Sunday, 23 July 2017

Life in heaven

Sometimes my mind goes back to Christians I knew when I was young and who have long left this world. I know that they are in heaven, in the presence of God. I know that their souls are now perfect in holiness, that they cannot sin again, and they are fit for the presence of God in glory.

Recently, I have been preaching through the Book of Revelation. Difficult may be the word that comes to your mind, but actually the word that comes to mine is encouraging, and one reason for it being a very encouraging book is the many references it makes to heaven. 

Paul, in Colossians 3, instructed his readers to set their affections on things above, where Christ is, which is an exhortation to think about heaven. The apostle does not suggest that this task is only for those who are intellectually qualified for elevated thinking, although his words indicate the task is suitable for all who are spiritual.

So the exhortation by Paul and the pictures in Revelation and the recollections of my past led me to reflect on heaven. Since I had reached Revelation 14, verse 13 of that chapter pointed out to me what my old contacts, and numerous others, are doing now in heaven.

'And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labours, for their deeds follow them!”'

We are not told who the first speaker is, so I don't think it is profitable to try and guess. He states a beatitude, and since it is only conscious people who can enjoy a blessing his beatitude tells me that those in heaven are fully alert. They are not like what we often are, half asleep. Being fully alert continually means that they can take in details of their surroundings in heaven, and in particular they are conscious of Jesus. So those I once knew are interacting with the Saviour.

The first speaker also tells us that believers who have died are totally secure because they have died 'in the Lord'. They discovered the reality of the heavenly security when they died because, for them, death became the door into the presence of Jesus. They died in him and so found themselves with him. And it only took about a second of time. The phrase 'in the Lord', as we know, stresses the permanent union between believers and Jesus. For them, not only is it permanent, it is enhanced.

Then the Holy Spirit speaks about what is happening to them. I suspect he speaks about their experience because he is the one who enables them to enjoy it. He enables them to rest, which is not a reference to inactivity, but to peace inwardly and externally. There they are completely comfortable, at home, enjoying the presence of God and experiencing divine provision continually.

Moreover they keep being reminded of things they did on earth - their works follow them. While here, they prayed and laboured for the kingdom. Now they enjoy the consequences. They prayed for me and numerous others and from heaven they have a better vantage point for seeing the outcome of their activities on earth. Those actions, which are having such effects, they did not boast about when they were here. Very likely, they forgot about most of them very quickly, but the heavenly Recorder remembers them and ensures that such labours will bring about glory for him and comfort for them.

Life in heaven, the place of fellowship and fulfilment. Often in this life, the fellowship was broken and the hopes frustrated. Not over there - the life is very different. We should be thankful for the ways God arranges for his people to think about heaven. And all this will take place before the resurrection to glory.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Sunday thoughts - priority of love

Recently I started reading Hugh Binning’s book Christian Love. Binning was a Scottish minister in the seventeenth century and although he was only twenty-six when he died he had made a big impression on religious and political leaders. His short book highlights the importance of believers living lives of love with one another, as indicated by the command of Jesus that they should do so, and by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.

I was impressed by this statement by Binning: ‘Unity in judgment is very needful for the well-being of Christians; but Christ’s last words persuade this, that unity in affection is more essential and fundamental; this is the badge he left to his disciples; if we cast away this upon every different apprehension of mind, we disown our Master, and disclaim his token and badge.’ 

Regarding Paul’s exhortation to the Colossians that they should ‘put on charity [love], which is the bond of perfection,’ Binning observes the contrast between Paul’s estimation and what was taking place in Binning’s time – ‘an agreement in the conception of any, poor, petty controversial matter of the times is made the badge of Christianity’ and is elevated above the various items Paul connects to love in his verses in Colossians. I don’t know what agreement Binning was referring to, but clearly he thought it was not a real expression of Christian love.

Instead, for Binning, love ‘is the sweet result of the united force of all graces; it is the very head and heart of the new man, which we are invited to put on: “Above all, put on charity.”’ Such love is compassionate, affected by the troubles faced by others, concerned about those who are ignorant and out of the way, and marked by humility. In contrast to pride, this love has a meek heart which shows itself in gentleness and kindness. Because such love is humble and meek, it ‘is the most durable, enduring, long-suffering thing in the world’. And the outcome is peace.

Binning lived in very difficult times politically and ecclesiastically. Inevitably the uncertainty affected Christians in Scotland. But their circumstances were not very different from that faced by first-century Christians. Paul’s concern for his readers was that they increase in love, which would ensure Christian maturity. We too live in difficult times politically and ecclesiastically. Our response must be that of Paul and of Binning – keep growing in Christian love.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Pentecost Sunday

Today is Pentecost Sunday when numerous Christians celebrate the coming of the Spirit in a special manner to empower the New Testament church for worship and witness. It was the commencement of an incredible contribution from the eternal God that remains with his people and will do so until the next major event in the story of the church, which is the second coming of Jesus.

Old Testament prophets, as well as Jesus, had predicted the coming of the Spirit and the consequent growth of the church. Over three thousand people were converted on that first Pentecost and I wonder how many were converted today throughout the world. Probably many more than three thousand. Even if one person was converted in each location throughout the world where living Christianity exists, there would be many more than three thousand in number.

In addition, one role of the Spirit is to sanctify all those who believe. This sanctification, while it involves dealing with the power of sin in their lives, is also concerned with making every believer become like Jesus in character. They no doubt wonder if that change is happening, but the presence of the Spirit is the guarantee that the change will occur and that one day, either when they die or when Jesus returns, they will be fully conformed to his likeness.

