Spirit. In doing so he discovered a new level of intimacy with God and the ability to actually serve God as he had longed to but failed on his own efforts. Does the struggle that Simpson describes and the solution he found to his struggle sound at all familiar? In my life, knowing what to give up and how to rely on Christ as the all sufficiency and how to work in the power of the Spirit rather than my own efforts are constant themes. Perhaps we can learn something about how to deal with this if we can understand how to get from where Simpson was in 1861 to where he was in 1874.

It is important not to belittle what took place in Simpson's conversion experience in 1858 or the covenant he entered into in 1861 dedicating himself to God once more. I don't think we can take the easy way out and suggest that in 1858 and 1861 this was in his head and not in his heart. Read again the story of his conversion with its life and death struggle for physical as well as spiritual renewal. This was a struggle of the whole person. The 1861 "Dedication" was not an attempt to make God happy by some dramatic flourish but part of an ongoing pattern of spiritual growth and development based on the classic works of Puritan spirituality.

Simpson knew the truth and knew what God wanted to do and was even open to God doing it and the evidence is that all this was in place at least as early as 1861. But it seemed he did not know how to live this. It is not that he did not know what God wanted to do but he did not know how to live out what God wanted to do in his life. The key seems to have been an ability to really take hold of this idea that you have to die to live a new life; that only in being emptied is it possible to be filled with the Spirit. This is not new information to us and given Simpson's spiritual and theological training, I can't believe it was new information to him. But it was a new reality. It opened, if we are to believe Simpson's account, a new level of spiritual maturity and a new level of effectiveness in ministry. I think what happened in 1874 cannot be understood as a doctrinal innovation (although sometimes Simpson presents it as such) but only as a gift, a revelation, an experience of the grace of God in Jesus. Simpson's teaching and his passion to lead others into this new richer experience of grace was born directly out of this experience and his experience was disciplined and given meaning by thorough training in the Bible and Christian spirituality.

Let me try and illustrate what I think is happening here from some personal experience. I grew up with much talk of dying to self and living in Christ and this became very familiar language. I was repeatedly crucified with Christ as I responded to assurances that this was what I needed and once I did this my spiritual difficulties would be solved. But they weren't. This doesn't mean that this teaching isn't true but it took a long time for it to mean anything except words in my own experience. In fact, these words only have meaning as I look back from where I am now to where this idea was trying to get me. The language of dying to self never brought life to my soul. Part of the problem was I didn't know what was supposed to die. Where was the self that was getting in the way of my relationship with Christ and how does one kill it? These question I will address in Lecture 9 but for now you will have to live with my confusion. My mother found spiritual renewal in an experience of dying to self and she witnessed to how this idea brought vitality to her spiritual life and ministry, but try as I might, these words only spoke of death to me.

So what is going on here? I think this kind of experience and frustration in counseling others is a fairly common. As individuals and communities of faith we tend to understand and express our spiritual experience according to what might be called spiritual or theological formulas. These formulas are very helpful, and probably necessary, because they encapsulate a spiritual truth and help us get that truth into our heads and our hearts. However, over time the formula can become too familiar and lose its ability to speak powerfully of what God wants to do and how we can appropriate God's truth. The formula is now just a formula. The problem arises in that we teach people the formula and we think that is going to solve their problem. The formula is not the truth but only the carrier of the truth. The purpose of the formula is to lead people into a new level of spiritual reality and unless it does that, it is only words. As I was growing up, my parents shared with me the spiritual truth that had changed their lives and I learned it well. But knowing all this stuff didn't change me. What changed me was not learning a formula, like you need to die to self, but encountering the truth that lay behind the formula. When I learned this truth, then finally I knew what my mother was trying to tell me about how those words had changed her life.

Simpson knew the right answers. He knew the formulas. He grew up with them.  They were drilled into his brain before he could even understand them, but they didn't speak life to him. He needed to experience the truth behind the formula and then change the language, change the formula, to give it reality in his own life. As he began to share his experience and to explain the change and how it occurred, he was about to help thousand of people understand how to encounter this truth in their lives. This is what gave energy to the movement which grew up around him and developed into the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

Now to return to the idea of living tradition. The tradition we want to bring to life does not start with Simpson. If it did, it would be very impoverished indeed and Simpson would not appreciate such a legacy. Simpson was giving life to the tradition he received by bringing a new language of holiness to Puritan spirituality. This allowed the truth to which the tradition witnessed to speak to a new generation. We have received Simpson's revived tradition but many within the Alliance have expressed concern that it doesn't have the vitality it once had. Perhaps this is because we have memorized the formulas and are teaching the formulas but somehow they are not communicating the truth. It is not that we have lost the truth or abandoned it, but the truth is not being told in a way which can be heard by a new generation. It is our job to do this. We need to figure out how our generation (probably this class represents a number of different "generations") can learn the truth anew.

