Are young people turning to prayer more?

Are young people turning to prayer more?

Are young people turning to prayer more?
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.

With worries about war, food shortages and the cost of living following the anxious times of the pandemic, how are people coping? A recent survey of UK adults found that more younger adults pray compared to older adults. Follow up reporting suggests that across a range of cultural and religious backgrounds, younger people are open to exploring spiritual things. Yet there may be a perception that prayer is a spiritual activity that can be whatever you make it. Prayer can sometimes be valued simply for the groundedness the ritual gives us, or the comfort that comes from voicing our fears and wishes. There is an inbuilt human longing for connection with something and someone beyond ourselves, which can really only be fulfilled by knowing the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ by His Spirit, and receiving the everlasting salvation He gives. Guidance as to what this looks like comes from what the apostle Paul shared about his prayer life, for example when he told the believers at Ephesus how he was praying for them. In the following updated extract, James Fergusson gleans some pointers about true prayer to the true God from what Paul says.

Who Paul prayed to

In Ephesians 1:17, the apostle gives a short summary of his prayer to God for the Ephesian believers.

First, Paul refers to God the Father (to whom he is praying) as “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “the Father of glory”. The Father is in His own nature infinitely glorious, the fountain of the whole Godhead and all the divine attributes in the Son and the Holy Ghost. All glory is due to Him from created beings.

What Paul prayed for his friends

Paul then mentions what he sought from God for the Ephesian believers. This was “wisdom,” or a further increase of the saving knowledge of God which the Holy Spirit gives, together with a clearer insight into the Scripture where the same Spirit reveals these truths. This “wisdom” mainly consists in the saving, believing, and operative “knowledge of him,” i.e., of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul wants the Holy Spirit to remove the natural blindness of their understandings and to bestow a clear discerning of the things of God.

We should have definite things to pray for

We should not necessarily restrict ourselves to a set form of words when we pray. Yet we should have set purposes worked out, and a definite point to aim at, when we pray, so that we would be able to give an account of what we are praying for, whether that is for ourselves or for others.

We must pray to the true God

Our prayers should be directed to God only. No one else knows us, or the secrets of our hearts. Anyone or anything else is unfit to receive our prayers.

Also when we draw near to God in prayer (whether for ourselves or others), we should do so with confidence and reverence – for these are not mutually exclusive. We should think about God, and express what we are thinking about Him, in a way that will most strengthen our faith and most strike our hearts with reverence towards Him. To strengthen his faith, Paul refers to God as “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ” and to bring his heart into deep reverence he calls him “the Father of glory,” or “glorious Father.”

We should pray out of faith in Christ

In order to have access to God with boldness through Christ, it is necessary to renew the act of faith which applies and appropriates Christ to ourselves. Then, being made one with Christ, we will be seen by the Father as clothed with Christ’s righteousness. This is the way that God will accept both our persons and our imperfect prayers – that is, through Christ. Paul here appropriates Christ to himself as his own, calling Him “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is necessary also that when we embrace Christ in this way, we do not divide Him into parts, but take to ourselves the fullness of all the perfections which are in Him. This is an evidence of our sincerity in embracing Him, but additionally, nothing less than the whole Christ is necessary to cover all our imperfections, bear us up under all our discouragements, and help us in all the infirmities which beleaguer us in our approaches to God. He is our “Lord,” full of power and sovereignty for our good. He is “Jesus,” a Saviour, who saves sinners. He is “Christ,” anointed by the Father to do this very work.

We should pray reverently

In Ephesians 3:14-15 Paul begins another prayer for the believers at Ephesus. Again he sends his prayer to “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” denoting both the Father’s relation to Jesus Christ and His relation to His church, His “family,” who take their name from Him.

The expression Paul uses here, “I bow my knees,” denotes the humble, reverent spirit of his heart in prayer. We are not restricted to any specific posture in prayer, yet our outward posture can both express something of our reverent inward spirit, and remind us what we are doing when we pray. We should draw near to God with deep reverence for His majesty, coupled with very low thoughts of ourselves, because of our unworthiness.

Deep reverence is entirely consistent with faith and confidence in approaching God as a reconciled Father. Both reverence and confidence ought to be joined together in prayer, and indeed, when they are sincere, they mutually reinforce each other, so that the more we put our trust in Him, the more our hearts will fear and adore Him.

We should think more about God than about ourselves

In making our approaches to God for anything, especially salvation, it is most necessary that we lift our eyes above anything that is ours (whether our good or our evil), and fasten them by faith on the inexhaustible fountain of mercy and power in God. He is not only willing (from His mercy) but also able (from His omnipotence) to give us whatever we ask that is in accordance with His will. He will grant it “according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 3:16).

We should have our priorities right

We must not neglect our outward and physical needs, yet the spiritual state of our immortal souls is what we must care about most. Paul prays in verse 16 for their “inner man,” for if things go well with the “inner man,” our outward concerns will trouble us the less. Ministers especially should pray mainly about the inward and spiritual state of their flock.

We should open our hearts for the best answers to prayer

Paul prays, “that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height, and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge” (v17-19).

The love of God in Christ to lost sinners is so large, so free, and in every way so wonderful. But our hearts are so narrow, and His ways of showing His love are so unexpected and strange to us, that even though it is revealed in the gospel, God Himself is the only one who can make us see it and grasp it. Paul prays to God for the people at Ephesus that God would let them comprehend and understand it.

