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Francis Schaeffer's Struggle for Spiritual Reality

Updated Feb 16, 2011
Francis Schaeffer's Struggle for Spiritual Reality

" filled with the Spirit... singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always
and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Ephesians 5:18

Among the unread good books I've had sitting on my bookshelves for years there is one five-volume set that recently seems to be calling out: "When are you finally going to make time to really read me?" Yes, I partially read The God Who Is There some ten years ago. And I've dipped into True Spirituality here and there as well as The Mark of the Christian, Art and the Bible, and How Shall We Then Live? But I've never actually sat down and given the five-volume set: The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer the comprehensive reading it deserves.

I don't like to be rude to anyone, and particularly not to people offering good things. But I feel that I've been rather rude to Dr. Schaeffer since buying his complete works some years ago. It's as if I've been keeping this prominent thinker standing at my doorstep, patiently waiting for me to journey with him closer to the heart of God while I run off to another urgent meeting.

For those not familiar with this man, a helpful overview can be found here. A recent, very interesting biography can be found here. In short, roughly fifty-five years ago, Francis and Edith Schaeffer began a ministry in the Swiss Alps called L'Abri (French for "the shelter"), which was and still is greatly used to bring many to God. The ripple effects from their life and ministry will certainly be felt throughout the world for generations to come, especially in light of the rich contributions to Christian thought and life being produced by the alumni of L'Abri (case in point, nancy pearcey's total truth: liberating christianity from its cultural captivity).

What was attractive about the Schaeffers?
Part of what attracted people to the Schaeffers and what attracts me as well is the authenticity with which they were reputed to have lived. A deep and abiding spiritual reality was apparently present in their everyday lives that others attested to again and again.

One who spent extensive time with the Schaeffers is Professor Jerram Barrs who served for 16 years as director of the L'Abri Fellowship in England. Barrs' long and close association with Dr. Francis Schaeffer gives him a unique perspective as director of Covenant Seminary's Francis A. Schaeffer Institute. According to jerram barrs' free online lectures about the schaeffers, which I've been listening to over the past several months,

"[They] carried about them a tremendous urgency for prayer and they acted on this urgency as if it mattered, as if it would make a difference in history… they saw real answers to prayer and the power of God seemed to rest on them in perceivable ways—both small and large—every day..."

Author Cal Thomas endorsed Schaeffer's posthumously published the finished work of christ: the truth of romans 1-8 (©1998 Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois): "[He] was God's gift to a generation of doubters and questioners. The power of his mind and the greater power of God's Spirit in him continue to draw thinking men and women, not to religion, but to Jesus Christ" (italics added).

This spiritual reality in their lives might never have happened apart from crisis.

In True Spirituality, Dr. Schaeffer explains that the spiritual reality at the core of their lives and ministry would not have come about if there had not been a great time of crisis first. Prior to the time that L'Abri began, Francis went through a period lasting several months during which he resolved to honestly work through a problem he could no longer ignore. The problem was the disturbing disparity he saw in himself between the large amount of Bible data he claimed to believe and the lack of genuine spiritual joy in his life on a daily basis.

Over those months as he walked in the mountains, Francis rethought his reasons for being a Christian and at last

"…saw again that there were totally sufficient reasons to know that the infinite-personal God does exist and that Christianity is true.

"In going further, I saw something else which made a profound difference in my life. I searched through what the Bible said concerning reality as a Christian. Gradually, I saw that the problem was that with all the teaching I had received after I was a Christian, I had heard little about what the Bible says about the meaning of the finished work of Christ for our present lives.

"Gradually the sun came out and the song came. Interestingly enough, although I had written no poetry for many years, in that time of joy and song I found poetry beginning to flow again—poetry of certainty, an affirmation of life, thanksgiving, and praise. Admittedly, as poetry it is very poor, but it expressed a song in my heart which was wonderful to me."

 (from True Spirituality, p. 196 in the complete works of francis schaeffer, vol. 3 © 1982 Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois).

That time of crisis served to settle the issue of spiritual reality for the Schaeffers. Francis saw and believed that the finished work of Christ really is the source of the Christian's life. He grew deeply convinced that the Christian life is not just about conversion, but about moment-by-moment living out of the grace of God today, in the present by the power of the Holy Spirit.

What if the Holy Spirit and prayer were removed from the Bible?
A significant and challenging question that Francis thought long and hard about came up in conversation one day with his wife Edith (she later recounted the words on p. 356 of her book, the tapestry)…

"I wonder what would happen to most of our churches and Christian work if we woke up tomorrow morning and everything concerning the reality and work of the Holy Spirit, and everything concerning prayer were removed from the Bible?

I don't mean just ignored, but actually cut out—disappeared. I wonder how much difference it would make?"    

How much difference would it make? Personally, I find this extremely convicting to think about as a pastor of worship who can all too easily become consumed with selecting and arranging songs, and with sorting out musicians' schedules and running rehearsals. As a music team, we open and close our times together in a time of prayer as a matter of course. But there seems to be too great a tendency (in me, at least) to forget the mindset of being dependent on Christ amid all the busyness of pulling together the details of an upcoming church service. I want the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to be obvious and necessary and truly central in my life and in our church's gatherings. I don't want to pursue the trappings of high-profile Christian leadership, but want a greater reality in my life as a Christian---a greater reality of fruitfulness, knowing God, obedience, dependence on God, and prayer. Since this marked the Schaeffers' lives, can it not mark mine as well?

I never would have had the opportunity to be personally mentored by him. Dr. Francis Schaeffer died on May 15, 1984. But the trail of his thought remains open and a living dialogue can still be had with this authentic man of God who waits at the doorstep. I encourage you to join us.

[Join Alex's journey through selected works of Francis Schaeffer in his editions of crosswalk the devotional. Sign up here.]

Further Reflection: 
What would happen to your life and Christian work if you woke up tomorrow morning and everything concerning the reality and work of the Holy Spirit, and everything concerning prayer were removed from the Bible? I don't mean just ignored, but actually cut out—disappeared. How much difference it would make in the way that you live your life?

Is there anyone who knows you well who would testify of the presence of spiritual reality in your life? What evidence might they give?

Spend time thinking through the reasons why you became a Christian. Reflect on what it means to have an authentic relationship with the infinite-personal God who is there.

Further Reading
John 6:68Ephesians 4:17
Ephesians 5:1
Psalms 16:1


Alex Crain is the editor of In addition to writing and editing for Salem Web Network, Alex also serves as an Associate Pastor at Grace Bible Church in Richmond, Virginia. While completing his Masters of Divinity studies at The Master's Seminary (2003), Alex served as a staff editor and pastoral resident for family ministries at Grace Community Church in the Los Angeles area. He has subsequently served at various churches in the areas of teaching, outreach, small groups and worship ministries.




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