Moreover, one aspect of the coming of the Spirit was to deliver spiritual gifts from the exalted Christ to each of his people. Paul tells us that every Christian has at least one spiritual gift and when exercised as they should they create a community of holy people competent to serve their risen King in the ways that he wants them to do.

It is an incredible blessing to live in the age of the Spirit. We should remember this as we see all the crises and catastrophes happening all over the world. And we should remember this as we see problems and disappointments in the church. While we may grieve the Spirit and lose his blessing until we repent, he is not going to go away. On the Day of Pentecost he came in power and blessing, and subsequent days of his activity have not drawn to a close.

As we reflect on this Pentecost Sunday about the coming of the Spirit we can also remind ourselves of what Paul says when he writes that throughout this age we have the firstfruits of the Spirit. This means that what the church has and is experiencing is only a sample and that there will be greater involvement by the Holy Spirit in the lives of his people when the new heavens and new earth commence.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Adoption and Justification

In God’s gracious plan of salvation, adoption is one of several important features which together indicate the greatness of his grace. Adoption for a believer occurs at the commencement of his Christian life. Yet since it is not the only benefit that occurs then, we have to note the order in which several simultaneous aspects of salvation occur.

Before a person is adopted, he has to be regenerated by the Spirit and then given the status of justification by God. When that person is regenerated, he trusts in Jesus and at that moment, because he has done so, he becomes right with God. To be right with God is to say the same thing as to be justified.

Justification involves two benefits. One is that believing sinners are forgiven all their sins and the other is that the righteousness of Jesus (his perfect life) is reckoned by God to be theirs. Those benefits mean that they have a permanent standing before God as the Judge and once given is theirs forever.

If the act of justification described the only benefit God gives to a sinner when he or she trusts initially in Jesus, it would be an amazing display of divine grace which ensures that they will be God’s people always. Yet we can, and should, ask if God does more.

It has been pointed out that justification restores sinners to the place of righteous servants. As unregenerate sinners, they had failed to serve God and lived for sinful masters, whoever and whatever they were. Once those sinners have been justified, the perfect life of service that Jesus lived is now accounted as theirs and as a consequence they are regarded as having a life of perfect service. Wonderful grace is all we can say!

In addition to justification, which deals with their status as fallen servants, God also adopts those believing sinners into his family, which deals with their status as lost sons. Sin had estranged them from God and they lived outside his family. In his grace, he brings them into it at the start of their Christian life and from then on they have a right to all the privileges of the sons of God (as our catechism puts it).

When I was converted, I was told that I now was a member of God’s family. I accepted that gladly, although it would be years before I realised that in showing this level of grace the Lord lifted his people to the heights. What happens on those heights? We probably know, but we will think about some of them in future blogs.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Forgiveness and prayer

What was the first thing I was conscious of when I became a member of the family of God? It was that my sins were forgiven. I had received pardon from God. The one who was now my Father had declared that I was forgiven. How did I know that was the case? Because he stated so in his Word. 

Not that my name was mentioned there specifically. Even if my name had been mentioned, how would I know it was me that was described? After all, many others have shared my name, and if it was mentioned in the Bible, would I know for definite that it was me? It is far better to know that whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.

Why were my sins forgiven? The answer is straightforward: because Jesus took my place on the cross. I had realised that because the Son of God became a man and went to the cross to pay the penalty for my sins I could be forgiven. That realisation was a tremendous discovery. Of course, millions of others have made the same discovery and found themselves in the family of God.

I also discovered that I wanted to talk to God about everything. It was not that I only spoke to him during times set aside to pray. Instead, I wanted to speak to him automatically, freely, as it were. This happened when I was walking along the road, sitting on a bus, reading a book. Those conversations, which were not oral, were not interruptions. Later on, I discovered that Paul thought it normal for Christians to pray without ceasing. 

I think that we pray more often than we think we do. The Bible mentions all kinds of prayers and types of praying. But the Christian life, in one way or another, begins with prayer because we ask God to forgive us, and it continues by prayer.

This was a basic lesson to learn. Forgiveness and prayer go together. We can talk to God as our Heavenly Father because he has forgiven us for the sake of Jesus, his Son. It is inevitable that we will learn many other things about life in the family of God, but we should never move away from this incredible reality that we can speak to our Heavenly Father because we have been forgiven. Hopefully we are speaking to him now.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Entering the family of God

A long time ago, I was not a member of the family of God, although I was brought up in a family in which God was honoured. The issue that kept me out of his family was my sin. Among those sins was the sad attitude that I did not want to be a member because I foolishly imagined that all God offered was a set of rules that inhibited life and led to boring experiences. I could not deny, however, that many Christians I had come across seemed very happy and content.

Still, there was a longing within me for satisfaction. The more things I tried, the more empty life seemed. Of course, this was subjective, but humans are subjective creatures. I needed to find out why nothing seemed to satisfy. To cut a long story short, eventually I realised that the problem was that I was looking in the wrong places for meaning. It was not until I realised that the problem was in me that real progress could be made.

I discovered that I was a sinner. This was not because I compared myself to other people and somehow worked out that I was worse than them. Instead, God taught me through various means that the problem in my life was me and he did this over a period of time by showing to me things like my selfish motives, my misplaced desires, and my foolish words. The problem basically was that I was the centre of my life.

During that time, many Christians spoke to me about life in the family of God. They pointed out to me that my sins could be forgiven, that my life could be guided by the Holy Spirit, that Jesus would speak to me through his Word (the Bible), that I could look forward to a heavenly home, and many other things besides. Thinking about those things made me realise that life in the family of God was far better than any other set of experiences. 

