Being Humble Before the God of Nature

Being Humble Before the God of Nature

Being Humble Before the God of Nature
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
4 Nov, 2020

“We’ve got to be humble in the face of nature…the virus is spreading even faster than the reasonable worst case scenario of our scientific advisers,” Boris Johnson said at a recent press conference. This recognises the limitations of science and human ability; we thought we had nature under control. We are smaller than we think, and things are greater and more complex than we can understand and regulate. Though we don’t see them, the world is full of viruses. Scientists tell us that there are more viruses on the planet than the stars we see in the sky. Most of them are good and beneficial, no doubt beyond what we realise. Others are harmful to us and we know only so much about how to deal with them. Although this recognition of our limitations is important, it is clearly easier to humble ourselves before a blind force rather than the God of nature. It doesn’t dent our pride nearly so much. Yet it ought to lead us to this. How indeed should our smallness in relation to God’s creation lead us to true humility before the Creator Himself?

Few places in the Bible explore this theme more fully than the closing chapters of the book of Job. God in His majesty uses aspects of creation to humble Job with a sense of His greatness and power. Why does God give so much emphasis to this? It gives us the right perspective, teaching us to think thoughts of His greatness and to use all aspects of creation to glimpse the sovereign glory of God. It brings Job to see that we often darken counsel by words without knowledge. In the following updated extract, James Durham points to what we need to learn from this part of Scripture. As he points out, “the great lesson of it all is to exalt God and abase the creature”.

1. God Humbles Us By Showing His Greatness

If we could observe, there is much of God to be seen in the meanest creatures. It is likely in this time that Job and his friends did not have the written Word, they, therefore, had a greater need to consider creation. Here we may see:

(a) God’s greatness, power, and might. We may see His stateliness and majesty, ordering all the creatures Himself and having a hand of providence about them. Job might and did read God’s dominion and sovereignty in these creatures.

(b) God’s absolute independence. He is free in relation to His ordering of the creatures, giving some wit and withholding it from others, giving some a dwelling, and others no dwelling.

(c) God’s care and tenderness. He provides for the wild goats and hinds and waiting on them when they bring forth (Job 39:1). This is an argument why He spared Nineveh (Jonah 4:11), besides so many souls there were many animals. But God’s providence about the ostrich and her eggs especially demonstrates His care (Job 39:14-18). He does as He likes directly or indirectly. This may be a comfort to poor orphans when children lack parents, God can provide for them. He who cares for the ostrich, will He not much more for them? Comparatively or chiefly, God’s main concern is not with oxen (1 Corinthians 9:9). God’s wisdom also shines here in appointing a suitable habitation for beasts that are not profitable, the rocks for some; the wilderness for others (Job 39:6 & 28).

See how earnest the Lord is that we would know Him and be convinced of His greatness and power. It must, therefore, be of great concern to us to understand God in the right way through His creation. It is a fault in us that we do not dwell more in meditation on the creatures to find out about God in them. Curiosity may put us to it for a little time, but we do not give ourselves to this meditation as we ought.

A right application from considering the creatures is to draw thoughts of God’s greatness from them. We ought to increase such thoughts by drawing from whatever excellence we find in the creature and ascending from that to considering the super-eminent excellence that is in God.

2. God Humbles Us By Showing Us Our Weakness

Another reason that God emphasises the creatures, is to point out our own weakness and ignorance. If we do not know the nature of the creatures, how much less can we apprehend God? If we do not know when a hind should calve, how will we know the deep things of God? Man is weak when he cannot outrun a horse or capture a wild ass or bird.

It also shows how little respect and thanks we give to God. Especially if we have never learned from the creatures to thank God for making the creatures subject to us when we cannot make them subject to ourselves.

3. God Humbles Us By Teaching Us Not to Dispute With Him

God also teaches Job a lesson from the creatures. He teaches him to stop his complaining and disputing with God. It is not fit that weak man should dispute with God. Weak man cannot fully understand the creatures or the depths of God’s providence in guiding heaven and earth. How then will he dispute with God about it? Though there is greater excellence and terribleness in God than in the creatures, yet man will be more afraid to grapple and contend with them than with God.

When God’s care reaches to these creatures, shall any questions God’s care towards His more noble creatures? He convicts Job for criticising God’s care concerning him, seeing He does not pass by the ostrich egg. Christ argues in the same way in guarding His disciples against anxiousness (Matthew 6:26) He that cares for the sparrows and ravens, will He not care much more for you?

4. God Humbles Us By Showing the Respect We Owe to Him

We do not have a true sense of the due respect we ought to maintain in relation to God. We are not beneath the creatures in many things, yet we cannot command them. Yet we do not walk with God with that due reverence which is fitting. This was an evil in Job, and it is an evil in us that we lack that due respect to God and His wisdom, power, greatness, goodness, providence etc that is fitting. We do not walk with due esteem of Him and with a stopped mouth before him, as becomes us.

The greatness and terribleness in the creatures should not only bring us to apprehend God’s greatness and terribleness. It should also bring us to submit to God, and say, “who can stand before this holy Lord?” (1 Samuel 6:20). It should make us more wary and watchful in our walk before God.

5. God Humbles Us By Showing He is No One’s Debtor

God is a debtor to no one, but none are not infinitely in God’s debt. There is nothing, not a bit of bread, nor a house to dwell in, nor anything else, that is not His. This should teach people to judge well of God and receive anything well from His hand. There are infinite applications that arise from this one word. People cannot take one step, but it is on God’s ground. They should therefore walk with an eye to God and strive to reciprocate though they cannot equal His favour. God’s interest in creatures should win our hearts more to Him and make us die more to created things. God will require us to account for them, therefore do not reckon them your own but His and use them with that in mind.

READ MORE

LIKE THIS

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.

What is Real Godliness?

What is Real Godliness?

What is Real Godliness?
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
22 Oct, 2020

Sometimes words lose something of their meaning through overuse. The word “godly” used as a cliché has suffered from this. For some, it appears to describe someone who seems to be a committed Christian. Perhaps outwardly right thinking and decent living. Yet godliness in Scripture is not a superficial thing. Indeed, it warns us of the mere appearance or form of godliness without the reality (2 Timothy 3:5). How should we define godliness then? It is an inner response to the things of God which shows itself in devoted reverence for God: it shapes our attitudes, words and actions. Thomas Watson says that it is “the sacred impression, and workmanship of God in a man, whereby of carnal he is made spiritual”. It is something glorious and supernatural that is both intense in its fervency and extensive in its influence. There is much more we can say of course about what true godliness is and how we can discern it.

Godliness has value and benefit for everything; it is great gain in this life and the life to come (1 Timothy 6:6; 1 Timothy 4:8). There is nothing, therefore, of greater consequence and concern than to know clearly what godliness is and be thoroughly serious in practising it. Yet as Paul makes clear it is not only possible to be mistaken about godliness but even to counterfeit it. There is an outward form of godliness which denies the power of true and real godliness (2 Timothy 3:5). Paul also shows that such can even be combined with certain sins that lurk beneath the surface of a religious profession (2 Timothy 3:1-4 and Titus 1:16). Things such as self-love, pride, boasting, covetousness and unholy despising of what is good. James Durham points out that “there is nothing more perilous to the people of God, than when sinful and selfish practices come clothed with a show and pretext of godliness, when deformation comes under the cloak of reformation”. In this updated extract, he shows us positively what real, true godliness is.

1. Real Godliness Has Power

Real, true godliness always has a power with it which a mere appearance of godliness lacks. There is an external part or form of religion and an inward power. Power means two things.

(a) Power to command

Real godliness has the power to rule sway and command a person so that they are not “brought under the power of anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). To be under the power of anything is to be under its dominion and command. To be under the power of sin is to be captivated by it, have it for a master and be ruled and commanded by it. To be under the power of godliness is to be under its dominion so that it sways, orders, directs, rules and commands a person (Romans 6:16). Obedience to righteousness in that verse is the same thing that is here called godliness. To be under the power of godliness is to obey it from the very heart (Romans 6:17,19), to be obedient to the doctrine of the gospel, to “the truth which is after godliness” (Titus 1:1).

(b) Power to effect

By power, we mean efficacy, so that true godliness has the efficacy to enable to perform and make practical what it commands. In power means effectual (1 Corinthians 2:4; 1 Corinthians 4:20). Where there is power, there is efficacy through the power of God that accompanies, when the Lord pleases, the preaching of the gospel. Some men may have fine and flourishing expressions without efficacy in preaching, while others may have a more unpolished style of language, yet with a great deal more life, power and efficacy. So there is a form of godliness that never effectually shows itself in practice or by putting any sin to death. But true godliness commands, it exercises dominion and reigns over a person; it directs and commands them and they give willing and hearty obedience to it. It not only brings them to profess religion, but it also works inwardly in the heart and has efficacy in subduing sin within.

Where true godliness is, the Spirit is, and where the Spirit is, there is power (2 Timothy 1:7). The Spirit brings along with Him power, inward life and efficacy. Where true godliness is, there is faith, and faith has power with it. There is the exceeding greatness of the mighty power that works effectually in those that believe (Ephesians 1:19). Faith has power in it, enabling us to overcome the world (1 John 5:4). It has the power to purify the heart (Acts 15:9). All things are possible to those that believe (Mark 9:23; Philippians 4:13).

2. Real Godliness Has a Convincing Power

It has a convincing power, that where the hearts of men and women are naturally proud and defiant against God, godliness makes the Word pierce deeply and strike through. It makes convictions penetrate and the person to accept them, bringing his heart under deep impressions of the awe and dread of God.

3. Real Godliness Has a Transforming Power

It has such a renewing, changing and transforming power that makes a new creature and old things to pass away and all things to become new (2 Corinthians 5:17).

4. Real Godliness Has a Restraining Power

It has a restraining power on corruptions and lusts and does not allow them to reign and exercise dominion as previously (Romans 6:14).

5. Real Godliness Has a Constraining Power

It has a constraining power, impelling us forward to that which is good, and well-pleasing in the sight of God. It is impossible where godliness is in power, that men can be unconcerned in their duty. It makes them yield themselves to be servants unto righteousness, as it is in Romans 6:16. It leads captive high thoughts and imaginations to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:51). It makes us so that we dare not, will not, cannot (willingly at least) resist any commanded duty, no more than we dare or can dwell contentedly with any known sin. It makes us dare not resist or reject any of God’s commandments, nor regard any iniquity in our heart (Psalm 18:22 and Psalm 66:18).

6. Real Godliness Has a Mortifying Power

It has a mortifying power towards anything that seeks to compete with precious Jesus Christ in the person’s esteem. It blackens the beauty and splendour of them all in this competition. It demotes them to the very lowest degree of baseness and vileness so that in comparison of Him, they are reckoned but as loss and dung (Philippians 3:7-8). It breaks off the delight we once had in idols (Hosea 14:8; Isaiah 30:22].

