Monday, 28 December 2009

More advice on the ministry

As I said in a previous post, I have been reading the life of Robert Findlater. A ministerial friend set him the following advice regarding the service of Christ.

‘On your being licensed to preach the gospel, I congratulate you. The office of an ambassador for Christ has, by all invested with it who have tasted of the grace of God, been considered as pleasant and honourable; while at the same time, it has been felt by them to be arduous, l will not enlarge on these things. The apostle of the Gentiles magnified his office, and reckoned it his glory, and a grace given him, to preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ. His heart and delight were in the work; while at the same time, no man knew more by experience, both what he had to do, and to suffer, in the faithful discharge of his office. I pray God, that by the lively state of religion in our own souls, by communications of spiritual consolation from Himself, and by the abundant success of our labours, He may lead us to feel the pleasantness of the office; that by gifts and graces, He may qualify us for honourably transacting the business of reconciliation, between Him and rebel sinners; and that in proportion as He exposes us to the difficulties connected with the office, He may support us under them.

‘A circumstance, or rather quality of the office, to which my attention is directed as much as to any, is the solemn tenure on which we hold it. “Woe unto us, if we preach not the Gospel.” The sinner must receive warning, else his blood will be required at our hand. By faithful dealing with all, we must deliver our own souls. Who is sufficient for these things? You suppose my experience may enable me to suggest something profitable on the subject. I have little experience yet, that I can either call my own, or by which I can profit others; but if I have learned any thing by experience, it is the answer to the foregoing question, namely, “Our sufficiency is of God.” The more we feel our own insufficiency, and are led to God, in Christ, for all things, both to our own and our people’s souls, the more comfort do we feel, the more success are we likely to get.

‘But you will perhaps be thinking that I might say something more, of what I have learned by experience, in preaching the Gospel. In a letter I must be general. I think then, I know, that there is nothing of greater consequence to comfort and success than personal religion. Most difficulties arise, or are increased, either from the want, or the low state of this in the soul – entirely destitute of it, we must be unfaithful, comfortless, and burdened in the work – weak in religion, we are likely to be unskilful, in some degree unsteady, inactive, or exposed to the fear of man that bringeth a snare, ready to be overborne by every difficulty. And the more lively our own souls are, the more comfort do we feel; the more faithful are we enabled to be; and the better do we know, whether to apply for supplies of grace, for strength under difficulties, for ability, and success. All this is to be understood, in consistence with our sufficiency being of God. Personal religion is all from Him; and is the first and fairest means of success.

'I do not know a better way, in dependence on our Redeemer’s grace for encouraging personal religion, than to spend much time at once, and often, in deep meditation, self-examination, searching the Scriptures, and prayer. A person cannot (with a deceitful heart) meditate, examine, or read without prayer. I know because I have felt it, that converse with the world is hurtful; and had I been engaged in the profitable exercise alluded to, when at College, and at home I spent much time idly, or even in reading books that were in themselves useful, too constantly – I would now be more fit for my work. Without intimate spiritual knowledge of the Scriptures also, I must add, we cannot rightly divide the word of truth.

'And as speaking to a brother, I would advise you to study your discourses well. We are accountable for what we say; and not a little care and pains are necessary, in choosing fit passages of Scripture, by which to illustrate or prove our subject. I find most pleasure in delivering my most carefully composed discourses.

'I hope the Lord will direct and bless you and your labours. You will likely get some settlement soon; and it is chiefly in the view of this that I have written the preceding, as your situation then will be similar to mine. – I am, yours truly, John Shaw.’

Advice on the ministry

I have been reading the life of Robert Findlater, a minister who experienced an extensive period of revival in his Perthshire congregation in the second decade of the nineteenth century. He came from Kiltearn, north of Inverness, and knew various evangelical ministers in the area, one of whom was Charles Calder of Ferintosh. Calder sent him the following letter when he was licensed to preach the gospel:

'It gave me sincere pleasure on my return from the Moray-side, where some pressing calls brought me last week, to hear of your being licensed to preach. That in the blessed work to which you are thus called, you may be signally countenanced of God, and become the happy instrument in the hand of His Spirit of winning souls to Christ, and of spreading the savour of His name, is my hearty prayer.

'To a young man in similar circumstances with you, newly licensed to preach the everlasting Gospel, and expressing to the eminent Cadogan, how much he felt burdened in the prospect of the work before him, the reply was, "You have but one thing to do, Exalt Christ, and the promise is, ‘And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.’” This important counsel you will find much benefit from always bearing in mind; and together with it, a saying I met with t’other day in the memoirs of the pious Mr. Pearce, “It is from diligent ploughing in the closet, that successful reaping is to be looked for in the pulpit.”’

I suspect the last sentence explains it all.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

End of a year (2009)

Today is the last Sunday of 2009. If we have attended church on each Sunday, we have participated in at least 52 sermons – some will have participated in far more, perhaps over 100. There are several ways in which we can reflect on these services. For example, if we failed to trust in Jesus for mercy, then we have lost many opportunities to have done so. Or we could say that each service was an opportunity to remind ourselves about an aspect of God or to learn something new about God – we would know quite a lot about him if we had used each service in this way. No doubt we can think of other ways by which to describe our involvement in these services.

As we anticipate another set of services next year, we should resolve to use each one for our spiritual benefit. The best way to prepare for each service is by prayer. Sometimes we imagine that prayer is a bit complicated and quite difficult to maintain. Even the most experienced Christian will confess that this is the case. Yet often, the reality is that prayer is straightforward.

A good way to pray is to send short petitions to God on a regular basis during a sermon. Before each feature of a service, such as when singing a psalm or listening to a passage from the Bible, we should ask God to bless that feature to us. It is amazing what you will begin to notice after you begin to pray in this way.

Of course, it is also very important to ask God to enable us to remember what we heard in the sermon – not every detail but the main point(s) of it. Sometimes, a person will complain about themselves to me and say that they find it hard to recall what is said. While it may be the case that the person has a bad memory, the lack of recall may be due to a failure to pray that God would enable us to remember what is good for our souls.

Remember that prayer is simply asking God to do something for us. If we ask him to bless to us each stage of the service, including remembering what was said in a sermon, we will find that he gives spiritual blessing each time we gather in public worship.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Marcus Loane, Makers of Puritan History, Banner of Truth, 2009

This hardback was previously published in 1960 with the title, Makers of Religious Freedom, and contains biographical accounts of four prominent Christian leaders from the seventeenth century. Two are from Scotland (Alexander Henderson and Samuel Rutherford) and two are from England (John Bunyan and Richard Baxter). The present title is one that was given to the American edition of the 1960 book.

Each of the four names is well-known today for various reasons. Three of them (apart from Henderson) have many books still in print. In addition, each of them was an outstanding preacher, and accounts of their lives are of value to contemporary preachers.

While the current title is not inaccurate (they did make history in Puritan times), it hides a prominent theme of Loane’s book, which is the contribution each of them made in the fight for religious freedom. Today we are facing threats to our religious freedom and while our circumstances are different from what they faced, we can learn from their dedication to Christ’s cause and their willingness to suffer for their convictions. Much of the freedom of subsequent generations can be traced to the readiness of these men, and many others, to do what was necessary in order to secure religious freedom in our country.

As with all of Loane’s books (and he wrote several), this one is easy to read. It will serve as a good introduction to the lives of the four men on whom he focuses, and will remind us of the cost that was paid by others to provide us with our freedoms.

Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, Christian Heritage, 2009.