The answer to Paul’s prayer will give us stability in times of trouble

As trees cannot long stand against the blasts of boisterous winds, unless their roots are deeply fastened in some good ground – and as houses cannot long remain firm and strong, unless they are built on some sure foundation – neither can we hold out for any space of time against temptations unless we are undergirded and supported by some strong foundation. That stability and constancy comes from the faith of God’s love. If we are not “rooted and grounded” in the love of Christ, we are like trees without a root and a house without a foundation. The only sure foundation for our souls is the unchangeable and free love of God in Christ revealed in the gospel and grasped by faith. No conceit of our own righteousness, or courage or resolutions will do.

The breadth of Christ’s love extends to all ages of history and all sorts of people. Its length reaches from eternity to eternity. Its depth stoops down to the lowest depths of sin and misery and pulls sinners out of there. Its height reaches up to heavenly joys and happiness, and carries sinners up to there. It is called “the love of Christ,” not to exclude the love of the Father or Holy Spirit, but because the love of the whole Trinity is conveyed to lost sinners through Christ and His merit. It passes created understanding to know it.

We must not content ourselves with a superficial view of God’s free love in Christ. Instead, take the most accurate inspection of it in all its dimensions, and endeavour at least to know it as far as you can. Our delight in it and the comfort we get from it is constrained by the narrowness of our thoughts and the shallowness of our insights about God’s love in Christ. The love of God in Christ, and the love of Christ to lost sinners, is so rich and unsearchable, so matchless and unparalleled, so vast, boundless and, well, infinite, that in the end the most we can say is that it “passeth knowledge.” How much this should stir us up to seek it!

Our prayers should take confidence from who God is

Paul towards the end of his prayer refers to God again, this time as “Him that is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or think…” (verse 20). Thinking of God in this way, Paul is so sure that God would answer that he is breaking out into thanksgiving already, as if everything he had asked for was already granted. “To him be glory!” (verse 21).

God is not only able to bestow more things and greater things than we can express, but also to bestow these greater things in a large and abundant measure. The conceptions we have of God when we pray to Him should be things that will furnish our hearts with reasons to have confidence in Him and the fact that He will hear us.

Especially we should stabilise our hearts in the faith of God’s omnipotence and power to grant what we ask. This is one of the best supports for prayer, seeing it is beyond all doubt that God will do whatever He is able to grant our petitions if we are seeking things which He has promised (1 John 5:14).



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Why do we work?

Why do we work?

Why do we work?
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.

In a culture where leisure time and relaxation are so very highly prized, it can be difficult for us to realise that idleness is a sin. And if our church culture perhaps prioritises spirituality over practicalities, we may hesitate to recognise the importance of sheer hard work. The apostle Paul navigates both these issues with his words to the Thessalonians, disapproving of idleness and highlighting the necessity and value of work. It may not sound very spiritual but preachers today should still include these notes in their preaching, for God’s honour and the church’s reputation and indeed the wellbeing of any who are lazy.

Idleness is a sin

Paul reminds the believers at Thessaloniki, “We commanded you that if any man would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). In saying so he condemns both the sin of idleness and their neglect of censuring that sin, because this was not only contrary to his example but also to his doctrine. He had commanded, and by apostolic authority enacted for a standing law, that anyone (who otherwise had strength and opportunity) refused to work, he should not eat. To “work” is to employ either one’s body or mind, or both, in some honest labour, for promoting one way or other the good of mankind. “He should not eat” means that he should not be borne with or maintained among Christians, but constrained to betake himself to some honest employment.

The Lord’s ministers should press on people, not only religious duties but also painstakingness and diligence in some particular calling. Likewise it is the duty of the Lord’s people, and of every one in their station, to give obedience to such lawful commands of Christ’s ministers.

Additionally, everyone should be concerned that the church’s charitable funds should be distributed wisely. This is especially the case for those who are entrusted with these monies, so that, to the best of their knowledge, they do not use it to furnish fuel to the lusts of any, or feed them in sinful idleness, or any other way misapply it to those who are not due objects of it. Paul’s command is given to all, and chiefly to the officers of the church, that they do not employ either their own charity or the church’s, to maintain idle vagabonds and wilful loiterers.

However, there are always some who do not work, not because they don’t want to, but either because they are not able to work, or although they are able and gladly would, yet they cannot get employment. It is the Lord’s allowance that such people, as far as possible, should be maintained on the charity of others, especially if they have nothing of their own by which to maintain themselves.

Idleness means the wrong sort of busyness

The “disorderly” ones in Thessaloniki, of whom the apostle had heard, have two features which seem to contradict each other, and yet are highly consistent, and in fact usually co-occur. They “do nothing at all,” he says in verse 11, i.e., in the things which they ought to do, and to which they have a calling, and yet they are “busybodies,” only too diligent about things which do not belong to them.

It is actually part of a minister’s responsibility, prudently to seek to know what fruits the gospel he preaches is bringing forth among the people of his charge. He should know what sins are most prevalent with them, and what virtues are exercised by them, in order to be the more enabled for speaking pertinently to them.

There have always been some in the church who take on a name for profession (and so possibly come to have some respect among the godly), yet, under a pretext of giving themselves to more than ordinary devotion, they abandon all care about a particular calling, and live hand-idle, to the hurt of those on whom they lived, and to the reproach of the gospel.

The mind cannot be wholly idle, but must be employed in something or other – if not in doing what is good and profitable, then of necessity in what is evil, useless or hurtful. Usually no one is more busy in other people’s matters than those who neglect their own.