7. Real Godliness Has a Calming Power

It has a heart-quieting, calming, composing and fixing power. The mere form of godliness never has this, but it leaves a person still unfixed and the heart not established. “It is a good thing,” says the apostle in Hebrews “that the heart be established with grace, not with meats” (Hebrews 13:9). Grace is opposed to meats here, that is to questions and debates about meats and other such things. Those things have a show of godliness and do not profit those who are occupied about them. Only grace establishes the heart.

8. Real Godliness Can Be Distinguished from False Godliness

If many could be prevailed with to examine our godliness according to these marks, it would be found that there is but little true godliness among us. Where is the power of godliness! Yet wherever true godliness is, it has power with it. This power reaches to a very great extent, reaching our spirit and walk, our thoughts, words and actions. It even affects our very looks in some way. It made Job to make a covenant with his eyes (Job 31:1). It orders everything, not by fits and starts, but constantly in some measure as our desire, purpose and honest endeavour. And if at any time the influence of its power is not felt or weakened, that becomes our burden and affliction.

(a) Real godliness has much self-denial while false godliness has its source in self-love. It denies self in relation to our own righteousness, it humbles us under a conviction and sense of our sin and misery. It makes us deny ourselves in excessive self-love, submit to God’s will in all things. It makes us love God more than our own pleasure, profit or preferment, or anything else in the world. False godliness cannot bear anything in godliness that crosses its corrupt inclination. They will not humbly suffer any injury, but true godliness teaches the Christian to turn the other cheek. False godliness is all for action and doing in the outward things of religion, but not at all for suffering. True godliness commends and commands both, to do for Christ and be also ready to suffer for Him if we are called to it.

(b) Real godliness makes us focus on religious duties that are more inward and spiritual, as well those that are more outward. It inclines us to repentance, faith in Christ, putting sin to death and self-examination. The life of religion consists mainly in these. False godliness neglects inward and spiritual duties and is more concerned with keeping up the show and appearance of religion.

(c) Real godliness stirs us up to exercise grace. Natural conscience stirs us up to outward duty, but real godliness stirs us to exercise patience, submission, humility, sincerity, love to God and the saints. These are fruits of the Spirit and of the new creation that evidence life.

(d) Real godliness makes us engage in duties in the right way. It makes us pray and praise in the Spirit, sorrow for sin in a godly way, hear the Word so as to be edified by it etc. False godliness only considers whether the duty is done rather than whether it is done in the right way. It is only challenged for not praying or not going to church rather than whether prayer is wholehearted and they hear the sermon with benefit.

(e) Real godliness makes us wrestle against shortcomings in our spiritual growth and sins. Weakness in faith and coldness in love are a grief to us. Hypocrisy is as grievous to us as open sin. False godliness piles up outward religious practices and profession but does not lay a sure foundation. It is like someone who sows much seed but does not take care to weed it and remove what obstructs its growth. True godliness digs deep.

Conclusion

These considerations should not discourage us but rather encourage us to seek true godliness. In a culture that is obsessed with image and appearance, we are easily and subtly drawn to give an emphasis to outward more than inward things in terms of faith. Both are necessary but it is dangerous to let one crowd out the other.  Since it has value and benefit for everything in this life and the life to come, true godliness should be our greatest pursuit (1 Timothy 6:6; 1 Timothy 4:8).

READ MORE

LIKE THIS

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.

4 Ways Sovereign Grace Must Impact Us

4 Ways Sovereign Grace Must Impact Us

4 Ways Sovereign Grace Must Impact Us
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
30 Sep, 2020

Sadly, it’s all too possible for people to be so opinionated about theological matters that they can even become obnoxious. They can become ungracious even when speaking about grace itself and somehow proud of the deeper understanding they have gained. Those who are new to any kind of convictions can be especially prone to this. This is not to minimise the truths themselves. It does not undermine the importance of having an accurate understanding of the Bible and a concern that others would share in it. It is rather about the spirit and manner in which this is done. Scriptural teaching is intended to humble us and increase our love for God, not merely puff us up with knowledge. What impact then ought sovereign grace to have on our hearts and lives?

What do we mean by sovereign grace? It is the powerful work of God on the heart to transform it by grace and raise it from death to life spiritually. This is described in different ways (Jeremiah 31:34; Ezekiel 11:19; Ezekiel 36:26-27; Jeremiah 32:40; John 6:44; Ephesians 1:19). These verses, amongst others, describe the work of conversion and the new birth. As James Durham puts it; this is a distinct, inward, special, real, immediate, efficacious and powerful work of the Spirit of the Lord. It is the work of sovereign grace that is necessary for conversion. The soul is convinced of sin and humbled for it; the mind is enlightened in the knowledge of Christ. The will and affections are renewed and persuaded to embrace and receive Jesus Christ as He is offered in the gospel.

This is best illustrated in Lydia (Acts 16:14), it is said of her “whose heart the Lord opened, that she might attend to the things that were spoken of Paul”. Here we find:

(a) It is a distinct work

The Lord’s powerful work on her heart is distinguished from Paul’s preaching to her ear; the Lord opened her heart. It is not as if there were some power infused into the Word. Although it accompanies the Word, it is a distinct person working a distinct work. Thus it is separable from the Word, though it is done in the heart of the same sinner to whose ear the Word is preached.

(b) It is an inward work

It is on the heart. Besides the outward preaching and calling of the Word, there is an inward, powerful, effectual work and calling by the Spirit in the conversion of a sinner. This speaks to the heart as the Word speaks to the ear. This work of the Spirit as part of conversion is much more than any external persuasion or the preached Word can produce.

(c) It is a special work

It is not all who hear Paul preach whose hearts are opened, but it is the heart of one Lydia. It is peculiar to those whom the Lord converts and is applied to none others except those in whom He works faith and whom He effectually calls by His grace. It is a special work and not common to all who hear the gospel otherwise it could not be said that this report had not been believed and the arm of the Lord not revealed (Isaiah 53:1)

(d) It is a real work

It makes a real inward change on her. It is real and powerful in producing and bringing about the renewing of the will and faith in the soul. It is a real, powerful work of the Spirit, bringing about the conversion of the sinner.

(e) It is a direct work

For the Lord not only enlightens her understanding, but goes down to the heart and opens it, and works a change in it directly or immediately. Paul indeed, by his preaching, opens the way of salvation to all that heard him; from which, though many go away with their hearts unopened, yet the Lord has a secret mysterious, real, inward work on her heart, which is evidenced by the effect. He not only enlightens her mind but makes her willingly yield to the call of the gospel, by opening her heart. It is not simply a moral persuasion; it is God’s enlightening the mind, and by that persuading the will to be united with Christ.

How then should such sovereign grace impact us?

1. Be Humble

Learn from this to be humble. What do you have that you have not received? And if you have received it, why boast as if you had not received it (see 1 Corinthians 4:7). It is unsuitable for believers (who are unashamedly free grace’s debtors and beggars) to be proud and forget themselves. You have nothing, believer, to boast of, except that God has humbled you with his grace and should you be proud of that as if you had made yourself thus? Therefore guard watchfully against all puffing-up, self-conceit, and high-mindedness. Strive to be humble and to keep a low sail, or else you may break out into some scandalous offence and become a shame and reproach to the gospel.

We commend humility to you above many things; for we think that in these days, folks’ pride is likely to break their necks. When conceit first creeps in, they begin to think they are so far advanced in holiness, that they must not keep company with others, nor join in worship with them. From that, they go to another thing, and from that to a third so that it is hard to tell where they will stop or end. They become so giddy, that they are scarcely likely to leave themselves enough ground to stand on. Be ashamed of pride; it is a most intolerable thing to be proud of that which God has given, for which you had no responsibility of which you can no more boast than those who never had it. 

2. Be thankful

Give God the praise for what you have received. It is becoming for the upright to be thankful (Psalm 33:1). It is no small thing, to have God’s power manifested in producing faith and conferring grace. The thrones, kingdoms and great things of this world are nothing to this. It is peculiar to the Lord’s own and not common. Many get their fill of the world who never got nor will get this. The world is of so little value with the Lord, that (so to speak) He does not much regard who gets it, though it is exactly distributed by His providence. But converting and upholding grace is peculiar to His favourites. If you are clear that He has bestowed grace on you, how you should exult in blessing God (as David did) for giving counsel to choose such a portion and for His powerful determining of your heart by His grace to embrace it. You do not have yourselves to thank for this, but God.

3 . Be compassionate

Be tender towards others, considering that it is only grace that has made the difference between you and them and not any good nature in you which was not in them (as some foolishly imagine). Do not be puffed up at the faults and falls of any, but rather mourn for them as well as for your own. Be the more humble when you think of the difference that grace has made, left you fall. Since you stand by grace lone, do not be high-minded, but fear. Of all persons, it befits you worst of all you to regard lightly never mind mock at the falls of others, considering who and what has made the difference.

4. Be Holy

If it is so special a privilege to be partakers of this powerful and special grace of God exerted in the great work of conversion, there is surely something special called for in your conduct. It must be worthy of the gospel in all things and correspond to this grace bestowed on you. What kind of person ought you to be in all holy conduct and godliness (see 2 Peter 3:11)?

 

 

READ MORE

LIKE THIS

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.

What Happens When Christ Opens Doors for the Gospel?

What Happens When Christ Opens Doors for the Gospel?

What Happens When Christ Opens Doors for the Gospel?
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
7 May, 2020

Has the coronavirus prompted more concern about spiritual things? To some extent, yes. Google searches on prayer for 95 countries during this crisis have increased to the highest level ever recorded. The Danish author of the study, Jeanet Sinding Bentzen said she found that “search intensity for ‘prayer’ doubles for every 80,000 new registered cases of COVID-19.” The Pew Research Center also reported increased prayer in the USA. 44% of Americans have also said that the COVID-19 coronavirus is a “wake-up call for us to turn back to faith in God.” One of the UK’s largest online Christian bookstores, Eden, has seen physical Bible sales rise by 55 per cent in April. It is too early to say how significant this is or how the impact of this will be sustained or if it is a window that is already closing. But it should spur us to prayer ourselves. Perhaps you have heard of other indications of increased interest. Whether or not this is a window of opportunity for the gospel, it is helpful to consider what Christ means by an open door and its relevance to us. In these days of disruption for churches there is tremendous encouragement in it.

Scripture speaks about an open door in a number of places but especially in Revelation 3:7-8. It gives the encouragement that Christ is Head over His Church and opens doors that no one can shut. He has all power and authority in relation to His Church. It uses the language of Isaiah 22:20–22 and the authority given to Eliakim. As James Durham points out in the following updated extract, we can draw great reassurance from this.