According to Derek Thomas, the Marrow ‘is one of the most important theological texts of all time’. Sinclair Ferguson states that ‘Anyone who comes to grips with the issues raised in the Marrow of Modern Divinity will almost certainly grow by leaps and bounds in understanding three things: the grace of God, the Christian life, and the very nature of the gospel itself.’ When Thomas Chalmers read it shortly after his conversion, he stated that he now had ‘a growing delight in the fullness and sufficiency of Christ. O my God, bring me nearer and nearer to him.’

This hardback edition has been produced in a very attractive and user-friendly format, which makes it easy to read the original text by Fisher alongside the later notes by Boston. There is also an informative essay detailing the process by which this book came to be written and how its author has been identified (to begin with, he was known by the initials EF), as well as a summary of what became known in Scotland as the Marrow Controversy.

Although the title contains the word ‘Modern’, the book is a classic from the Puritan period. Originally written in England, it became a major influence in Scottish evangelicalism through the instrumentality of Thomas Boston, who provided extensive comments throughout the work (in a 1726 edition), and the group of evangelical ministers to which he belonged (later called the Marrowmen). The book helped many understand the gospel afresh, especially because the Church of Scotland at that time was affected by a form of legalism that diminished the doctrine of justification and distorted why and how believers should obey God’s commandments.

Even before Boston’s discovery of the book, it had been highly regarded in evangelical Scottish spirituality: according to David McIntyre, it was read by many suffering believers during the days of the Covenanters and was of great help to Fraser of Brea. After Boston’s contribution, the Marrow quickly became very influential in Scottish evangelical church life and it took its place on the bookshelves of the pious, alongside Samuel Rutherford’s Letters, William Guthrie’s The Christian’s Great Interest, Thomas Boston’s Fourfold State and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

Its republication is timely because we live in a day when the Reformed doctrine of justification is again under attack and antinomianism is spreading even within Reformed churches (perhaps we should anticipate another round of legalism in response). Reading this classic work will help us, including ministers and preachers, appreciate the wonder of God’s way of salvation and the effects his grace has in the lives of his people. It contains a helpful discussion on the Ten Commandments.

The form the work takes is that of a dialogue between a Christian pastor and several individuals over matters connected to salvation, and we can see in their discussions many issues that trouble people today. The book will be useful in guiding readers towards assurance of salvation and protecting them from the many dangers antinomianism and legalism create.

It is also worth noting that a book written by an obscure author has stood the test of time. This is another reminder that a Christian does not have to seek prominence in order to provide sources of spiritual blessing, not only in his own day, but also in the days after he has gone.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Sweetness in preaching

As intimated previously, I read recently Douglas Sweeney's book on the ministry of Jonathan Edwards. I have been challenged as I have reflected on some of Edwards' words: 'There is a difference between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but a man can't have the latter, unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mouth.'

At one level, Edwards is saying that a true Christian has genuine experiences of God's grace that include emotional responses as well as intellectual understanding. Yet taking his illustration, I suppose it is possible to have experienced what honey tastes like without knowing how to define in accurate terms what has been eaten. I have met some who can speak about the Christian faith and yet don't convey, at least to me, a sense of its sweetness; I have also met some who were unable to explain theologically what they were enjoying, but whose delight in God's mercy was so obvious that, at that moment, I would have exchanged my theological knowledge for their experience.

I know that the best solution is to have both. What concerns me about myself is that while I have not yet lost any theological understanding I attained, I cannot claim to be always enjoying its sweetness. When prompted, out can come an explanation that answers any misunderstanding in the person asking the question. Yet the individual is not always thrilled to bits at having received a correct answer. I suspect that the problem with him is that my answer, while theologically correct, has not indicated a sense of sweetness in my heart or conveyed that sense to him.

Obviously Edward's intellect was such that he could answer any problem posed to him. His genius must have carried the continual possibility that his answers would be beyond the abilities of most listeners to understand him. No doubt, many a person would have found it hard to grasp all that Edwards said in a sermon, but I suspect they would also have been attracted to the God in whom he delighted as he preached. Was one secret of his ministry his freedom to preach in such a way that told his listeners that the doctrine he was speaking about was sweet in his own heart and that it would be good for them to have that sweetness too?

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Tired but happy

Each Sunday I preach three sermons, a feature that is not rare in my denomination because many of my colleagues also preach the same number every Sunday, with some also preaching in two different languages. I mention this figure because last Sunday evening, which had been preceded by an additional sermon on Saturday evening, several individuals kindly asked if I was tired. Their question, however, raises some issues.

For many years I was a truck driver working twelve hours a day, five days a week. Regularly I was tired physically at the end of a day's work. I have been a preacher now for several years and as far as I can tell I have not been as physically tired on my busiest Sunday as I was at times during my days driving trucks. But I will admit that on most Sunday evenings, after the services are over, I am tired. Yet I am pleased that I am tired because it means that I put some effort into preaching. If I was not tired, I would have to consider how much effort I had put in to delivering my sermons.

Of course, the tiredness is not only the consequence of physical exertion. There is an emotional contribution as well. There is emotional stress caused by knowing some listeners have rejected the gospel, and such feelings contribute to tiredness. There is also the regular Satanic assaults that come in variety of ways before, during and after a sermon – they also contribute to tiredness. These aspects make a preacher's tiredness a feature of his calling.

For a variety of reasons, I expect to be tired on Sunday evenings. After all, while Sunday is the New Testament Sabbath, it is not my day of rest. I have to take another day off. But the tiredness should not be all of the story, even on Sundays – I should find a place of rest, which is usually having a chat with my wife.

There can be other places of rest as well. No doubt, such places will be different from time to time. Sometimes rest comes from meeting with Christians for fellowship on Sunday evenings (I experienced this form of rest last Sunday and it refreshed me greatly, as such meetings have done on numerous occasions); at other times it comes from reading a biography of a person who experienced the presence of Christ. The list of possible places of rest is a long one, and each person has to find the ones that help him most.

There is at least one other benefit of being tired on Sunday night. At the end, before I go to sleep, I am glad to know that I have tried to serve Christ as best as I could. I realise that he does not need my best in order to achieve his purposes (I am preaching on Jonah at present and his response proves that point), and I also know that my best is marred by sin. Still, my tiredness tells me that I have tried my best, and I am grateful that, through Christ's grace, my hardest efforts are given to his cause.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Returning to the Real World

I am now back in the real world (at least, my real world) after two weeks elsewhere. As indicated in the previous blog, I was in New Orleans where I attended three annual gatherings: the Evangelical Theological Society, the Institute for Biblical Research, and the Society for Biblical Literature.

At ETS, I heard several lectures, although the one I enjoyed most was the annual Society lecture given this year by Bruce Ware who spoke about the role of the Holy Spirit in connection to the humanity of Jesus, with a special focus on how the Spirit helped the Saviour in resisting temptation to sin. What made his lecture appealing to me was not only its focus on Christology; in addition the speaker used terminology that was understandable and his words also contained a warm devotional aspect. I have never understood why I sit through many addresses I cannot follow and then applaud the speaker at the end. But this was a lecture I understood and appreciated, and I am still thinking about what I heard.

At IBR, I listened to a lecture by Tremper Longman III on the role of commentaries on books of the Bible. His lecture was lucid and gave helpful advice on writing such works, and given that he is the editor of two series as well as the author of several commentaries his assessment on that level is very useful. Nevertheless, he did not really deal with an important detail, which is, Why should readers trust the authors of commentaries? Indeed a comment was made (I can't now recall by who) that scholars should be allowed to study the Bible without having to take confessional statements into the reckoning. But it is commitment to confessional statements by biblical scholars that maintains confidence in them by readers. When authors of commentaries contradict doctrinal statements, especially doctrinal statements they have promised to uphold, readers lose confidence in their writings.

