The Life and Ministry of John Sung
Ka-Tong Lim. The Life and Ministry of John Sung. Singapore: Genesis Books, an imprint of Armour Publishing. 2010. Paper. 328 pages, including end notes and index.
“Here is the story of one of the most remarkable Christians in Asia, yet largely unknown.”
“The value of this book is Lim Ka-Tong’s research and engaging writing, which paints a detailed picture of John Sung in his theological, cultural, and political contexts.”
This book “paints a striking portrait of Sung, adding interesting and important historical, social and theological details in its description of the man’s many successes and struggles. The author shows how Sung was a man for and of his time, and how God works in souls and societies. The Life and Ministry of John Sung is an inspiring and insightful book.”
“Dr. John Sung was a servant greatly used by God in the twentieth century. We can learn many precious lessons from his life and ministry.”
These comments from Christian leaders and scholars accurately convey the nature and importance of this superb biography. It is the most detailed I have read on John Sung, and it provides essential background for the interpretation of his published diaries.
The author has impressive academic credentials as well as extensive teaching and pastoral experience. A model of historical research, Lim’s book draws upon archives, letters, Sung’s sermons, eyewitness accounts, and a wide variety of published materials to produce an accurate, objective, and fulsome narrative of John Sung’s life and ministry in the context of his time. This is no armchair scholar’s dissertation, however, but a vivid story written from both the mind and the heart, and one that can both educate and inspire readers of all sorts.
Though John Sung was famous in his own time, church historians have tended to neglect him and the remarkable ministry that not only profoundly affected his contemporaries but continues to shape the resurgence of Christianity in China since the 1980s.
In the introduction, Dr. Lim poses the stimulating thought that good Christian biography can be a type of “storied” theology, one that is less abstract and more concrete. “In a quest for an authentic Asian Christian theology…biographies of great Asian saints could become a fruitful venue for theologizing at the grass-roots level. John Sung was one person whose life could be studied to help Asian Christians find their own Christian identity.”
Furthermore, he agrees with Ruth Tucker that biography can be a form of missiology that “focuses on ‘how one does mission’” (xviii). Indeed, it is much more practical than “biography as theology,” for “a good biography connects the reader’s life story to the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in another’s life” (xviii). Having been profoundly impacted by missionary biographies, I can attest to the truth of this claim.
The first four chapters set the stage for John Sung’s remarkable career by describing the context into which he was born and in which he ministered. Chapter 1 describes the momentous socio-political changes in early twentieth-century China; Chapter 2 deals with the Chinese church in the early years of the Chinese Republic (which was founded in 1911), when a strong anti-Christian movement appeared. Chapters 3 and 4 narrate the intense Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy that split the Protestant churches in the West and in China. They enable us to understand how Sung played his part in the revival movement and why his strong stand for the authority of the Bible and traditional Christian doctrines struck such a chord in his hearers and aroused such opposition from theological liberals.
A detailed summary of the contents of Parts 2 - 7 will be found at the end of the review. Read a short biography of John Sung at the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity.
Evaluating the Impact of the Ministry of John Sung
The author shows how many factors contributed to the powerful and lasting effects of John Sung’s ministry: His academic credentials attracted both the uneducated and the highly educated. He was a master storyteller. He stressed both the truth of the Bible and the power of the Holy Spirit, calling for repentance, faith, and a life transformed by the Spirit.
He defended orthodox Christian beliefs against Christian intellectuals who had been seduced by “modern” and “scientific” Western thinking. At the same time, he addressed traditional Chinese religions, denouncing idolatry and delivering people from the fear of evil spirits. Though he prayed for people to be healed, he also stressed the importance of the Bible and prayer. Spiritual experiences must be judged by the clear revelation of God in the Bible, he insisted.
His own life exemplified the Confucian ideal by his strict self-discipline and self-denial. By giving up his rights as a Ph.D. and by donning a simple Chinese gown, he set an example of self-sacrifice that motivated others to imitate the example of Christ.
Read a vivid description of Sung in pages 164-5.
Sung’s Influence on the Recent Resurgence of Christianity in China
Dr. Lim demonstrates that the ministry of John Sung and other “independent” preachers in the first half of the twentieth century “were the main contributing factors” to the resurgence of the Christian faith in the last three decades of the century.