It encourages us that Christ Jesus, as Mediator, has special oversight and government of the church He is completely sovereign so that when He shuts no one can open and vice versa. None of His orders can be obstructed, He has an exalted name above every other (Philippians 2:9) and no one can compete with His authority. He is holy and true (v7) and therefore cannot wrong any, nor fail in fulfilling His promises.

Ministers and churches can (like the church in Philadelphia) wrestle with great difficulties, weaknesses and distresses and these reassurances are given to encourage them. It shows them that Christ will support and comfort them in their trials. An open door is God giving opportunity to do good by the gospel (1 Corinthians 16:9; It is not only freedom to preach the gospel, but also God’s blessing on it (2 Corinthians 2:12).

It is as if Christ says the following to the minister of the church in Philadelphia who is said to have only “a little strength” (v8). “It is not for nothing that I have the key of the house of David, and open and no man shuts. I have given you commission to preach My gospel, and given you access to labour in My work of the ministry with some measure of success for doing good to souls.”

By assuring him that no one can shut this door, it is as though Christ is saying the following. “No one will hinder My work in your hands; no enemies or difficulties that you can meet with shall stop you. I have sent the gospel among you and given you ability to preach and the people ability to benefit. As I have sent the gospel among you, I will keep it among you, so long as I think good; no matter who may oppose it.”

1. What is an open door?

By an open door, Scripture usually means the Lord making way for the beneficial preaching of the gospel. This does not mainly consist in having ability and freedom, without any external restraint, to preach the gospel. It especially refers to God giving inward liberty to the preacher His blessing the Word, making it effectual and successful on the hearts of hearers. This is called, a door of utterance in Colossians 4:3, when a minister is not restrained in preaching the gospel, but as it were, the door is thrown open to him. In 2 Corinthians 2:12 it indicates God sending him in a special way and removing difficulties out of the way to make his ministry successful there. In 1 Corinthians 16:9 an effectual door is opened even where there is much opposition.
2. What does an open door imply?
It implies several things

(a) Ministers have their limitations
That there is a limitation in ministers who cannot make the gospel as productive as it ought to be. They cannot make the gospel as effective as it will be when the Lord sends forth the Spirit and enlarges a man to speak it with boldness. In this respect a door of utterance is opened to him, as clear from Colossians 4:3.

(b) Congregations have their limitations
That there is a further hindrance in that the ears and hearts of hearers are so locked up that the Word has no entrance but is repelled. The Lord opens this door, when by the work of His Spirit on hearts (like Lydia, Acts 16:4) He makes the Word to be received and admitted. Thus, Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:1, urges them to pray that the Word may have free course, that is, that there be no shut doors to hinder its progress. Both liberty for the minister to speak and blessing and success among the people are meant here.

(c) Providence maintains the Word
An open door also includes God’s providence in keeping the Word ministered and ordinances in a place with liberty in preaching and hearing. This may be despite many malicious opponents. No one can shut it.

3. Why does Christ open the door at certain times?

Christ is supreme and sovereign in giving gifts to men as well as liberty and inward freedom to make best use of them He also gives a blessing on them in making them successful. Gifts will not make a man able to preach unless the Lord gives a door of utterance. Even the great apostle Paul needs this (Colossians 4:3). Merely having utterance will not produce fruit among the people if the Lord does not open an effectual door and give the Word free course among them. Where there is most of the gift of utterance, there may be less success than where there are fewer gifts. This is because He whose privilege it is to set doors open, opens the door of utterance more fully to one, and the effectual door to the other, and does not open both equally to all.

4. What happens when Christ opens a door?

When Christ opens the door in this way, success cannot but follow necessarily and inevitably. No person or devil can shut out or impede it when He pleases to bless His ministers and commend the Word to the hearts of hearers. The meaning particular for the angel or minister here is. “I have called you to this ministry, and have given you some measure of utterance, though you do not have much ability. I have especially ordered matters so as the Word from you will have free course and success. No matter who rages against it, this will not be obstructed.”

This shows us that gifts and success in the ministry are different things. There is a little strength here (in relation to gifts) yet an open door (in respect of success). We find throughout Paul’s Epistles that a distinction is made between his liberty to preach on the one hand, and God’s opening an effectual door to him on the other.
Christ makes the Word successful, He gives both the gifts and the success. Not everyone experiences the same blessing. An open door is set before some more than before others or not at all before others. This is clear from comparing this and other epistles together.

5. How do we recognise an open door?

An open door cannot be discerned from a man’s gift alone. A door may be shut where there are great gifts. Paul did not always have this door open to him, at least it was more in one place than another. We cannot conclude there is an open door from a man’s freedom from external afflictions in a place, or the great following he may have. There may sometimes be many adversaries where this effectual door is opened (1 Corinthians 16:9) which is not the case where there is great peace and praise. Here are some ways in which it can be discerned.

(a) When a minister gets the door of utterance opened and the ears of the people are opened to it which is not a flesh pleasing desire to have ears tickled but with someone’s gifts but a simple, diligent love to be edified and receive good.
(b) Where there is real change and much solid work; the people are made humble, serious, spiritual sensitive, fruitful, etc. rather than merely opinionated
(c) When the devil attacks and opposes the ministry of one more than of many others.
(d) When the devil and ungodliness are defeated in a place by the preaching of the Word.
(e) Where there are new converts.

6. How should we make best use of an open door?

(a) Diligently, as a man that is to reap corn that is already ripe.
(b) Humbly, with self-denial, lest his pride robs the Master of His glory with dire consequences for himself.
(c) Watchfully. He should make use of it with fear, lest he or any other bring about a miscarriage in this birth because of unskillfulness. He should also proceed with watchfulness, lest the devil sow tares while he is sleeping, and it prove to be false without reality in many hearers. This is Paul’s concern; he was conscious of his own and their weaknesses (1 Corinthians 2:3).
(d) Zealously, so that the authority of Christ may appear in His ordinances both to adversaries and friends.
(e) Solidly, by making the foundation sure and giving solid food to souls such as the substantial gospel truths and the plain duties of holiness. It is dangerous to bring such a people too soon to the new wine of the most sublime things in doctrine, or the highest practices of mature Christians. It is better that they are fed on milk and what is healthy and nourishing than to please their appetites by diverting them with useless questions.
(f) Dependently, God is the Master and He has appointed a great Steward over the house, who has the keys laid upon His shoulder. The minister has no inherent right to such blessing but is subject to the Master’s good pleasure. Christ must be acknowledged in every step of the
work as it is has been done, or is being done.
(g) Single mindedly, this is the great aim of all preaching in public and private i.e. the edification and salvation of the people, and forming Christ in them by travailing, as it were, in birth for that purpose.

Conclusion

Here is some helpful biblical insight in discerning true opportunities and blessing provided by Christ. We can identify when Christ is at work by His Spirit in a more extraordinary way. If we feel discouraged about the prospects of the gospel and preaching being blessed, we can see that Christ can work in the most unlikely of circumstances. He can make use of anyone who is serious and faithful in serving Him and who does not seek to take the glory to themselves.

This is an encouragement to those ministers who feel that their gifts are nothing special compared to others. They may actually witness greater blessing than others. It is also an encouragement to congregations to be faithful to their minister whether or not they think that he has the gifts of a more prominent preacher. They should greatly value the preaching they hear if it is faithful to Christ and His Word. If Christ chooses to bless it, the more humble ministry may possibly be more fruitful. be more blessed. Christ shows both ministers and people that as mere men they are insufficient for any such thing, they must look to Him. It is not gifts that commend a minister to Christ, but faithfulness in making best use of what he has received (Matthew 25:14–30; Luke 19:11–27).

It should encourage us to pray for the success of the gospel and the ministry of the Word. May the Lord open many such doors in our generation.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION

This updated extract has been taken from the first volume of James Durham's exposition of the book of Revelation covering the first three chapters. It has now been republished. It also includes many valuable essays offering unique insights. The text has been collated with a 1653 manuscript and an appendix contains texts and full lectures that are significantly different than the published edition of 1658.

READ MORE

LIKE THIS

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.

What is Absolutely Essential?

What is Absolutely Essential?

What is Absolutely Essential?
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
2 Apr, 2020

Recent weeks have forced us to define what is essential. What are essential grocery items? What is the “non-essential” travel and contact with others we have to avoid? Much of socio-economic life has coasted to a halt in response to the definition of essential. Countries, communities and individuals may all have different definitions of essential. “Recent events clearly demonstrate that the process of designating ‘essential services’ is as much about culture as any legal-political reality about what is necessary to keep society functioning,” said Christopher McKnight Nichols, associate professor of history at Oregon State University. Some of the readjustment may indeed make us reassess lifestyle and consumption. These microscopic organisms against which we have neither prevention nor cure are paring back a great deal of the bloated decadence of our culture to the very essentials. But take a step backward and consider the widest possible perspective. What in this world is truly and absolutely essential? It’s easy to miss it.

There are many essential things for maintaining life and preserving our safety and health. We do not want in any way to minimise the practical emphasis given to these aspects of loving our neighbour as our moral duty. Yet the thing that is absolutely essential above all things is studiously ignored by so many, including most of our leaders. Other things are merely temporary and will leave people at some time or other. But this one thing and this only, will stay with them forever if they have it.

This is why there is only one thing absolutely essential and necessary. Jesus Christ has identified this one supremely essential thing (Luke 10:42). Clearly it is related to the eternal good of our souls in relation to God. James Durham explains further what it is. He speaks of peace with God through Christ and Godward living. This is living in fellowship with God, glorifying and enjoying Him.

1. What cannot be absolutely essential

(a) No created or temporary thing can be absolutely essential.

It must be something which cannot be taken away from us, something spiritual, eternal and entirely satisfying.

(b) No mere form of religion can be absolutely essential.

We can be sure that this mere outward profession can and will be taken from us (Luke 19:26; Matthew 7:21).

(c) No particular aspect of religion can be absolutely essential in itself.

Happiness is not promised to only one aspect but to uninhibited godliness and obedience to God’s will in general. Mary sat at Christ’s feet and heard His word (Luke 10:42). She was justly commended by Christ on that account. Yet it is not for that in itself but as it evidenced her love to the Saviour, her respect to godliness and her eager and earnest desire to get her soul saved by Christ.

2. What is absolutely essential

It can be summarised in the following way. Peace with God through the Lord Jesus with a view to the salvation of our souls. The sincere practice of true godliness, communion and fellowship with the Father and His Son.

This is not the mere hearing of the Word (though it is our indispensable duty). Rather  it is using the Word as a means of our daily progress in holiness and godliness, and of our peace and reconciliation with God. And therefore this one thing can be nothing else except the life, power and practice of godliness. It is all one and the same thing, whether we call this one necessary thing Christ, religion, or the salvation of the soul. The eternal salvation of our souls is the goal of godliness. Our union and communion with Christ is the means of attaining this. It is always inseparably connected with the practice of sincere piety (1 Timothy 4:8). This one thing then is godliness in its spirit, power, and substance.

