Friday, 9 December 2011

Remembering the Lord

Our evening service is a communion in which we gather to remember the Lord’s death until he returns. Why do we call it ‘communion’? The answer to that question is twofold: (1) we call it ‘communion’ because those remembering the Saviour share the same spiritual blessings that are depicted in the bread and wine; (2) we call it ‘communion’ because we are interacting with God at the same time.

One of the distinctives of the Scottish Presbyterian church is that it has insisted on describing the place where we meet to have the Lord’s Supper as a table. A table is where we share food and drink with one another; in a higher sense, the Lord’s Supper is God’s table on which he lays out many spiritual benefits for our souls. We can list them as various ingredients in the meal that he has provided: among them are his love, forgiveness, promises of heaven, and many others. A good way of preparing for participation is to list in our minds the various ingredients found in the Lord’s provision. Then at his table, we all eat of his provision.

At the same time, we have to interact with God, whether we speak to the Father or to Jesus or to the Spirit. Each of the divine persons can respond to us by bringing words from the Bible to our minds, sometimes with great power. We should ask each of them beforehand to come and meet with us at the table, and ask them again at the table to speak to us. It is a great blessing when the heavenly Provider stresses the ingredients in his meal, and stresses them in such a way that greatly comforts his people.

Perhaps some will say, ‘It does not matter if I go to the Lord’s Table. After all, I am converted and I can rest there.’ Such a response is like a man looking in the window of a restaurant and observing a family having a happy meal together. He is not part of it, is not sharing their fellowship, and does not know what is going on. What would make it even sadder is to discover that the man looking in is actually a member of the family but he has refused the invitation to come and share in the meal!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

How to pray

Here Moody Stuart speaks about importunity in prayer. It is based on the parable of the friend at midnight asking for three loaves (Luke 11:8).

‘Jesus Christ is the Bread of Life; this spiritual bread is the most abundant of all things (John 10:10), the freest of all things (Isa. 55:1), but the rarest of all things in actual possession, and the reason is, “We have not, because we ask not” (Jas. 4:2). Jesus tells us to ask, but he teaches us also how we should ask, and loves to place the petitioner in the most unfavourable circumstances, that others may be assured likewise that they shall obtain if they ask.

‘The first thing in prayer is a sense of need: a need which is entire and ascertained. The suppliant must first know that he has nothing, but is poor and needy. He must be sure of this, and make it a settled point, and not merely suspect it. There is a great difference between suspected and ascertained want. Many say they have little if anything good, but they don’t want to be sure of it and so never cry for the bread of life. The suppliant’s need must be urgent, requiring immediate assistance whether for himself or for others. Christ puts a case in which the man requiring bread could not wait till tomorrow. The need must be felt to be irremediable otherwise. Neither shop nor market was open at midnight, and the man had nothing to set before his guests, and he was shut up to go to his friend as his only resource.

‘Next, the suppliant must have confidence in Christ as being willing to grant his request. This is supposed to be a very common belief, but if this belief were to come athwart you it would be a new thing to you. It has run current among you that Jesus Christ has bread to give, but is it a reality to you? Sometimes men are ready to say, “Christ can give, but he has no will.” Oh, what blasphemy! How amazing that God hath endured his people when they have brought up such an evil report against him! Oh, dear brethren, it is this that hinders prayer, and success in prayer, when we say, “He has no mind to give us what we ask.”

‘Next, perseverance in asking is needful. The first knock has obtained nothing; it seems to have produced no result, but the man continues knocking. Many knocks have produced no effect, but these knocks have troubled the possessor of the bread, and have brought out the secret, not that he has no bread, or objects to bestow it, but that he is not willing to be troubled at present. The petitioner is unwilling to trouble his friend, but he is still more unwilling to go home and tell his guest that he must starve; so he determines that he must knock, for he cannot do without it, and for his importunity he gets it. Even so with our Father in heaven. We begin to be ashamed of asking the same thing over and over again; but then there is the great want; and the feeling, “I cannot go without it,” leads to perseverance, and this obtains it in the end. The difficulty becomes the greater, the longer we continue knocking; for if we are not to go without it, we must make louder and more continual knocking. I must either go away, and give it up, or seek with such vehemence as must obtain it, as if a greater effort than ever were needed and must be made. And it must be so with us, seeing how dreadful it is to perish. I cannot perish! or in interceding for others, “How can I bear to see the destruction of my people? Therefore let me seek until I find.”