So what does one do then? I did what the Bible says we should do in order to become children of God. John describes the process as receiving Jesus, which is a way of saying that he is offered to us freely. In the gospel, he tells us that we can have a real relationship with him, the living Saviour. The relationship we have with him takes place in the family of God.

Not everyone has the same experiences before they enter enter the family of God. Perhaps no one has exactly the same experiences as another. What matters is that we come into the family of God.

I don't know the date when I entered the family of God. That lack of detail does not bother me. What I will say is that what I was told about life in the family of God is true, that having him as my Heavenly Father and being numbered among his children is the greatest blessing that a person can have.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Robert Bruce and the Lord's Supper


Robert Bruce (c. 1554-1631) was an Edinburgh minister and his sermons on the Lord’s Supper, when published and grasped, became a crucial source in Scottish Presbyterianism of discovering the meaning of the Lord's Supper. In the main he followed the view of Calvin. We need help in understanding what takes place at the Lord's Supper and Bruce's comments should help us. Here is a summary of what he said.

Four purposes
For Bruce, the Lord’s Supper had four purposes. First, it was ‘appointed chiefly for this end, to represent our spiritual nutriment, the full and perfect nutriment of our souls; that as he who has Bread and Wine lacks nothing for the full nourishment of his body: so he, or that soul, which has the participation of the body and blood of Christ, lacks nothing of the full and perfect nourishment of the soul.’

Second, the sacrament is an act of witness both to hostile onlookers and to fellow Christians. It was instituted in order ‘that we might testify to the world and to the princes of the world, who are enemies to our profession; that we might openly avow and testify to them our Religion and our manner of worshipping; and that we might also testify our love towards His members our brethren’.

Third, the sacrament is designed to provide spiritual medicine, to help those tempted to fall or who have already fallen. It was instituted ‘to serve for our special comfort and consolation, to serve as a sovereign medicine for all our spiritual diseases, as we find ourselves either ready to fall, or provoked to fall, by the devil, the flesh, or the world; or, after we have fallen and are put to flight by the devil, and would fain flee away from God; God of his mercy, and of His infinite pity and bottomless compassion has set up this sacrament, as a sign on a high hill, whereby it may seem on every side, far and near, to call them again that have run shamefully away: and He clucks to them as a hen doth to her chickens, to gather them under the wings of his infinite mercy.’

Fourth, the sacrament is an occasion for thanksgiving: ‘render to Him hearty thanks for His benefits, and that He has come down so familiarly to us, bowed the heavens as it were, and given us the body and blood of His own Son; that we might render unto Him hearty thanks, and so sanctify His benefits to us.’

Visible and invisible things
Bruce claimed that there are both visible and invisible things in the Lord’s Supper. The visible things are the bread and the wine. The invisible things are signified by the bread and wine; what is signified is Christ, ‘in this respect, that His body and blood serve to nourish my soul to life everlasting’. It is not just the benefits of Christ’s death that are signified, but also the person of Christ from whom these benefits come.

In the sacrament of baptism, the fruits are forgiveness of sins, mortification of sins, and the sealing of adoption, but the substance out of which these fruits grow is the blood of Christ. Similarly, in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the fruits are growth of faith and increase in holiness, but the substance out of which they grow is the body and blood of Christ. Christ is to the soul what bread and drink are to the body. Bread must be eaten before hunger is relieved and drink must be taken before thirst is removed; so Christ must be taken at the Supper before his benefits are experienced.

According to Bruce, the bread in the Supper has a power given to it by the institution of Christ, whereby ‘it is appointed to signify His body, to represent His body, and to deliver His body’. This power remains with the bread as long as the Supper lasts.

For Bruce, it was essential that the ceremonies of breaking the bread and pouring the wine should be done, because they signified what had happened to Christ. Similarly, the distribution, and giving and eating, are essential, as they signify the ‘applying of the body and blood of Christ to thy soul’. Bruce even says that to leave one of them out perverts the whole action.

Real contact with the risen Christ
Because the conjunction between the elements and Christ is secret and spiritual, he must be received by faith. Bruce recognizes that faith does not receive a greater Christ in the Supper than it does from the preaching of the Word, but he does say that it receives Christ better in that the receiver obtains a greater and surer hold of Christ through the sacrament. This happens each time a person takes part in the Supper.

In addition to faith, Bruce argued that the Holy Spirit must be involved in giving Christ to the believer. He notes that the believer has a title to the body of Christ and the blood of Christ, a title that is not negated by their being physically distant, in heaven. Faith is the cord that covers the distance between the believer and Christ and couples them together. Bruce uses the illustration of the sun — we cannot touch the sun, yet are conjoined to it by its rays. The sun is like Christ, and the rays are his virtue and power flowing from his body. These are conveyed to the believer by the Holy Spirit, whom Bruce also likens to a ladder joining the believer and Christ.

Children of God

In the Bible, there are various ways in which the idea of sonship is used. Angels are called sons of God in the book of Job, and they could have this title because they are dignified creatures of God. Humans also are termed sons of God by creation, and still retain some features of this relationship because they are made in God’s image. Israel as a nation was regarded as a son of God because they had been brought into a special relationship with him. Rulers are also called sons of God, and they are so named because they hold positions of authority under God’s overall control. 

Christians are sons of God because they are members of his family. Even with regard to this relationship the New Testament uses at least two pictures to explain it. One is connected to regeneration and the other is connected to adoption. By regeneration, they are given life and by adoption they are given status. 

There is also a third way that the New Testament mentions and that is connected to the idea of transformation. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that his disciples should behave in certain ways in order to be recognised by others as the children of God.

Those ways of explaining what it means to be children of God are not contradictory. Instead they are complementary. We need to keep the three of them in mind when we think about what it means to be children of God. One way of doing so is to use three words – life, liberty and likeness.