This is what the psalmist desired (Psalm 27:4). Not to attend God’s outward appointed worship only but to be lively in religion, to have communion with God in His sacred institutions, and to have the amiable and desirable hope of enjoying God in heaven. This is the one thing, which comprehends many other things, the making of our peace with God, through Jesus our peace-maker and Mediator, and the study of the power and practice of godliness, that our spirits may be saved in the day of the Lord.

3. Why it is absolutely essential

This one absolutely necessary thing does not encompass every kind of necessity. Food, drink, clothes, health, strength, and other things are also necessary in their own way. But there is nothing absolutely necessary except this one thing. The believer may lack other things, but cannot be without this.

(a) God commands it

We may please God and have His approval even though we are not rich in worldly goods, or in reputation, or do not have health and strength. We are not commanded to be rich, but we are commanded to be godly, to be at peace with God, to be sincere in fulfilling every commanded duty.

(b) It makes us truly happy

True religion is the one thing necessary to make us happy here and hereafter. There is only one thing absolutely necessary inseparably connected with our welfare and happiness. It is not the many things some are troubled and anxious to obtain. It is this one thing, the practice of godliness and our peace with God, which can make us happy.

The meaning of Luke 10:42 is as though Christ had said, “Martha, your mind is taken up with many things and you are troubled with them. That is all the benefit you get from them. Trouble yourself as you will, to get all things right, they will not be governed by you nor can they satisfy you. But there is one thing necessary for the saving of your soul—namely, the practice of godliness and peace with God. This is absolutely necessary for your blessedness; but the other things you are anxious about, are not.”

There is nothing absolutely necessary for the happiness of men and women, but godliness and peace with God. This is  making sure of our own salvation and holy calling through Christ Jesus.

A person may have all other things but if they lack godliness they cannot be happy. A person may lack all other things but if they are godly and have peace with God, they cannot be miserable. No other thing can mar his happiness. If then the possession of other things cannot make people happy, and the lack of them cannot make them miserable, then surely no other thing is absolutely necessary to promote our welfare but true religion.

  • It must be spiritual. That which concerns someone’s happiness must be spiritual,  incorruptible and immortal. The soul of man is spiritual and it must have a spiritual source of happiness.
  • It must be perfect. No imperfect thing can make anyone happy.
  • It must be eternal and unchangeable. One cannot be happy today and miserable tomorrow. If it is a thing that is subject to change, it cannot make us happy.

All the idols in the world put together have none of these three things. They are not spiritual, and cannot satisfy the soul; they are not perfect, but have some defect. They are merely temporal and not eternal: a man may be taken from them or they from him. 

(c) It ensures our spiritual welfare

Without godliness, a soul will never be well. Godliness is not only commanded, but useful and profitable for all things, and so absolutely necessary. This may commend godliness to you above all other things: it our happiness consists in it, and this cannot be said of any other thing in this world.

The godly man has the most contented and cheerful life and the most joyful and comfortable death (2 Corinthians 6:10; Philippians 4:11-13). Godliness brings God’s favour, friendship and peace. His promise and covenant is that they can lack no good thing or happiness, though they lack the things of the world. All those who are blessed in heaven have perfect happiness without the things of this world.  

Conclusion

It would be a great blessing if we were in these times to return to what is absolutely essential; glorifying and enjoying God. This is the essence of true godliness. Perhaps some other things (although perhaps necessary in their own way) have been distracting us from this. Or perhaps we have been content with an outward appearance of godliness while in practice denying its real spiritual power (2 Timothy 3:5). We now have the opportunity to ensure that our primary focus is what is most glorifying to God and for our own true spiritual happiness. Let us not lose it.

READ MORE

LIKE THIS

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.

The Most Foolish Thing You’ve Ever Done

The Most Foolish Thing You’ve Ever Done

The Most Foolish Thing You’ve Ever Done
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
14 Feb, 2020

“I have behaved foolishly”. Politicians and other celebrities seem to find it easy to acknowledge the stupidity of their actions when found out. They now regret what they did due to the consequences. But they often don’t seem to acknowledge the serious moral culpability of what they have done. “Foolish” seems a breathtakingly ego-centred way of trivialising sin. Many people are willing to admit to “foolish” actions. It’s easy to think about doing foolish things in a casual way. Looking back, we can identify things we either regret or are ashamed of. We’re thinking of the exceptions rather than the rule. But let’s take a closer look at describing sin as foolishness. Perhaps it tells us more than we realise at first.

The Bible often describes sin in terms of foolishness (Mark 7:22), especially in the book of Proverbs (19:3; 24:9). The Psalmist confesses his sin in these terms (Psalm 38:5; 69:5). There is a moral aspect to folly and an insanity in sin. James Durham deals with this in the following updated extract from a sermon on Psalm 85:8.

1. SIN IS THE GREATEST FOLLY 

Sin against God is an exceedingly great folly. It is the most foolish and the maddest thing in the world. Therefore, it is called folly here, i.e. folly in the extreme. It is that which most mars and interrupts the peace of saints. What verse 2 calls “iniquity” so graciously pardoned, is called folly here. This is because of the folly and madness that is in sin. This is the reason that the sinner is so often called a fool and simple in the Book of Proverbs (see Proverbs 1:20-33). In Ephesians 5:15 the Apostle exhorts Christians, to walk not as fools but as wise. In Luke 15:17 the Prodigal Son is said, when converted, to come to himself. That is, as if he had been beside himself, all the while he was going on in his sinful way.

(a) Sin is madness in its futility
Is it not folly for a man to sit abusing and wasting away his time, to be given to filthiness, to neglect prayer, to curse and swear, to let his mind rove on things that never were nor will be, and in which there is no profit? There is great futility in sin.

(b) Sin is madness in its consequences
If we look at the sad and bitter fruits of sin and the great harm that comes by it, it is evidently desperate madness and pleasure purchased at too high a price. Such pleasure is only imaginary and not real. It mars the life of grace and peace with God. It treasures up wrath against the day of wrath (Romans 2:5). 

You can see this in Ahithophel, whose counsel to David and Absalom was so shrewd that it was as if one had enquired at the oracle of God (2 Samuel 16:23). The upshot of his deep wisdom was utmost folly, however, when he went and hung himself. The rich man who had been wise to store up lots of good for himself was addressed as a fool. His soul would be taken from him and then whose would these things be (Luke 12:20)? What advantage or wisdom is it for someone to gain the whole world, if they lose their own soul (Mark 8:36)? What a mad and foolish bargain. 

(c) Sin is madness in its appearance
If we look at sin from a spiritual perspective we will see folly in its very appearance. A wicked man in sinning looks as like a fool, as David did, when he played the mad man before the king of Gath (1 Samuel 21:13). Is it not folly to see someone labouring in the fire, and wearying themselves for nothing and pursuing the east wind (Habakkuk 2:13; Hosea 12:1)? They are like a man who is delusional and imagines himself to be a king, riding in great state and triumph, when he is only a poor, pitiful creature, to those who see him. 

(d) Sin is madness in its cause
No just or relevant reason can be given for sin. It is, therefore, no doubt, folly. Can anything demonstrate man’s folly so much, as their contending with God, walking in the way of death and leaving the way of life (Proverbs 1:22)? The Word of God is true wisdom and the way of life is clearly show in it with God as our pattern. Is there anything more reasonable than that we should live in conformity to the Word of God and to Him we ought to follow? But sin opposes the whole Word of God and God Himself. 

Strive to firmly believe this truth; that sin, whether it is doing what is forbidden or neglecting duty, is the greatest folly (Romans 6:21). Ultimately this is what everyone will find out to their cost. If we could discern spiritually the condition of most men and women, who are still unregenerate and despise the offers of grace and will not receive Jesus Christ. The most insane person in the world would not be a sadder and more pitiable sight to us than the lamentable case of such souls who forsake their own mercy and following after lying vanities. 

2. WORDS OF PEACE FOR THOSE GUILTY OF THE GREATEST FOLLY 

Despite the greatness of this folly, even God’s people (“saints”) commit many acts of folly. He speaks peace to them in the following ways.

(a) Inviting them. He urges them to return and assures them that He will heal their backslidings (Isaiah 55; Jeremiah 3; Hosea 14). He preaches peace to them through Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2; Revelation 3:18-20). 

(b) Pardoning them. He requests them to be reconciled (2 Corinthians 5:20). He discharges their debt (Colossians 2:13-14; Jeremiah 50:20; Isaiah 40:2).

(c) Assuring them. He not only makes peace but declares that peace to the pardoned sinner (Mark 2:5; Mark 5:34; Psalm 35:3). He comes in and dines with them and one main dish on the table is peace (John 14:27). 

3. AVOID RETURNING TO THE GREATEST FOLLY AFTER SUCH WORDS OF PEACE

Even those saints who have been given to folly and to whom God has spoken peace may return to folly. After peace was spoken to David, he fell into adultery and murder. After a sweet word of peace was spoken to Hezekiah (Isaiah 38), he falls into the folly of pride and vain boasting (Isaiah 39). After peace was spoken to Peter, he denies his Master. After Jehoshaphat had peace spoken to him he fell several times into the same sin even after he was reproved for it (2 Chronicles 18-20). How soon and how suddenly they fell into sin.

(a) Avoid even comparatively little sins. Beware of saying “it is a little sin”. The devil drives sin and temptation as a carpenter drives a wedge. If you let in the point of the wedge by a little sin it will become a great one before it is finished, just like the thick end of the wedge follows the thin end.

(b) Avoid sins of omission. Some may not commit open sins but instead neglect prayer. They may misspend and trifle away their time.

(c) Avoid formalism. Beware of a cold-hearted way of worshipping God in public or private. God, the all-seeing God observes whether you are whole-hearted, sincere and serious in the duties of religion.

(d) Avoiding neglecting spiritual duties.
These include self-examination, self-denial, putting sin to death and making use of Christ. Neglecting these is gospel folly, not making use of Christ as our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30).

(e) Avoid unbelief.
The heart has a secret, natural inclination to this, especially in difficulties. 

(f) Avoid heart idols. Perhaps you will not give way to grosser sins but your souls will instead be carried away by the idols of the heart. You allow vain, proud, covetous, revengeful, and filthy thoughts. But if Christ gets the heart, He must reign in it and command it completely.

(g) Avoid the love of the world. Guard yourself against excessively pursuing after the things of this world, however lawful in themselves. This can destroy more souls than things that are sinful (Luke 14:16-24). 

4. HELP TO AVOID RETURNING TO THE GREATEST FOLLY 

Durham gives twelve helps to avoid returning to folly after God has spoken peace to us. 