First, thousands of people who were converted under his preaching held fast during the fierce persecutions that began in the 1950s. Second, many features of the “house” churches reflect the example and teaching of John Sung, including: a zeal for evangelism; a love of the Scriptures and full faith in their divine inspiration; emphasizing home meetings and family worship; training lay people for ministry rather than relying on the clergy; reliance on the Holy Spirit; belief in the efficacy of prayer; the insistence that every believer must live a sanctified life; rejection of liberal theology and a firm adherence to orthodox Christian beliefs.
Lessons from the Life of John Sung
Contextualization of the Gospel in China
Dr. Lim forcefully refutes the currently popular notion that we must “contextualize” the gospel for elite Chinese intellectuals by integrating it with Chinese religion and philosophy. He shows that the career of John Sung proves that the “simple gospel” of repentance, faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit can speak to both highly educated people and to illiterate believers in traditional Chinese religions.
Indeed, “a study of John Sung’s life and ministry will provide hints on how Christianity can become an indigenous faith…in the Chinese context. It might shed light on why conscious efforts [at] indigenizing the gospel at a culturally elite level in China have borne little success… Contextualization happens when vibrant faith that requires nothing less than radical discipleship touches the mind as well as the heart” (279).
“Encountering the Power” vs. Power Encounter
John Sung’s ministry demonstrates the power of the Holy Spirit to bring physical healing and deliverance from evil spirits. In that sense, Sung was a “charismatic,” though he did not accept Pentecostal theology or an emphasis on spiritual gifts and supernatural events. On the contrary, Sung taught that true conversion will lead to a life filled by the Holy Spirit, who will gradually conform Christians into the moral likeness of Christ. Though God worked countless miracles through John Sung, Sung always emphasized love more than power, holiness more than miracles.
To overcome the power of Satan, Sung showed that we must immerse ourselves in the Word of God and in prayer. Though we can expect some spectacular manifestations of the Spirit, “every Christian must come under the convicting work of the Holy Spirit all the time. As John Sung commented, it might be easier to cast out the real demons than having to deal with evils within us” (28).
To be effective, “Christian workers should humbly encounter the Truth revealed in the Scripture. Then, relying on the Holy Spirit, we must strive to live a victorious life in Christ, not the life of a victor. God will work powerfully through our witness when we allow his power to work in our lives, and in and through the church” (280).
John sung “practiced what he preached.” He routinely read eleven chapters of the Bible a day, taking copious notes and praying over what God was saying through his written Word. As a result, he possessed a command of the Scriptures rarely seen in Christian history (F.F. Bruce, Jonathan Edwards, and Augustine of Hippo come to mind).
He also prayed more, and more earnestly, than most preachers. Aside from hours of solitary intercession, his impassioned calling upon God in public moved countless hearers to return to God. (J. Hudson Taylor’s prayers had a similar effect, though he spoke quietly and simply.)
Sung’s simple gown and self-denying lifestyle were merely the outward signs of an inward renunciation of the world and of himself. He feared God alone, and was thus able to rebuke sin boldly and call for Christians to consecrate themselves fully to the Lord.
His passion for souls drove him night and day and took him all over China and throughout much of Southeast Asia. He not only urged believers to evangelize others, but organized countless small preaching bands in every city he visited.
Dr. Lim notes that Sung benefited much from a lifelong interest in Christian biographies. It was partly through studying exemplary Christian lives that Sung found his way back to a faith which he had lost, affirmed his call to be a preacher, and to a certain degree, developed his ministry philosophy and methodology. Lim gives examples of people who have been deeply impacted by reading other biographies of Sung. He strongly urges us to “incorporate biographies in the process of discipleship.”
The online Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity features stories of hundreds of Chinese Christians and Western missionaries that can serve as examples for us today.
A Great Man with Great Sins
John Sung was the first to admit that he was guilty of serious offenses against God. He lamented his short and fiery temper, which burst out in harsh denunciation of missionaries and Christian leaders and caused him to summarily remove interpreters who couldn’t keep up with his rapid-fire delivery. He admitted that he sometimes exaggerated the numbers of those who had been converted or healed through his ministry.
Perhaps worst of all, at the end of his life he expressed remorse that he had woefully neglected his family for the sake of ministry. He was absent for the births of all five of his children, and failed to spend even a minimal amount of time with his wife and family for many years. Thankfully, he tried to make up for this failure during his last years, when they came to Beijing to be with him while his illness gradually and painfully killed him.