We have already mentioned that regeneration describes how sinners receive spiritual life that marks God’s children. Adoption points to the liberty they have, because the idea behind adoption in those days was adoption from slavery. A slave was selected by a wealthy patron to be his heir and he moved from bondage to freedom. Transformation points to likeness, and the pattern to which they are being moulded is that of Jesus, the perfect Son.

In succeeding posts, we will consider some aspects of life as the children of God.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Experiencing real love

We all know that the Christian life is an expression of love. But what is Christian love? We can assume that somehow Jesus will be involved, either as the source or the object of it; we can assume that the Holy Spirit will be involved because love is an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit; and since God is love, we can assume that the Father will be involved. So that means the experience of Christian love is a relationship with the persons of the Trinity.

Paul, in one of his universal descriptions of believers, writes that the love of God is poured into their hearts (Rom. 5:5). In that letter, as he asks for prayer concerning his Christian service, he also refers to the love of the Spirit at work in the lives of Christians (Rom. 15:30). One assumes that he was writing out of personal experience of the reception and the stimulation connected to such divine love for him.

No doubt, we have read statements by Paul that cause us to stop and ask, ‘What did he say!’ If you have never done that, you should ask yourself if you are reading him as he should be read – carefully, expectantly, wonderingly. One such statement is his claim to love the Philippians with the affection of Christ (Phil. 1:8). Somehow, Paul loved them with the compassionate love of Jesus (as indicated by the word translated as affection).

What did that affection look like? We find several aspects of it in the letter to the Philippians, and you may wish to read the letter and see where he mentions the following details. First, he prayed for them to grow in love. Second, he delighted to tell them about Jesus. Third, he wanted them to think about heaven. Fourth, he did not want them to have silly squabbles. Fifth, he wanted them to know real peace in their souls. Sixth, he wanted them to esteem two of his servants. Seventh, he wanted them to be joyful.

When we have those features, we can deduce that Jesus is giving us his love. Then he wants us to be channels through which his love can flow to others, while giving us profound experiences of his grace along the way. What stops this taking place? Replacing his love with something else.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Jesus as the Morning Star

One of the titles used by Jesus of himself is that he is the morning star. The morning star is generally regarded as the planet Venus and it was called the morning star because it is usually seen shortly before daybreak, and thus indicates that the dark night will soon be over. Given this background, it is not difficult to see what Jesus meant when he described himself as the morning star.

First, it is a reminder that the world is yet in a state of spiritual darkness. Paul, when writing to the Ephesians, led them to recall that at one time they too had been spiritually blind, unable to understand God and his ways. This description of sinners is not limited to people of the first century but also describes each person who is living today without Jesus. Such have no real grasp of the beauty and bounty of God. Still, Jesus is there as the morning star, as the light who shines in the darkness, drawing people to himself in order for them to discover how kind and merciful the Lord is.

Second, as the morning star, Jesus announces that the day of brightness and glory is soon to arrive. In the natural world, the morning star is seen a short time before daybreak. When people see it, they can assume that it will soon be daylight. Those who have seen Jesus know that the eternal day will soon be here. And what an incredible day it will be! It will be a day without end, a day without disappointment, a day without problems, and a day without pain. 

Of course, the items in that brief list, although real, are negative. The fact is that the features of the day which will soon be here is that there are countless positive features to it. We describe some of them by the categories of peace, joy, love, absence of sin and its effects, holiness and knowledge of God. The obvious point about such features is that they can only be understood by experience. But they are all features of the day of which Jesus is the morning star.

In the meantime, as we live in the land of the shadow of death and wait for the arrival of the eternal day, we can focus on the morning star. We see him in the Bible where he reveals himself to those who take the time to search its pages looking for him. And when we discover his presence there, we often find that he too is looking ahead with anticipation to the day of which he is the morning star.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Women of the Scottish Reformation (8) - Elisabeth Welsh

Elisabeth Knox was born about 1568, and was about four years of age when her father died. While she could have recalled some details of her father, it is more likely that her commitment to and understanding of the Reformed Faith was helped more by her mother Margaret Stewart (Knox’s second wife) and stepfather (Andrew Ker). 

When Elisabeth died in 1625, her cousin recorded, ‘This month of January, 1625, died at Ayr, my cousin, Mrs. Welsh, daughter of that great servant of God, the late John Knox, and wife of that holy man of God, Mr. Welsh, above mentioned; a spouse and daughter worthy of such a husband and such a father.’ What did she do that resulted in such a testimony?

She probably met John Welsh when he became minister of Selkirk in 1589 because his church would have been the one attended by the Ker family. At some stage they married, and in 1600 he moved to Ayr to minister there. 

In 1603, the union of the crowns of England and Scotland took place and James VI of Scotland became James I. One of his first actions was to try and arrange for the churches in England and Scotland to have the same type of church government, Episcopacy, because then he would be in charge. This intention included dissolving the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. 

Welsh was one of the ministers who objected to this royal plan and in July 1605 was brought before the privy council in Edinburgh. He was put in Blackness Castle until January 1606 when he along with five other ministers were put on trial for high treason. The wives of the ministers made their way to Linlithgow for the trial. When they verdict of guilty was passed, the women ‘rejoiced, and thanked the Lord Jesus that their husbands had received strength and courage to stand to their Master’s cause.’ 

They had to wait until 23rd October 1606 before the sentence was passed. It was banishment from Scotland for life, and the ministers left Scotland on the 7th of November for France. They had to leave their wives and children behind.