During SBL, I heard a lecture by Tom Wright that was sponsored by IVP in connection to his new book on the doctrine of justification that he wrote in response to John Piper's criticism of his view of justification. As on previous occasions when I have heard him, Wright was charming (why do I think of sitting beside a warm fire with a cup of Horlicks each time I listen to him?), scholarly (quoting passages of the Greek New Testament with ease, naming scholars from here and there as they come to mind) and elusive (after hearing him several times, I still don't know what he believes about justification). Of course, I realise I could be confusing elusiveness with my stupidity, which is why I went the next day and bought his book, hoping that it would at last let me know what he believes about this crucial doctrine. I'll let you know if it does.

Yet a week later, I have returned to what I think is the real world. The return was helped by my flight home, but the means of entry back into the real world was not because the plane descended from the sky down to Heathrow airport. Instead, during the flight I read Douglas Sweeney's short assessment of the life and ministry of Jonathan Edwards called Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word. Here was a book written about a scholar whose abilities far transcend any that I have heard in my lifetime, who devoted himself to serving God by ministering to his people and building them up in their faith as well as endeavouring to win those yet outside the kingdom. I will give my thoughts on this book in a subsequent blog. For the present, I am thankful that it brought me down to earth.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Across the ocean

In recent days I have tasted a little bit of American church life. My first weekend was spent in Detroit where I gave three addresses connected to Calvin (his views on the Lord's Supper, the doctrine of adoption, and the call of Abraham). The congregation belongs to the Free Church of Scotland and it values its connection to the spiritual heritage of the Reformation as it flowed to them through the stream of Scottish Presbyterianism. Needless to say, my wife and I felt very much at home in this congregation.

My next weekend was spent in Columbus, Mississippi, where my wife and I stayed at the home of David and Sheena Strain. David, who is now minister of Main Street Presbyterian Church there, was a fellow student with me and we stayed next door to them during our time at the Free Church of Scotland College. We had the privilege and pleasure of listening to David preaching twice on the Lord's Day, first from Romans 2 in the morning and then from Ruth 3 in the evening. His congregation welcomed us warmly and we were grateful to spend the Sabbath with them. I would urge you to listen to or read David's sermons here.

We are now in New Orleans where I am attending the annual Evangelical Theological Society meeting. I have met many friends whom I only see at this gathering and it is encouraging to discover how the Lord is enabling them to serve him in various theological institutions and missions. Yet this gathering is very diverse as can be seen from the various speakers and the wide range of topics published by Christian publishers. What struck me today as I listened to various speakers and noted some titles on display is how far evangelicalism is from the heritage of the Reformation. Of course, many would claim that evangelicalism has always had a very loose connection to Calvinism.

The distance is clearly seen in much contemporary Christian literature: such as in attitudes to the Bible (questions are raised in books regarding its inerrancy), in understanding of the worship of God (where it is assumed that he will accept all that is offered as long as it is wholehearted), in declaring his Word (preaching needs communication techniques, which is not very far from communication tricks) and so on.

Nevertheless I am enjoying my time in America.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Glory in the Glen by Tom Lennie

The reality of spiritual revival is one that interests most Christians, including those in Scotland. One possible common feature of their interest is the assumption that very little spiritual revival has happened in Scotland since 1859 apart from the one on the island of Lewis in 1949. This assumption will disappear once Glory in the Glen by Tom Lennie is read as it describes in detail many revivals that occurred in Scotland between 1880 and 1940. Virtually every area of the country was affected at one time or another during these decades, with some areas, such as the Western Isles, experiencing several revival periods. And this book does not record all that took place during that time.

The obvious question that comes to mind is why such revivals no longer seem to take place. No doubt there have been local movements of the Spirit here and there, but we seem to have entered a long period without them taking place in a significant way. Often the escape route that is used is to put it all down to the sovereignty of God, which of course is true, although at one level such a response may be an attempt not to face the possibility that God, in his sovereignty, is judging his church for its failure to engage in meaningful prayer for spiritual revival.

In any case, reading this well-researched book should stimulate prayer for the God of revivals to once again come in widespread power into our communities. It would be possible to read the book with a red pen and stroke out every revival we don’t like, but such a response would miss an important point, which is that God often uses unlikely people as his servants when he chooses to advance his cause. If reading this book was to help create many praying churches and groups in Scotland, then we could begin to look forward to a revived church all around us before we go very far into the twenty-first century.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Description of a Preacher

Murdo Mackenzie, a former minister of the Free North Church in Inverness and who had refused to go into the United Free Church in 1900, made this tribute about a former colleague, Murdoch Macaskill, who had joined the United Free Church. While Macaskill had his failings and you can read about him here if you wish, the description does point to a level of ministry to which all preachers should aspire. This is what Mackenzie said of Macaskill:

'He felt the power of what he was preaching to others. He early came under the power of the truth, and from his own experience of the saving power of the blessed Saviour he could commend Him to others. He was an earnest preacher. He did not flatter sinners, but he earnestly pleaded with them to betake themselves to the Saviour. It was his delight to set forth the glory of Christ as the Redeemer and the efficacy of His work and blood for the salvation of the vilest and filthiest. He was an impressive preacher. He made a deep impression on the people, often with tears trickling down his cheeks…. He was an accomplished preacher. He was a student all his days, and he brought the result of his extensive reading to bear upon his preaching, so that he was always fresh… He was a scriptural preacher; he was eloquent and mighty in the Scriptures.’

Friday, 2 October 2009

What was Jesus like?

I suppose most Christians find it easier to understand the deity of Jesus than his humanity. Last night I attempted to preach on his humanity, and here are some ideas that came to me about him.

First, his humanity was a real humanity. Although the conception of Jesus was miraculous, his birth was normal. He was a baby boy, dependant on his mother. He went through all the stages of human development, as a child, as an adolescent, as an adult. He learned by asking questions, both as a teenager and as an adult. Jesus grew socially, in favour with his neighbours. He engaged in manual labour, involved in the building of houses. He enjoyed friendship with others. If he stood on a stone, he felt pain. When family members died, he knew bereavement. He participated in family celebrations, such as weddings (John 2:1-11). Throughout his life on earth, he lived as a real man.

Second, the humanity of Jesus was a religious humanity. This was the case outwardly and inwardly. He attended the public meetings in the synagogue and went to Jerusalem for the annual feasts. Inwardly, he kept the law of God with all his heart and developed in a consistent and balanced manner the fruit of the Spirit. In Jesus there was perfect response to very situation: sorrow when needed, joy when appropriate, anger when required. He delighted in prayer and meditating on the Scriptures, and it was through them that he discerned how to live for God. Every moment of every day he lived by faith in God. His sinlessness was not only an expression of grace, it was an achievement of faith (David McIntyre). It was by faith Jesus endured the cross and despised its shame.

Third, the humanity of Jesus was a representative humanity. All that he did, throughout each stage of his life, he did on behalf of others. His entire life was a life of obedience, whether as a child in the home, as an inhabitant in his village, as a travelling teacher instructing his disciples, or as a suffering victim on the cross. In every moment he obeyed God lovingly and thought of his neighbours lovingly. When the rich young ruler walked away, Jesus loved him. On the cross, he showed his love for his neighbours by praying for the soldiers, assuring the penitent thief of heaven, and providing for his mother. That beautiful life becomes ours, imputed to us when we believe in Jesus.

Fourth, the humanity of Jesus is a risen and glorified humanity. There are differences between his appearance before his death and after his resurrection. It is not always clear why his disciples did not recognise him. The two on the way to Emmaus were prevented from recognising him, by God presumably. Mary Magdalene may have been blinded by her tears, although she recognised his voice, which the two from Emmaus did not. He was capable of doing things, such as disappearing from sight or coming into a room with a locked door, which humans usually cannot do. As a man he was able to ascend through the sky, defying the laws of gravity.