Idleness is something we must give up

So, speaking to those who were guilty of walking disorderly, Paul both peremptorily commands them, and most affectionately exhorts them (verse 12).

In the name and authority of Christ the Lord, he commands them (1) to work, and so to quit idleness; (2) to work with quietness, that is, containing themselves within the boundaries of their calling, without creating trouble, either to themselves or others. From this would follow (3) that they should eat their own bread, gotten by their own labours, and not given them in alms, or in return for nothing.

Yet so great a tyrant is custom in any sin, and especially a custom of lazy ease and idleness, that once someone is habituated to it at all, they are only with very great difficulty driven from it. It takes both a command and an exhortation from Paul.

Some sins grow so common that either through the moral guilt in them or the civil inconveniences which follow them (or both), they portend no less than apparent ruin to the whole church. Then especially the Lord’s ministers should direct the utmost energy of their endeavours to suppress these sins, and to reclaim the Lord’s people from committing them. In Thessaloniki this sin of idleness threatened to dissipate the church, both morally, considering the great guilt that was in it, and civilly, considering how poor this church in all probability was. That is why the apostle is so fervent and serious about suppressing it and stirring up the whole church to take notice of it.

Yet God is so merciful that He does not wholly cease to have anything to do with sinners, as if they were desperate cases, after one or more rejections. He gives them many renewed opportunities, because some He intends to gain (John 4:7, 10, 13, 16, 21, 26) and some to make more inexcusable (Matthew 11:21–22). Although those idle people had received several admonitions with no effect, yet Paul, in Christ’s name and authority and by warrant from Him, again commands and exhorts them that they must work with quietness.

Correspondingly this should be a minister’s way of dealing with even most obstinate sinners, in order to win them back. The minister must make known that he does not think of them as wholly void of all sense of God and goodness, and must at least gently hint that he still has better thoughts of them. By doing so he will, if it is at all possible, enliven any dying principle of conscience, any sense of heaven or hell, any sense of right or wrong, and any awe of God which may yet be lurking in them. The reason why Paul exhorts them “by our Lord Jesus Christ” is to show that he did not think they had cast off all respect to Him.

Being busy means less trouble

The more someone is occupied with their own employments, the less leisure they will have to meddle with the affairs of others. Consequently, they will create less trouble either to themselves or to those who live alongside them. “Working your own work” is conjoined with “quietness” and quiet abstinence from meddling with or troubling others.

We also deduce that the Lord has established property rights from the way that Paul speaks of “their own bread,” that is, what they have a proper right to. (See also Ephesians 4:28) Beside the other ways of attaining right and property – that is, by inheritance (Gen. 15:4), gift (1 Sam. 9:9), contract or bargain (Ruth 4:9), this is one. Whatever someone purchases by their lawful industry and effort is properly their own, and may be employed by that person for their own good and necessary use with God’s allowance.

The Lord ordinarily blesses people’s conscientious diligence in their lawful callings with a sufficient measure of success that they may have something with which to sustain themselves, and be kept from being burdensome to others.


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How to bring more Bible truths into focus

How to bring more Bible truths into focus

How to bring more Bible truths into focus
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.

Once we have got to grips with the basics of biblical teaching, it sometimes happens that further truths snap into focus when previously they were unknown or unclear to us. Even when, compared to the foundational truths, these truths are less significant and less necessary, yet once the Lord has shown them to us, there is a moral responsibility to keep hold of them and confess them and teach them. But not everyone sees the same things with the same degree of clarity. How then should we interact with people whose views of these truths are more blurry and misty than they could be? In the following updated extract, James Fergusson explains that, rather than allowing these truths to remain fuzzy around the edges, there is an appropriate way to bring others along on their journey to where they too can have the benefits of seeing these truths with the same clear focus.

In Philippians 3:15-16, Paul exhorts believers to follow his example – even believers who had made (or seemed to themselves to have made) the furthest progress – and to be of the same mind with him in the details he has just mentioned in the previous part of the chapter. Some of them had been seduced by the false apostles, and were of a contrary mind in some things, but he gives them ground of hope that God, who had brought them to the knowledge of the gospel, would reclaim them from their error, and show them the danger of it (v. 15). At the same time, he exhorts them to unity and orderly walking, according to the rule of Scripture, in the things in which they remained harmonious, keeping mutual love, and holding off from making any further divisions than there were already.

What kind of perfection can we reach?

Although no one can attain to absolute perfection in holiness, yet as there are different degrees in grace, so there is diversity of growth among Christians. Some are but weak, infirm, and babes in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1-2). Others have come to greater ripeness, are endued with a larger measure of grace, and are confirmed by much experience. These, in comparison with the former, are here called “perfect.”

The greatest perfection attainable in this life is to renounce all confidence in ourselves, to rely wholly on Christ, and, from the sense of our own imperfection in grace, to be constantly aspiring to a greater measure of grace. This is what Paul prescribes to the choicest Christians to be exercised in when he says, “Let those that are perfect be thus minded.”

What was Paul’s example?

As examples are of more force than bare precepts, Paul draws an argument from his own practice. “Let us…” That is, being conscious of small progress, and of a great distance yet before us, let us press forward. That’s how he was minded, as he showed in verse 14 (“I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus”), and that’s the mind he wants the Philippian believers to have too.

How should we treat people who only have a shaky grasp of the truth?

There are usually some within the visible church who, because their understanding is misted over with error, do not come up to give thorough assent to all divine truths.