Elisabeth joined her husband in France in the following year. But life there was not good. He had his problems and her health suffered, although her husband observed that she bore ‘her cross with comfort contentation’. By 1621, the husband’s health had broken and he had serious lung problems. Doctors recommended that they should return to Scotland, but the king only gave permission to them to come to London.

While there they decided that she should approach the king because she could get access through her family’s rank. The king was unwilling to let Welsh return to Scotland, and when he heard that the wife was the daughter of John Knox his unwillingness was strengthened. Eventually he said that Welsh could return to Scotland if he would submit to the bishops who had been appointed.  She replied that she would rather that her husband die as a martyr than betray his beliefs. Welsh died later that year (1622). His wife returned to Ayr and died thirty months or so later, in 1625. She left two sons and a daughter.

Mrs Welsh was a woman who could have chosen the easy path of comfort in an aristocratic home. Instead she chose to identify with the Reformation when the country and the church were attempting to move away from its goals. She was prepared to live in exile, where she encouraged her husband to be faithful. Despite the intensity of his sufferings in Scotland and in France she did not ask him to make life easier for them by reducing his commitment. She was willing to bear the cross.

Women of the Scottish Reformation (7) - Margaret Stewart

It is impossible to look at the Reformation and not come across the work of John Knox, and when we read about his life we can see the contribution made by his wives. Both are worthy of consideration, but we will focus on the second, because her daughter, as well as herself, made notable sacrifices for the Reformed Cause in Scotland as the seventeenth century dawned. 

John Knox married his second wife, Margaret Stewart, in March 1564. Margaret was from a very important family, with wealth and royal connections. Opponents of Knox attempt to make something of the fact that she was only nineteen when she married Knox and he was in his late forties. 

An account of how the marriage was arranged was given by Robert Millar, a minister in Paisley, in a letter written to Wodrow the historian in 1722 and is recorded in the book Ladies of the Covenant. I suppose we can say the process was unusual, but then we need to remember the customs of the time.

Knox often used to visit the Stewart family and held services in their home. Several members of the family were Christians. Knox was by now a widower and the lady of the castle on one occasion said to him that he needed a wife. He replied that he did not think anyone would want to marry a wanderer like him. She said she would find out.

The lady had three daughters and she started with them. She asked the oldest daughter who refused, stating that she hoped her mother wanted better for her than marriage to a poor wanderer. The second daughter responded in the same manner. The third daughter Elisabeth, aged nineteen, responded very differently. ‘Madam, I’ll be very willing to marry him, but I fear that he’ll not take me.’ The mother then said that she would find out his response during his next visit. She did, while Knox and the family were having a meal. Knox asked the Lady who the woman was and she replied, ‘My younger daughter sitting by you at the table.’ One wonders if the mother arranged the seating. 

Knox asked Elisabeth if she was willing to marry him. She replied that she was, but was afraid that he would not be willing to take her. He responded by informing her that marriage to him would not be easy: ‘you must take your venture of God’s providence, as I do. I go through the country sometimes on my foot, with a wallet (bag) on my arm, a shirt, a clean band, and a Bible in it; you may put some things in it for yourself, and if I bid you take the wallet, you must do it, and go where I go, and lodge where I lodge.’ She affirmed that she would do so, and they were married on Palm Sunday.

She and John were together for eight years and produced three daughters. She was with him during his years of ill health and troubles as he tried to solidify the Reformation after 1560. Her second marriage was to Andrew Ker, an aristocrat, but a staunch supporter of the Reformed faith. With him she had several more children. She died in 1612, after a lifetime of supporting the Reformed cause in Scotland.

Knox’s three daughters by her went to live with her in her new abode. The increase in the standard of living did not divert the daughters from the Reformed Faith. Each of them married ministers, but it is with the youngest, called Elisabeth, that we are concerned with because she became the wife of John Welsh, a leading minister who would suffer much for his Reformed convictions. We will think about her in the next blog.

Women of the Scottish Reformation (6) - the poem of John Davidson

In the first blog in this series we mentioned a couple, John Campbell of Cesnock and his wife Janet Montgomery, who had connections to the Lollards. Their granddaughter Elisabeth was married to a Robert Campbell and they were the subjects of a poem written by John Davidson, the well-known minister of Prestonpans, who dedicated it to their daughter.  He composed the poem in 1574, although it was not published until 1595. The year in which he composed the poem was the year in which they died, which means that much of their involvement with the Reformed Faith took place before 1560.

Davidson published the poem because he thought that the church in Scotland was losing its first love, a possibility that both George Wishart and John Knox had observed was likely. The author also seemed concerned that the daughter of the couple was in danger of being one such person, but that is difficult to prove.

Robert Campbell was one of three men who sat by Knox on his deathbed and it was to his care that Knox bequeathed his wife and children. He had been an ardent supporter of the Reformation and so had his wife. When they were married, probably in the 1550s, the Reformation was not guaranteed because those supporting the Protestant cause were in danger of punishment by the authorities. They bravely opened their castle for preaching occasions, and those who were present were encouraged to hope for success.

Davidson, in his poem, affirms that Mrs Campbell was exceptionally gifted in understanding and explaining the doctrines of the Bible. She did not object to her husband’s frequent travels in support of the Reformed cause and she was noted for her care of the poor. Anderson mentions that she housed many poor nightly in the castle, and her care was not limited to their physical needs. In addition, those who received her hospitality were examined on the knowledge of the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. As we know, the Shorter Catechism was shaped around those three areas, so Mrs Campbell’s catechising of the poor was not in any way shallow, and indicated that she wanted them to find salvation.

