All posts by Dwight Gingrich

“What grace alone can do” — J.S. Coffman

(Old Facebook Post – Revised)

Here’s an interesting quote for historical and theological reflection, written in 1893 by J.S. Coffman (1848-98), the hugely influential Mennonite revivalist and editor:

“The Virginia church and conference has done much legislating to keep our people down out of the world in dress and other things, but in spite of all the keeping down they have done, their His Name Was John: The Life Story of an Early Mennonite Leader Buy on Amazon young men are now more conformed to the world than ours at Elkhart where we do not legislate much, but do some teaching on this point, and instead put our young people to work and have them contend for these principles…. They have tried too much to do by force of law what grace alone can do. What is it worth to keep people down in any sense if they submit only by constraint? We are in the dispensation of grace, and I shall never again help to legislate on outward forms as I did once in the Virginia conference when I did not know better. But I shall work harder in another way for the same principle.”

(I did not record a source for this quote. It may come from His Name Was John, a biography of J.S. Coffman by his granddaughter.)

It was under J.S. Coffman’s preaching that Daniel Kauffman was converted. Kauffman’s writings (sometimes interpreted in ways Kauffman would not have desired) form the doctrinal foundation for conservative Mennonites today–a group that has shown a tendency to emphasize the “outward forms” that Coffman later renounced.

How would conservative Mennonites be different today if they had heeded the elder Coffman’s advice? (Or was Coffman mistaken, as some might conclude from the subsequent liberalization of Goshen College in Elkhart?)


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Coffman and the origin of 7 ordinances

(Old Facebook Post)

Apparently the traditional 7 Mennonite ordinances go back one step earlier than Daniel Kauffman and his “Doctrines” books, to evangelist J. S. Coffman in 1891 or earlier. Here is an excerpt from a fascinating article by Mark R. Wenger in the Mennonite Quarterly Review that tells the story (through the lens of the topic of anointing with oil):

Despite his personal unfamiliarity with anointing the sick, sometime in the next decade Coffman began to refer to it as an “ordinance” of the church. The term “ordinance” had been used widely and loosely across the church to refer both to shared understandings that governed church life, and specific church ceremonies like baptism and Lords’ Supper. [32] By 1891, however, Coffman had begun to give “ordinances” a more precise meaning, even providing a definitive list of them.

Coffman usually opened his series of revival services with an emphasis on repentance, new birth, faith and salvation. Toward the end of a revival series, Coffman nearly always took an explicitly doctrinal tack, teaching the ordinances and restrictions of the church. These were firmly buttressed with Scripture citations rather than appeals to tradition. In his diary he sometimes noted the sermon topic as “Ordinances as Symbols,” and referred to the ordinances “as a chain.”[33]

In the wake of a particularly long-running and successful revival series in 1891 in Waterloo County, Ontario, Coffman compiled and published a four-page pamphlet entitled Fundamental Bible References, the earliest compilation of Mennonite ordinances that specifically includes anointing with oil. Under the heading “Requirements of Obedience,” Coffman included “Ordinances,” “Duties” and “Restrictions.” The Ordinances were listed with short descriptions and scriptural references as follows:

Principal Ordinances-Heb. 9:1

(1) Baptism with Water

(2) Communion

(3) Footwashing

Secondary Ordinances-1 Cor. 11:2

(1) Prayer Head-Covering for the Women

(2) Greeting with the Holy Kiss

(3) Marriage

(4) Anointing with Oil for the Recovering of the Sick

It’s historical research like this that makes you stop and think: How much that we consider completely normal… would have never become reality at all, had it not been for a whole slew of “accidents” of history… like a conversation here, a personal letter there, a person here who had the means to travel and share the idea, a periodical article there, which was read by so-and-so, and one more person who “happened” to think writing a book about it was important, etc…. And WHAM! Suddenly we have a brand new FORMAL LIST of “ordinances” that thousands of people grow up assuming has always around, handed down from Mount Calvary. Nothing like studying history to help you break free of chronological snobbery and live disoriented by culture shock within your very own social backyard–and turn to the Bible for better foundations.


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Do you “believe into” Jesus?

(Old Facebook Post)

Do you really believe in Jesus? Do you “believe into” him? This blog post is a description of true Christian belief (faith), from one of my favorite Bible teachers, Bill Mounce. Keep reading for a good insight into John 3:16:

“Biblical belief means that you no longer believe or trust in yourself but rather have moved that trust out of yourself and “into” Jesus. Biblical belief is leaving self-sufficiency behind and embracing Christ-sufficiency. Biblical belief is throwing yourself into the merciful arms of Jesus, believing that he will catch you. Biblical belief is trusting him for everything: forgiveness, salvation, life.

To state it more theologically, biblical belief is believing that Jesus is who says he is, and that he will do what he said he will do. It is to believe that he does for you what you could not do for yourself. What did he do? He provided the means by which our sins could be forgiven and we could be brought into fellowship with God. God’s love and Jesus’ death built the gate at the cross so that by faith the door could swing open and we could walk through.

But the Bible doesn’t just say “believe in,” it says “believe into.” The New Testament was originally written in the Greek language, and one of the frustrating parts in being a translator is that certain things simply cannot be restated in English. This is one of those passages.

John wants to make a point, and to do so he breaks Greek grammar. And he doesn’t just kind of break grammar; he makes a horrible “blunder” that is so bad we have no record of anyone else in all Greek literature making the same blunder. Of course, he is doing it intentionally to make a point. John doesn’t say we should respond by “believing in” but rather “believe into.” It is the “into” with the verb “believe” that is such bad Greek grammar.

Saving faith is a trusting in the person and work of Jesus (who he is and what he has done) such that we move our self-reliant trust out of ourselves, flinging ourselves into the merciful arms of God, believing and trusting that he will catch us, care for us, provide for us, protect us, and eventually bring us home to live with him forever.

So what do you think? How is this as an explanation of “believe”?”


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