Amazing Grace

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
3rd August 2007

Tagged: conversion history

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Under God, people change the course of history. But it is usually not the famous or the people in the newspapers or history books. Usually it is the little people who make the real difference. Similarly it is rarely the grand gestures, the great actions or the celebrated victories that really change the course of affairs.

Two men reading their Bible on their holiday does not seem as history changing as legislation passing in parliament. Yet everything is part of a larger picture. And some insignificant details are central to what happened.

We must not confuse the story with the reality. Story telling requires abstracting a few key points and leaving out most of the details. Reality is made up of millions of details. Reality is like a jigsaw puzzle—a picture made of thousands of details. Telling history requires choosing a few key points, persons or events and leaving out most of what happened.

It is easy to notice and record prominent people doing great things. But that does not mean that their efforts are the ones that have mattered. Behind the scenes of their triumphs is an army of little people—each acting in ways that make the victory possible. And behind the public lives of famous people is a lifetime of other people influencing and shaping them for their fifteen minutes of fame.

Fame is very short lived. The historian may know, but hardly any Australian is able to list all the Prime Ministers of Australia or the Premiers of the State. And this is one of the youngest nations, with fairly civilised peaceful transition of power from one leader to the next. It should be simple. But the impact of these “great men” has passed into insignificance. In the same way the impact of present office bearers will pass away in the future. Current political leaders need to sell their biographies now. Only specialist historians and antiquarians will really be interested in them in the future.

But the actions that matter are the actions of people, little people. It is as we care for each other, love or hate each other, or teach each other how to live that we make a difference and change history. These little actions repeated millions of times make a society what it is. It is these little actions repeated over a lifetime that make people who they are. Even the famous people are made by these small and seemingly insignificant actions.

Christianity preaches a gospel of regeneration—of new birth. It calls for repentance and conversion. So radical is the impact of Christ upon us that it can only be described as being born again. Yet even so the new person is still the old remade. We are still in our human family and culture. We still speak the same language and live in the same society and world. The apostle's rule in all the churches was: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him” (1 Corinthians 7:17)—be it circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free. God's making of us does not start with our regeneration, but with our creation.

Few people have such a blinding moment of revelation as Saul of Tarsus. In a moment of time God changed him from Saul the persecutor of Christians to Paul the apostle to the nations. But yet as the apostle he was still Jewish, still circumcised, still able to speak Hebrew, still educated, he still knew how to behave in the temple. A new birth does not mean the total abolition of the old person. If Nicodemus had been born again he would still have been “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1).

We may long for a quick and easy way of conquering the world with the gospel. But there is no short cut to the patient prayerful persistence in teaching the word of God. God may in his kindness let us see a sudden outpouring of his Spirit in the conversion of many souls. But he does not promise to do so. Rather the encouragement of the evangelist is the example of the hard working farmer, the disciplined athlete, and the single-minded soldier. For what is required of gospel preachers is “faithfulness”.

Faithfulness is not a widely advocated virtue in today's value systems. Yet it lies at the base of all relationships, and is the key to achieving results in most human endeavours. It is the persistence of the reliable and dependable person that enables great changes in society.

Last week I saw the movie “Amazing Grace”. It is an account of William Wilberforce's victory over the slave trade. There was a moment of victory in the vote of the House of Commons. But there was a lifetime of diligent faithful work, from many small and unsung heroes that lay behind this victory. Not the least was the faithful man—not even mentioned in the movie—Isaac Milner. He took the twenty-five year old Wilberforce on a hiking holiday in France. There by reading the New Testament together, Isaac Milner explained the gospel to William Wilberforce and saw him come to Christ as his saviour and Lord.

Two men reading their Bible on their holiday does not seem as history changing as legislation passing in parliament. Yet everything is part of a larger picture. And some insignificant details are central to what happened.