All in all, however, the reader of The Life and Ministry of John Sung cannot help but thank God for raising up such a wonderful prophet and evangelist for momentous times. Gifted with a superb intellect and rare rhetorical power, and incredibly industrious as a student of the Bible, preacher of the gospel, and intercessor, Sung surely ranks among the greatest preachers in the history of the church. Only a very cold heart could come away from this book without having been challenged by Sung’s utter devotion to Christ and his church and sacrificial love for lost and wandering sheep.
We cannot be as brilliant or gifted as he was, but we can ask God to give us hearts that burn with Sung’s faith, hope, and love.
Summary of Parts 2-7
Part 2 - Sung’s Childhood and Youth (1901-1920)
Chapters 5-8. Sung’s undergraduate and graduate studies in Ohio (1920-1926). His leaving the faith of his father to embrace liberal theology and the Social Gospel. Intense internal struggle during his first semester at Union Seminary. His physical and emotional crisis, leading to a dramatic conversion experience but also to some sort of breakdown, in early 1927, that prompted Union officials to commit him to a mental hospital.
The author examines the evidence and concludes that Sung was probably sane, but also clearly exhausted, prone to extremes of emotion, and overly zealous and extremely naive as a new convert. Since this book was published, new evidence has come to light that would support the diagnosis of some kind of mental breakdown, at least for a brief period of time. He left the mental hospital fully recovered and convinced that God wanted him to become an evangelist to his people.
Part 3 - The Water Period: Re-Immersion (1927-1930)
This is the first of five sections named after what Sung called the five three-year periods of his active ministry: water, door, dove, blood, and tomb.
Ch. 12. Sung’s dramatic renunciation of his success and position as a scholar, expressed by throwing away his golden doctoral keys and most of his diplomas and donning a simple peasant gown.
Ch. 13. His acceptance of an invitation to teach chemistry and Bible in order to help his family financially. His marriage to the bride chosen for him by his parents. Social awkwardness arising from his Americanization. The uproar caused by his refusing to bow to the picture of Sun Yat-sen; loss of his job as a teacher. Becoming a full-time worker for the Hinghwa Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Ch. 14. First efforts at itinerant evangelism, preaching in English. Traveling Bible school.
Ch. 15. Preaching further afield. Denouncing liberal theology. Opposition from communists, the government, and liberal church leaders. Admired for his knowledge of the Bible. Began forming evangelistic bands. Consistent neglect of his young family.
Ch. 16. Benefits of re-entry period: discerning youthful faults; re-learning Chinese culture; learning how to deal with idolatry and demon possession; mastery of the Bible; learning the importance of a simple message, prayer, songs, Bible teaching, the fullness of the Spirit, training leaders.
Part 4 - The Door Period: Openings (1931-1933)
Chapter 17. Traveling north to attend conferences and meet Christian leaders. Encountering leaders of the Social Gospel movement in China. Rejecting their work as lacking lasting value and affirming his commitment to the biblical gospel. Gaining the admiration of leading evangelicals. First invitation to join the Bethel Band.
Chs. 18-19. Turning point: Preaching in Nanchang. The descent of the Spirit. Revival: Confession of sin, seeking the fullness of the Spirit, sharing the gospel with others. Friendship with the Rev. William Shubert. Dealing with his own sins before calling others to repent. Revivals in Shanghai.
Ch. 20. Joining the Bethel Band. Preaching in the North. Learning that prayer is the key to revival. Spirit-filled but not Pentecostal. Love is the greatest gift. First healing service.
Ch. 21. Preaching in Shanghai and the South. Editing Guide to Holiness magazine. Learning to crucify self. Growing conflict with Bethel Band teammates.
Ch. 22. Joining the Bethel Mission, despite reservations. Revivals in the North.
Ch. 23. More conflict with Bethel Band and Mission.
Ch. 24. Leaving the Bethel Band and Mission. What he had gained from Bethel. What he had given to Bethel.
Part 5 - The Dove Period: Time to Soar (1934-1936)
Chapter 25. Setting out on his own. “Crazy” for China’s salvation. Sung begins praying in tongues, but does not emphasize spiritual gifts. Increasing attacks on Modernist theology and preachers. Calls for the Chinese church to be independent of foreign money and control. Prohibited from preaching in “mainline” churches in the North. Warm reception in the South.