(a) Walk in fear (Psalm 2:11; Proverbs 16:18; Philippians 2:12; 2 Corinthians 7:1)
(b) Watch and pray (Matthew 26:41; Mark 13:37).
(c) Keep your heart (Proverbs 4:23).
(d) Renew your vows to God.
(e) Repent for past folly (Psalm 51:3)
(f) Abide in Christ and His strength (John 15:4-5).
(g) Fulfil your vows (Ecclesiastes 5:4).
(h) Reject all temptations (Hosea 14:8).
(i) Examine your obedience.
(j) Walk humbly, not trusting your heart (Proverbs 28:26).
(k) Help, exhort and edify each other (Hebrews 3:12-13).
(l) Do not sin against conscience (1 John 3:20).

 

READ MORE

LIKE THIS

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.

5 Ways to Diagnose the Hidden Idols of the Heart

5 Ways to Diagnose the Hidden Idols of the Heart

5 Ways to Diagnose the Hidden Idols of the Heart
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
15 Nov, 2019

Many things can creep into our hearts as hidden idols.

If we stopped to look at it we would see how they weave themselves into our everyday thoughts and actions. We don’t admit it to ourselves but they do get more attention than God and seem to offer us more meaning and happiness. Some things are more obvious: success, work, image, material possessions, even smart phones. But heart idols go even deeper than you think. They are bound up with the deepest emotions and instincts of our heart and that is what keeps them hidden. If we are serious about putting God first we need help in diagnosing what is taking His place.

James Durham explains the subtle ways in which we commit heart idolatry and helps us to diagnose it. The heart Idolatry need not be an avowed conviction that we should worship something or someone other than God. Neither is it restricted to letting ourselves fixate on sinful things. We can be committing idolatry when we let ourselves love or value lawful things–things which are good and legitimate in themselves–to an excessive degree.

5 WAYS TO DIAGNOSE tHE IDOLS OF THE HEART

There are five things which indisputably belong to God: respect, love, confidence, reverence, and service.

It’s not that we should give no honour, love, etc, to anyone other than God, but that we should not love or serve anyone or anything too much, i.e, more than God.

When we veer away from giving God these five things, we are in effect committing idolatry in our hearts (Ezekiel 14:1-7). What does this mean?

1. WHAT DO YOU RESPECT?

We commit idolatry when anything – even any good and legitimate thing – gets too much of our respect, so that our happiness depends on it. We can’t do without it, while we can do without communion with God. If something happens to deprive us of this thing, and then by comparison all our other comforts, including the promises of God and God himself, are of little value to us, this shows that that thing had too much of our respect.

2. WHAT DO YOU LOVE?

We commit idolatry when we give our hearts away to created things – we’re addicted to them, we pursue them with excessive energy, we dote on them, or we sorrow immoderately when we lack them. A covetous person, who loves the world (1 John 2:15) is called an idolater (Colossians 3:5, Ephesians 5:5). Ahab loved Naboth’s vineyard so much that he could not rest without it (1 Kings 21). Demas idolised the world, when for love of it he forsook his service with the apostle (2 Timothy 4:10).

There are three ways to tell if your love to created things is excessive.

  • If your contentment depends on them to the extent that you fret when you cannot enjoy them, as Ahab did with Naboth’s vineyard, and Rachel when she had no children (Genesis 30:1).
  • If your love for created things competes with God, so that respect and love to the world shuffles out your duty to God, as it did with Demas.
  • If love to the world undermines your zeal in doing your duty towards God. This was the case with Eli (1 Samuel 2:24). Eli honoured and loved his children above God (1 Samuel 2:29). Not that he tolerated their wicked wrongdoing entirely, but because he did not intervene as sharply as he should have (and likely would have, if they had not been his own sons). By contrast, Abraham is commended for showing his love for God, because he did not hold back his only son when God called for him.

3. WHAT DO YOU PUT CONFIDENCE IN?

Putting our confidence in humans or human thing is idolatry. If we place our protection in humans, even in princes (Psalm 146:3) or in crowds, or in horses and armies, we are idolising them. Rich people may “make gold their confidence and fine gold their hope” (Job 31:24). They regard themselves as safe, not because God has a providence, but because they have these resources. Asa trusted doctors and not God for the cure of his disease (2 Chronicles 16:12). The rich man based his rest for his soul on his full barns (Luke 12:19).

You tell that some people’s confidence is misplaced because of the course of action they take when trouble comes. Some people do not hesitate to make use of sinful means to get things sorted. Or, because of the fuss they make when disappointment comes. Or, because they rely on their resources in a way that spoils their resting in God and his providence.

4. WHAT DO YOU FEAR?

We may fear people, or events, more than we fear God. Fear can make us sin, or at least keep us back from doing what we should, either in little things or important things. Some, for fear of the Jews, did not confess Christ (John 12:42). This makes an idol of our actual enemies! We have more fear for “the one who can kill the body”, than for “him who can destroy both soul and body”! In this way great and important men in the world are idolised. In fact, the same thing can happen to good and well-qualified individuals, if we become addicted to them and their words and opinions, not so much because of the truth or reasonableness of what they say, but because of the personalities themselves.

5. WHAT DO YOU SERVE

When we are brought under the power of any thing, to serve it, that is idolatry. Every person or every whim that we set out to please is in this sense an idol. We cannot serve two masters, both God and mammon, and if we “serve men”, we are not “the servants of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

You can identify this kind of idolatry by seeing, for example, what people are most excessively taken up with, and most careful to accomplish. Or, by looking at what people will go to greatest lengths to attain. Or, by what gets most of their time and energies. Or, by what most sways, and overcomes, and overawes them most, so that they cannot resist it, even supposing they have to thrust aside a duty to God, or it puts them out of sorts for duties of worship.

WHAT KIND OF IDOLS CAPTURE OUR HEARTS?

It would be hard to speak of all the various different idols which may be loved, feared, and rested on too much, and so put in God’s place. Let us look at only a few.

1. THE WORLD

The world is the great clay idol that both covetous and hedonistic people hunt after, calling, “Who will show us any good?” (Psalm 4:6). This idol keeps thousands in bondage. An excessive desire to have the world’s goods, and so to have a prestigious reputation in the world, is the idol of many.

2. THE BELLY

The belly is a shameful god (Philippians 3:19), yet one worshipped by the majority of people, who labour for nothing more than for enough in this life to fill the belly (Psalm 17:14). They only want to earn their living and provide for their families. The fear of want captivates and enslaves many.

3. THE SELF

In some ways, the self includes every kind of idol. Your self, your reputation, your good name, people’s approval–your own will, opinions, beliefs, and conclusions. People are said to “live to themselves” (2 Corinthians 5:15), in contrast to living to God, when respect to self influences them to be “lovers of themselves” (2 Timothy 3:2, 4), and “lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (Titus 1:7) and “self-willed” (2 Peter 2:10).

4. INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE

Gifted or influential people, who have the power to do us considerable good or evil, are often made into idols when people put too much fear, love, or trust in them.

5. THE COMFORTS OF LIFE

Things which can lawfully be used as comforts and contentments–such as houses, spouses, and children–we can be too much addicted to. We can become absorbed in these things–even though they are in themselves very little–and so they turn out to be our idols.

6. SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS

Our prayers, repentances, blameless living, and so on, are often invested with more of our confidence than they should be. We rely too much on them for our salvation and eternal peace (Romans 10:3).

7. CHURCH

The purity of our worship, the forms of our worship, our church membership, can become idols. When we rest on these forms of godliness, and do not press on towards the power of godliness, they become our idols. This was the problem with the Jews, who appealed to the temple of the Lord and the covenant between him and them, and their external relationship to him (Jeremiah 7:4).

8. GIFTS FROM GOD

When we lay too much weight on God’s gifts (such as beauty, strength, intelligence, learning), or think too much of them, we make them into idols. In fact, we may put grace itself, and the sense of God’s love, and inward peace, into Christ’s place. We may sometimes seek for these things more than for Christ himself. When things like these are rested on, and delighted in, and Christ is slighted, or when we miss them and do not delight in him, then they are idols.

9. AN EASY LIFE

Ease, quietness, and our own contentment, can often be a great idol. This is how it was with the rich man, who told his soul to take ease (Luke 12:19). His ease was his idol, seeing how he rested on it, and made it the chief end of all his buildings and the goods he had to store. But his riches were his idol, seeing how he grounded his expectation of rest on what he possessed. Similarly, many idle people, who frame their life so that they will have no trouble, even though they are not being or doing anything profitable, make this the drift of all they do–to have an easy life. If this was not their chief end, it would be profitable, but when they neglect many necessary duties, only to avoid hassle, it is their idol.

10. ESCAPISM

Sometimes our minds please themselves with things which never exist except in their own imagination. Solomon calls this “the wandering of the desire”, as opposed to “the sight of the eyes” which others delight in (Ecclesiastes 6:9). Some people spend their gifts and skills on writing novels, romances, stage plays, and comedies. Even more subtly, yet perhaps even more commonly, people concoct imaginary and fictious scenarios where they get the revenge, delights, or prominence they desire.

11. PROFESSIONALS AND EXPERTS

The means which God normally works by, are often trusted in and relied on to such an extent that they become idols. These could be doctors, armies, or ministers–or inanimate natural causes. Worse than that, astrology and palm-reading are much prized but the Scriptures treated as antiquated and largely discarded.

CONCLUSION–THE REMEDY FOR HEART IDOLATRY

In order to honour God truly and have no other gods before Him (Exodus 20:3) we need a right response to Him. God must be esteemed, loved, trusted, feared, hoped in adored, honoured, served and obeyed above all else. In a word, He must be the supreme purpose of all our actions.

We must also depend on God and submit to Him. We must rest believingly on Him and express our faith and repentance in prayer.  There must be delight in Him and constant fellowship. We must also meditate on God and diligently use all of the means He has appointed for us to deepen our response to Him,.

READ MORE

LIKE THIS

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.

The Kind of Prayer No one is Too Busy For

The Kind of Prayer No one is Too Busy For

The Kind of Prayer No one is Too Busy For
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
10 Oct, 2019

Many people know that their prayer life suffers at the expense of a busy life. But no one is too busy for spontaneous prayer. This isn’t about unwritten as opposed to written prayers. Neither is it asking someone to pray with you on the spur of the moment. Spontaneous prayer is like a reflex reaction to something rather than a deliberate act of getting on our knees to address God. It’s woven into the fabric of life. A silent and brief cry, groan, plea or breath. It expresses our dependence on God. 

It is an earnest cry not a casual, lazy wish (Nehemiah 2:4). Spontaneous prayer is not just an emergency cry but a necessary duty. We need to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and with all kinds of prayer at all times (Ephesians 6:18). It is something that can be part of our everyday life and duties. It expresses our dependence on God and keeps us in a spiritual condition. There are thousands of opportunities that we have for this kind of prayer and it helps us make best use of our time. James Durham explains the benefits of spontaneous prayer as well as showing the type of opportunities we can make use of for this.