But leaving these differences for the moment, let us rejoice that Jesus is alive in the fullness of his humanity, and that he has risen as the firstfruits from the dead, the guarantee that all his people will rise as well. He has entered into heaven as a man, he has been glorified with divine blessings and favour. And in heaven he sympathises with us in all our needs.

Fifth, the humanity of Jesus is a royal humanity. This is connected to his glorification, for he has taken his seat on the throne of God. Today, he is not only risen, for he also reigns. His reign involves control over all things, but it is helpful to divide it into two areas. First, there is his reign of grace, as through the gospel conveyed into the hearts of sinners by the Holy Spirit, he brings people into his kingdom and rules over them in grace. Second, there is his kingly role over the rebellious world, which will climax at the end of time when he will judge that world and assign to every individual who has ever lived their eternal destiny.

Sixth, the humanity of Jesus is a rich humanity. He is the heir of all things – everything is his, in time and space, for eternity. But his riches he shares with his people, and although there are millions of them his possessions do not decrease. The word used in the Bible for his riches is glory, and all the wealth and power of this world is inadequate for giving any conception of the riches of Jesus.

These six aspects of his humanity should cause us to regard Jesus as our hero. He is a real man with nothing sham about him, he is a religious man who loved on earth to serve God and still delights to do so today, he is a representative man who did for me what I could not do for myself, he is a risen man who has gone through death and travelled to heaven in order to guarantee our inheritance, he is a royal man who rules over all things on behalf of his church and defeats all her enemies, he is a rich man permanently full of grace. What a man!

How do I know if I truly admire him? Heroes are those about whom we want to discover more and whose characters and deeds we wish to copy. I know that Jesus is my Hero when I imitate him as my role model. He has left us an example of humble service for us to imitate as we follow in his steps. Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit to conform us to the image of Jesus. That is our destiny, says Paul in verse 29, as far as our future is concerned; it should be our delight as far as our desires are concerned; but it is also our duty, what we owe to him for coming to our aid.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Spiritual Gifts

In answering the question, What is a Spiritual Gift?, perhaps the first thought that comes to mind is whether or not a spiritual gift is the same as a natural talent or ability. The answer I think the Bible gives is that gifts are not the same as natural talents because spiritual gifts are given to those who are ‘in Christ Jesus’, whereas natural talents are given to every person.

To say that gifts are different from natural talents does not mean that our talents are not to be used in serving Christ. It is possible that some spiritual gifts can be complemented by natural abilities. An obvious example is that of a good speaker who becomes a pastor; in such a situation his natural abilities in speaking will aid his spiritual gift of instructing God’s people.

Having said that, it is also the case that God may not want to use our natural talents in the church but instead to use them in a non-church calling. A person may be a skilful sculptor or painter, but the Bible does not indicate that God wants to use such talents in a church meeting.

So while we have to use our natural talents to serve God in our daily living, when it comes to the growth of the church we need to use spiritual gifts. And I suspect that is one of the crucial differences between natural talents and spiritual gifts. Our talents are given primarily to help us live in our society and make a contribution to it; our spiritual gift(s) are given in order for the church to grow.

Another area of overlap is that between gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Every spiritually-healthy Christian will have each aspect of the fruit of the Spirit, in some measure at least. Sadly, it is possible for spiritual gifts to be exercised in the church by believers who have stifled the growth of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. It is possible for the Bible to be taught by a minister who has lost his love. It is possible for the church to be led by those who have no current experience of peace. It is possible for acts of mercy to be done without joy or compassion. The reality is that the fruit of the Spirit, and not spiritual gifts, is the clear sign of the presence of God.

But what is a spiritual gift?
The well-known author, Jerry Bridges, says that a spiritual gift is an ability given by God to a person who is empowered by the Holy Spirit to perform the specific function within the church that God has assigned to each [believer]. While no definition is 100% accurate and contains all that can be said, I think his definition highlights several important aspects of spiritual gifts.

(1) A gift is given by God and is an evidence of his grace towards us as individuals in that he assigns to each of us a particular function in the church. As our sovereign he decides what each of us is to do. His choice of who does what may be surprising. It is not always the most intellectual Christian that he gifts to teach his people. It is not always the successful Christian businessman that he gifts to lead the church. It is not always Christians with the most possessions that he gifts with the outlook of mercy and helping others. In any case, we need to recognise the grace of God in involving each of us in the growth of his church.

(2) Although the gift is given by God, the exercise of it is not automatic. Each person needs to be empowered by the Holy Spirit continually in order to function. This goes as much for the less public gifts as for the gifts that are more easily seen by others. I think this point is worth repeating because it is possible for all the gifts to be done in a way that is not spiritual. So we need to pray that God would empower us to function in the church.

(3) Further, although each believer has been given a gift, he or she has not been given it for their own benefit or self-fulfilment. God was not primarily blessing us as individuals when he gave us our gifts; rather he was blessing the church. If we keep our spiritual gift to ourselves then we fail as believers. The point of exercising our gift is that other Christians will grow in grace as a result. The goal of spiritual gifts is mutual edification (1 Cor. 14:3-5, 12, 26; Eph. 4:12, 16).

But how does each of us know what our gifts are?
I think we should begin by assuming that God has not given us a high-profile gift. This seems to me to be an essential aspect of humility. Of course, if we discover that our gift(s) does require a public role, then we need to exercise it in a humble manner.

Secondly, we have to pray for God to indicate to us what our gift(s) are? I suspect that God will do this by giving us a servant heart in these particular areas of gift. A person gifted to teach does it to help those he is teaching, not to show off his knowledge; he teaches because he wants his hearers to become like Christ. A person gifted to lead cares passionately for those he leads; he longs to remove from their paths any obstacles to them being like Christ and serving him. A person gifted to mercy does it because he is driven by the love of Christ to care for others.

Thirdly, God will also answer this prayer by giving opportunities in his providence. If a person has been a Christian for a while it is very likely that God will open doors for service, and these opportunities in themselves will point to roles in the church.

Fourthly, an important factor in discovering our spiritual gifts is the advice of others, particularly the leaders of the church. Elders should discern what gifts are in the congregation and be ready to advise people concerning their roles. But each of us needs to contribute spiritually in order for the church to mature.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Aspects of the Lord's Supper

Yesterday we celebrated the Lord’s Supper in our congregation. What did it involve? One answer is to focus on externals and say that it required a sermon, a table, and the elements of bread and wine. Each of these are necessary for a biblical enacting of the Lord’s Supper. Yet we should also focus on other essential features, some of which take place before the Supper and some during it. Here are four aspects.

First, the Lord’s Supper is a communion. It is not only a communion between an individual believer and Christ, it is also communion between his people as they meet together. This means that they cannot come to the Lord’s Table with wrong attitudes towards other believers. If they do, they will not receive spiritual blessings. For example, it is important for any believers who are not speaking to one another to sort out the matter before they come to the Lord’s Table.

Second, the Lord’s Supper is a confession. Those who sit at the Table are confessing many things and here are a few of them: (1) they are confessing that they are sinners who have trusted in Jesus for salvation; (2) they are confessing that they are sorry for their sins and desire to forsake them; (3) they are confessing that they have chosen the children of God to be their friends and companions; (4) they are confessing that they are looking forward to heaven.

Third, the Lord’s Supper is a channel of grace; believers go to the Supper in order to receive spiritual benefits. If a believer chooses to stay away from the Table he or she will miss out on spiritual blessings. There is no point in pretending otherwise. Obviously if their absence is caused by legitimate reasons, then the Lord will provide them with other spiritual comforts. Yet it is the case that Jesus expects and commands all his followers to make attendance at the Lord’s Supper a priority. This applies both to those believers who have not yet made public their trust in Christ as well as to those believers who have professed for a period of time.

