About Us :: The Tragic-Happy Tale of the Gospel Lost & Found
This lady, Rebecca Ann "Becky" Long and I have been in love since we first met at
Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi in October of 1962—which, for you younger folks probably sounds like it was in the Late Jurassic Period.
APOLOGIES for the skipping lines on your phone or tablet - a WIX anomaly.
(Bummer, but them's the apples.) THIS PAGE IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION!
Greetings. 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—something like a 21st Century version of St. Augustine's Confessions. I found myself alternately chuckling and weeping while writing this up, so chances are, you'll not find it overly boring.
In 1990, twenty-five years into our 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 Birmingham, 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 (now "Serge") 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
separated 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!
Wait. 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 for crying out loud! 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 during which I had expressed a good deal of pain and anger), I glanced up at Rick, a big bear 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 something had changed in my heart. Now 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 our 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
were to live, or, put another way, the road on which we were to walk for spiritual growth. It was not that I had somehow forgotten that, I was never taught it and never understood it.
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 great Dutch theologian G.C. Berkhouwer put it this way: "Faith is as much at the heart of sanctification as it is of justification." What Bridges, Luther and Berkhouwer are saying is this: believing the Gospel saves us, and believing the Gospel makes us holy. Or, put another way, the same Gospel that saves us, sanctifies us.
In this paragraph, I'll explain what I had not understood about the Gospel that had me so confused about how the Christian life works. Think with me: It makes sense that holiness is keeping the whole Law of God, right?. But, what is the essence of the Law of God? Jesus tells us in Matthew 22:37-40, "...love the Lord you God with all your heart" and "love your neighbour as yourself." Then he said something amazing: "On these two hang all the Law and Prophets." Love God and love your neighbor. It's about love. But where do we get love? Paul tells us in Galatians 5:22. "The fruit of the [Holy] Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control..." And here's the rub. This love that God gives is not something we can manufacture. Our flesh can't produce it because unlike our love which is conditional and selfish—"If you love me, I'll love you." But the love the Holy Spirit gives is God-love, unconditional and selfless—all of grace. But where do we get the Holy Spirit whose gift is this kind of love? That is precisely what Paul asked the Galatian believers. After reminding them that he had preached Christ crucified to them, he asks them several questions about the Christian life—some little ones and two BIG ones. Listen to
Galatians 3:1-6: "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works wonders among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
This passage is what my friend Paul Miller called "The uranium core of the nuclear reactor of the Christian life." Indeed, it is Paul's theology of how spiritual growth (sanctification) works! Paul asks the Galatians if, after they began their life in Jesus by the Spirit, did they think they would become holy by fleshly effort? And, did you notice his two "how" questions about Spirit? Paul asks the Galatians:
1. How did you get the Holy Spirit in the first place—by works of the law, or hearing with faith? Hearing what? The Gospel of Christ crucified! And,
2. How does God supply the Spirit (Greek present tense: "keep giving") and work wonders among you—by works of the law, or by believing the Gospel?
So, what is the point of all this? What is true holiness? Love. Where do we get love? the Holy Spirit How does God supply us with the Holy Spirit whose fruit is love? by believing the Gospel.
And that, dear friends, is what I had never understood about how the Christian life goes forward, so that is what I was constantly flogging my people with the "works of the law."
The Lost Gospel Found!
Friday, 9 November 1990, the final day of the Sonship conference I woke at around 4:30 am. I was lying on my back beside Becky, weeping profusely, even shaking (fearing I would wake her), as I was having a terrible-wonderful daydream (what some might call "vision"). It was like a 3D movie appearing on the wall opposite our bed where I "saw" my heart—represented by my favorite French confection, a Jordan Almond (an almond encased in layers of sugar). The sugar coating was being washed away by great warm waves of water which I knew to be the love of the Father for me. When all the layers of sugar (my glorying in my ministry "for God") were washed away, there left was a dark, rotten, putrid almond—my heart. What I deserved was judgment. I
could see the mixed motivations with which I
was crushed by the truth that I had served Jesus for twenty-five years with terribly mixed motivations—as T.S. Eliot wrote in "Murder in the Cathedral," doing "the right thing, for the wrong reason." But the Father assured me, saying, "This is what my son died for. Let me be your righteousness." This is hard to explain, but it was like being born again again! again. I surrendered.