THE SPIRITUAL BENEFITS OF SPONTANEOUS PRAYER

(a) It keeps our heart in the right condition

It makes us sensitive to spiritual things. It keeps the heart from wandering from God.

(b) It helps prevent gross sin

How many sinful thoughts and unadvised words this might prevent.

(c) It helps us in our spiritual duties

It keeps us fervent and lively in formal prayer. When we find it difficult we can send up a short request to God for life and help. It also helps us in hearing the Word aright, when we ask that ministers may get liberty and all boldness and those who listen do so with love, faith and meekness.

(d) It helps us have a peace of mind that passes all understanding.

We cn take delight in fellowship with God. Spontaneous prayer gives us a sight of God now and then and a right perception of Him in our minds.

(e) It is often clearly successful.

Jacob, Moses, David, and many other saints obtained what they sought from God when they prayed in such a way.

(f) It helps us make best use of our time.

We are kept from being idle by being spiritually exercised and have great peace and comfort. It helps us in our business and employment.

THE RIGHT OPPORTUNITIES FOR SPONTANEOUS PRAYER

We should watch out for all kinds of opportunities for this type of prayer in our daily lives. The following is general guidance about such opportunities as it would be hard to give specific directions about all the possible opportunities for spontaneous prayer.

(a) When You Cannot Pray Formally

God may give you an opportunity for this kind of prayer when you do not have opportunity engage in formal prayer. You may be travelling, walking or hearing someone else speak. It is a kind of prayer that will not mars not obstruct your ordinary employment. You may pray in your shop, at your door, or when you are walking in the street or when you are in company with others, or when you are lying on your bed. All these are precious opportunities that might be best used for this important purpose.

(b) When You Are Engaged in Momentous Things

When you are about any business of great weight and moment. Nehemiah had such when he was before the king. If any of you are witness to the solemn administration of the sacrament of baptism or involved in it. If you are employed in something that concerns your life or concerns, then you should offer some reverent requests to God.

(c) When You Experience Difficulties

When there is any difficulty in something we are engaged in, as when David was among the Philistines, or when he was before the king of Gath.

(d) When you are Tempted to Sin

When there are temptations in your way, and you are in danger of sinning you need this kind of prayer. If you find yourself in bad company, or if you engaging in anything that is delicate or dangerous such prayers are necessary. Pray when you encounter trials or temptations in any calling or company. Before you speak a word or give an answer, send to God a request for direction.

(e) When Sin Rises Up

When you find any impulse rising up in your heart to do wrong, when you are provoked or anger or revenge is stirred up. Moses evidently prayed to God in Exodus 14:15-16 when he was answering the murmuring of the people.

(f) When Something Unexpected Happens

When some very extraordinary thing occurs which you had not anticipated beforehand you need such prayers. When Ahithophel joined Absalom against David he prayed that God might defeat his counsel (2 Samuel 15:31). Something may happen to you in relation to your family or friends, which may discompose your minds. This is a fitting opportunity to cry to God.

(g) When You Are Engaged in Spiritual Activities

When you are called to engage in spiritual activities: to read God’s Word, meditate upon it, pray to or praise God you should offer some desires for God’s help. Or when you meet with others, before you open your mouths to speak, seek to be guided aright of God (Genesis 49:18). When you have to speak reproof, comfort or advice to a friend it would be very proper to have a word or thought sent up to heaven that it may be effectual.

(h) When You are in Trouble

When you are in some great suffering or affliction which requires greater than your own strength to bear cry to God.

CONCLUSION

Here is a type of prayer that we can make use of anytime and anywhere. We cannot say that we are too busy for it. It will not interfere with what we are doing and the busier we are, the greater our need of God’s help. We must be careful to maintain a reverent spirit and use expressions that are suitable for expressing to God. But it will do much to maintain a sense of spiritual things in our minds. Durham asks some searching questions. Is it not entirely unsuitable that we profess continual dependence on God but spend most of our day without acknowledging Him? Should we not have God’s company all day long if we want to know fellowship with Him? What do we put in place of such prayers? What things do our minds run after–are they not often things that cannot benefit us?

READ MORE

LIKE THIS

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.

Christ’s Message to Your Church

Christ’s Message to Your Church

Christ’s Message to Your Church
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
4 Oct, 2019

Christ’s message to your Church is a call to reform. It’s about spiritual reformation as well as outward reform.  It is easier to be consumed by outward activity rather than motivated by inward love and grace. Activity is highly visible; our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is largely invisible. The big danger for us all, when we’re focussed on issues, pressures and commendable activity, is that we neglect our inner spiritual health. It’s easy to fall into the temptation of outward faithfulness, yet inward decay. We have to be prepared to ask ourselves, “Have we done that?”

The fact that the Lord Jesus Christ wrote a challenging letter to Ephesus in the second chapter of Revelation means that this is a matter of primary concern to Him. James Durham says that we should consider this as if Christ were writing a letter to our Church. He explains that, “our Lord Jesus is the faithful witness” and shows us that when Christ says that He knows their works (Revelation 2:2), He is saying: “I know all your inward and outward works”:

 

  • what you have done in the church,
  • your way of administering all things in the church,
  • all your outward conduct in all these things,
  • your spirit in going about them,
  • the manner in which you are doing them,
  • the aims you had before you in doing them

“I know them perfectly, exactly, and thoroughly”.

1. CHRIST’S MESSAGE OF ENCOURAGEMENT

He has been identifying what was very outwardly commendable in the Church in Ephesus. He commends their zeal, faithfulness, hard work and patient endurance for the sake of Christ’s name. They had not flinched from defending Christ’s truth.

(a) Their Labour
Christ identifies the painstaking concerns and labour of the ministry in the Word and doctrine. He also takes notice of and approves the conduct of the respective members of this church in reference to their duty.

(b) Their Perseverance
They had suffered. Christ knew very well all the persecution and suffering they were enduring. There was the ill-will of some within the church against them and all the malice of others outside it. Christ knew all the troubles Satan and those whom he uses had caused. He saw how patiently, submissively and constantly they had borne it all.

(c) Their Zeal
They are also commended for their zeal in carrying out church discipline—they could not bear with those were evil. They were courageous, and zealous against corrupt individuals trying them, condemning them and not tolerating them. They tested their doctrine and teaching and whether those who taught it had a true calling from Christ.

“Christ does it all lovingly. Because He loves us He does what is necessary for our spiritual growth.”

2. CHRIST’S MESSAGE OF REPROOF

What could be wrong with them? For all that there is to commend, Christ has something very serious against them. They had left their first love.

What does leaving their first love mean? It is something inward. It is the grace of love in the heart and, as far as their Christian life was concerned, they had left it.

(a) Though they were outwardly zealous in the form of religion, yet they had fallen away from the inward spirit of tenderness that they once had. They were more taken up with duties that concerned the wellbeing and condition of their church, than with the inward duties of holiness. They had an outward zeal for religion, and an indignation against corrupt teachers that came in to corrupt it. They also had perseverance in suffering for it, but they had a coldness of affection in doing these things.

(b) They had not fallen away from grace itself. They still had grace but they had fallen away from exercising it to the extent and degree that they once did. They had fallen away from their first love rather than love itself. Believers are at first warm in their love in doing duties to God and to another. Christ’s reproof can be summarised as follows. Despite all I have commended you for, there is something in you that is not right. Though you are zealous in outward things, you come short in duties of mercy and in your love to one another. You are not as warm in your love to me, nor so single-minded in doing things for me as you once were.

Christ’s charge against us is defection

Defection inwardly. Not an outward defection from the truth and purity of doctrine, nor from the outward duties of religion, but an inward defection, declining in the way we exercise grace. We have not been so careful to maintain the way we exercise grace before God, as much as we have been to be seen of others.

Defection in love. Especially defection in love to God, and love to one another. This may be seen in our lack of love and sensitivity.

Defection in spirit. This is a defection in the way we do our duties. The duty may be commendable, but the principle from which it flowed may be grounds for rebuke.

Therefore, look at this epistle as if Christ were writing a letter to Scotland. In his letter, He is saying, that despite whatever purity and zeal you may have, yet you have fallen from your first love. Much of your love, warmness and tenderness has gone away. There is a decline and defection from the way grace is exercised. The sin is ours; the duty is ours; and the threatening also belongs to us. If there is anything commendable, it is more in outward form than reality. Believers are liable to decline from their first love, if not from their steadfastness.

3. CHRIST’S MESSAGE OF RECOVERY

He counsels them not just to repent but tells them how to go about repenting.

Christ never convicts us of sin without giving directions about recovery together with it. His direction here is in these three steps: remember, repent and do the first works. The goal of repentance is to be stirred up to reformation and steadfastness in well doing. Remembering brings us to repentance, and repentance brings us to reformation.

If Christ were charging us with a sin, it would be for falling away from first love. If He were calling for a duty from us, it would be to remember from where we have fallen, to repent and do our first works. We have not only fallen away from love but from that awe of God that should be on the heart. Remember this and other things, repent and do your first works.

 

4. CHRIST’S MESSAGE OF WARNING

He warns them in the most serious terms of what will happen if they do not.

He threatens the removal of the candlestick or lampstand. The candlestick is the church of Ephesus (see Revelation 1:20). This was not simply the people who made up the church but them professing, submitting to and living according to what Christ had appointed in the church, especially the means of grace. Removing the candlestick is God’s threatening to make them no longer a church. It implies removing the means of grace, the gospel and the ministry from them (see Matthew 21:43 and Acts 13:46).

Christ removes the candlestick from a people when He lets loose error which corrupts purity of doctrine (an essential mark of the church of God, and the foundation on which the church is built, Ephesians 2:20). He removes the candlestick by allowing disorder so that they abuse the freedom that the gospel has given them. They begin to show a secret desire for novelty and give themselves up to delusion. We have reasons to fear God’s threatening to remove our candlestick all these ways.
There is no greater judgment a church can be threatened with than the removal of the candlestick. There is no more serious threatening that can be given to a church or people in a church.

FURTHER REFLECTION

We have developed a resource, based on James Durham’s insights into the passage, to help you reflect more deeply on how Christ’s message to the church in Ephesus applies to you and to your church. It is called Outside In: Four Sessions to Help you Recover Your First Love for Christ. It will help you to think through carefully all of the many lessons that Christ wants the church to put into practice. 

“The way forward spiritually is to look back first.”

Outside In

Four sessions to help mature Christians

recover their first love for Christ

New Bible Study

Ideal for individual study

or small groups

BOOK KICKSTARTER

The material in this article has been extracted and updated not only from the Commentary on Revelation that Durham published but also from manuscript notes that have not been published. There is a project to re-publish Durham’s book on Revelation with its many helpful essays which will incorporate these manuscript notes.