Fourth, the Lord’s Supper is a sign of commitment. By coming to it, a person is stating that he is determined to continue following Jesus. Such an individual is also saying that he is committed to the spiritual life of a local congregation and will show that commitment by attending its other services. He is also saying that he is committed to living for Jesus day by day in the community, in the workplace, in the family, in fact everywhere.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Induction to Greyfriars

Last Friday (4th September), I became the pastor of Greyfriars Stratherrick Free Church of Scotland (Greyfriars is in Inverness and Stratherrick is to the south of Inverness). I have added a couple of pictures from the reception that followed the service.

A good sermon was preached by Farquhar Renwick and appropriate advice was given to the congregation and to me by Sandy Sutherland. The most serious part of the service was when I took the vows connected to ministerial service. I listened carefully to each as it was read out and answered each with a whole-hearted agreement. None were superfluous: indeed an unconverted relative, who does not attend a church and has never had a church connection, commented that the impression he received from the vows, as he listened to them, was that we regarded our loyalty to Christ as very important. They were the part of the service that spoke most to him.

The reception was held afterwards in an hotel. Speeches were made by Angus M. Macleod (an elder in Scalpay), Rev. John Maclean (Staffin) and William Mackenzie (Christian Focus).

On the Sunday morning, I was 'preached in' by Rev. Calum Iain Macleod (Barvas) and his sermon was based on John 3:16. I preached my first sermon as the congregation's pastor on Sunday evening from Revelation 19:9.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Last Sunday in Scalpay

Yesterday I preached my final sermons in the Free Church in Scalpay. In the morning service I completed a series on 1 John and in the evening I preached from Joshua's sermon (Joshua 24) about life after he was gone.

I have been their pastor here for almost five and a half years, and I learned far more about the Christian life from watching them than they would have learned from listening to me. I have had the pleasure of knowing individuals who prayed daily for the entire community, going from house to house (in their minds) as they interceded for it. I also had the privilege of watching believers make the transition from earth to heaven, full of faith in Jesus Christ as they did so. I learned from others that we can go through distressing trials leaning upon God. In fact, I could make a long list of helpful experiences I encountered here.

Others had such a hunger for the Word of God that their interest compelled me to study very carefully before I preached my sermons. I also sensed the urgency in their prayers for me that my sermons would be blessed to God's people and to the unconverted. So while I cannot say what the benefits were that Scalpay received through me, I am very thankful to God for the spiritual benefits I received through them.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Psalm 19 – Two Divine Revelations

This psalm concerns divine revelation. The author considers two ways by which God makes himself known: in the creation and in the Scriptures. In verses 1-6, the psalmist describes how God is revealed in the created order (this is called general revelation because it is displayed to every person); in verses 7-11, he considers how God is revealed in the Scriptures (this is called special revelation because it is only revealed to some); then in verses 12-14, the psalmist prays that he would benefit from God revealing himself to him.

General revelation is comprehensive (it includes the heavens as well as the earth), consistent (it occurs every day and every night) and clear (everybody can understand it even although they speak different languages and cannot understand one another). The creation continually says that God is pre-existent (he existed before he made the universe), wise (he designed the universe) and powerful (he maintained it in existence). It also tells us that God is good (he provides what his creatures need).

Nevertheless, creation also says that something is wrong because not everything that takes place is good. There are earthquakes, famines and other disasters, and all of creation is marked by death. General revelation is silent as to the cause of these problems and does not hint whether or not the Creator intends to solve them. In order to know these details, we need special revelation.

The various nouns that the psalmist uses for this special revelation – law, statutes, commands – indicate that it contains precepts to be obeyed, which informs us that God is a sovereign King. One of the terms used for special revelation is the ‘fear of the Lord’ (v. 9), which stresses that it is to be approached with reverence, with the same respect that we would give to the King himself.

Each noun is also accompanied by an adjective such as clean, righteous, and perfect, and they state its moral quality. After all, it is possible for a ruler to have unrighteous or irrelevant laws, but not God. There is not one unrighteous law or one unnecessary command in the Bible.

Each of the six descriptions of special revelation has a statement summarising its effect: it revives, gives wisdom, gives joy, gives illumination, is eternal and righteous. Because of these features, the Bible is both beyond price in value and sweet to a believer’s soul. A Christian learns more about God and receives more from God in the Bible than he could learn about him or receive from him in the creation. Climbing a hill to see the view is good for your health, but the resultant vista does not teach us more about God than is revealed in the Bible. For example, the greatest display of divine power is not the upholding of the universe in existence; rather the greatest display of divine power is the resurrection of Christ.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Finding rubbish at removal time

At the moment we are in the middle of packing boxes because we are moving to another address. My study has been turned into a storeroom, as have several other rooms in our house.

One detail we have noticed is the amount of pointless stuff we have collected over the years. In isolation, none of the stuff is very big, but together it amounts to many bags of rubbish. Yet when we first decided to keep these items we imagined that they would be of some use (that goes for some of the books I have purchased and am holding on to with great determination).

Of course, this imminent change of address is not the ultimate removal ahead of me. One day I will be taken away from this world. In a spiritual sense I am wondering how much pointless stuff I will have accumulated by then in my life and in my ministry (if I can separate them). Perhaps even some current activities which I think are very important today will then be tossed into the equivalent of a rubbish bin.

Anyway, back to packing boxes, or perhaps to find more pointless things!

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Christopher Ash, The Priority of Preaching, PT Media/Christian Focus, 2009.

Christopher Ash is Director of the Cornhill Training Course in London, a course designed to train preachers and Bible teachers. In this book he considers the role of preaching today. Aware that some regard preaching as outdated, he begins by considering the alternatives to preaching that can be found in evangelical churches (for example, Bible studies, discussion groups). What these alternatives usually lack is authority, whereas biblical preaching comes with authority, based on God’s Word, to a gathered congregation listening to what God has to say to them through a Spirit-filled preacher.

The effects of such preaching are explained in two subsequent chapters. First, such preaching transforms the church. It brings to listeners an awareness of the reality of God, an understanding of their sins (which implies that the preacher knows his listeners), it aims for a response of faith (to obtain this response, the preacher must preach with clarity, urgency and passion), and is accompanied by confidence in the sovereign grace of God.

Second, such preaching mends a broken world. For a number of reasons, society has been and is fractured. In the church God is in the process of regathering people, a goal that will be achieved in heaven. Meanwhile he deals with many of their problems through regular listening to biblical preaching as he reshapes their lives in a community, which in turn enables a congregation to witness to the communities around it.

The book also contains an appendix detailing several blessings of consecutive expository preaching. They have been stated many times, so I will not list them. He also has perceptive comments on three demons (his word) that hinder or frighten many preachers: they are relevance, entertainment and immediacy, but you will have to buy the book to find out what he says.

This book is not long, but why read a long book if a shorter one can tell you what you need to know? Sometimes those who preach need encouragement as they persist in declaring God’s Word to small gatherings of people. This book reminds such of the task to which God has called them. Indeed the author reminds them that their regular preaching in ordinary local churches has great significance for the development of God’s kingdom. If you need a boost as you serve the Master as a preacher, this book will give you one.

Christ’s Victory Over Evil (Edited by Peter G. Bolt), Apollos, 2009.