‘Jesus says, “Every one that asketh receiveth.” Never was there a case to the contrary. Thousands of cases there have been when men have knocked and got nothing and gone away; but there never was a case of a man who sought to the end and did not get. Then, the bread is supplied, and in great abundance. He gives “as many as he needeth”. This importunate petitioner never lessens his request because of the denial, and it is great wisdom in spiritual things not to lessen our requests because of the delay. We should not diminish the request, but increase the importunity. There will be no counting of the loaves. There is bread enough in our Father’s house and to spare; and, oh, there is want enough! Though God tarry, have large desires and expectations, but these come to nothing unless there be large faith and large requests. Let us, dear friends, ask much of our God, and keep asking much, because when he arises he will give an abundance.’

Moody Stuart and pulpit prayer

In a conference address to fellow-ministers, Moody Stuart reflected on ‘the duty of prayerfulness on the part of ministers, and its relation to the effective conducting of public prayer in the sanctuary.’ This is what he said:

‘The impressibleness of our people on the Sabbath depends much on prayer through the week; and their praying for us and for themselves depends much on our praying for them.

‘And then on the Sabbath how much hangs, not merely on the words that are spoken, but on the spirit in which we preach and pray. Especially in extemporary prayer, we are in constant danger of sinking into a formality perhaps more lifeless than if we were using a form; a formality which we must all have detected in ourselves, by falling into the groove of the same words for want of fresh life within. Or if in such a state we make an effort at the moment toward real prayer, the prayer is constrained and laboured, instead of the spontaneous utterance of our thoughts.

‘When the mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart, out of spiritual desire, spiritual sorrow, or spiritual joy, what conciseness, what tenderness, what power is in the supplication, taking the people along with us in all our petitions, or else making them to feel their own lack of the spirit of grace.

‘This one ordinance in our Church of public prayer without a form of words, shuts us all up to a very peculiar necessity of becoming and continuing to be men of prayer; shuts us up under the pressure of a severe penalty, resting on ourselves and on our people week by week, as the sure consequence of our failure.’

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Moody Stuart and the range of his prayers

Moody Stuart prayed about virtually everything that came his way. Here are three examples, taken from his biography.

‘On one occasion at Rait, he writes in his diary (1895): “There has been a long continuance of drought which has been becoming serious, withering the pastures and injuring the crops. This forenoon the heat was greater than ever, under a cloudless sky. I had a sense of guilt in not having prayed more earnestly for rain, and now it seemed further off than ever. This set me to seek “the effectual fervent prayer that availeth much,” and I pleaded with much earnestness, remembering that even for temporal blessings there is only good in intense supplication if it is with childlike submission to the will of God, and if we resign not only the object prayed for but likewise the prayer itself to the will of our heavenly Father. I quite hoped that in due time, it might be after a day or two, and more prayer, there might be an answer, but to my surprise and thanksgiving, since four in the afternoon there has come a copious rain with a magnificent thunderstorm, the God of glory thundering and His voice upon the waters. The thunder has not yet ceased, and the rain has come in such an uncommon downpour, mingled with very large hailstones, that already it must have brought a great refreshing to the dry earth. O for another such shower on the souls of many, and the God of heaven Who sendeth rain upon the earth desireth much more to pour out His Spirit upon us, and is “waiting to be gracious” till He is entreated by us.’”

‘The clerk of the Kilspindie School Board recollects that once during Dr. Moody Stuart’s chairmanship he was engaged with him after their meeting in adjusting the minutes, when they found it very difficult to choose the proper terms to express exactly the understanding the meeting had come to. After working at it for some time the chairman said, “We had better pray for direction.” After he had done so, the proper words at once suggested themselves, and fell into order without any more trouble. It was his regular habit thus to take every perplexity to the Lord in prayer, whether it was small or great.’