Davidson himself had written the poem shortly after experiencing the brave help of this couple. He had composed the poem against the policy of the Reformed government which was trying to take hold of the resources of the church. One of the policies was to unite parishes under the care of one minister, which meant that the church did not need the same amount to meet stipends. Davidson found himself in trouble over this with the government and the General Assembly, while agreeing with him, were too frightened to disagree with the policy of the Protestant government. One member of the Assembly who was appalled by its lack of courage was Robert Campbell – he described it as a pack of traitors. He took Davidson home with him, which would have been a dangerous thing to do, and his wife did not object to his actions. 

Around that time, Robert took ill and died of a fever. Shortly afterwards, his wife also succumbed to a fever. Davidson was of the opinion that their removal was an indication that God was going to punish the nation for its rapid turning away from God after the deliverance it had experienced fourteen years before in 1560. The poet had such an estimation of their Christian qualities that he regarded their deaths as indicating things would not go well for the church or the country in the years ahead, which turned out to be the case.

This couple were obviously important in the Reformed movement. Their story reminds us that it does not take long for something that was good to become listless. Although they remained devoted to the Lord’s cause, many others did not. Perhaps the time of ease that followed the difficult years prior to 1560 made many lose their first love. Davidson mentions that many of the ministers were prepared to compromise. The times that Robert and Elizabeth lived to see highlights the dangers that can occur when an evangelical church and politics become entwined.

Women of the Scottish Reformation (5) - Isobel Scrimger

Isobel Scrimger is mentioned in Anderson’s Ladies of the Reformation and her significance for the history of Scotland is that she was the mother of James Melville, and the aunt of Andrew Melville. Although she was the aunt of Andrew, she brought him up after his mother died when he was two years of age. Her own son James was only about ten years younger than Andrew, and they grew up as brothers rather than uncle and nephew. 

Andrew became the next significant Protestant leader in Scotland after the death of Knox. In addition, he and his nephew were outstanding scholars. Andrew was Principal of both Glasgow University and then St Andrews University, and after he was exiled he taught theology in a French University. He often spoke gratefully of his aunt.

Isobel came into the Melville family when she married Richard Melville, the oldest son of a family in which Andrew was the youngest. Richard initially was a laird near Montrose and after the Reformation in 1560 he became a minister there. His future wife was connected to a prominent family whose lands were near Dundee.

According to Anderson, she was an early follower of the Reformation and was one of the first converts in the area in which she lived. She attended meetings held in the castle of John Erskine of Dun, who became a prominent supporter of the Reformation and a leader of it in the years after 1560. At those meetings, the Scriptures were read and expounded, probably by Erskine, and sometimes there would be a guest preacher. One preacher who helped her greatly was George Wishart, who was a friend of Erskine’s. Apparently, Erskine only escaped having the same kind of death as Wishart because of his rank in society. Wishart, as we know, was put to death in Dundee.

After Isobel married Richard she made a big impression on his family. Her son James records the opinion that his uncles had of her; he observes, ‘I have divers times heard when my father’s brothers, Roger, John, Mr. James and Robert, could not satisfy themselves in commending her godliness, honesty, virtue, and affection towards them.’ Of course, in saying that about her, they were only describing what a Christian should be.

Although she was the mother of James, she died in 1557, a year after he was born, and three years before the Reformation became official. So in literal sense, she played virtually no role in his upbringing, apart from two ways. One of them was prayer. James records in his diary that she saw something special in her nephew Andrew and often prayed, ‘God give me another lad like thee, and syne tak me to his rest!’ It looks as if she knew she would not live long and prayed that she would bear a son like her nephew. She already had two other sons, one of whom died young. But she received her wish when James was born because history tells us he was as devout and almost as gifted as Andrew.

Her second contribution to the development of James was seen in the way she had trained her daughter, also called Isobel, in the Christian faith. Anderson records that Isobel, her eldest daughter, ‘had been trained up under her own eye’, and ‘possessed much of her own excellence of character’. The daughter died in 1574 in childbirth, when James was eighteen. Still, she had taken care of him during much of his adolescence and he recorded her spiritual tendencies. She loved to read and sing the songs of David Lindsay about the final day – the judgement, hell, and heaven.

James also recorded an occasion when she had been reading a song about ministers who gave up their calling because they did not get a stipend. Her response was to weep and wonder what such would say at the Day of Judgement, and then prayed that her father and others whom she named would be kept from such a choice. 

James says of her influence, ‘With her speeches and tears she made me to quake and chout bitterly, which left the deepest stamp of God’s fear in my heart of anything that ever I heard before.’ He was eleven at the time.

Here we are, some of the individuals four centuries later who have inherited the cause for which Andrew and James Melville devoted their particular talents. We honour them rightly, yet we should not forget the mother and the daughter who influenced them when they were young and taught them to love the gospel that was recovered at the Reformation and to dedicate themselves to the service of God.

Both the mother and the daughter died relatively young, at least by our expectations. Yet they remind us that it is possible to do a lot in a short space of time. They also tell us that if we do what we should do in our families as far as bringing them up in the faith is concerned God may honour us by using family members to shake the nation for Christ

Women of the Scottish Reformation (4) - Elisabeth Adamson

Elizabeth Adamson was the wife of James Barron, a burgess of the city of Edinburgh, and a follower of John Knox. In 1555, John Knox came to Edinburgh and among his activities he engaged in house meetings. Among his listeners was Elizabeth. David Calderwood tells us that she ‘heard Mr Knox with greediness, because she was troubled in conscience, and he opened more fully the fountain of God’s mercies than did the friers, or common sort of teachers that she heard before’.  Her involvement shows us that people were seeking the truth and not finding answers from the official clergy, the priests and friars.