We are to deal more tenderly with some of those who are be-misted with error than with others. For example, we are to keep charity towards them, and express our charity for them in the expectation that God who has begun to enlighten them in other things would also show them the truths that are yet unknown to them. Also, we are to wait for them patiently. The severe exercise of church discipline is not something to resort to, at least until some appropriate period of time has elapsed – enough time for them, with God’s blessing on their own endeavours and other people’s work with them, to attain the knowledge of these truths (or, enough time for their lack of knowledge to be otherwise inexcusable).

Yet this tenderness is not the way we are to treat every individual who errs from the truth. For one thing, tenderness is not for those who seduce others into error, but for those who are seduced.

Secondly, tenderness is only for those who are seduced in less necessary truths, not fundamental truths, which are absolutely necessary. Their error lies only in some circumstantial truths, relative to the greater ones which the apostle assumes they have already grasped.

Thirdly, assuming their error is only in what we might call inferior truths, they also must not be so devoted to their own opinions that their desire to propagate them leads them to split the church and make schisms. Rather, they are to walk in a joint and orderly practice with others in the things on which they agree, not creating strife and division (whether in affections or practice) about those things in which they differ. This may be taken as a condition of the tenderness and forbearance they are to be shown, and a condition of God revealing things to them further. It is only “if we walk by the same rule, and mind the same thing.”

So on one hand there is no ground here for a boundless toleration of all heretics, sects, or seducers of others. On the other hand, there is no basis for tolerating even all who are seduced into error, but only those whose behaviour evidences them to be concerned for both truth and peace.

How can we expect God to act?

It is only God who can reveal truth to those who are overtaken with error. He does this by giving His blessing on the ordinary means of grace, when they are made use of for that purpose. So there are promising grounds of hope that He will indeed do this to some, namely, those to whom He has already revealed many soul-saving truths, and who are endeavouring, by their orderly walking according to those truths, to edify both themselves and others. Paul’s hope is that God will reveal even this to them – not by any direct revelation, or any other way without the Word, but by His blessing on the Word preached and their own endeavours (Isa. 8:20). He has revealed much to them already, and at the same time He subjoins the condition, “whereunto we have attained, let us walk,” i.e., unitedly and orderly, as soldiers keeping rank, without disturbing one another.

How can we expect the church to act?

The church of Christ ought not to be, on every difference of opinion, rent into schisms and factions, setting up one church against another, or counteracting each other’s work so as to undervalue and suppress one another. Rather, unity and orderly practice according to an uncontroverted rule, so far as is possible, is to be kept, notwithstanding differences in opinion. This is what the apostle exhorts us to, “Let us walk by the same rule.”

When divided opinions in a church lead to divided practices, further division and tearing apart necessarily follows, both in opinion and affections. When Paul exhorts us to joint practice, he adds that we are to “mind the same thing.” That is, “Let us keep unity, both of affections and opinions, in those things on which we still agree,” implying this is not possible without joint practice.


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How Not To Ignore The Failings Of Others

How Not To Ignore The Failings Of Others

How Not To Ignore The Failings Of Others
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.

Many things in life are burdensome, and we appreciate the help that others can give us to share the load. In the list of things that weigh us down, we can also include our failings in a spiritual sense, or any of the human frailties that make life difficult for others. It is easy to criticise others but what can we do to positively help our brothers and sisters? In this updated extract, James Fergusson shows how (and how not) to overlook the failings of others.

Paul says in Galatians 6:2, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” Here he is exhorting all his hearers not only to endeavour to reclaim those who are overtaken in a fault, but also to tolerate and bear patiently with the sins and infirmities of others, until these are amended, and the sinner reclaimed.

These sins and infirmities are called a “burden.” Partly, because sins such as these may be a burden and weight to the sinner himself, either because of his grief and sorrow for them, if he is a penitent (Acts 2:37), or because of the vexation and trouble which some sins, such as wrath, malice, envy, etc., bring to the natural spirits even of the impenitent sinner (Job 5:2; Prov. 14:30). And partly, because sins like these, even if not felt burdensome by the sinner himself, are nevertheless heavy burdens to those who interact with him (think of curiosity, back-biting, self-seeking, and such like, Prov. 16:28).

Bearing their burdens fulfils the law of Christ

The apostle enforces his exhortation with the reason that in this way they “fulfilled the law,” the commandment of mutual love, which he calls “the law of Christ.”

It is not as if love to our neighbour had not been enjoined before Christ came in the flesh, for it is a prime piece of the law of nature, imprinted on the heart of man at creation, and renewed again by God Himself on Mount Sinai (1 John 2:7).

But he calls it “the law of Christ” because, first, Christ renewed this commandment, not only by freeing it from the false interpretations of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:23, etc.), but also by pressing it in its spiritual beauty and spiritual nature, now that the external cover of Mosaic ceremonies which veiled it (1 Cor. 9:9-10) have been laid aside and abolished (Eph. 2:15). This is the main sense in which it is referred to here as Christ’s law, i.e., in opposition to the false apostles, who pressed so much the Mosaical law of ceremonies.

The second reason why he calls it “the law of Christ” is because this law, so renewed, is what Christ in a special manner laid as an obligation on His followers, as a mark of true faith in Him (John 13:35).

And the third reason is because Christ fulfilled this law in His own person, and in so doing left an example of it to us (1 John 3:16).