Moody Stuart’s son writes: ‘Mrs. Kalley mentions that Dr. Kalley [a Scottish missionary in Madeira] was restored from a critical illness in Madeira, after my father and others had met to pray that the physician might be guided aright, the next remedy that he tried proving successful.’

Monday, 14 November 2011

Meeting with God in prayer

Some time ago, I noticed that a friend was interested in the prayer life of Alexander Moody Stuart, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Edinburgh during the second half of the nineteenth century. I was aware that several people had commented on his prayer life; for example, David McIntyre in his book The Hidden Life of Prayer quotes Moody Stuart’s three rules for prayer: (1) Pray until you pray; (2) Pray until you are conscious of being heard; (3) Pray until you receive an answer. I assume that he affirmed these rules because he had experienced them. So I decided to have a closer look at what we know of his prayer life since answered prayer is part of normal Christian living.

One feature of his prayer life was his delight to meet with others to pray. During his ministry on an island in the north of England he met weekly with a Christian ploughman for prayer. He records what happened on one occasion.

The ploughman ‘was in the prime of youthful manhood; his fine countenance stamped with the double impression of meditation and intelligence, yet blooming with the glow of ruddy health, the fruit of constant outdoor labour. One summer evening, the moment the hour allotted to prayer was ended, he went home without uttering a word. He appeared unwell, his face had sunk, the bright hue of his cheek was pallid; he looked as a strong man ready to faint, but bearing up against some physical distress that all but overmastered him. Partly from his haste, and partly from his obvious aversion to speak, we parted without exchanging words.

‘The second day following, I hailed him at some distance in the fields to inquire for his health. “You seemed unwell when we parted the night before last; were you sick?” “Oh, no.” “Were you in distress of mind?” “No.” “What then?” Slowly and reluctantly he replied: “When we were on our knees I was so filled with a sense of the love of God, that the joy was too much for me; it was all that I was able to bear, and it was with a struggle that I did not sink under it.”

‘The fact itself was obvious, although to me it had not excited the least suspicion of the cause. The joy of this Divine love had remained with him all the night, and, though less intensely, throughout the next day and the night following. For myself, it was singularly refreshing to witness the presence and power of the Holy Ghost manifested in a manner so remarkable; and not under any moving address, but while two of us were quietly engaged in reading the word of God and in prayer. It was a gracious out-flowing of the love of the Lord Jesus making His servant “sick of love”.’

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Hidden Life of Prayer

This book review appears in the August edition of the Record (monthly magazine of the Free Church of Scotland).

What does Malcolm Maclean have in common with John Piper, Wayne Grudem and Geoffrey Thomas? ‘Not very much,’ I hear a few of you say. ‘Nothing at all,’ I hear most of you say. Both groups are wrong because the four of us have all been influenced by a little book called The Hidden Life of Prayer, written by David McIntyre, and first published almost a century ago.

It is probably best to let you know what the three well-known Christian leaders have to say about the book. Wayne Grudem says, ‘I have read The Hidden Life of Prayer again and again since Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia first gave it to me when I visited there as a prospective student forty years ago. Every time I read this book, the Lord uses it to deepen my prayer life and encourage my faith. I strongly recommend it.’

Geoffrey Thomas first read the book in 1971. He writes, ‘Every time I read it I discover something fresh, convicting and helpful. The book does not make you afraid of prayer.’

According to John Piper, ‘God brings books at their appointed times. The Hidden Life of Prayer arrived late but well-timed. This little jewel-strewn tapestry has done for me at 64 what Bounds’ Power Through Prayer did at 34. I could be ashamed that I need inspiration for the highest privilege. But I choose to be thankful.’

The author, David McIntyre, was born in Monikie, Angus, in 1859, into the family of the local Free Church minister, Malcolm McIntyre. David was converted when young and thereafter lived in the sunshine of God’s love. He summarised his life, from his conversion onwards, in these words: ‘Immediately, without an instant’s delay, I rested my soul on Christ, and was at peace. Since that time I have never doubted that my Lord has undertaken on my behalf. There was very little difference in my outward life after this; but the inward change was very great. Now I began to rejoice in God my Saviour, and I have never lost the comfort of that good hour. Though I mourn when I recall the disappointments with which I must often have touched the heart of the Redeemer, yet during almost the space of a lifetime, God has been the “gladness of my joy”, and I trust I shall come to the Eternal Summer with the Spring-time of my first love unspent.’

