Sometimes we have the great privilege of having conversations with leaders on the other side of the world. This week we do. Director of Christian Heritage London, Ben Virgo, joins us this week as we chat about the Reformation and the impact the gospel had on the culture. Ben recently edited a new book called Freedom Movement. This small (shaped as a square) book is like a glorified tract (a tract is a small booklet that says the gospel – used to be very popular). Written by Church historian Michael Reeves, this book creatively explains the life of Martin Luther – one of the key figures of the Reformation. Our conversation looks into how the gospel impacts the culture (something Freedom Movement also looks at), and what still needs to be reformed today. You’ll enjoy this fun, fast-paced conversation.
Who’s Our Guest?
Ben Virgo is the Director of Christian Heritage London. He comes from Sussex and studied Classics at University College London. He has worked mainly in the financial sector in and around the City of London and with the homeless and drug addicts in London and Hong Kong. He has also worked for a Westminster think tank and continues to work in a freelance capacity in marketing. He and his wife and children are involved in church planting in East London where they have lived since 1998.
The book Ben was talking about (and that he edited) is called Freedom Movement.
Also, Ben is Director of Christian Heritage London. Check out their site for resources.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is Ben Virgo, the Director of Christian Heritage London. Ben recently edited a small book called Freedom Movement and it’s this book that our conversation will kind of revolve around, sort of. Anyways, thanks for being with me today, Ben.
Hey, it’s really great to have some time with you, Isaac. Bless you.
Where are you calling from, by the way, just so we can know? We don’t often talk to people that are halfway round the world, so …
Well, I tell you what, the extraordinary thing is this, I am sitting in the church building associated with the conversion of John Wesley. I’m in the middle of the City of London, the City is the old Roman part of London, which goes back to Roman times and in the streets around us here, I can literally go down the road and go to the place where William Tyndale’s New Testaments were burned, down another road and I can go to where William Wilberforce met John Newton, down another road I can talk about where Cranmer was put on trial, down another road …
It’s extraordinary, so we take people on walks through this history and tell the stories as well go, so, yeah, I’m actually in the middle of a church. I’m sitting in an office in the church building associated with the Wesley conversion.
That’s so cool. You’re just making us jealous over here. I mean, you have so much rich history there. Over here, we’re in Vancouver, and at least on the east coast of North America you have a little bit more history but the farther you go west, the less and less it comes, so you’re just making us jealous over here, but, anyways, why don’t you just let us know a little bit about who you are, Ben, and maybe quickly how you met Jesus, as well, and sort of what you’re up to now.
Yeah, sure. Well, I am a husband to one wife. I’ve been a father to seven children. Our first son died when he was a baby, so I’m now father to six, whose ages are 17 down to 4, as of today, and, yeah, we are planting a church in East London. We live on what’s called an estate. I don’t know if you have that word in Canada. In America, they call them The Projects. We live between tower blocks, tower … Well, we live in between blocks. Essentially, the people who live around us, 90% of them are Bangladeshi Muslims and we’re trying to plant a church among them and, yeah, it’s a very slow trajectory which we’re on, but we continue to believe that the potent model which God has given in the Bible is the local church, so we’re not just standing far away and posting flyers to doors. We are among the people and we continue to pray for them, and one great example we get from history, Isaac, is that many people who went for the long game, they were vindicated later on and the Lord blessed them.
So we continue to hope and pray and our children are growing up in that context.
That’s good. And how did you come to meet Jesus in the first place?
Well, it’s an interesting question. I, myself, was brought up in a believing family. My dad leads a group of churches called New Frontiers, yeah, they’ve got about 1,500 churches internationally and it is a very impressive group of churches in the sense of it’s … There’s a stability, and there’s something of a DNA across the churches. Coming from them, you’ve got characters like Stuart Townsend, do you know that name? The hymn writer. Yeah, he was part of the church, one of the churches, and Matt Redmond goes to a New Frontiers church. Andrew Wilson, I don’t know if you know that name, he’s a writer.
