We know that eternal life is a free gift—an extraordinary, extravagant gift—given simply on the condition of faith in Christ, totally apart from any works that we can do (Rom 6:23; Eph 2:8-9). But then what? What comes next?
The short answer is: love.
Freed from the burden of having to earn your salvation by doing the kinds of religious rituals, asceticism, and good works required by other religions, the born-again believer can focus on loving the neighbors around him or her. But what does love look like?
I recently finished two books about an early Brethren leader, namely, Robert Chapman: A Biography by Robert L. Peterson (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux, 1995) and Agape Leadership: Lessons in Spiritual Leadership from the Life of R. C. Chapman by Robert L. Peterson and Alexander Strauch (Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth, 1991). Chapman pastored in a small town in England (Barnstaple). He did not have a large ministry, but he ministered to others who did. And during the last decades of his life, especially, he ministered to many Christians who came to him for counsel.
There were two episodes in Chapman’s life that illustrate his understanding of Christian love that made me wonder what I would have done if put in the same situation.
Both episodes happened near the beginning of his ministry. Chapman was called to pastor a small congregation of Particular Baptists (i.e., Calvinists). He made it clear that he did not share all of their views, especially on the necessity of baptism for communion, and if they hired him, he would preach what he thought the Word taught, whether that agreed with Particular Baptist doctrine or not. The congregation agreed to his terms and hired him. However, over time, as the church grew, so did tensions within it. Chapman departed from the Particular Baptist tradition in several respects and convinced most of the congregation on those points. However, a small group dissented, broke away, and asked Chapman and the other members of the congregation to leave the property, since it was no longer being used as it was intended (i.e., for Particular Baptists). After searching the “trust deed” (Chapman had been a lawyer), he concluded there was no legal necessity to leave. And yet…there was the greater issue of love at stake. What would you do if, say, ten people in the church, asked the other hundred to leave and give them the property?
After much prayer, Chapman and the congregation decided this was a Matt 5:40 issue:
“If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also” (Matt 5:40).
The seceders wanted the church property, and so, in 1838, Chapman and the congregation agreed to relinquish their rights to it (Robert Chapman, p. 60; Agape Leadership, p. 29). They gave up their buildings!
I don’t know if that’s what I would have done!
What an amazing testimony of sacrificial love to the seceders.
But what happened next was just as amazing. The congregation found a nearby property for sale—a former “tanyard.” The price was right, and the location was ideal, so Chapman had the legal documents drawn up for purchase. And just as they were about to buy the land, the local Anglican clergy made it known (I don’t know how they made it known) that they had intended to buy that lot to build their church. At that point, I would have said, “Tough luck.” But not Chapman. He and the congregation prayed about it and a verse came to mind:
Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand (Phil 4:5).
They could have legally proceeded with the sale and defended themselves at law. But they decided it was more important to be known as gentle, so they decided to give up that property, too.
When’s the last time you decided a course of action based on wanting to be known as gentle?
Although these two books are not exactly page-turners, they are challenging in this sense: reading about what Chapman considered to be the loving thing to do is a challenge to me about the state of my love and whether it is hot or cold (Rev 2:1-7).
In a way, reading about Chapman is like sitting by a fire—the warmth of his love warms up your own.