David dedicated himself to the service of Christ and trained for the ministry. His first charge was in London, where he was for five years, before moving to Glasgow in 1891 to become the colleague and successor of Andrew Bonar (who died just over a year later), whose daughter David married in 1894. In the church at Finnieston, McIntyre developed his pulpit style. According to a biographer, he was not ‘a sparkling orator or popular star. Indeed, he never attempted such flights. His values were elsewhere. His forte lay in the devotional exposition of the living Word. His springs were ever fresh and deep. His delivery was quiet and even in tone, but the sincerity of both mind and spirit was unmistakable. He shot his well-polished shaft home, where many a more ornate preacher failed.’ The same person says of McIntyre, ‘His parish was the Bible, and he walked the length and breadth with reverent and scholarly stride.’

So it was not surprising when, in 1913, McIntyre became Principal of the Bible Training Institute in Glasgow, where he was to work for the rest of his life, while remaining the honorary senior minister of Finnieston. Over 1,000 students went through the College during his time, most of whom went abroad in missionary service for Christ.

His fifty years in the ministry was marked by a special service in 1936. After listening to the many tributes and receiving an appropriate financial gift in appreciation of his work, he made a speech in reply. He closed his address by summarising his outlook as an aged servant of Christ: ‘My ministry must now be nearing its close. I have entered that region which lies along the frontier of the King’s country, where as John Bunyan tells us, the contract between the Bride and the Bridegroom is oft-times renewed. It is a covenant of free grace: not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us. On his word, and on his completed work, I rest.’

McIntyre died in March, 1938. During his lifetime, in addition to his work as pastor and as principal of Bible Training Institute, he wrote many books. Some of them are on complex doctrines, yet he always wrote in a devotional style. Although in some ways his style is antiquated, I have never read anything by him without feeling the better for having done so. His books on the Saviour (Christ the Lord and The Prayer Life of Jesus) reveal a man whose love for his Master was strong and that surely is the basic requirement for anyone who ventures to write about him. But it is his book called The Hidden Life of Prayer that has remained in constant print and influenced thousands of people in addition to the four gentlemen referred to at the beginning of this article.

What can be said in its praise? First, it is short. The current edition in print is only about 120 pages in length. I recently re-read it, in a Kindle edition, on a journey (a couple of hours on a train and just over an hour on the flight between London and Inverness). Furthermore, each chapter is short. Within the book there are eight chapters, so it is not difficult time-wise to read a chapter at a sitting. Indeed Geoffrey Thomas says that he has often read it through aloud during a week of morning meetings with his assistants and deacons before they started work.

Second, it contains lots of real-life stories. The obvious benefit of such a story is that it is real. What the person describes truly happened. Indeed this is why McIntyre said he wrote the book: ‘Books on secret prayer are without number; but it seems to me that there is still room for one in which an appeal may be taken, steadily, and from every point, to life – to the experience of God’s saints. In these pages no attempt has been made to explain the mysteries of intercourse with God and commerce with heaven. What is here offered is a simple enumeration of some things which the Lord’s remembrancers have found to be helpful in the practice of prayer. The great Bengel explained that if he desired the most perfect intimacy with real Christians on one account rather than another, it was “for the sake of learning how they manage in secret to keep up their communion with God”.’

Third, it is scriptural. In a sense, the book is an explanation of Matthew 6:6: ‘But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ McIntyre proceeds to take the reader through various aspects of that activity, basing each of them on the Bible. In this manner he explores, a chapter at a time, the life of prayer, the equipment for prayer (a quiet place, a quiet period of time, a quiet heart), the focus of the mind in prayer (realisation of the presence of God, honesty with God, faith in God), the actual activity of prayer (worship, confession and request), the hidden riches of the secret place (serenity, submission to the will of God), and the open recompense (answered prayer).