Burden-bearing in practice

Nobody is free from sinful infirmities, which are burdensome sometimes to themselves, and frequently to others. Therefore we ought not to break the relationships we are in because of such infirmities, but rather persist with these relationships, patiently bearing whatever infirmities we cannot otherwise help.

Bearing with the infirmities of others is fully consistent with the use of the means which God has prescribed for restraining sin and reclaiming the sinner. These include the means available to the civil authorities, who are responsible for punishing those who do evil (Rom. 13:1-4), but also the means available to ministers and individual Christians, such as admonition, reproof, and so on. The duty of bearing one another’s burdens must be in harmony with, and cannot be contrary to, the duty in verse 1 of restoring the sinner who has been overtaken in a fault. It is the opposite of giving him countenance, or partaking with him, in his sins.

When the apostle exhorts us to have a “spirit of meekness” and gentleness in verse 1, this is effectively what he calls “bearing their burden” here in verse 2. The manner we should have in doing so is a compassionate frame of spirit, made evident by our meek and patient way off interacting with those who are overtaken in a fault (without neglecting any duty we owe them). This gives the guilty sinner no small ease under his weighty burden, and has the tendency both to preserve him from fainting under heartless discouragement (if his conscience is touched with the sense of his guilt) and also to further the work of his conviction and amendment (if he is yet going on complacently in his sin).

The best evidence of love to our neighbour is what is displayed in our serious endeavours for bringing about their spiritual good – taking the most effective grace-filled and affectionate way to reclaim them from sin, together with supporting them and sympathizing with them under their spiritual burdens. This is what the apostle calls fulfilling the law of Christ, or of mutual love, as if the one thing that law calls for is love.

In the sense and to the extent that the child of God evidences his love to his fallen brother by his serious endeavours to restore him to the enjoyment of God’s favour, and to a holy and blameless lifestyle, and by bearing with him under his infirmities in order to recover him, in that same sense and to that same extent he attains to fulfilling the law. Of course we are not able to do this perfectly, in the sense of coming short in nothing for matter or manner (Lam. 3:2). But we can do it sincerely, and without dissimulation (Rom. 12:9), in our honest aim and endeavour. This is what it means to fulfil the law of Christ.

Our own burdens are a reason to share the burdens of other

Paul goes on in Galatians 6:5 to enforce on every individual the duty of examining their own work, rather than to be narrowly prying into the infirmities of others. “Every man must bear his own burden,” or give an account of his own actions to God (Rom. 14:12). The Lord will pass sentence, either absolving or condemning, not as to whether you have been better or worse than others, but as you are in yourself (see 1 Cor. 3:8).

This does not militate against the tenor of the gospel, affirming that God will deal with believers as they are clothed, not with their own righteousness, but with the unspotted righteousness of Christ (Phil. 3:9), for it is evident from the point of the Galatians passage that the apostle excludes only the infirmities of our fellow sinners from being the rule according to which God will pass sentence, and not the righteousness of Christ grasped by faith. “Bearing one another’s burdens” in verse 2 means a bearing by way of sympathy, Christian forbearance, and diligent use of means for reclaiming the person fallen; but “bearing our own burden,” in verse 5, means a bearing by giving an account to God for our own actions (otherwise it would not be a cogent argument to enforce the exhortation of verse 4, “Let every man prove his own work”).

However light people’s sins seem to themselves when they are committed, yet they will be found not light, but heavy, when they come to reckon with God about them.

God is so righteous that He will call no one to account for the sins of others, but only for their own. Yet remember that we can make the sins of others our own, by not doing our duty to impede these sins (Eze. 3:18), or by following them and walking in them (Ex. 20:5 with Eze. 18:14, 17), or by not mourning to God for them (1 Cor. 5:2).

We would be wise to frequently to call to mind the account which we must give to God, and to busy ourselves most in and about the things which He will expect an account from us about. We should be employed most in examining our own work, and not in prying into the details of other people’s behaviour and infirmities.



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What Kind of Lifestyle Pleases God?

What Kind of Lifestyle Pleases God?

What Kind of Lifestyle Pleases God?
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.

In modern parlance, lifestyle is largely about style rather than substance. It’s the way we indulge ourselves as much as the way we live our lives. A Christian lifestyle could be easily confused for adding a little Christian veneer to a glamourous and comfortable life much like anyone else’s. Originally the word lifestyle was about how our values influence the way in which we live. The world constantly challenges our values and behaviour and seeks to erode a distinctively Christian lifestyle. It would be easy to think that a Christian lifestyle is simply what reflects our personal tastes and what we feel comfortable with. We could not be more wrong. It is not about what pleases us but about what pleases God. If we have been bought with a price, we belong body and soul to God and are to glorify Him with all that we are.

The apostle Paul emphasises frequently the Christian’s responsibility to live in a way that pleases God. We need to live with a purpose and this is the highest possible goal to glorify and enjoy God. This purpose can motivate and influence every action whether consciously or in the principles that govern our lives. 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2 for instance, Paul exhorts both lovingly and seriously in the name and authority of the Lord Jesus and for His sake. He exhorts them that they should live according to the teaching they had formerly received from him while he was with them.  He points out both the necessity and manner of a life that might be acceptable to and please the Lord. They must abound more and more, making continual progress and outstrip themselves by their future diligence and fruitfulness. The directions he gave them were not his own but the Lord Jesus Christ’s. He had proclaimed them in the name and authority of Christ as His herald. The Greek word used literally means a commandment proclaimed in the name and authority of another. In another passage (Ephesians 5:10) Paul shows the need to make diligent enquiry into God’s will revealed in His Word so that we will know what is acceptable and well-pleasing to Him in every step of our way. When we bring these together, we can see the guiding principles and motivations of a lifestyle that pleases God. James Fergusson helps us to see how in the following updated extracts.