What has come down to us is the account of Elizabeth’s deathbed. She suffered great physical pain, yet drank deeply of the comforts of the gospel. Her sisters on one occasion asked her what she thought of her physical pain in comparison to her previous spiritual distress, she replied, ‘A thousand years of this torment, and ten times more joined unto it, is not to be compared to the quarter of an hour that I suffered in my spirit. I thank my God, through Jesus Christ, that he has delivered me from that most fearful pain; and welcome be this, even so long as it pleaseth his godly Majesty to discipline me therewith.’

Some time later, her sisters and a few others were with her and she asked them to sing a psalm. One of the psalms that she requested was Psalm 103 because through it previously she had found spiritual help. She informed her companions, ‘At the teaching of this psalm, my troubled soul first began effectually to taste of the mercy of God, which now to me is more sweet and precious than were all the kingdoms of the earth given to me to possess for a thousand years.’ 

The account of her deathbed also includes a reference to the involvement of priests who probably came to offer her the Last Rites. On the edge of eternity, she ordered them to leave: ‘Depart from me, ye sergeants of Satan; for I have refused, and in your own presence do refuse, all your abominations. That which ye call your Sacrament and Christ’s body, as ye have deceived us to believe in times past, is nothing but an idol, and has nothing to do with the right institution of Jesus Christ. Therefore, in God’s name, I command you not to trouble me.’

Shortly afterwards she passed into the presence of the Lord. I have no idea of her age, although her husband married again and had a family of several daughters, which could point to him, and therefore her, as being young at that time.

What can we learn from her? First, the gospel can give great peace even when there is great physical agony. Obviously, she lived before the existence of terminal care and no doubt many a person, including believers, died in great physical agony. Yet it is clear that she was composed by the gospel, comforted by its content, and confident in the hope it gave her. 

Second, the gospel can give great courage when there is great pressure to conform to false religion. After all, as she edged towards the Jordan, she would want to have something certain to help her wade into its waters. Such a time is not the moment to grasp at religious straws. Through the gospel, she had found the way to heaven, and she reached the desired haven.

The testimony of Elizabeth was a valued one in the past. Andrew Bonar refers to her experience in his commentary on the Book of Psalms when commenting on Psalm 103. He writes: ‘How often have saints in Scotland sung this Psalm in days when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper! It is thereby specially known in our land. It is connected also with a remarkable case in the days of John Knox,’ and he goes on to detail her experience.

Women of the Scottish Reformation (3) - Helen Stark

James V died in December, 1542, the same month in which his daughter Mary was born. A regent was appointed, and the one chosen, the Earl of Arran, recanted the Protestant faith under pressure. Unlike ones just mentioned (in previous blog), I have not read of his repentance. He functioned under the control of Cardinal Beaton and a prolonged persecution of Protestants took place. Among the martyrs was Helen Stark and she has the honour of being the only female martyr of the Scottish Reformation.

As part of his plan to eradicate Protestants, Cardinal Beaton went to Perth to investigate what was happening there (Perth had allowed its citizens to express sympathy with the Reformed faith). Six individuals were arrested and among them were Helen and her husband James Ranoldson. They were charged with heresy and of meeting together to discuss the Bible. Specific charges were also brought against them as individuals, and the charge against Helen was that when giving birth she had refused to ask the Virgin Mary for help. She had been urged to do so by her neighbours, probably because the Virgin Mary was regarded as the patroness of women about to give birth. Helen had refused to do so and instead prayed herself that God would give her the strength to give birth safely. 

Helen also said words to the effect that had she been alive when Jesus was born, God could have chosen her to be the mother of Jesus. All she meant was that whoever would have been the mother of Jesus had no merit of her own. We can see, however, that her opinion would have been regarded as very offensive by the investigators and it would not have been difficult for them to accuse her of heresy.

All of them were found guilty and sentenced to death. The men were to die by hanging and Helen by drowning. There was considerable sympathy for them in the town, but appeals to the regent to spare their lives were unsuccessful. As a last request, Helen asked if she could die alongside her husband, but this was denied her. She was allowed to go with him to the place of death, and comforted and encouraged him on the way, exhorting him to be faithful to the cause of Christ. When they reached the location, she kissed him and said to him: ‘Husband, be glad; we have lived together many joyful days, but this day, on which we must die, ought to be the most joyful of all to us both, because now we shall have joy for ever. Therefore I will not bid you good night, for we shall suddenly meet with joy in the kingdom of heaven.’

Helen was taken to a pool nearby. Her children, including the one recently born, were with her. She had to give them to neighbours to look after, with the youngest child being given to a friend who had agreed to nurse it. Obviously, such a public set of actions caused sympathy and distress in the watching crowd, but not in the outlook of the authorities. Helen was tied in a sack and plunged into the pool and her spirit soon arrived in the presence of God.

We obviously are to admire Helen Stark as the only woman of the Scottish Reformation who will wear a martyr’s crown. Later, more women were to suffer such a fate during the Covenanting times. She has this unique privilege and it will be recognised yet on the day when Jesus is revealed. 

Her experience reminds us of the hostility of the kingdom of darkness against those who profess faith in Jesus and who are prepared to nail their colours to the mast wherever they are. She must have been under great pressure to recant because of the state and the age of her children. I suppose she exemplifies for us the words of Jesus that any who put family or their own lives before him are not worthy of him.

The striking detail of Helen’s behaviour and words is the strength of her assurance and the manner in which she was able to comfort those condemned with her. Her confidence in God was also expressed in the way she left her children in the care of others. And she also had the confidence to express that God would take revenge on those who caused her death and that of her friends, which came true several years later.

