Over the last few months in The Record we have looked at different aspects of Dr Guthrie’s incredible ministry: his preaching, his pastoral work, his work as a social reformer, his pioneering work as a church planter and his role as the 'Apostle of Temperance'.
His legacy is awe inspiring and very humbling. The key question is what can we learn from Dr Guthrie and apply in our own situation today?
1. Vision - Dr Guthrie had incredible vision. He literally, by God's grace, changed Scotland. His vision was not shaped by the challenges of 19th Century Scotland but rather shaped by the greatness of the God he served. He believed that the Christian gospel could save anyone and transform any community. By the time of his death Guthrie had, along with many other social reformers, changed childhood. Rather than being seen as commodities, towards the end of the 19th Century, children were seen as those in need of protection and nurture. Partly as a result of lobbying from social reformers like Guthrie legislation was passed protecting children from working long hours in often dangerous situations. The DNA of men like Thomas Guthrie and Thomas Chalmers is that they had a big vision. It wasn't a congregational vision or even a Free Church vision but a national vision. Surely Guthrie teaches us that our current vision for Scotland is too small and parochial.
2. Truth - We need to know what we believe. Unlike so many Christians who get involved in social action, Guthrie never lost his Biblical moorings when he became a social reformer. It is clear from his writings that he adhered to the Bible as the word of God and remained confessionally Reformed throughout his ministry. He believed in the supremacy and centrality of preaching as the main method that God uses to save sinners. Guthrie preached the whole counsel of God with love and tenderness but never compromised on doctrine. Are we as a church falling out of love with the reformed theology that compelled men like Guthrie and Chalmers? Are we embarrassed by our reformed heritage?
3. Love - As a minister of the Gospel, Guthrie embodied love. We are told in James 1 v 27: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. The fruit of true Christianity is always love for the poor and the oppressed. Many people regard practical love for the poor as a deviation from the gospel. Nothing could be further from the truth. Guthrie's work with ragged children enhanced his message and gave his Christianity a reality and authenticity that made the gospel attractive to sinners. We must never love people just because they may become Christian’s or come to our church. We must love them because they are made in the image of God and the gospel commands us to love our neighbour. The very essence of grace is to love with no strings attached. How are we loving those on the margins of society like Dr Guthrie? Are our churches places where people with addictions, relationship difficulties, prisoners, women experiencing domestic violence will find grace and love? Do we want these kind of people in our churches? If we do, how will we support them and disciple them?
4. Hope - It was this combination of truth and love that gave Guthrie such hope for the communities he worked in and for the individuals he sought to reach. The gospel, when preached in all its fullness and freeness, should fill every sinner with a sense of hope that Christ died to reconcile them to a holy God. The church has gone though many periods when this message has been lost or when she has lost confidence in the power of this gospel to reach the darkest and most hopeless parts of our communities. Guthrie (among others) gave the Free Church the belief that the gospel, accompanied by education for the poor and the practical outworking of love through the local church could redeem the darkest and most hopeless communities. Do we still have this hope?
There is a famous story about Dr Guthrie and Thomas Chalmers standing on George IV Bridge looking down on to the Cowgate. Guthrie tells us; ‘Hopeful of success, he [Chalmers] surveyed the scene beneath us, and his eye, which often wore a dreamy stare, kindled at the prospect of seeing that wilderness become an Eden, these foul haunts of darkness, drunkenness and disease, changed into "dwellings of the righteous where is heard the voice of melody." Contemplating the scene for a little in silence, all at once, with his broad Luther-like face glowing with enthusiasm, he waved his arm to exclaim, "A beautiful field, sir; a very fine field of operation” (Out of Harness, Thomas Guthrie).
It takes great vision to look at some parts of Scotland and see them as a ‘beautiful field’ but yet that is what men like Dr Guthrie saw in places like the Cowgate. Thomas Guthrie brought hope to thousands through his preaching, his pastoral care and his practical Christianity. Nobody was beyond redemption for Guthrie. He preached a gospel that was free for the worst sinner and believed that nobody was a hopeless case. He is an inspiration to us, that in dark and difficult days, the gospel can once again reach the darkest corners of Scotland.