Ch. 26. “Xiamen shaken.” 5,000 attended meetings for 12 days. Movie theaters and gambling dens shut down. Many healed through prayer after confessing their sins. Growing criticism from Modernist missionaries for “emotionalism” and focus on the Lord’s return.
Ch. 26. Ministry in the South and then the North. Began to preach messages aimed at strengthening the faith of believers. Criticized for his healing ministry because of those who weren’t healed and Sung’s claim that those who believed would be healed; alleged stubbornness and autocratic leadership; “sweeping denunciations of Christian leaders.” Others, however, described “transformation of lives, the friendlier attitude of non-believers towards Christianity, a significant increase in church attendance, and the enthusiastic activities of the evangelistic bands.” Stressed the importance of family worship, but missed the births of his children.
Ch. 27. Beginnings of Sung’s overseas missions. Lasting impact from ministry in the Philippines. Month-long Bible institute in Hangzhou went through entire Bible. First trip to Singapore, Malaya, and Sumatra. “Singapore Pentecost.” Lasting impact of his ministry there. Ministry in villages of central and north China, based on God’s leading. Outbursts of anger. Lasting impact of his preaching in Taiwan, where he emphasized “repentance, new birth, filling of the Spirit, sanctified living, and witnessing.” Second national Bible Institute in Xiamen (1936). Second Southeast Asia tour. Great success in Singapore.
Part 6 - The Blood Period: Spiritual Warrior in Wartime (1937-1939)
Chapter 28. Practicing the way of love. Beginning in 1937, Sung announced that God wanted him henceforth to walk the way of love. Ministry in South China. Revival. “A new song of joy” on the lips of believers as a result of his ministry. A much gentler person. Christian leadership and the Holy Spirit.
Ch. 29. The Sino-Japanese War. Nanjing, Hangzhou, and the North. The Third Nationwide Bible Institute (1937): “fervency of heart, knowledge, and power.” “The toughest journey in Sung’s life.”
Ch. 30. To Fujian, French Indochina, and Yunnan. Northern Fujian ministries: “Many were converted, and ‘many more who had been nominal Christians have been revived and brought into vital relationships with Christ,’ including pastors, Bible women, and teachers.”
Ch. 31. To Fujian, French Indochina, and Yunnan. An ordained Elder of the Methodist Episcopal Church. French Indochina. An indelible mark: “the results of this revival were both widespread and deep.” Yunnan:”Much confession of sin followed by a new zeal for the salvation of the lost.”
Ch. 32. Thailand, Singapore, Malaya, and Indonesia: a four-month trip. “Many reserved ladies sang along the road with joy like a drunkard. They talked and talked about their new life.” Ten years later, “We dare say that the Chinese churches in Java are still alive today only through the blessing of the revival brought by Dr. Sung.”
Ch. 33. Final expedition to Southeast Asia. Seven months of non-stop travel and preaching “took a toll on Sung’s health.” Extreme pain, but “he still kept his daily meeting schedule.” People returned home from a Bible institute “on fire for the Lord” and “filled with the Holy Spirit… A new zeal in evangelism and a deepening of Christian faith and life [were] evident.” Some converts from nominalism “became key leaders in the Church.” Effects were “converting nominal Christians, renewing potential leaders, checking decline in ‘new members received,’ and imparting spiritual stamina to face the conflict ahead.” “The impact of Sung’s ministry in Java ‘was immeasurable and the spiritual results remain to this day’ [1960s].”
Part 7 - The Tomb Period: Pastoral Years (1940-1944)
Chapter 34. Six surgeries from March 1940 to his death. Agonizing pain. Suffered this for over 30 years. Didn’t follow medical advice, seek medical help, or take care of his body until 1939. His disease: anal fistulas, an “unmentionable disease.”
Ch. 35. “Pastoral” duties, agony, and peace. A sense of being chastened by God for his ill temper, stubbornness, criticism of missionaries, inability to work with others, neglect of his family, lacking love, “and many hidden sins.” Intercessor par excellence. Masterful letters to the evangelistic bands and prayer bands. Intensive Bible study. Group Bible studies and prayer. Allegorical messages for his companions. Many came to him. Extended time with his family, at last! A long and painful death. Bedridden for the last 18 months. Never wavered in his faith. “Pray much, the work henceforth will be the work of prayer.” Wang Mingdao called him the “Iron-Preacher of China.”