Where was Jesus when this was happening to Helen? I suspect we get the answer to this question by recalling how Luke describes the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. 

As we think of how Helen Stark witnessed for Jesus, we would agree with Donald Beaton’s words in his Scottish Heroines of the Faith: ‘Noble-hearted woman! All honour be to her, or, rather, to the grace that made her strong in the hour of trial! May the land that gave her birth ever honour the truths for which she and others laid down their lives!’ 

Women of the Scottish Reformation (2) - Katherine Hamilton

In 1517 Martin Luther triggered what we now call the Reformation when he nailed his famous theses to the church door in Wittenberg. The Reformation was a work in progress and initially those who advocated it in Scotland were not fully Calvinists or Presbyterians. Instead, it was the views and writings of Luther that had great influence. One of the persons influenced by Luther and his colleague Melanchthon was Patrick Hamilton, who studied under them in Germany.

At one time, everyone in Scotland knew the story of Patrick Hamilton. For our purposes, we want to note he had a sister called Katherine who embraced the Reformed faith as it was taught by her brother. By this time, Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament into English had arrived in Scotland and she had a copy. This conversion of her and others in the family took place a few months before Patrick was martyred. His death in 1628 is often regarded as the event that marked a turning point in Scotland’s national embrace of Protestantism.

Her connections to her brother made her a target of the ecclesiastical authorities, led by Cardinal Beaton. Six years later, in 1534, she with some others was taken before an ecclesiastical court for her beliefs. Another brother, called James, who was also a supporter of the reformed faith, had to flee the country, and in his absence he was condemned as a heretic and his property confiscated, even although he was the Sheriff of Linlithgowshire.

Katherine was charged with ‘maintaining that none could be saved by their own works, and that justification is to be obtained exclusively through faith in the righteousness of Christ.’ She was not a theologian and she found the interrogation daunting and beyond her grasp. Yet she was not moved by the subtleties of what the church taught about works. Eventually she responded with this statement: ‘Work here, work there, what kind of working is all this? I know perfectly that no kind of works can save me but only the works of Christ, my Lord and Saviour.’

The King, James V, was her nephew; he was present at the trial and was amused by her responses. Because he wanted to save her life, he persuaded her to recant her statements, which she did. Shortly afterwards, she repented of her response and had to flee to England, and she lived in Berwick for several years. She was one of many that had to flee to England for sanctuary at that time.

How should we react to a woman who recanted her faith under pressure? First, we need to ask ourselves what we would do in such a situation. After all, what do we say when a hostile person verbally attacks us about our faith? Do we always stand up for Jesus? There is more than one way of protecting ourselves. 

Second, she was not the only person to recant. We are all familiar with the story of Thomas Cranmer, the English Reformer who recanted, and then repented of his denial and held his hand in the flame before he was burned to death. 

Third, while she and Thomas may never have seen each other, they did experience the blessing of repentance provided by the Saviour through the work of his Holy Spirit. 

Fourth, she lived for many years as a true follower of Jesus while unable to live in her native land.

Women of the Scottish Reformation (1)

Recently I spoke on Women of the Scottish Reformation. In this blog are my notes of what I said about women connected to the Lollards. Details about others will be given in subsequent blogs.

In 1560, Scotland became a Reformed country. The Reformation movement had been a long process, and 1560 would not be the close of opposition to it. We are familiar with several names of males who are connected to it, before and after 1560. What about women at that time? Not much information about female individuals has come down to us, and in this paper I have tried to include what we have received about them. We will look at women who contributed before 1560 to the Reformed cause and some who made their mark after 1560. It was not easy before 1560 and it was not always easy after that year either. 

Some want to trace roots of the Reformation in Scotland back to the Lollards connected to John Wycliffe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. His preachers did come to Scotland and at least two were martyred, one in Perth and one in St Andrews. John Knox in his History of the Reformation in Scotland mentions a well-known trial that occurred in 1494 in which several Lollards were tried for heresy. They are known as the Lollards of Kyle. Among them were two women, sisters; one was Lady Polkellie and the other was Lady Stair. The husband of a third sister was also on trial. While the trial petered out and the accusers did not get their way, the trial does remind us that it was dangerous to question the doctrine of the Romish church. What is clear is that women were embracing the Bible and some of them were married into the gentry.

Another account that comes down from this period concerns a couple, John Campbell of Cesnock and his wife Janet Montgomery. John’s father, George, was one of the Lollards of Kyle. Their story is told in a volume called The Annals of the English Bible, and its author describes the history of Bible translation and distribution in the British Isles. In describing what took place in Scotland in the period between Wycliffe’s translation and the more accurate version of Tyndale, he details what happened to this couple. They were charged with using their home for the promotion of heresy, which of course means that they were using their home to spread the faith. They hosted a priest who read to the family from the New Testament and turned it into their language (probably turning some of Wycliffe’s renderings into Scots). The topic of conversations in the home at times focussed on biblical doctrines and the religious errors they saw around them. They and their priest were betrayed by some monks they had shown hospitality to, and were charged with heresy.

John was frightened by the prospect of a negative verdict from the ecclesiastical powers and appealed to the king, James IV, who possessed exclusive authority to try such cases. Even this did not make John brave in answering the accusations. It was a different matter when his wife. She spoke bravely, competently and accurately about the doctrines for which she was on trial. The king was impressed by her and rebuked the monks and gave more land to John as a reward. 

This incident does tell us that there was not always harmony between the monarch and the religious authorities over the pursuit of religious dissenters and if the accused could argue their case they could win. We can also see that women were instructed well in what the Bible taught, and some of them were prepared to state clearly what they believed, even when their lives were in danger for their faith