Yep. Various other guys are part of New Frontiers churches. My brothers are leaders in New Frontiers churches. I grew up in that environment, very much with a front seat to leadership of a pioneering movement, but I, myself, when I was 15, I contracted viral pneumonia and pleurisy and nearly died.
Yeah, yeah. I was very ill, and I kind of used that as an excuse to turn against the Lord. It was a convenient excuse, in a sense.
So I wasted a few years with just foolish, impulsive living, and then, at the age of 19 … Does the name John Wimber mean anything to you?
A little bit, yeah.
Yep. He was the leader of a group of churches called Vineyard and he was a great friend of my dad and John Wimber said to my dad, “How is Ben?” And my dad said, “He’s not doing well.” And he said, “Well, is he interested in music?” And my dad said, “He’s only interested in music.” And so I was in my bands, trying to make something happen with music.
So he said, “Would he like to tour America with … We have the best Christian rock band in America, in our church in America. Would he like to tour with them? Sort of helping out, carrying things, you know.”
So my dad asked me and I toured with these guys. They were an incredible band, they were called The Violet Burning.
And they were great musicians, but night by night, as they stood up in front of crowds of people, they would start … The singer would start to talk about Jesus, and he’d start to talk about the cross, and this is what he’d say, Isaac. He would say, “You’ve probably seen a picture of Jesus on a cross and He always looks like He’s kind of fallen asleep and it always looks peaceful. Well, the Bible says this, ‘He was beaten beyond human likeness. His face was marred more than any man and it was like a face you would turn away from, you wouldn’t want to look at it, it was horrifying, and then He was crucified.’”
Now, at this time, you see, Isaac, by this time, I was thinking I was beyond saving. I thought I’ve heard the gospel and I’ve turned away. There’s no way back. But what this guy was saying was … He was describing something that was comprehensive. He was describing something which was … This was never meant to be, “I’ve done My bit. Now you do your bit.”
This was always meant to be, “This is enough.” That was the point. It was horrifying.
So, night by night, I was hearing this and I was living with these guys in this band and they weren’t self-righteous. They were just, “Well, this is enough. That changes everything for us.”
So after a month, I went forward and I responded, so that was how I came to put my hope in Christ.
That’s awesome. That’s a cool story. Thanks for sharing that. And also we’ve mentioned that you’re the Director of Christian Heritage London, so just before, again, we get into our kind of formal, I should say, conversation, what is Christian Heritage London all about?
Yeah, well, it is a funny thing, isn’t it, Isaac, that I’m planting this tiny little house church in our estate, but I’m involved in this international ministry, but I think there’s something healthy about that. You get a guy who’s not just sitting in the back of a church on a Sunday but he’s pushing, and at the same time involved in his ministries.
What Christian Heritage London does is we use the history of what God has done in London to tell people the gospel and I think it’s absolutely biblical. You look at Hebrews 13 and it says, “Remember the leaders who went before you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” So what we do is we tell these people stories. So, literally, we go to the places where, you know, Wilberforce sat down and poured his heart out to Newton, and the thing is, Isaac, what people tend to say now is we need another Wilberforce, but they don’t know what the original one was like.
I’ll tell you, for example, they don’t know that in his own lifetime, Wilberforce was considered to be the funniest man in London.
Yeah. He was consistently … He was completely spontaneous. He would speak for three hours without notes. He was totally disorganized. He was always late.
Oh my goodness.
He was great with children. Now, the point is, Isaac, every time I tell someone this, they always smile, they always laugh because they can relate to that. I know what that’s like, but the point is, Wilberforce himself said, “It wasn’t me. It was the Lord. I was just there. You know, I put my faith in him and He did the work.” Now, when you hear that as part of a beleaguered little … As a Christian, in a community which hates the gospel, and you hear, here’s a guy, he just hoped in Christ. He delighted in Christ.