1. We Cannot Earn Salvation Through the Lifestyle that Pleases God

Good works and a holy walk are not things that lead to justification (Romans 4:5). They are, however, required in those who have been justified to make evident the reality of their faith and claim to belong to Christ (James 2:18). Such things are part of making our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10), glorifying God (John 5:8) and winning others (Matthew 5:16). Holiness is necessary for attaining the ultimate actual possession of eternal life, as being the way that leads to it (Hebrews 12:14). Yet it is not by any means a price to merit or buy it (Romans 6:23). The word “ought” in the original, indicates how you must of necessity walk (1 Thessalonians 4:1).

2. Free Grace Leads to the Lifestyle that Pleases God

The doctrine of salvation through free grace in Jesus Christ is far from providing an occasion of complacency, ungodliness or profanity. So much so that there is no stronger argument to induce people to the conscientious practice of holiness in all its duties than sanctified knowledge, saving faith, and serious consideration of that doctrine.  The principles of free grace do in many ways engage the believer to lead a holy life (Romans 6:2-23). The freely gifted salvation grace offers cannot be embraced unless the promised strength for carrying us on in the way of holiness is embraced also (Romans 8:1). Paul infers the pursuit of holiness from the doctrine of salvation through free grace; the former is, as it were, the natural result, and inseparable companion of the latter.

There is a necessary connection between embracing the doctrine of salvation through free grace and the pursuit of a holy life. Yet such is our natural aversion from holiness (Romans 8:7) and so many are the difficulties in its way of it (2 Timothy 3:12), even the best need the spur of earnest and vehement exhortation to stir us up to it. Even though Paul maintains upright living as the result of embracing free grace, he deems it necessary to exhort them that they walk worthy of their calling (1 Thessalonians 4:1).

3. The Word of God Defines the Lifestyle that Pleases God

In order to walk as a Christian so as to please the Lord, we must search the Scriptures. The revealed will of God delivered by his prophets and apostles and committed by them to sacred writing is our guide, both in what way we should walk and how. Paul teaches this in saying that they had received from him how they ought to walk and please God, so ye should abound. He now commits to writing a summary of what they had received from him by his preaching to this purpose (1 Thessalonians 4:1).

4. Genuine Christians Seek the Lifestyle that Pleases God

Whatever way we walk and in whatever manner, we do not do so as Christians unless we sincerely endeavour to please the Lord. We cannot have any real or solid comfort concerning our walk unless we do what we do as service to God (Ephesians 6:6-7). Paul makes their endeavour to please God a necessary ingredient in a Christian walk in emphasising how they ought to walk and please God.

5. We Must Continue in the Lifestyle that Pleases God

God does not permit any to come to a stop in the way of grace. When much is attained we ought still (forgetting those things which are behind Philippians 3:13) to enlarge our desires and incline our endeavour after yet more and more, seeing there is still more to be had (Philippians 3:13). The Lord allows our desires after grace to be insatiable and boundless (John 16:23-24) though they are constrained by His provision in other enjoyments (Hebrews 13:5). Paul presupposes they already had grace in great measure yet he still exhorts them to abound more and more (1 Thessalonians 4:1).

6. Christ’s Commandments Show the Lifestyle that Pleases God

The Lord’s ministers should not make anything a rule of faith or living for their hearers except that which has authority from Christ. They are merely ministers of Christ and only proclaim His will to His people; they are not lords of their faith (2 Corinthians 1:24). Thus, the Lord’s people should receive nothing from them except that for which they can produce such authority. The injunctions which Paul gave to them and they were to receive, were only the commandments which he gave them by the Lord Jesus.

The more we know our duty and are convinced of an obligation laid on us by God himself to do it, the greater should be our concern to make conscience of it. If we do not our knowledge will be our condemnation (John 3:19) and our sin will have no cloak or excuse (John 15:22). The strength of this argument lies in their knowledge: they know what commandments Paul gave them by the Lord Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:2).

7. Avoiding What Suits Us in the Lifestyle that Pleases God

We cannot walk as a child of light, or in a way appropriate to that gracious condition to which we are called unless we are conformed to what is acceptable to God. This is prescribed to us as the rule of our duty in His Word. We must not conform ourselves to this world (Romans 12:2) or to what may bring about our own advantage and so gratify our lusts (Matthew 5:29). Proving what is acceptable to God, is not something merely required for its own sake and for us to rest in the mere knowledge of that. We are to regulate our conduct according to it (as verse 11 goes on to show). It is required as a necessary consequence of walking as children of light. The grammar of the original verse 10 is connected with the close of verse 8 in the following way “Walk as children of the light…proving what is acceptable”.

8. Everything is Included in the Lifestyle that Pleases God

It is not enough to make this effort to determine God’s will in just a few more weighty actions in our life. We must do this in everything, whether of greater or lesser concern, whether advantage or loss is likely to follow from conforming ourselves to this rule. The direction is indefinite without any limitation or restriction and therefore it ought to be extended to all things. “Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord”.

