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Earnestly Seeking Righteousness

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The Earnest Christian began in 1860, the same year as the formation of the Free Methodist Church. The publication and the church had a key founder in common — B.T. Roberts.

The first issue (January 1860) opened with Roberts’ “Object and Scope of This Magazine” editorial that stated, “In short our object is to publish a revival journal; our aim shall be to set up the Bible standard of religion. We hope by our catholic spirit, by an uncompromising advocacy of ‘righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,’ to make our magazine a favorite and welcome visitor to every family where pure religion and morality are inculcated.”

Roberts demonstrated that advocacy of righteousness in his April 1860 opening editorial, titled simply “Righteousness.” Roberts, however, didn’t mention righteousness directly in the first paragraph: “Every material substance has its essential properties. These distinguish it from every other body, and without them it could not exist. Gold possesses the quality of being drawn into thin sheets when sufficiently beaten, while iron pyrites, of nearly the same external appearance, fly into fragments under the hammer.”

But the editorial wasn’t really about iron pyrite (aka fool’s gold). Roberts continued: “Christianity is something positive. It is not a mere negative. It has actual existence, and possesses its positive elements. First and foremost among them is righteousness. The religion of Christ appears before the world with so many appendages, that we almost look upon these as the thing itself. Like the birds in the cornfield, we mistake the coat and the hat, carefully adjusted upon a bundle of straw, for the man himself. Forms and ceremonies do not make the performer a disciple of Christ. Tall-steepled temples, decorated in the highest style of art, do not constitute Christian churches; and the singing of devout hymns by undevout vocalists, hired for the purpose, and the reading in a solemn tone to a polite congregation by a grave-looking gentleman, of a moral, historical or philosophical essay, do not constitute Christian worship. There may be Christianity with or without churches, bishops, ministers or choirs, but there can be none without righteousness.”

That last sentence seems especially relevant in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic may keep us from holding a church service as we typically would, but even if it doesn’t, our worship is meaningless without righteousness.

Roberts goes on to describe righteousness as “the framework, without which the entire structure will fall to ruins before the fierce blast of the tempest. Righteousness is the breastplate of the soldier of the cross, and if he [or she] goes into battle without it, the first arrow from his [or her] skillful adversary will lay him [or her] prostrate upon the field, mortally wounded.” (I’m sure Roberts, who published “Ordaining Women” in 1891, would be good with my addition of brackets to note that women also enlist and serve as soldiers of the cross.)

“In its most comprehensive sense, righteousness denotes that state of the heart which enables one faithfully to discharge all the duties he [or she] owes to God and man [and woman]. This is the signification in which it is used by our Savior when He says, ‘Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled’” (Matthew 5:6 KJV).

Long before I found Roberts’ editorial online thanks to the Marston Memorial Historical Center, the LIGHT + LIFE team decided to devote this issue to the theme of “Hunger and Thirst” with inspiration from that same beatitude, one of the blessings listed by Jesus in Matthew 5:3–12 as He begins His famous Sermon on the Mount.

According to Roberts, the Bible’s description of righteousness “denotes that gracious disposition of the soul, which leads to the fulfilling of all moral obligations — which prompts one to perform all the acts affecting our fellow men [and women] that God requires, and to exercise suitable dispositions towards them.”

Some translations of Matthew 5:6 use the word justice instead of righteousness, and that fits with another statement in the editorial: “Open opposition to all wrong and injustice is another element of scriptural righteousness.” Roberts was an abolitionist who advocated for systemic reform in the church and society, and he also understood the need for change at a personal level: “Evangelical righteousness is the result of the operation of the Spirit of God upon the human heart. None possess it save those who have been born again.”

The world has changed a lot in the last 160 years, but the need for righteousness remains. This issue of LIGHT + LIFE includes powerful insights from Free Methodists who — like Roberts in his time — live out righteousness at the local, national and global levels. Their overall message will still be relevant in 2180.

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.

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[On Point] · L + L November 2020 · Magazine