And he was like you, it encourages them, Isaac.
That’s biblical. What does God call himself in the Bible? “I am the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” He wants us to remember the people of faith.
So that’s what we do. And as well as taking people on walks, we put on events and because we are not associated with a denomination, we can serve all the denominations.
And, yeah, so those are some of the things we do and as a result, we have a really special kind of position in London because no one else is really serving all of London’s churches.
They’re pretty much in their own silos, if that’s a term you use there.
Which is great, bless them, they should be focused on their vision, but, as a result, you sometimes don’t get the blending of all the great strengths and so on, yeah.
That’s good, and even as you say that, I’m looking forward to later on in our conversation, when I ask you a little bit about the spiritual climate in England, because maybe that gives you a little bit better of a benefit of now looking around and seeing everything, because you kind of work with a lot of them.
So, anyways, Ben, you were featured in a promo video of a new book called Freedom Movement, that I’ve seen there, and also are credited with being the editor, so first of all, for people that haven’t … they don’t know about this book yet, what is Freedom Movement and what is sort of the main point of this little book?
Yeah, the main point is this, last year was the Queen’s 90th birthday, which I suspect you know in Canada there, did they do anything?
Yeah, you know what, not really, to be honest. I mean, which is kind of sad but it’s true.
We don’t really … the point is, we were not especially interested in the Queen’s birthday but friends of ours in another ministry in the midlands of England thought, “Hey, this could be an opportunity for evangelism.” So they put out a book which … It said, “This is a commemorative book to honour the Queen on her 90th birthday.” And the book was called The Servant Queen and the King She Serves.
Now, the idea was, you see, that churches would buy this book en masse and then give them out, and it hit. It absolutely hit the sweet spot. Churches across this country got loads of copies and just put them through their neighbours doors, or gave them away, and it was an extraordinary success.
A million copies were printed and distributed.
Which kind of puts … It puts it up alongside Cross of Christ by John Stott, in terms of numbers. It’s incredible, but it gave me an idea, and that’s this:
This year we have another anniversary. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and you cannot talk about the Reformation without talking about the gospel. It’s all about the gospel.
But all the events that are being put on this year to commemorate the anniversary are for believers, so, yes, you tend to find conferences are being put on for believers and essentially the only people who would go would be people who already agree, essentially, with what the Reformation was about, but the Reformation, this anniversary gives us a great opportunity to say to people, “Do you know what that was about?”
Now, Michael Reeves, who is a great writer, he is a responsible historian and he writes, frankly, luminous, brilliant, glorious short books.
So his book on the Trinity which, in this country, is called The Good God, is the shortest book I’ve read on the Trinity and I would probably say it’s best, the best, because it draws out for us the beauty of what we’ve been drawn into. It draws out for us what God is like and it feeds your soul as you read it.
So I got onto Michael, and I knew Michael from some work I’d done before, and he’s a very nice bloke and I said, “Michael, how about this, we copy this Queen idea.” And he said,
“I’m supposed to be writing another book, but I’ll write this one first.”
Which was great.
So we got the book out and what it does is it describes what happened to Luther. It describes the darkness of his soul, which each one of us can relate to, you know? We all know what it is to ask the big questions and to find ourselves thinking, “Where is God? How do I fit in with this and is He with me, is He for me?”
And Luther, he was tortured by these questions and he looked and looked into the Bible and there he found the glory of the gospel.
So what Reeves does is he describes what it was that Luther found, draws out the beauty and then he talks about how that spread and how it changed everything. There’s a beautiful little chapter called Transformed Lives, Transformed Worlds, and then he starts talking about free education, abolition, hospitals, the arts, and that lovely bit on the music of Bach and how these things blessed the world again and again and again, but each time he talks about what they did, he shows how each one of these reformers, how each one of these great believers, rejoiced in the gospel.
They weren’t just church attenders who essentially were politicians. They weren’t just nominal. They rejoiced in Christ.