9. It Requires Effort to Discover the Lifestyle that Pleases God

We cannot conform ourselves to what is acceptable to the Lord nor walk as children of light unless we make a serious search and enquiry into the rule of duty and acceptance revealed in the Word. We must then do what we do to conform ourselves to that rule. We will not, therefore, walk in a way acceptable to God when we either do things rashly without consideration (Proverbs 19:2) or doubtingly after deliberation (Romans 14:23). Neither is right and acceptable in itself if we do it only to gratify our own lusts (Matthew 6:2) or to please others (Galatians 1:10) rather than on this basis.  Paul requires them to prove what is acceptable to the Lord, as the rule by which they were to walk.

It is not easy to find out what is acceptable to the Lord, especially in some intricate cases. There must be an accurate search together with engaging in the practice of the things we already know to be acceptable. By practical experience, we then know them to be acceptable to the Lord and get better knowledge bettered in those things in which we are yet ignorant (John 7:17). The word translated “proving” means accurate proof, not so much by argument as by trial and experience, as gold is tried in the fire (James 1:12). “Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord”.


It is easy to neglect to find out what kind of lifestyle pleases God. After all, it requires hard work and may run contrary to our preferences or require too much of us. But if we understand the nature of free grace and what we owe to the Lord, nothing will be too much for Him.  Scripture is full of loving calls to us to walk in love towards God and live in a way that glorifies Him most.  Most of it can be connected back to the Ten Commandments which teach us how to love God and our neighbour and summarise the rest of Scripture’s teaching. Meditation on the way that the Westminster Larger Catechism expounds the Ten Commandments will lead us to a fuller and deeper appreciation of what it means to live in a way that is acceptable to God.


TEn Ways the Ten Commandments Go Further than you think

Christ showed us how the commandments were spiritual, positive and reach into all aspects of our thoughts, words and actions. Reading this booklet will give you ten biblical principles for understanding and applying the Ten Commandments properly, going beyond a mere superficial interpretation.



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We Must Not Miss Opportunities to Do Good

We Must Not Miss Opportunities to Do Good

We Must Not Miss Opportunities to Do Good
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.

It’s not difficult to find discouragements and even be ready to give up. Everything just seems to make us worn down. But Scripture directs us to the grace and power of God rather than ourselves and the situation around us. There is a time for sowing and a time for reaping and we are not to wish away the one for the other. The darker and the more uncertain the times appear to be the greater the urgency to seize every opportunity to do all the good we can. Opportunities are not always what we expect them to be, indeed they may seem costly and risky at face value. They may be found in the most unlikely of places and times. Wisdom, as well as courageous faith, will seek them out for the glory of God and the good of others.

Paul encourages the weary Galatian Christians to persevere in not only doing the good in which they were already engaged but also in seeking out opportunities for doing as much good as they could. There is a real danger of becoming “weary in well-doing” (Galatians 6:9). As James Fergusson points out, this does not just mean what they were doing but how they were doing it. Despite all discouragements to the contrary, he assures them that God’s appointed opportune time of reaping will come. Paul goes on in the next verse to exhort them to seek out opportunities to do good to as many as they could. Time is short and opportunities are not always forthcoming. The focus is on all kinds of good but especially providing for others who are in need. We should be careful of spiritualising away our duty to the practical needs of others but no doubt it applies to spiritual needs as well. Fergusson explains it further in this updated extract.

1. We Must Not be Discouraged in Taking Opportunities to Do Good

All by nature are exceedingly backward from entering the course of well-doing (and especially doing good towards those whom God commands Mark 10:21-23). So, considering the many discouragements which arise concerning doing good to others there is no small propensity in all to halt in that course of action and to give it up immediately, or soon after they have begun in it. These discouragements may arise from our own corruption or the unworthiness, ingratitude and multitude of those to whom we might do good or from the cold-heartedness and bad example of others who are equally if not more able. Paul seeks to guard against this in saying not to grow weary in well-doing.

2. We Must Continue Taking Opportunities to Do Good

It is not enough that people subject themselves to the authority of God speaking in His Word by merely once entering the way of obedience and enduring in it for a time (Mark 4:17). Perhaps they only last until they attain a name for piety (Revelation 3:1) or meet with some unexpected discouragement or trial (Mark 4:17). They must, however, persist in what they have begun so long as they have any being (Psalm 104:33) and not be weary in well-doing.

3. We Will be Blessed in Taking Opportunities to Do Good

Christians may look to the promised reward as a motive to obedience and perseverance since the Holy Spirit encourages them that in due time they will reap. God has promised a rich reward from free grace in response to His people’s sincere and willing obedience. But He has kept to Himself the date and time for actually bestowing that reward. Yet, even though it is delayed for a long time believers do not have grounds to accuse Him of breach of promise. It is true, however, that sometimes even His dearest saints under strong temptations have gone very near to doing this (Psalm 77:8). He says that they will reap, but when? Not immediately, but in the due and proper time (as that is determined by God).

God does not limit himself to a specified time when He will make His people enjoy the longed-for fruits and comfort of their laborious, costly and long persisted in obedience. Yet His chosen time for this (whether in this life or immediately after death) is always the due and proper time. It is clearly the right and most fitting time beyond all other times for bestowing His mercy after all circumstances have been well considered. It is said you will reap in due, or proper time. The word translated time literally means an opportune time, the very point of time which determines the fittest opportunity for doing any action. Adding the word “due” shows this meaning is intended as if he had said the most opportune time.