Fourth, it is stimulating. Obviously this is a subjective response. But the author’s style does not crush the reader, even although he probably suspected that many readers would have confessed their inadequacies in prayer. Reading his examples of men and women who prayed, in a wide variety of circumstances, and received clear answers from God makes one long to experience the same blessing. Behind the selected examples one also senses the spirituality of the author. It was said of him, that he ‘was conspicuously a man of prayer. He walked and talked with God.’ And in this short book, he made it clear that his heart’s desire was that God’s people would experience answers to their own prayers, and therefore he wrote in an encouraging manner to stimulate them to persevere in a spiritual activity which at times can be hard to do.

I mentioned above how the book had challenged me many years ago. In saying this, I am not claiming to have achieved a great deal in my prayer life, nor would anyone who has taken seriously the message of the book. But one thing I can say is that, since reading this book, I am aware of what can be achieved through prayer. And that, at least, is a good start. Because, as McIntyre would have admitted, we can only ever be learners in the school of prayer.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Festschrift for Donald Macleod, the People's Theologian

On the evening of Friday, May 13, I attended a very pleasant evening in the Free Church College, Edinburgh. It was the annual close of the academic year and there were the usual student contributions as well as the awarding of prizes, plus a suitable address from Principal John L. Mackay encouraging the students who have completed their course and are about to begin pastoral ministry.

The occasion was enhanced by the presentation of a festschrift to Donald Macleod, the former Principal of the College, who has also filled the Systematic Theology chair for over thirty years. Prior to becoming Professor of Systematic Theology, he was pastor of two congregations, one near Fort William and the other in Glasgow. In addition, he was editor of the denominational magazine The Monthly Record from 1977 to 1990; he has contributed a regular column called Footnotes to The West Highland Free Press; he has authored several books, and also written many articles for Christian magazines and theological journals. Those who studied under him in the Free Church College remain grateful to him for the stimulating lectures that he gave. Throughout those years of service, he has been regarded as an outstanding preacher, and many listeners can still recall vividly sermons they heard by him years ago.

The festschrift is entitled The People’s Theologian, a title that admirably sums up the ministry of Donald Macleod (theology is not just for academics and it must be the basis of effective preaching). Dr Iain D. Campbell and I had the privilege and pleasure of editing the book, which has been published by Christian Focus Publications (who have published many of his titles – William Mackenzie, the Managing Director of Christian Focus, also gave to Donald a copy of one of his books (Priorities for the Church) which has now been published in Japanese.

The festschrift, which contains contributions from colleagues, former students and friends, is divided into sections and the chapters are as follows:

Introduction by Alex J. Macdonald
1. Logic on fire: the life and career of Donald Macleod (by his son, John Macleod).

2. Footnotes Columnist in The West Highland Free Press (by Brian Wilson)
3. Editor of The Monthly Record by Iain D. Campbell
4. Writings of Donald Macleod by Martin Cameron

Historical Theology
5. Robert Bruce and the Lord’s Supper by Malcolm Maclean
6. Glory, Glory Dwelleth in Immanuel’s Land by Guy M. Richard
7. William Cunningham and the Doctrine of the Sacraments by Mike Honeycutt

Systematic Theology
8. ‘More Than That’ – Christ’s Exaltation and Justification by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.
9. Spirit-Baptism and The Clash of the Celts by Derek W. H. Thomas
10. Re-Visiting The Covenant of Redemption by Iain D. Campbell

Theology and the Church
11. The Preacher as Prophet: Some Notes on the Nature of Preaching by Carl R. Trueman
12. David and Derrida: The Psalms and Postmodernism by Fergus Macdonald
13. Layered Reading: The Preacher as Reader of Scripture by Alasdair I Macleod
14. Leadership in the Church by Donald M MacDonald
15. Systematic Theology and the Church by Rowland S. Ward

16. Appreciations by Changwon Shu, Mary Ferguson, David George, Donna Macleod and David Meredith.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Importance of Spiritual Comfort

As indicated in a previous blog, I am reading John Colquhoun's book on Spiritual Comfort and have completed his second chapter which considered the importance of spiritual comfort.