This volume of collected essays, sub-titled Biblical Theology and Pastoral Ministry, is based on the 2008 Moore College School of Theology. As its title indicates, the book is concerned with aspects and consequences of Jesus’ victory over the powers of darkness that was evidenced in his resurrection. We know that evil exists in many forms in today’s world and it is unavoidable that pastoral interactions will reveal contact with a variety of expressions of evil. Further in several branches of the worldwide church there is an absorption with demonic activity and how to overcome their opposition to the gospel and the church, and the spread of such teachings has caused confusion and disappointment in many churches.

It is not possible in a book based on conference addresses to consider every aspect of evil. Nevertheless, in the areas covered by the various contributors we are given helpful insights into how the church should approach evil. Tony Payne appraises various roots and developments of contemporary deliverance ministries that dominate much of contemporary charismatic practice; Bolt surveys the biblical teaching on the evil powers; two contributors (Salier and Jensen) consider the contribution of the apostle John in his Gospel and in 1 John respectively; Mark Thompson addresses the benefits of the doctrine of justification in silencing the accusations of the evil powers against God’s people; Constantine R. Campbell explores the link between union with Christ and victory over the evil powers that Paul describes in Ephesians and Colossians; Anderson and Lilley focus on evil powers confronted in cross-cultural mission, particularly among the Aboriginal people of Australia; Donald West deals with prayer and the powers of evil; finally, West and Bolt look at several aspects of the power of evil that will be faced in pastoral encounters and give advice on how to deal with them.

Each of the above chapters deserves careful study, especially by pastors and other church leaders. One thing that can be guaranteed is that such will have to respond to evil influences and attacks on their congregations as well as themselves, and the more information and advice they have the more ready they will be when the problems arise. Of course, some elders may not understand the occasional technical terms in the book, so they can get a copy for their pastor and ask him to explain such language for them.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

The Abiding Presence by Hugh Martin

Christian Focus Publications have republished The Abiding Presence by Hugh Martin (1822-85), one of my favourite Scottish theologians. The book was originally published in the nineteenth century under the title Christ's Presence in the Gospel History (of which I have a copy, signed by the author) and republished in the twentieth century by the Free Church of Scotland, with the title changed to The Abiding Presence (of which I also have a copy, but not signed by the author). The new edition has a biographical introduction by Sinclair Ferguson.

Martin's book is concerned with how Christians should read the Gospels (they are more than mere historical records providing information). In order to read them correctly we need the presence of the Spirit to make the Gospel narratives personal and precious to us as we meditate on them. We need the Spirit's help in order that the stories about Jesus becomes means of communion with Jesus. Martin takes several instances from the Gospels -- the baptism of Jesus, the temptation of Jesus, his sermon in a synagogue in Nazareth, his work on the cross -- and helps us regarding how we should read these accounts for our spiritual benefit. Such experiences by us reveal to us the divine origin of the Bible and also enable us to have what Martin calls 'real religion'.

In 1865, John (Rabbi) Duncan of the Free Church College, Edinburgh, wrote regarding this book:

‘I am charmed with your work Christ’s Presence in the Gospel History. I have perused it with intense delight, and I trust not without profit, which I hope will be increased by a new and oft-repeated perusal. In a treatise so suggestive, there are of course some thoughts which would require to be more thoroughly pondered before they be either received or rejected.

‘I think its republication peculiarly appropriate at the present time, as leading the reader at once to the centre of questions which at present engage the eager, and in some cases the anxious thoughts of many minds. The attention is immediately directed to, and steadily fastened on, Emmanuel -- the only-begotten Son of the Father who hath declared him -- teaching “by his Word and Spirit the will of God for our salvation”. From this centre, light and life are seen and felt to radiate in every direction. The Word given by inspiration of the Spirit harmonizing with the life communicated by the Spirit in conversion, sanctification, and consolation, which he, the Spirit, applying the Word, communicates, maintains, and perfects; the continued presence of Christ himself with his Church by the Word and Spirit; the indwelling of Christ in believers and their indwelling in him, by his Word and Spirit, and their consequent conformation and conformity to him; the baseless rationalism or fanaticism of all claims to spirituality not accordant with and founded on the testimony of the Spirit of Christ (of Christ by his Spirit) authoritatively speaking in holy scripture; the utter incredibility to any one who knows by experience what it is “to believe on the name of the only-begotten Son of God, and believing to have life by his name”, that this blissful communion could be enjoyed through a medium less sure and perfect than the Word, all given by inspiration of God; these and similar trains of thought are beautifully brought out, and presented in a way fitted to promote soundness in the faith, i.e. both the doctrine which is according to godliness, and the godliness which is according to doctrine.’

Unanswered prayer!

A fortnight ago saw the beginning of a Sunday ferry service from the Scottish mainland to Stornoway (about forty miles from where I live in the Outer Hebrides). The press saw it as the possible beginning of the end of the so-called Lewis Sabbath (we will have to wait and see if that will be the case).

Prior to the beginning of the Sunday service, there were various meetings connected to it, including public prayer meetings that God would prevent the ferry sailing on Sundays. It is evident that God chose not to give a positive answer to these prayers, and it must be appropriate for Christians to consider possible reasons for this outcome.

It is often suggested that if Christians come together in unity, then God will answer their prayers. This issue did bring Christians of several denominations together (if not physically, at least in spirit) to pray that the ferry would not sail on Sunday. Yet their unity did not bring about the desired result.

Of course, others will say, correctly, that we should pray in submission to the Lord's will, and many will have concluded that, for reasons connected to his own purposes, he chose to allow the ferry to sail. Others will say that his allowing of the Sunday ferry is an indication of divine judgement on a community that is despising their spiritual heritage, and that may be true, although it is also the case that judgement often begins with the church.

Whatever may be the reasons for the current situation, my concern is with the reality that earnest prayer was not answered according to the desire of the petitioners. Further we know that it is not the only earnest prayer that has not been answered. Christians in Scotland have prayed for years for God to send revival, have prayed for churches to grow, have prayed for converts. Sometimes such prayers are answered, and we are grateful for these occasions, yet in the main we see little spiritual progress as far as our communities and country is concerned.

Denominations have weekly public prayer meetings, and some of their members also have private prayer meetings etc. The problem is not, as far as I can see, in a lack of prayer meetings. Yet I do notice two differences between what happens now and what happened thirty-five years ago (when I became a Christian). One is that then the prayer meeting was a priority for all Christians and the other is that many intercessors I heard prayed with tears of concern for those for whom they prayed.

Obviously we are in a serious situation as churches when prayer, a reality to which many divine promises are connected, does not get answered. God has not lost any of his power or any delight in keeping his promises. So why are our prayers not being answered? If anyone has any advice on the matter I would be grateful for it.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Derek Tidball, Signposts (A Devotional Map of the Psalms), IVP, 2009

The Psalms have been a major part of the basis of the devotional life of Christians for centuries, particularly in my own historical background. Yet it is often the case that, apart from a few psalms such as 23, 100, and 121, their meaning is not on the surface and we need help in understanding them.

Derek Tidball, the former Principal of London School of Theology and author of many helpful books, has provided a very useful manual for enabling Christians to work through the Book of Psalms and enrich their devotional lives. His comments on each psalm usually contain an Orientation (introduction), a Map (outline of the psalm) and a Signpost (suggestions for the reader concerning how to respond). Occasionally he includes a Links section in some psalms. After every fifth psalm, the author also provides a short reflection on a variety of topics, including several on Jesus and the psalms and on God and the psalms.

The author testifies that the book grew out of a difficult period in his life when his regular use of them helped him greatly. This book can be used as a daily Bible reading plan for a few months, and we would be spiritually enriched as well if we did so.

Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, Banner of Truth.