And at the end, there is no kind of “Right, what are you going to do? Pray the prayer here.” At the end, he just sort of … He finishes it and you are … So it is a very … I don’t know if it’s a Canadian term as well but the British term is cringey, it’s not at all cringey. You know, when you give something to someone and you think, “Oh, I’m so embarrassed. It’s a bit rubbish but I’ve got to give it to you.” You kind of cringe.
But, yeah, in this instance, this is completely non-cringey because the text is beautiful. The design is contemporary and it’s short. I’m frustrated, Isaac, when people tell me, “Oh, I don’t believe in Christianity.” But they don’t even know what the gospel is and this helps you to show people, this is what our people believed. These are our people and look what they did. You don’t have to feel uncomfortable about it, it’s brilliant. It’s really encouraging.
That’s awesome, so how did the reformation unveil the gospel?
Yeah, well, at that time, you’re talking about 500 years ago, 1517, old people did not die in sterile, comfortable, anesthetized conditions in hospitals. They died slowly and painfully in the community, often within the earshot of people around whom they’d lived.
If you had children, you would expect half to survive.
There was a stench everywhere. Sewers were not viable and getting clean water was not easy. This was a different world. I think it was Hobbs who said,
“Life was nasty, brutish and short.”
And in that world, people used to go to church because, essentially, you wanted to get what people would probably call “luck” now. They might have called it, “You might want to get blessing.” They didn’t know what was going on when they went to church. They would just show up because it was their religious duty and at the front was a clean bloke, and he would speak … You wouldn’t know what he was saying but he would speak Latin and you would, essentially, if you went, you might find good things happen. It was just superstition.
And what was happening was in that world came Luther and he found God is not an arbitrary force up there who might be for you today, might be against you another. He showed us that He is for people. He has sent His Son into the world. He hasn’t just said, “I love you.” He’s done it.
Jesus Christ came so that He could take a punishment to save sinners, and that is love. This is love. Not that we’ve loved Him but He’s loved us, and it was that discovery that Luther found.
It’s not just “This is how you behave.” If it was about how we behave, we all would lose any chance, but Christ has behaved perfectly and he has taken the cross so that we can have His righteousness. And when Luther rediscovered that, that we can be saved by the perfect work, that we put our faith, we are saved by faith, in Him and His perfect work, that changed everything.
It changed everything.
The wonderful thing, Isaac, is that it first of all, it changed him, and I think that’s the order of things, isn’t it? He found, “This has changed my soul,” and he’s frustrated when people would be preaching something that was less than that.
And one of the things that Reeves points out in the text is, he says, this is … Luther puts this 95 thesis up on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral and he said these things, “If we don’t believe these things, we will not be happy.” Christians will not be happy.
The people who are running the book for us in America are desiringGod and when they first spoke to us they said, “The word happy appears a lot in this.” Which they like, they love happy, so that was how it started and then, of course … And the lovely thing about that, Isaac is that that is … It’s not a new idea. That was the idea of the early church.
These were people who, because of their joy in Christ, they lived differently and the world couldn’t miss it.
You know, in looking through Freedom Movement, because I was able to get it on my iPad and I was flipping through it, kind of reading different parts, and it’s true, Reeves does write very well and I really enjoyed reading what I did. It has a very sort of vibrant feel, the strong colours, lots of cool sketches that I find are fascinating, cool typography, like every couple of pages there’s just massive block letters and I guess the question is: why did you choose to tell the story of the Reformation and the gospel this way?
Yeah, well, I think because it makes it easier to give away and we got a … I have worked in branding, myself, and so I have access to some great designer friends, and essentially, because I trusted the designer, I said, “I tell you what, I’m not going to get involved. This is your world, go for it.”
So I think the guy … He liked that, and so he took off and did these great things and there were a couple of little things I suggested, so he made it as contemporary as possible and he works secularly, so there are no sort of sunsets and kittens, it’s all quite …
It looks quite cool.