The Old Me - a pretty sorry picture all round—my artist friend Les Swift's drawing...
When we returned home to our church—the church I had afflicted with a law-based
approach for a decade, I was a changed and
changing man. (My primary motivational ministry tools had been guilt, fear, shame and pride. But, having a reasonably good sense of humour, I had tried my best to make legalism fun!).
Our first Sunday back, my Associate Pastor was preaching, so I sat in the pew with my family. During our "Sharing and Prayer" time, I stood and said, "The man who went to the conference in New Jersey last week died, and next Sunday, I'll tell you all about it."
That next Sunday I was so broken, I didn't stand up on the dais dressed with my usual dapper bowtie, but down on the floor behind the communion table in a turtleneck shirt and jacket. I stood before my people and confessed my sins against God and them—
that I had been a fake, a pretender, a whitewashed tomb, and asked their forgiveness. I told them that the old Johnny had been crucified with Christ and asked them to pray for me, that I would learn how 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 over 50 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 fifty people. They filled
the sofas and chairs, were standing—or sitting on the floor in groups praying and weeping. They had come find out more about what had happened to their arrogant pastor! One young woman, Lori (a close friend to this day), was sitting in a circle with four or five other people. They were holding hands, weeping and praying. (I was aghast. I had never in my life seen anything like this!) Lori spoke up: "Johnny, we don't understand what it is that has happened to you, but whatever has happened to you needs to happen to us and we're not leaving here until you tell us more!" I said, "Lori, its not an it, its a He. It's just Jesus. I have company to feed, and I'll tell you all about it next Sunday."
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!" Then he would laugh uproariously and add, "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
that sounds 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) Yes it does. Maybe it's time to dust off your copy and give that Chapter 19 "Sons of God" another read. (Ladies, the Greek word "sonship"
(υἱοθεσία) has nothing to do with one's gender. It has to do with one's status as an adopted heir of God the Father-being placed as a child in God's family.) 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 a 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
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 lawlessness. 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.
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.
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," now "Serge") asked Becky and me to consider returning to East Africa where we had worked from 1973-1977. They wanted us to contextualise Sonship for the sub-Saharan Africa. 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 expat families to work with us, the "ART," the Africa Renewal Team of World Harvest Mission. While our others team members concentrated on reaching the church at large in Kenya (discipling with Sonship and training nationals in how to do "Chronological Evangelism" using pictures for more oral tribes), I focused on writing, teaching at two masters level 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 missionary teams with Becky ministering to the wives. (If this interests you, check out the "Renewal Courses" page for a history of our team's work—with photos.)
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, when 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 our team 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 laypeople in the UK.
After six years in London, writing and discipling English pastors and churches with Grace4Life, I had a wicked battle with the same high-grade prostate cancer that had taken the life of my younger brother Jimmy, a pastor in the US. So, with an uncertain future health-wise, we moved to the USA, built our house in Western North Carolina (the lovely 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 working with a team in a writing project in the Mediterranean region.
WRAPPING IT UP
Over twenty years ago our lives and
ministry were turned upside-down by the teaching of grace, and to this day, we're still taking baby-steps in what it means to live and minister on a grace foundation. As a pastor and missionary, who spent twenty-five years doing ministry wrong (a law-based approach), I am uniquely qualified 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. So, if our life-story resonates with you, we're here to help. And, if you have reservations about our grace-centered approach to ministry and want some further confirmation, feel free to write some of the men on our References page. Then, if your fears are allayed, give us a shout!
His sheep & your servants,
- Johnny & Becky
- THE END –
The end of this tragic-happy not-so-short Long story, but it is only the beginning of what Jesus has done and continues to do as pastors and laypeople share the Gospel using these imperfect writings of this His servant. This proves the old adage, "God is able to draw a straight line with a crooked stick."
Altadena Valley Presbyterian Church (PCA), Birmingham, Alabama USA where I was senior pastor from 1981 to 1992.
The Gospel Revolution that began at AVPC in 1990 continues there today under the able leadership of The Rev. Dr. Brad Allison, a member of the board of World Harvest Mission (now Serge) USA. See the church website at: www.avpc.org/ .