Colquhoun gives twelve reasons to confirm the importance of believers enjoying spiritual comfort. First, there is the desire of God. The Father, out of his great love, sent his Son into the world to purchase at great cost comfort for them, and then highly exalted him with the purpose of dispensing it to them. The Father and the Son also send the Spirit to apply comfort to the souls of believers. Each of the divine persons has a name that includes comfort: the Father is the God of all comfort (Rom. 15:5), the Son is the consolation of Israel (Luke 2:25) and the Spirit is the Comforter (John 16:7). The Lord commands his servants to comfort his people (Isa. 35:3-4).

Second, since fullness of comfort and joy is an essential aspect of eternal life in heaven, so it is present in less degree in the same eternal life begun on earth. Such ‘holy consolation is a commodity of heaven, that distant country, not to be imported but by faith and prayer.’ A third reason that shows the importance of spiritual comfort is that it is part of the pure delight believers share with angels because it is connected to communion with God, especially of the enjoyment known in the presence of God and the Lamb.

Fourth, every part of the Bible is intended to promote spiritual comfort (Rom. 15:4), whether ‘types and prophecies, histories and examples, laws and doctrines’. Fifth, God in his providence, even in those aspects that seem adversarial, is working all things together to produce spiritual comfort. An example is the promise to bring his people into a wilderness where he may speak comfortably to them (Hos. 2:14). If any comforts are taken from them, it is because the Saviour’s design is to give them better ones.

Sixth, spiritual comforts, to a very high degree, heighten and sweeten all temporal comforts that a believer has: ‘when a man is enabled cordially to trust that the Lord Jesus loves and saves him, and that He will perfect that which concerns him, his joy and peace in believing cannot fail to impart a heavenly sweetness to all his earthly joys.’ Seventh, spiritual comfort also alleviates all their calamities. Believers in earlier times took joyfully the spoiling of their goods because they had received from Jesus spiritual comfort. He gives them peace even when the world gives them trouble (John 16:33), and they can rejoice even in times of tribulation (Rom. 5:3).

Eighth, spiritual comfort is the only way of dealing effectively with troubled spirits. Ninth, such comfort overbalances the strong difficulties that come on the path of following Jesus (such as repentance for personal sin, mortification of indwelling sin, self-denial, fighting spiritual enemies), so making the path sweet and easy. Tenth, in proportion to how much of it is given, spiritual comfort removes the terror of death and judgement by the promises of heaven and resurrection, and enables the believer to fall asleep ‘in the arms of their dear Redeemer’.

Eleventh, the importance of spiritual comfort will be seen when it is contrasted with worldly joy. The latter never lives up to the claims made about it whereas the fullness of the former cannot be imagined. Further, worldly joy demeans the human soul but heavenly joy honours it. Those who have tried both know which is best.

The twelfth, and most important, reason for the importance of spiritual comfort is that it promotes holiness in every area of life. Comfort stimulates obedience, love for Jesus, hatred of sin, and desire for perfection. ‘It is the “oil of gladness” that makes the wheels of their voluntary obedience move forward with ease and speed.’ Further, spiritual comfort ‘so exhilarates and so constrains him as to make all his affection run out to the Lord Jesus, and all his strength run out for Him.’

Since these twelve reasons are true, we can deduce (1) that no other joy can compare to the joy of salvation, (2) that heaven’s fullness of joy must be inexpressibly glorious since what is experienced on earth is so wonderful, (3) that we are bound to love Jesus for procuring and providing such comfort, (4) that the more communion we have with Jesus and the more conformity to him, the more comfort we will enjoy, (5) that we should use diligently the appointed means of obtaining such comfort, and (6) that the loss of such comfort will be grievous.

Having read Colquhoun’s comments, I wonder what I have been doing throughout my Christian life. But I know what I hope I will doing throughout the remainder of it.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Spiritual Comfort

I have begun to read Spiritual Comfort, a volume written by John Colquhoun in 1813, an eighteenth/nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian minister (1748-1827). He wrote his book to help Christians struggling with an awareness of indwelling sin and who frequently allowed themselves to become dejected because of it. Such dejection often leads to despondency, to doubting, and to an inability to perform Christian duties. Colquhoun’s remedy for such was to administer spiritual comfort to them because he realised a threefold responsibility: (1) it was one of the main purposes of the Bible, (2) it is an aspect of fellowship between Christians, and (3) it is a duty of pastors towards their people. So even as I read his foreword I sensed dejection because I fail in each of these three areas. But I was not despondent because Sinclair Ferguson assures readers in the foreword to the book that Colquhoun’s insights are very helpful for dealing with this important area of sanctification.