No, it does. It really does, and I’m just thinking, that’s any designers dream, you know, that you get work given to you and they say, “Just literally do whatever you want and we’ll go with that.” You know?
That is a designer’s dream, so that’s really cool.
Yeah, and the cool thing was, also, the whole team, I mean, the Lord has blessed the thing, it seems like. The team that came together, I kind of had the idea and steered it through but Michael, we couldn’t have done it without Michael, he did it and then the designer, David, brilliant, and then the publisher in the UK, Jonathan Carswell at “10 of Those,” he’s an evangelist and he essentially said, “Just make it happen. Go for it.”
There was no one, really, anywhere saying, “I don’t think we should do that.”
No one was very … I mean, it’s very unusual, Isaac, to find British people being so risky and taking such steps, but it was really … That was the really exciting … That was a joy. And frankly, Isaac, it is kind of taking off …
And I know that … I know last week, say, they sold, in five days – 9,000 copies were sold.
Oh, awesome. That’s so good. Ben, as we sort of wrap this conversation up, there’s two more questions I want to ask you. The first one is this, being that this is the Reformation’s 500th Anniversary, which we’ve established, what areas do you personally think the church still needs to “reform” in?
This is one thing I would say, Isaac, and this is a special … And I think you’ll like this because I’ve listened to some of your stuff, it’s this: The reformers, the great reformers, think of characters like Luther, think of Jonathan Edwards, some of these great guys, they rejoiced in this stuff. They were not just dotting Is and crossing Ts, and I would love it if everyone who hears this would see that, really, the point, the conclusion, the end,
the purpose of everything they got was their eternal enjoyment of Christ.
You read some of the stuff which Jonathan Edwards wrote, it’s … He’s worshiping as he writes.
And you know it, and that’s a fact, and, sadly, the reformers get a bad reputation but, you know, you saw John Piper’s endorsement of the book. He says, “The reason the reformers aren’t smiling in their pictures is because no one smiled before the 1960s in their pictures.” And the fact is that they get a bad rap and it’s partly because, I think, people who have followed them have … It’s almost like they’ve picked up the secondary stuff, rather than getting the heart.
The heart of it is rejoicing in Christ.
If you listen to Tim Keller, don’t you find this? Do you listen to Keller or Piper?
You listen to these guys, you find the “therefore” of hearing their preaching is worship, and that’s what these guys, that’s what these reformers got,
so I would say if there needs to be a reformation, I would love it to be, in our time, the going back to the reformer’s delight in Christ
and that is something which we … I mean, you know, frankly, if I had said that 25 years ago, I think people might have thought I was being frivolous, but the wonderful thing is, Isaac, that we now live in the day of Keller, Piper, these guys who are saying this.
Yeah, that’s so good.
So the guys who used to talk about the Reformation, they used to be dower and pedantic and they were not known for their joy, but we’re now living in a time where people are saying, “Look at the joy, look at the beauty.”
They’re so enjoying. Now that would be a reformation, wouldn’t it?
If you saw people who weren’t just planting churches so they could pull down the other church but so they can say, “Look, look, I want you to see Him. Can you see Him?”
Yeah. Well, it touches the heart, right? And I love that and that’s what it’s about, delighting in the Lord.
Ben, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. If you’re listening right now and if you’re interested in Freedom Movement and, as Ben said, I think just last week they sold 9,000, that’s awesome, you can head to cruciformpress.com if you live in Canada, or if you live in the States, or desiringgod.org and under their books section, you can find it there as well and I’ll put all the relative links to Christian Heritage London on the episode page as well.
But, anyway, Ben, I just want to say thank you and I really do hope to talk to you soon because that was a lot of fun.
Bless you, sir. All the best to you and your ministry there, Isaac. It’s wonderful that you’re trying to serve people in the way that you are.
Awesome, thanks, Ben.
Bless you, sir.