This, I think, is what revival is about. People like John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and AB Simpson, each in their own generation, were able to help people understand their own experience and then find ways to lead people to the old truth in a new way. In my study of revivals and revival cycles, it seems that often there is a new vocabulary, and a new way of conceptualizing the work of Christ in our lives, at the centre of the renewal. When people heard Wesley or Edward or Simpson and any number of others describe a sense of spiritual frustration, they were able to identify with the struggle. And then they are told how to appropriate a new work of  God in their lives.  In most cases the solution offered in these revivals comes back to some version of giving something up and taking something on or of dying and accepting the all sufficiency of Christ. The expression of the problem, God's work to address the problem and our role in accepting God's gift, is retold again and again in ways which help a whole generation to a new understanding of how they can enter into the grace of God. Of course this is not to deny God's sovereignty that ultimately makes all of this work. But we have a role to play in bringing about renewal.  We need to pray and we need to work hard to find the word and concepts which will lead people forward in their spiritual lives. We need to breath life once again into the great tradition we have inherited.  One of the best ways we can do this is to tell our stories like Wesley and Edwards and Simpson did before us in the words and concepts that give meaning and substance to God's grace and transforming work in our own lives and then to offer this as a witness to grace the lives of others.

Healing is the third of the significant spiritual turning points we need to examine in understanding Simpson's life and thought. There are important connections between the way Simpson understood healing and the way he understood sanctification.  For Simpson, sanctification was letting go of his own life and relying for his spiritual well-being and wholeness on the life of Christ. "I am insufficient. Christ is all sufficient."  In his doctrine of healing, Simpson applied the same understanding of the indwelling and the all sufficient Christ to physical wholeness and physical well being. Just as he drew on the strength of the all sufficient Christ for spiritual health, he drew on the all sufficiency of the eternally embodied Christ for physical strength. In the Gospel of Healing (Reading 2.4), Simpson testifies that "I am intensely conscious with every breath that I am drawing my vitality from a directly supernatural source, and that it keeps pace with the calls and necessities of my work." But this resource is there only as one makes no independent claim on it but lives entirely dependent on Christ.

I do not seem to be using up my own life in the work now, but working on a surplusage of vitality supplied from another source. I believe and am sure that is nothing else than "the life of Christ manifested in my mortal flesh." Once or twice since I took the Lord for my strength I have felt so wondrously well that I think I began to rejoice and trust in the God-given strength. In a moment I felt it was about to fail me, and the Lord instantly compelled me to look to Him as my continual strength, and not even depend upon the strength He had already given. I have found many other dear friends compelled to learn this lesson and suffering until they fully learned it. It is a life of constant dependence on Christ physically as well as spiritually.

Healing is the physical application of Simpson's understanding of sanctification.

The interesting thing is that the really radical change in Simpson's life came after his healing, not after his experience of sanctification. After his 1874 experience Simpson but continued to work within the fairly constricted and safe parameters of well-to-do Presbyterian congregations. It was in 1881 that Simpson felt confident enough of God's call to launch out in a radically new direction. I wonder whether there is a connection between Simpson's healing and the new direction his ministry began to take at the same time. Simpson was willing to trust Jesus for his spiritual well being, but had a healthy income to look after his physical well being.  Once he came to the point where he could trust Christ entirely for his physical as well as his spiritual well being, he started doing crazy things like resigning his comfortable social and financial position as the pastor of Thirteenth St. Presbyterian and beginning the not altogether respectable ministry which was to become the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

Endnotes:

1 Questions 35 and 36 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism deal with sanctification. The text of the questions and responses follow.
Q35: What is sanctification?
A35: Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.
Q36: What are the benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification?
A36: The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification, are, assurance of God's love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end.
For the full text of the Catechism click here.


Kenneth L. Draper, 1998.