Colquhoun begins by considering spiritual comfort in general. He distinguishes it from natural comfort (things we enjoy in everyday life) and sinful comfort (pleasure from what is forbidden by God). In contrast, spiritual comfort is ‘that inward solace or satisfaction which supports, strengthens, and exhilarates holy souls, and which they have in and from the Lord Jesus, their Covenant-Head, by the exercise of faith, hope, love, and other graces of the Holy Spirit’. That sounds marvellous, especially as Colquhoun also says that spiritual comfort is ‘that spiritual delight, that holy joy, which cheers and invigorates the hearts of believers under all their inward and outward troubles’. I have read many descriptions of how Christians should benefit from their union with Jesus, but can’t recall at this moment one that betters Colquhoun’s assertion. In passing, who said that Scottish Presbyterian ministers were dull? Right away, Colquhoun has distinguished between the shallow and the sublime.

Believers need comfort when in trouble or when facing a difficult situation (I suppose that summarises life). The qualification for receiving it is humility – ‘indeed, the oil of spiritual joy is such that no vessel but a contrite heart can hold it.’ Further, there are degrees of spiritual comfort – ‘the lowest is peace of conscience, the next is joy, and the highest is triumph.’ Looking at them, I would say that the first is straightforward in that Christians generally go to God for pardon and are comforted by knowing he keeps his promises of forgiveness. But I suspect that few proceed to ascend to the second step, perhaps because we ignore Colquhoun’s insight that joy comes from ‘feasting upon Christ in the offers and promises of the gospel’. And the third step, well ….

Spiritual comfort comes from each of the divine persons of the Trinity as the consequence of their commitments arranged in the covenant of grace. I suppose that it is both intriguing and enjoyable to experience this. To do so, says Colquhoun, is to enter into the meaning of eternal life, to have samples now of the future fullness that each believer will receive from God. Yet Colquhoun makes it clear that believers should focus mainly on what Jesus does, without forgetting the benefits given by the Father and by the Spirit.

It is their duty and privilege to find spiritual comfort: duty because God requires that they do so, and privilege because he keeps his promise to provide it. This means that the seed of spiritual comfort has been sown within them, even when a sense of it is absent. Occasions of experiencing spiritual comfort vary, including following spiritual desertion, preceding a heavy trial, during times of hostility to the gospel, opposing indwelling sin, or when meditating deeply on ‘the adorable Saviour and His glorious grace’.

In whatever situation spiritual comfort is needed, it always comes in the most suitable way. Because the comfort is divine, it will always prove stronger than the cause of unease. Yet it is administered through faith; ‘it is the office of faith to take and to hand comfort to the soul, to bring peace into the conscience, and joy into the heart.’ Faith in action means going direct to Christ the fountain and receiving fresh supplies of comfort. This is better than discovering marks of grace: ‘Although the sight of His evidences of grace is indeed pleasant to a holy man, yet the sight of Christ in the offer and promise should be much more delightful to him.’

Of course, there is a counterfeit comfort. Colquhoun provides some evidences of the real thing: it is accompanied by godly sorrow for sin, it encourages holy living, it humbles the recipient, it renders all sins hateful, it promotes impartial self-examination. Spiritual comfort, with its features of love to and rejoicing in God, leads to loving submission to God’s law: ‘the more he is refreshed by the holy consolations of the gospel, or enabled to rejoice in Christ Jesus and His great salvation, so much the more does he delight in evangelical obedience to His will, and in holy activity for His glory.’

According to Colquhoun, God in this life does not usually allow a Christian to become too depressed or too elated. He prevent depression by giving comfort and he prevents elation by allowing distress, as Paul discovered with the thorn in the flesh that was allowed by God.

Because Christ is the primary ground for spiritual comfort, it means that spiritual failure should not cause despondency because such failure should not prevent us trusting in Christ. Instead believers should resolve at all times to trust in Jesus.