Martin Bucer (1491-1551) led the Reformation in Strasbourg for over twenty-five years, and during his time there produced this manual on pastoral theology in which he aimed to help God’s children during a difficult historical period. Although it was published in 1538, this Banner hardback edition of 240 pages is the first time it has appeared in English, having been translated by Peter Beale, a retired pastor living in England. The late Professor David Wright provided an historical introduction.

The first half of the book considers the nature of the church, the rule of Christ over it, and the requirements expected of those who serve him as pastors, elders and deacons. Bucer’s method is to take several important Bible passages connected to each of the above topics and explain these texts.

He follows the same method in the remainder of the book in which he explains how such shepherds are to care for Christ’s sheep. Christ’s sheep are usually in one of five categories: lost (unconverted), straying (backsliding), inwardly injured, weak in faith or healthy. Because there is such a variety of cases, it is inevitable that pastoral ministry in a congregation will be extensive. Bucer gives an extensive chapter to each of these conditions, and in each provides biblical instruction regarding how such cases should be dealt with.

These five categories will be found in each of our congregations and this translation of Bucer’s manual will be of great help to any church leaders who will consult it. It is evident that pastoral care is very demanding, and sometimes the size of the task can be so daunting that shepherds are drained even before they begin attempting to help the sheep of Christ. Bucer’s book gives straightforward, biblical counsel to those engaged in this essential aspect of healthy church life.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

The Unquenchable Flame

I enjoyed reading this book, subtitled Introducing the Reformation. The author Michael Reeves is the theological adviser of UCCF. He gives a chapter to each of the following: the background, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Reformation in Britain (despite it not really existing at the time), the Puritans, and a final chapter dealing with the question of whether or not the Reformation is over. The text is easy to read, contains humour, and also includes additional information in shaded boxes, some of which are over two pages in length. It is certainly a useful tool to give to a person who wants an idea of what the Reformation was all about.

The personal profiles of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin are well done. I was delighted to know that Luther put on weight after he had embraced Reformation doctrines (in this regard I confess to being a Lutheran). The author deals well with their courageous determination to reform the church and also explains the contexts of issues about which they are often criticised (Luther for his attitude to the Jews, Zwingli for getting involved in military battle, and Calvin for his involvement in the death of Servetus).

I do have a couple of criticisms. Scotland, in which the Reformation was more effective than England, only gets four pages. The chapter on the Puritans skims over a period in which many important events for the church took place (and while Richard Sibbes may have been an important Puritan, I was surprised that he was given a large section and some better known ones such as John Owen don't get much attention).

The closing chapter, dealing with whether or not the Reformation is over, discusses the relevance to the present day of the doctrine of justification, the most important of the many issues on which the Reformers majored. We are reminded that the Protestant doctrine of justification is still rejected by the Roman Catholic Church and is also under attack by several prominent Protestant theologians.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Connected Christianity

My friend Art Azurdia has a new title published by Christian Focus Publications called Connected Christianity.

To show that we are friends here is a picture from last year's (2008) Aberystwyth Conference. Ignore the date on the photograph because it's wrong, proof that the camera lies.

Art has also written one of the best books on preaching, also published by CFP, called Spirit Empowered Preaching.

Several of Art's sermons are available here and he is also involved in publishing an online journal for The Spurgeon Fellowship.

Four things life has taught me

1. I will not reach the age of seventy any quicker by rushing about for no reason.

2. Looking back, I can see now that the most important spiritual things I did were the activities I did not think at the time were worth telling others about.

3. Regarding preaching, I have discovered that the advice of Griffith Thomas is true: ‘Think yourself empty, read yourself full, write yourself clear, pray yourself keen, then into the pulpit and let yourself go.'

4. It was said of Henry Smith, a Puritan preacher, that he had the ability to reprove without insulting, to admonish without forcing, and to correct without debasing. I have discovered this description should be the goal of all preachers.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Geneva for Calvin 500

I have just returned from two weeks holiday: one week was spent in Geneva attending the Calvin 500 event and the other week was spent in the south of England (Calvin went with me there as well because during it I read Selderhuis' recent biography of the Reformer).

The Calvin event has been detailed elsewhere, so I will not say too much about it except to say that I preferred the sermons to the lectures. It may also be bias on my part but among the preachers I preferred those with a Celtic background. This does not mean that the others were not very good -- in fact, I enjoyed all the sermons I heard and most of the lectures.

It did me good to meet persons from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Uganda, Europe and elsewhere gathering together to give thanks to God for using John Calvin to give them an understanding of the Bible that has gripped their thinking since they first understood what he was saying.

It was also very pleasant to be with Christians who did not accept the common caricature of Calvin as having a fatalistic view of predestination in which God is depicted as unfair. Of course, anyone prepared to accept without qualifications the contents of the Bible soon discovers that its writers say that God has an eternal plan, conceived before the universe was created, which includes his choice of an innumerable number of sinners as his people. It is not surprising that Calvin discovered the Bible teaches predestination. What is surprising is that some can say they have read it and not seen any reference to God's sovereign plan.

While an obvious emphasis was placed by various speakers on topics such as Calvin's teaching on the authority of the Bible, on the Lord's Supper, and on sanctification, I was challenged especially by three aspects of his thought that several speakers mentioned.

First, along with other Reformers and pastors, Calvin's preaching of and writing about the doctrine of justification by faith alone through Christ alone brought spiritual liberty to imprisoned souls. It struck me that a sermon which does not mention this wonderful doctrine may leave some hearers in a cell of spiritual imprisonment, no matter how many listeners are helped by other doctrines referred to in a sermon.

Second, Calvin realised that God was involved in every circumstance of life. For him, divine providence was very real and he observed that God was never inactive but always working for the benefit of his people. I should always remember this reality.

Third, Calvin anticipated the wonderful future that belongs to God's people, that whatever the difficult circumstances of life, those who trust in Christ should look ahead to the inheritance their Father has planned for them.

It seemed to me that forgiveness took care of Calvin's past, providence took care of Calvin's present, and glory occupied Calvin's thoughts of the future. Why should anyone be ashamed of being a Calvinist?

Friday, 19 June 2009

Encouragement from a General Assembly

I am currently in Boston on my way home from Orlando where I attended the PCA General Assembly. This is the third ecclesiastical gathering I have attended this year (the others were a meeting in South Korea and the General Assembly of the Free Church in Edinburgh). The PCA Assembly was the biggest by a long way.

Although each of these gatherings is connected to the government of Christ's church, there is not an obvious link between the decisions of each denomination. Yet behind the activities and decisions of each is the Head of the church, Jesus Christ. I'm not saying that he always approves of the decisions of church courts, merely that he guides his church as it makes progress in different parts of the world.
Leaving aside the official tasks I performed at the PCA Assembly, what events made an impression on me? Three different experiences have done so.

First, one of the striking messages from the PCA Assembly came from the report of Brazilian delegates from a Presbyterian denomination there. The growth of the church there is evidence of the activities of King Jesus enlarging his kingdom. If you want to know more about this growth, I'm sure a search of the internet will give plenty information. I later met both men on several occasions and they always had big smiles on their faces (the joy of the Lord).

The second was connected to the part of the Assembly where I spent most of my time -- the Exhibition Hall. There were many booths represented, and each of them was connected to the development of Christ's kingdom in one way or another. Among them were Bible seminaries and colleges looking for theological students (or as I prefer to call them, future servants of Christ), missionary agencies looking for workers, representatives of groups concerned for the persecuted church, and Christian publishers offering their titles. Each of them is being used by Jesus to build his church. Perhaps Exhibition Hall is the wrong title for what was going on. Rather it was an expression of the many ways Jesus is served in today's world. (Why was I in the exhibition hall? Presenting our Sing Psalms material, and explaining to many visitors to the booth how they could use the psalms as a (the best) means of expressing praise to God.)