READ MORE

LIKE THIS

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.

How Do I Know if My Repentance is Genuine?

How Do I Know if My Repentance is Genuine?

How Do I Know if My Repentance is Genuine?
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
16 Aug, 2019

Did I mean it? How sorry was I? Do I really want to change? Many have nagging doubts over their repentance. That’s often valid. Paul tells us that there is true and false repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). Paul also makes clear that repentance isn’t just sorrow; that can also be genuine or false. Repentance involves our feelings. But if we only ever assess it by our feelings our conclusions about whether it is genuine will always be subjective. How do we get beyond this?

It’s important to have a serious attitude about this. If we aren’t confessing our sin, what are we saying? That we have no sins? That we haven’t sinned? Then we are making God a liar (1 John 1:8). It would also mean neglecting the blood of Jesus Christ that continually cleanses us from all sin. We need to keep coming in repentance because we keep sinning. If we keep sinning without repenting we harden ourselves in it and cannot have true fellowship with God.

It helps to establish first what we mean by repentance. James Durham gives a helpful definition. Repentance is a work of sanctifying grace, arising from the sense of sin forgiven and hope of future mercy. It makes the heart both indignant against past sin and warmed with desire and love towards the mercy they expect. This repentance goes along with faith, which acts to attain the hoped for forgiveness with a thorough impression of the freeness of forgiveness alongside the person’s felt sinfulness. This is the godly sorrow which is spoken of in 2 Corinthians 7:11 and in other places where repentance is required in order sin to be forgiven. It also involves turning from sin and seeking to obey God.

In the following updated extract, Durham goes on to speak about how we can identify genuine repentance. It isn’t simply about what kind of feelings we have and to what extent they are experienced. There are more objective ways to identify whether repentance is the real thing or not.

1. Genuine Repentance is Not a Particular Degree

The Lord does not require some categorical degree of repentance, but He does require sincere repentance together with the fruits that naturally accompany it.

2. Genuine Repentance is Not a Particular Emotion

You cannot judge the sincerity of your repentance only by the sorrow, horror or grief that sometimes accompanies it. Nor can you judge it by how long you continue in such emotions while repenting. Repentance can be genuine even when there is little sense of these things. Experience demonstrates this. Repentance may be unsound when there is a great deal of felt sorrow, even over a long period of time.

3. Genuine Repentance has the Right Causes and Effects

The best way to judge the sincerity of repentance is by its causes and its effects. It is a good sign if repentance is caused by a concern about God’s honour. The effects of this concern are that: sin becomes hateful to you, you are humbled in yourself and you value and esteem God’s grace in Christ Jesus so highly that you are in love with it. This is turning, properly understood, and it includes all the essential features of repentance whatever may be the degree of sorrow.

4. Genuine Repentance May be Explicit or Implicit

Repentance is explicit when people know that specific things are sins and that they themselves are guilty of these sins. They then expressly and explicitly acknowledge this and turn from these sins. Other times, repentance is implicit. This is when people are moved with the sense of their sinfulness in general. They may still be guilty of some things which they do not realise are sins, or they do not realise they are guilty of these sins.  There are also many matters of fact which people forget, or did not notice, or do not think about. The psalmist prays to be cleansed from secret sins (Psalm 19:12). Implicit repentance is necessary for pardon, but it is not necessary that repentance should be explicit for every particular sin someone is guilty of.

5. Genuine Repentance May be Actual or Implied

Sometimes repentance is actual for particular sins. For example, when Peter repented of his denial, and David repented of his murder. Other times, repentance is implied. Someone may have a heart concern about some particular sin and for the corrupt inclination and body of death which it sprang from. Yet there may be other particular sins which they either do not realise are sin or they are not particularly thinking and repenting about. They do have an implied repentance for these sins. This is because: (a) They repent of all sin in its root and seed. This implies a loathing for all the sins which branch out from this root; (b) The sins they do repent of are repented of due to what is common to all sin–lack of conformity to the law of God. They detest the essence and defining characteristic of sin as such, and in this sense they repent of all sins by implication. It is this principle that is necessary for true repentance.

6. Genuine Repentance May be Passionate or Perceptive

Repentance may be impassioned when the heart experiences a high degree of sorrow. Other times, repentance is perceptive. This is when sin is seen and acknowledged and (although there may not be such intense sorrow) sin is still regarded as something to sorrow for. Indeed the heart is sorry that its sorrow for sin is not deeper and the person realises they are so far under the power of spiritual deadness that they cannot even repent as far as they see they should. This perceptive repentance has the essential effects of repentance (namely, that the person hates sin, is humbled, and loves God’s mercy in Christ). Intense passionate feelings may not always, however, have these effects.

7. Genuine Repentance May be Complete or Confined

Sometimes repentance is all-encompassing, taking up the whole person in their affections and actions. This can be seen in David’s experience in Psalm 51. Other times, repentance is limited to the renewed (regenerate) part of the person. The renewed part may be lamenting sin and the tyranny of the body of death, even while it is kept in bondage by it. This constrained repentance is what Paul shows in Romans 7:15, where he condemned what he did but was overcome by his own sinfulness. Despite this he like Ephraim bemoaning himself (Jeremiah 31:18) was a true penitent.

8. Genuine Repentance May be Obvious or Hidden

Repentance may obvious to everyone or to the person themselves, because they have been clearly recovered from sin. This was the case with the repentance of David, Peter, and Manasseh. Other times, repentance is known only to God. Even when there are no visible evidences to others, or indeed even any change of which the person themselves is conscious, repentance may be genuine. This may be said of Solomon and Asa, their change is not very discernible because the Lord has left them under something of a cloud in His Word. Yet we cannot doubt that they did genuinely repent because they were pardoned.

This has been ordered by the Lord in His deep wisdom: (a) partly to chastise their backsliding; (b) partly to terrify others from their backsliding path and (c) partly to make all men cautious about passing judgement on the state of others despite their condition. For the Lord Himself alone must make the sovereign and infallible decision about whether they are truly penitent and believers or not. He can produce faith and repentance and recover and renew as and when He pleases.

Conclusion

We don’t want to think we have repented while actually just putting our conscience to sleep while we continue in sin. We want a repentance concerned about God’s honour and glory. We want genuine repentance that hates all sin in principle, that humbles us and values God’s grace in Christ above all.

READ MORE

LIKE THIS

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.

Does Church Discipline Matter?

Does Church Discipline Matter?

Does Church Discipline Matter?
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
9 Aug, 2019

Who these days wants authority–especially if it might restrain your freedom? Church discipline won’t be high on the checklist of many Christians looking for a new church. And ministers and elders worry about driving people away by seeming negative. Does anyone worry about church discipline any more? Isn’t it just up to the individual and their conscience? Church discipline may not matter to many people but it matters to Christ. And that ought to make us think. At the Reformation they said that discipline was one of the signs of a true church. Why? Because it’s one of Christ’s main tests of whether a church meets His approval.

James Durham reflects on how when the Lord Jesus Christ emphasises the matter of discipline when He writes to churches in Revelation 2-3. The following is an abridged and updated extract from Durham’s discussion of this theme. He also mentions the great benefit of church government and discipline to individual believers in the Sum of Saving Knowledge. Christ has ordained this gift for His Church so that they are hedged in and helped forward towards keeping the covenant.

What do we mean by church discipline? It’s one of Christ’s gifts to His Church to prevent and correct open disobedience to His Word (2 Corinthians 10:8; Matthew 18:15-20; Matthew 16:19). It involves doctrinal error as well as matters of behaviour (Titus 3:10). Church discipline arises from Christ’s love to His people (Revelation 3:19). Its purpose is Christ’s honour and the Church’s good by avoiding others being tempted to sin in the same way or being harmed spiritually. The spiritual good of the person involved is also in view, it is intended to bring them to repentance.

Discipline may involve private correction or more public rebuke (1 Timothy 5:20). Other cases may involve removing some of the privileges of church membership such as participating in the Lord’s Supper. At its most serious it may be excommunication from the Church (1 Corinthians 5:13). We are always to hope that it will be temporary because it brings the person to repent (1 Corinthians 5:4-5; 2 Corinthians 2:6-10)

1. Church Discipline Matters to Christ

The topic of church discipline is very prominent in the letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2-3). When a church is commended or rebuked, it is often largely down to whether they are faithful or defective in administering church discipline.

This shows not only the lawfulness of church government and discipline but also its usefulness, and how necessary it is to the church of Christ when it is faithfully exercised. It is a special means and ordinance appointed by Christ to edify the church. It is not something indifferent which church officers can exercise or not exercise as they please. Rather they have the responsibility to exercise church discipline.

Ministers and elders need to be faithful in this if they want to receive Christ’s commendation on the one hand, and avoid His sharp reproof on the other. They need to be faithful in this for the sake of the people over whom they watch over (and for whom they must give account). Faithfulness in this will prevent people from stumbling and being destroyed. It will also help see them edified and built up in the faith instead.

2. Church Discipline Matters to Satan

It is therefore no wonder that the devil is so busy trying to oppose church discipline or undermine it. In the early church he represented church government as inconsistent with civil government and a threat to it–leading emperors to persecute the church. Then he perverted church government into something that tyrannised church members, making even the concept of church authority seem harmful or repugnant to believers. More recently he has been insinuating into people’s minds the idea either that Christ has given the church no distinct form of government at all, or else that the church should be governed in another way from what Christ has appointed in His Word.

Often, those who oppose the scriptural form of church government and the scriptural nature of church discipline do not oppose the truth of the gospel. Nor do they intend to sow confusion in Christ’s church. Nevertheless failure to exercise scriptural church government and discipline are very advantageous to Satan’s kingdom and very detrimental to Christ’s.