I found this explanation of spiritual comfort challenging for my personal experiences and my pastoral work. Where do I go for spiritual comfort and where do I direct others to go? Colquhoun has helped me see the centrality of Jesus in finding true comfort. So you may think that I have found the book very helpful. So far, I have only read the first chapter, but if the remaining ones are as full of spiritual wisdom as the first, then I will enjoy it.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Singing the Songs of Jesus

Singing the Songs of Jesus (Revisiting the Psalms), Michael Lefebvre, Christian Focus, 2010.

This easily-read book by the best publisher provides an interesting approach to using the psalms. It is not a defence of exclusive psalmody (although the author agrees with that view). Instead the book is about spiritual benefits that individuals and congregations will receive through using the Psalms in their worship services. Even at a basic level, the Psalms, because they are divinely inspired, inform us of the features that God wants us to sing about when we are worshipping him.

In the first chapter, the author surveys the practice of psalm-singing throughout church history, providing evidence for their ongoing use from the early church, on through the Dark Ages and into the Reformation period. His concern is to discover why interest in psalm-singing declined. Major reasons for the decline was poor participation in congregational singing of them and the suspicion that some features of the Psalms, such as those containing imprecations, were unChristian.

In his second chapter, Lefebvre, after highlighting the divine inspiration of the Psalms, explains a second crucial aspect of them which is that each was composed by a ruler of Israel or supervised by one – I had not noticed this feature before (but then there are lots of things that I have not observed) – and that the rulers led the singing of the public praise of God in Israel. Their roles pictured the activities of Jesus as the provider of worship songs (the Psalms) and the royal leader of our praise. He ‘sings his own songs in his own words (composed prophetically for him). They are his praises of the Father which he calls us, as his subjects, to join him in singing.’

Since Jesus sings the psalms with us, it means that in a sense the psalms are conversations with Jesus about various aspects of his person and work. The author explores this reality in chapters 3 and 4. When using the Psalms, sometimes we sing with the King about God and his ways, sometimes we sing to the King, and sometimes we sing to one another in the presence of the King. In the Psalms, we sing about his deity, his humanity, his birth, his life, his love of God’s law, his atoning death, his resurrection, his ascension, his exaltation, his kingdom, his return, his role as Judge, his role as Priest, his role as Prophet, his role as Shepherd, and many other facets of his person and work. The author here helped me understand further how Paul could in Colossians 3 equate the communal singing of ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ with the ‘word of Christ’.

What is the heart motion behind our singing that will stimulate appropriate praise? The author states that the Psalms indicate it is meditation, which is stressed by the prominence of this activity in Psalm 1, a psalm that is generally recognised as the introduction to the Psalter. Indeed, he argues that a possible translation of hagah (meditate) is singing as against the usual suggestion that the blessed man of that psalm is muttering or speaking to himself. The evidence that meditation has this role is seen in the wide range of human situations dealt with in the Psalms, and how the psalmists are led to praise God after reflecting on how he can deal with these situations.

Of course the big problem with the Psalms, at least for western Christians, are those containing imprecations (psalms that call for divine judgement). The author notes that such imprecations are also found in the Gospels (even on the lips of Jesus) and in the Epistles, which makes one wonder why they are a problem only in the Psalms for such people. These psalms, when sung with Jesus or to him or about him, remind us that he is the Judge of all as well as the Saviour of his people. They enable us to express with him deep cries for justice to be administered by God. These psalms are not cries for personal vengeance but descriptions of why awful consequences of sin must be dealt with by God.

In addition, the Psalter also leads us to contemplate victory. But who gives the victory to us and who celebrates the victory with us? As we sing such psalms of triumph we should be aware of the presence of King Jesus leading us to participate joyfully in his triumphs for us and through us.

In this short book of 160 pages, we have a good summary of the theology (purpose) of the Psalms. The author provides clear principles for interpreting the Psalms in a Christ-centred way and shows us how we can develop a precious intimacy with the King through ongoing usage of the Psalms. Using them in public worship is a God-given way of exalting King Jesus as we see him fulfil his role as Leader of the praise of God’s people.