The third was meeting American friends and acquaintances who continue to assure me that they are praying for my ministry regularly, for the Free Church in its work for Christ, and for Scotland that it would soon experience great spiritual blessings. Working together for Christ is taking place, and being reminded of it again was a great encouragement to me.

Going to General Assemblies can be good for the soul.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Preaching is God reaching out to us

In Isaiah 53:1 the prophet uses an interesting image when he connects divine revelation to the arm of the Lord. Three interpretations are given of this illustration. One suggestion is that it is a divine title, whether of God or of the Messiah, depicting him acting in power on behalf of his cause. The second suggestion is that the illustration depicts God’s divine attribute of omnipotence which he uses on behalf of his people. Obviously both suggestions are similar.
I prefer a third suggestion, which I read in John Brown of Edinburgh’s work on Isaiah 53 – he said that the illustration ‘arm’ of the Lord is the same as the prophet’s report mentioned in the first half of the verse; in other words, in the act of delivering the message the human side is the words of the prophet and the divine side is the arm of the Lord active as the sermon is delivered.
What truths does this picture indicate we should want the Lord to do during a sermon?
Firstly, an arm is used to indicate an action of reaching out towards another person. So in a sermon we want God to reach out to us; indeed a true definition of a sermon is God reaching out to the listeners.
Secondly, we should desire the Lord to reach out in power during a sermon. A weak person is very grateful when a strong person stretches out his hand to help, who shares his strength with another. Whenever we listen to a sermon we are weak for a variety of reasons – our sinfulness, our current temptations, our difficult providences. We come to listen to God and receive his power.
Sometimes we wonder in what ways God can display his power. Amazing miracles come to mind. Yet I would suggest that the most awesome display of God’s power is a sermon, not because of the eloquence or brilliance of the preachers, but because of what God is doing in a sermon. Often a sermon is an occasion of salvation, but we must not forget that also it can be a place of divine hardening (2 Cor. 2:14-17). In a sermon, people are being prepared for heaven or hardened against the gospel.
Thirdly, we should desire the Lord to reach out in tenderness and love. Coming to a sermon, we remind ourselves that we deserve his judgement. If he were to use his power in that way, we would have no hope. But we realise that he can use his power tenderly in order to express his love. We long for God to caress our souls in a sermon and this he often does as he warms our hearts with the sweet story of the Saviour’s love or by reminding us of the many gracious promises of the Bible or by assuring us of the glories connected to his eternal purpose.
Fourthly, we should desire the Lord to reach out, pointing out to us where we should go. In other words, a sermon is often the occasion when the Lord stretches out his arm in guidance. We come to the sermon in a confused state, puzzled by what is happening, whether in the world, in our country, in our denomination, in our community, in our congregation, in our lives. We need the Lord to give his assessment of where we are. It is good to get the wisdom of friends, or even to recall the insights we may have received from God in the past. But when we come into the presence of the Lord we get a fresh word from himself in a sermon.
Therefore, during a sermon we should encounter the arm of the Lord reaching out to us in power and tender love, giving us guidance concerning our lives. The sermon is always his Word for the present situation in our lives.

Preaching that is painful

I spoke recently on Isaiah 53:1 ('Who has believed our report? and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?'). The verse gives interesting insights into Isaiah's understanding of his calling as a prophet and therefore provides help for preachers who preach God's Word today.

Sometimes we imagine that preachers with a special calling will have significant success. Isaiah had a very impressive calling by God to function as a prophet and its details are recorded in Isaiah 6. Yet God informed Isaiah that he would not see wide acceptance of his ministry (Isa. 6:9-13); instead only a few would listen to what he had to say, and the remainder would become increasingly blind in a spiritual sense. Isaiah had been called to serve God during a time when the Lord was about to bring judgement on Judah because of their sins, a judgement that was fulfilled in the Babylonian captivity.
This verse indicates that Isaiah had three comforts in addition to knowing that he was obeying the will of God. First, he proclaimed a great message about the future Deliverer who would come as the Substitute of his people and suffer divine judgement in their place before restoring the prosperity of Zion. Both the suffering and the prosperity are described in this Servant Song found in Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

Second, Isaiah was aware, along with other prophets, that he was in fact serving a future generation of believers who would appreciate his message; Peter states specifically that God revealed this aspect to the prophets (1 Pet. 1:10-12), surely an encouragement that their work would not be in vain.

Third, Isaiah appreciated the company of his colleagues in his calling (note the plural pronoun ‘our’); in the schools of the prophets there were those who shared his outlook. To that company can be added all other proclaimers of the good news; indeed Paul cites this verse in Romans 10:16 when he explains various features of true preaching.

Although Isaiah had received a divine commission that stressed God’s judgement, the prophet was not a stoic, unaffected by the rejection of his message by his listeners. He felt in his heart the disappointment of such few converts, he longed for his listeners to receive God’s mercy, and he regretted how little success he saw. Of course, he was faithful and he will receive God’s commendation for serving in this way. Yet we can ask an important question: ‘Who is there who can understand the prophet’s pain?’ One obvious answer is that his fellow prophets would. Yet we can move beyond them to later times.

This combination of awareness of divine judgement and powerful concern for those facing it is also seen in the heart concern displayed by the apostle Paul for his own people, the Jews: ‘I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit – that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh’ (Rom. 9:1-3). It would have been easy for Paul to have responded by saying his opponents deserved to receive divine judgement or that their fate was all part of God’s plan. Both answers are true, but neither of them is appropriate. It is not a godly attitude to be indifferent concerning the state of the lost.

Even more wonderful is the fact that Jesus, the one who commissioned Isaiah in Isaiah 6, would also experience this strange spiritual dilemma. Recall his response concerning Jerusalem, a city which he knew would yet receive divine judgement: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”’ (Luke 13:34-35). The facts that they had rejected God’s servants and experience divine judgement did not prevent the Saviour from desiring that his contemporaries would receive spiritual blessing.

Like Isaiah, we who preach can have similar spiritual comforts and experiences.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

In Pastor Kim's study

What did we do in Korea? We often posed for pictures. If I tell you that I don't have a beard, you will work out who I am.

More on Korea

Since I visited Korea a few weeks ago, I have paid more attention to references to the Korean church. I was reading the other day about Paget Wilkes, a missionary to Japan, who visited Korea in 1910. His description of the Korean Church was very interesting to me, a Scottish Presbyterian. After saying that the Protestant church had gone from zero to 200,000 in twenty-four years, he gave five details of the Korean Church that impressed him. This is what he wrote:
  1. The love for, and earnest perusal of the Scriptures everywhere, and among all classes -- men, women, children. The Bible is undoubtedly the book of Korea.
  2. Their wonderful observance of the Lord's Day. All Christians close their shops, and abstain from every kind of work--like Scotland in the old days.
  3. The remarkable way in which the Koreans give to God's work. Almost all the churches are built with Korean money, and the pastors and workers are similarly supported. This is especially true of the Presbyterian church.
  4. The personal service and desire to spread the Gospel among the people. Many of the leaders, who in the early days were taken up with Evangelistic work, are now called upon to teach, and instruct, and train workers.
  5. The expectation and hope (especially in the Presbyterian Church) of the coming of the Lord. The majority of the missionaries also in the country teach it plainly to the people.

Wilkes also pointed out the harmony and love that existed in the church in Korea even although there was a variety of doctrinal views and national backgrounds. In addition, at that time, the destructive and devastating effects of higher criticism had not yet appeared in the church in Korea.

My first response to Wilkes' description was a sense of amazement. But a couple of seconds later I realised that his description was of normal, biblical church life. I'm still amazed and still looking for biblical normality.