Just over 24 hours have passed since I finished this book, and I am still very much processing the weight of its importance both to the twenty first century evangelical church and to me personally. Before reading The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones 1899 – 1981 I could have counted on one hand the number of times I had heard of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The few occasions I did hear his name was when it was referenced by prominent pastors and Christian leaders whom I admire such as John Piper and Kevin DeYoung, but I had never come into contact with his life and ministry directly. Out of interest I put this biography on my birthday ‘wishlist’ in 2013, as I wanted to know more about this character who I’d heard reputable sources refer to as “the greatest preacher in the last 200 years”. Thankfully, I was given a copy on my birthday that year. At the time I had no idea just how profoundly the story of Dr Lloyd-Jones’ faith, life and ministry would affect me and indeed this is something I doubt that I currently know the full extent of. Some expansion on this will follow in this post, however I must start by saying I am forever grateful to author (and personal friend/assistant to Dr Lloyd-Jones) Iain Murray for his work on this condensed biography which has introduced me to a man whom I will not meet until I too am called home to be with Jesus, but whose story has caused me to give all praise to God for a life well lived in the service of the Kingdom, a life “worthy of the calling” he received (Ephesians 4:1 ESV).
The strength of Martyn Lloyd-Jones (MLJ) was not just in his preaching, but in the whole story of his life. He began life in Wales, and as he grew he learned about the Welsh revival and the key players in Welsh church history. During his school years he was forced to study at a boarding school, an experience he endured rather than finding it overly enjoyable at least in the first instance. He also lost his brother and his father at a relatively young age. After school he went on to attend medical school and became somewhat of a protege and eventually a respected physician in his own right. Obviously he was a man of intellect, a deep thinker and well versed in reason. He attended church and from a young age had been chosen for leadership by those in authority, however it wasn’t until his twenties that he realised he had actually become a true Christian. Murray quotes him as saying
“For many years I had thought I was a Christian when in fact I was not. It was only later that I realised that I had never been a Christian and became one. But I was a member of a church and attended my church and its services regularly.”
– The life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones 1899-1981 (Banner of Truth, 2013), p. 43-44
The fact was that the well-meaning pastor at Lloyd-Jones’ church had fallen into a sort of pattern of preaching which I would say is true of many evangelical churches today, wherein the congregation are sort of assumed to be Christians already, or at least to be well on the way, and therefore sermons are based more on anecdotes and illustrations about how to live a good Christian life than on theology and exposition of the gospel in scripture. Lloyd-Jones later reflected on this time in his life, when he was spiritually awakened despite (not because of) the type of preaching he was used to by saying
“What I needed was preaching that would convict me of sin and make me see my need, and bring me to repentance and tell me something about regeneration. But I never heard that. The preaching we had was always based on the assumption that we were all Christians, that we would not have been there in the congregation unless we were Christians”.
– The life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones 1899-1981 (Banner of Truth, 2013), p. 44
In actual fact his journey to true faith had started years earlier when he was at boarding school and his history teacher had given him a book about Howell Harris, an influential figure of the Welsh revival. This was Lloyd-Jones’ introduction to Calvinistic Methodist history and it caused him to begin studying the scriptures intently. It was at age 17 that he came to understand and believe (based on scripture) in the doctrine of predestination and the absolute sovereignty of God. One of the reasons Lloyd-Jones’ life resonates with me so much is that I see a lot of myself in his story, especially in these early years (though I am no medical student). Don’t get me wrong, I grew up in a church with mostly very solid Biblical teaching and I do recall several sermons in the 1990s that convicted me of sin at a young age and made me take God more seriously. Indeed it was around this time that I made my first profession of faith after realising the reality of heaven and hell and my need (as a sinner) for a Saviour. However I’d say that, as is the case in many western churches still today, the tendency can often be after a period of strong gospel preaching and exposition to resort back to topical preaching rather than Biblical exposition. I believe topical preaching is more palatable to the masses, but all things considered – accurate exposition of scripture is more powerful in light of eternity. For this reason in my high school and University years I still saw Christianity as a sort of box that I’d checked and though I was involved in church, it wasn’t really fully alive to me Monday through Saturday.