3. Church Discipline Matters to the Church

Failure to exercise church discipline matters greatly to the wellbeing of the church. Neglecting church discipline:

  • obscures the beauty and excellence of Christ’s church and leads people to undervalue it
  • makes it harder to restrain or remove errors in doctrine and stumbling others
  • excludes the opportunity for edification which church discipline provides. The penalties available to civil authorities only extend to making people socially acceptable, not spiritual. But if someone is at fault in some way and they are given a church censure, it edifies others and brings greater conviction to the individual’s conscience about the sinfulness of their fault. This is because church discipline flows immediately from Jesus Christ. It reminds people more directly of His authority and the fact that they are answerable to Him. A verbal church censure (which is in itself only a very light thing) carries much more weight and makes much more impression in terms of edification and conviction than a severe civil penalty would
  • makes it look like it does not matter to the church that there are church members who believe or behave in perhaps very ungodly ways. If the church used the authority that actually belongs to her, to purge out unfaithfulness in doctrine or practice, there would be no grounds for anyone to say, “What sort of persons would those church members be, if there wasn’t some other authority restraining them?”
  • casts aspersions on the wisdom and holiness of our Lord, as if He has left His church incapable of dealing with these problems on her own authority
  • weakens and obstructs the other ordinances of the church. It breaks down the boundary marker for the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. It makes church offices such as elder and deacon useless and it makes preaching contemptible. If you deny that the church has the authority to administer discipline, then either the minister has to carry out the disciplining arbitrarily by himself or discipline must be left undone altogether
  • allows the devil to succeed in making religion seem like something you can use to advance your own self-interest

4. Church Discipline Matters to Believers

Upholding and submitting to church authority is a necessary duty which concerns all of us (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). If what we have said about church authority is true, then submission must follow. It is the duty of ministers and elders to discipline (even those who have caused others to stumble). Since this is so, it is also the duty of those who are disciplined to submit and the duty of the church to acknowledge these decisions. Hebrews 13:17 says that we are obey them that rule over us, and submit to them.

People are often very suspicious of ministers and elders, suspecting that they grasp at power for its own sake. They fear that they will be authoritarian and abuse their power. Church authority has always been regarded by the unconverted as bondage, and church officers are always regarded as too proud and rigid etc. But people should seriously consider the following.

  • Is that the fault of the ordinance of church discipline itself or of the individuals who hold office in the church? If the fault is in the individuals, why should it be imputed to the thing itself in this case, more than in other cases?
  • Is there anything in a church office which prompts this authoritarianism, more than in any civil office? It seems unlikely on the face of it.
  • If we look more closely at ministers and elders, there is less reason to be so suspicious of them. No one else’s position and qualifications are so specifically regulated in Scripture as the office of minister or elder. No other office is so deliberately filled by conscientious and qualified individuals. Nor is anyone else so circumscribed by beneficial rules when they exercise their authority.
  • Think of what these individuals are like in themselves, even if they were not church officers. They are men of tenderness, conscience and gifts; just like people in any other position. Looking at their qualifications and manner of life, you could well imagine that they might hold other positions, such as judges or rulers, without anyone being suspicious of them more than anyone else in that position. If that is the case, then why should a church office make them more liable to suspicion, rather than less?
  • Who fumes most at church authority? It is those who are inclined to looseness in practice or error in doctrine and cannot abide any such restraints. Those who are bitterly opposed to discipline are also also against preaching that rebukes and spiritual authority in general.
  • It is often the most faithful and zealous church officers of whom people are most suspicious. This has always been the case. Think of how Elijah and John the Baptist were treated, for example. Yet this really only reflected how people found the doctrine and power of the Word unbearable.
  • Suspicions about church authority tend to arise mostly when church officers are serving Christ, and people tend to entertain such suspicions mostly when they are least spiritual. No one has been able to take comfort from their opposition to the faithful exercise of church authority when on their deathbed, although contempt for it has often lain heavily on their consciences in such circumstances. What advantage indeed comes from opposing church authority? Only greater freedom to sin and the fewer ways to reclaim people from sin. And if censures are administered in a way that only lets people laugh at their sin, without reaching their consciences to convict them, how does that benefit anyone?

Conclusion

The right exercise of church discipline has never been detrimental to anybody. Godliness and church discipline flourish hand in hand. Congregations are best placed when church discipline is most vigorous. And the sad effects of the lack of church discipline evidently demonstrate how necessary it is.

 

READ MORE

LIKE THIS

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.

How to Listen to a Sermon

How to Listen to a Sermon

How to Listen to a Sermon
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
15 Feb, 2019

Hundreds of thousands of minutes. That’s a lifetime total of hearing sermons. But listening to sermons involves far more than clocking up time staying awake during preaching. Despite the amount of time we devote to this, clear guidance on how to listen to sermons is rare. Christ says that it matters how we hear the Word (Luke 8:18). The benefit we derive depends on the way we listen. So how ought we to listen?

It’s important that we benefit from the preaching we hear. We have ears so that we might listen to God’s Word (Matthew 11:15; Mark 8:18). And when we do listen we need to understand, it is a solemn thing to be always hearing without understanding (Mark 4:12).  Our hearts and lives should produce fruit from what we hear (Luke 8:15).

We also need to pay attention to what we hear as well as how we hear it (Mark 4:24). When we compare what we hear in sermons with what Scripture says we are also listening in the right way (Acts 18:11). Although something preached may not seem to be exactly what we think we need right now, we are to store it up for when we will need it most (Isaiah 42:23).

No doubt online sermons have been beneficial to many. But if they incline us to think less of preaching in reality and in the context of public worship we are not listening in the right way. Particularly if people feel they can skip church and listen at home. Perhaps it doesn’t seem so attractive as listening to their favourite celebrity preacher but it is God’s appointed context.  There is a bond between a minister and his congregation that is absent from an online sermon from another preacher. We are not to be sermon tasters but sermon doers.

In this updated extract, James Durham gives some helpful advice for how to benefit from hearing the Word preached. Listening well to a sermon begins before we ever get to church. As the Larger Catechism puts it, we need “preparation and prayer” before going to hear the Word preached. This is where we need to start.

 

1. Listen with Preparation

This involves:

  • praying for the speaker;
  • praying for ourselves that we may profit by the Word;
  • preparing ourselves to be in a spiritually settled condition for such an activity;
  • seeking to have the right estimation of the Word;
  • blessing God for His Word and for any good received beforehand by it.

 

2. Listen in Person

We need to be present to listen (Acts 10:33). If we are absent from church, neglecting gospel opportunities we are not listening in person. Neither are we properly there in person if we are sleeping during the sermon when we should be listening.

 

3. Listen with Expectation

We should go to hear with an expectation of and longing for the presence of God or of meeting with Him. We come with hunger and thirst as new born babes, having laid aside anything that may hinder receiving it with desire (2 Peter 2:1-2).

 

4. Listen to God

When we are called to hear the Word we meet with God in His ordinances. We must be present, as before God, to hear, as Cornelius was (Acts 10:33). Go to hear out of respect for God’s honour. Go to hear out of conscience not out of mere custom or for appearance’s sake.

We must look to God, receiving the Word as God’s Word, not as man’s (1 Peter 1:23-25; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 4;11). There is a special fear which we ought to have before His name. There ought therefore to be trembling and fear in our attending to these ordinances (Isaiah 66:2; Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 and Malachi 2:5).

 

5. Listen with Your Whole Heart

Listening is more than hearing, especially if the sermon is heard, but it is not understood (Matthew 13:13). But there is a danger when though it is understood, it is soon forgotten. We must avoid letting the Word slip out of our mind and rather retain and store up what we hear (Luke 9:44).

Listening involves devoting our ears and memories to what is preached. Not wandering in our minds and thoughts (Ezekiel 33:31-32). We must not devote only our ears and memories, however, but also throw open our hearts to the Word, to let it sink down in them.

 

6. Listen with Submission

We must not go to hear with prejudice. Faith must mixed with hearing, giving credit to the Word. It is a great sin not to believe God’s Word when we hear it (Hebrews 4:1-2).  This happens when we fume against the reproofs of the Word and quibble with its teaching as well as when we reproach it rather than ourselves.

 

7. Listen with Dependence

We must renounce our own resources to depend on Christ in seeking to hear the Word.

 

8. Listen in the Right Way

We should thirst after the pure milk of the Word, that we may grow by it. We are not listening in the right way when our ears itch for novel expressions, words or things (1 Timothy 4:3). Neither must we give more weight and attention to things that are novel compared to duties or truths already known.

When the same truth, expression, or verse cited by one preacher is not respected and received as much as when it spoken by another we have partiality. We are respecting men in a way contrary to James 2:9. The same is true if we are diverted from what is said to love of the speaker. Or if we delight in what is spoken simply because it is spoken by a certain speaker. If we delight in the manner of speaking or expression more than in God, respecting God and profiting spiritually we are not listening in the right way.

 

9. Listen with Reverence

We do not have the right spirit if we disrespect the ordinance of preaching for some worldly or personal respects. Particularly if we prefer any small trivial thing to it.

Reverence involves avoiding vain looks, idle thoughts and other trifling, irreverent behaviour. This includes unnecessary speaking or talking during the time of the sermon.  Even speaking in prayer disrespects the Word unless it is a very short prayer in reference to what is at present spoken.

When we stumble without cause at any expression in the sermon we are being irreverent. Especially when we are so frivolous as to laugh at what is spoken, undermining the ordinances of God’s worship. This even relates to dressing in a way that shows befitting respect to preaching as God’s ordinance. We should also show reverence in the way that we go away from hearing the Word.

 

10. Listen without Distractions

We should be watchful to prevent what may divert, distract or constrain our minds when we come to hear. It is our responsibility to order things so that they may not be a hinderance to us in meeting with the blessing of the gospel.

Some are distracted by vain things while they should be listening. They notice the clothes others are wearing or the way the church building is decorated or constructed.  We should avoid being distracted even by reading something additional (even though it is Scripture) when we should be listening. Even good thoughts can tend to divert us from hearing.

 

11. Listen Prayerfully

We ought to intermingle very short prayers for ourselves and others as we listen. We should pray for the speaker while he is preaching that God would help him. Pray that God would help us to keep such a Word for the time when we may need it. Bless God when words are spoken in the right way. Listening prayerfully will help us avoid quenching conviction of sin or the stirring of affection awakened by the Word.

 

12. Listen and Do

We ought not to listen more for knowing than for doing, more for informing the mind than for reforming the heart and life (James 1:22-25). We must apply it to ourselves and test whether we commit the faults or do the duties mentioned.

 

13. Listen for Eternity

We must give due weight to God’s warnings and threatenings of judgement and to the gospel. We must consider and make use of the preached Word as a means to convert as well as confirm (James 1:21). We ought to make use of the promises offered in preaching as directed by God to us through an authorised ambassador. We must lay due weight on them as coming from Him. We fail to listen for eternity when we reject the many sweet offers of the gospel and do not come to the marriage of the King’s Son (Matthew 22:1-14). In doing so we grieve God’s Spirit who urges them on us. If we do not accept Christ and make use of Him, we tread Christ’s blood under foot by having so little esteem for it.

 

Conclusion

Listening to a sermon is a spiritual rather than merely intellectual or social activity. We must approach it in the right way. We can benefit a great deal from sermons if we prepare ourselves to listen to them in the right way and give careful and earnest attention to them. Afterwards we need to pray and meditate on the truths declared and make sure to practice what we have been shown is God’s will for us. In our conversation with others we can encourage them to remember and benefit from the Word preached. Wouldn’t it make a vast difference to our hearts, lives, families and churches if we did?

FURTHER READING

Read more articles from the James Durham blog

AUTHOR MENU

READ MORE

LIKE THIS

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.