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?