Again, similarly to Lloyd-Jones’ experience it was when I came to understand the Calvinistic teaching on the ‘doctrines of grace’ and to see the truths of total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints taught clearly in scripture that God drew me to himself in a way I hadn’t experienced before, giving me a heart that lives to love the God who is sovereign over all things and who saved me by His grace and called me to Himself, rather than waiting for me to turn to Him as a result of my ‘spiritual intelligence’.
After some time discussing these matters with others and studying the scriptures while working at St Bart’s Hospital, Lloyd-Jones began to preach, initially as an evangelist rather than a local church pastor, though this soon changed and his ministry would be a combination of weekly preaching and traveling ministry. His wife Bethan is in fact quoted as saying
“no one will ever understand my husband until they see that he is first a man of prayer and then an evangelist.”
As he began to preach, word got out that there was something about this man that was different. There was a wisdom about him coupled with a passion for the truth of scripture that seemed rare to his hearers. A short time later, MLJ was called to minister in his first congregation in the Welsh countryside – a position that brought many challenges but also built a firm foundation for his future ministry. His ministry both at this time and later came to be marked by several features that I admire greatly, which I will list in dot point form for the sake of brevity;
- strong expositional preaching, which is needed as much today as it was then
- an adherence to the infallibility of scripture
- an approachable, friendly nature outside of the pulpit coupled with an intense determination to preach earnestly, accurately and powerfully from the pulpit
- a commitment to the sovereignty of God as foundational in Christian theology
- a commitment to prayer as foundational in the Christian life
- a desire to be led by the Holy Spirit in both life and ministry and to teach his hearers about the Holy Spirit and the continuation of the spiritual gifts in a denominational context that can tend to minimise the Spirit’s role and speak about God as if the trinity is “Father, Son and Holy Bible”
- a steely resolve to be true to scripture and to stand by his doctrinal convictions in the face of inter and intra-denominational pressures to conform to a more palatable (read liberal) gospel
- a keenness to learn from those who went before him, especially the Puritan writers (Jonathan Edwards, John Owen and others) and to make their writings more readily available to the general public for the spiritual growth and awakening of the modern-day church
- a desire to and an example set in how to finish well and to prepare for the end of his life in a way that continued to glorify God, despite earthly circumstances and sicknesses that plagued his body in the final years of his life on this earth.
Of course much more could be said by expanding on each of these points, but I honestly would prefer to point you to this excellent book instead. For 30 years Martyn Lloyd-Jones (aka “The Doctor”) ministered at London’s Westminster Chapel (after his initial parish position in Wales) and for three of those years Iain Murray, who authored this biography, was MLJ’s assistant. Murray’s love of and respect for ‘The Doctor’ is clear throughout the book, but what is also clear is that both Murray and MLJ were concerned not with making much of MLJ for the sake of earthly fame, but with giving glory to the God MLJ served as it was His work in MLJ’s life that made it worth reading about. His story has inspired me in many ways and as I said, I’m sure I don’t yet know the full extent of what this inspiration means or what it will lead to in my own life, but I do know this; I am thankful to God for raising up such a strong voice for truth – an exceptional expositor of the gospel in the 20th Century, and for making it possible for myself and many others to be introduced to his life and preaching through this book.
For more information on Martyn Lloyd-Jones, visit mljtrust.org – a website which not only contains information about Dr Lloyd-Jones, but also contains links to over 1600 of his sermons which are all available for free (including his major series on Romans and Ephesians). For more books by Iain Murray as well as books by the Puritan writers and other trusted sources, visit Banner of Truth and check out their online store. I also recommend checking out Westminster Chapel and downloading their sermon podcasts as Greg Haslam, the current minister there, is also a gifted preacher like his predecessors (MLJ & R.T. Kendall).
Recently, production house Media Gratiae has released an excellent documentary film about MLJ’s life and ministry, which I hope to watch and perhaps write about soon. It is entitled Logic on Fire, which is what MLJ said was the essence of preaching. Lloyd Jones’ life itself was a ‘life on fire’ – one that I believe my own life and many others have been warmed by and whose message sparks its hearers into action. The trailer for Logic on Fire is linked below. I’d encourage you to check that out too and purchase a copy of the film today (as well as a copy of Iain Murray’s book)! I trust you will be blessed by both!