4. We Have Good Motives for Taking Opportunities to Do Good

We have just grounds to confidently expect the good thing offered and contained in a conditional promise. But this means that we put into practice the condition that the promise requires. Thus, the apostle exhorts them not to become weary because the promise of a reward includes not wearying as a condition. You will reap if you do not faint, fainting does not mean every slackening in our activity for this can sometimes happen to even the finest saints of God (Psalm 73:2-14). It is the kind of fainting that makes the person totally and finally abandon the ways of God, which will not happen to the real child of God (Matthew 24:24).

5. We Easily Excuse Ourselves from Taking Opportunities to Do Good

Ministers should urge others to engage in the duty of doing good in a way that does not exclude themselves since they should be examples to the Lord’s people in this as in every duty (1 Timothy 4:12). Since people are more averse to such demanding duties than any other, they more readily snatch at everything which may excuse their neglect. No excuse is more plausible to them than that even their ministers neglect all duties of that kind. The apostle, therefore, both in the former verse and in this, includes himself in the exhortation; let us not weary, and let us do good.

6. We Will Not Always Be Able to Take Opportunities to Do Good

There are some fit opportunities offered to us by the providence of God for doing our duty in any way, especially doing good to others. Such opportunities include times when we meet deprived people whose need calls for our help (Isaiah 58:7) and when we have the ability to do them good (2 Corinthians 8:14). Because those opportunities are in passing and being past will not possibly return; we are to look on them as a pressing call from the Lord to set about the duty. We ought to respond to that call without delay. This opportunity relates in part to some portions of our time in this life in which we have a better opening for the duties of doing good than at other times. This has the force of an argument to urge the duty, as it supposes it will not always last.

All opportunities of this kind are confined within the narrow precincts of this present life so that there is no possibility of doing good or being beneficial to others after this life in the way in which we can do it now. The time of repentance, of making sure our election by well-doing, of making our peace with God, is then past. Where the tree falls, there it lies (Ecclesiastes 11:3). Because the time of this life is uncertain (James 4:14) we ought, therefore, to stir ourselves in making use of the present, since we do not know how soon our time may end and all opportunities of doing good come to an end with it. This is implied in the apostle’s words, opportunity may refer to the whole time of this life i.e. while we have the opportunity, let us do good.

8. We Must Take Opportunities to Do Good to Everyone

This duty of doing good is to be extended to all, even our very enemies as their necessity may require (Exodus 23:4-5) and our own ability may enable (2 Corinthians 8:12). This is because of God’s own example, Mat. 5. 45. and the bond of a common nature between them and us (Isaiah 58:7).

9. We Must Take Opportunities to Do Good for the Church

The Church is God’s family and household, He Himself is the head and master (Ephesians 3:15). His ministers are stewards to distribute the bread of life (1 Corinthians 4:1) and individual Christians are members of this family bound together by the profession of one common faith in Christ Jesus. The Church is only a small number-a family-even a handful in comparison of the world (Luke 12:32). As Christ’s family, they are cared for and provided for by Him (1 Timothy 5:8). The members of this family are, therefore, in a special manner obliged to love one another and evidence their love by being beneficial to one another in their needs and difficulties. God often permits even those of His own family to experience these trials for their own good (1 Peter 1:6). Besides other reasons, they are closely related to one another like children belonging to one family, the Lord’s.

10. We Must Take Opportunities to Do Good in Due Order

We must observe an order in doing good to others:

  • first it is to be exercised to those of our own family (1 Timothy 5:8);
  • secondly, to our parents (1 Timothy 5:4);
  • thirdly, to our wider family (1 Timothy 5:8);
  • fourthly, those who profess the same faith with us (among those to whom we are not related) and among them those who evidence most the reality of their faith by the fruits of a good life (1 Timothy 5:9-10);
  • lastly, to all without exception when an occasion offers itself.

The apostle is only explicit here about the last two. But this gives us grounds for searching out the rest from other parts of the Scriptures. He says to do good to all, but especially to those of the household of faith. The comparison between them is among those to whom we are not related.


It is easy to be discouraged from our duty and to pretend our opportunities to do good are not actually opportunities. Much wisdom and grace are required to discern our duty. Some people are, for instance, inclined to see the arrival of immigrants or refugees with a different religion as purely a threat and not an opportunity. We need to ask ourselves more what we can do for others materially and spiritually. Perhaps the opportunity to show kindness will provide an opportunity to do spiritual good.

Our tendency towards a bleak reading of the times and potential opportunities may not always be as accurate as we think. For instance, the recent Sevanta ComRes Survey suggested that a third of UK adults pray and attend church regularly. In particular, more than half of 18-34-year-olds were spiritually engaged in terms of praying and attending church compared to only a fifth of those over 55. Many caveats need to be put around this, but it does not seem to reflect a society where secularisation is inflicting creeping death. We have the motive, opportunity and means to do good when many others are using them to do harm.


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The Subtle Snare of Fearing Others

The Subtle Snare of Fearing Others

The Subtle Snare of Fearing Others
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.

It is possible to be restrained from doing good by the fear of what others will think. Some people who are ready to make their views known are those whom we fear displeasing. Those people we would prefer to impress than upset may be influential whether that is because they are innovators, conservative or simply widely admired. We must certainly act carefully and with wisdom. It is important (and too often a neglected principle) that we should have regard to the impact of our words and actions on others. We should respect those that are godly and we do not wish to stumble anyone. So this seems like a real dilemma because we are being careful about offending these people. But displeasing someone is not the same as stumbling them. It is still possible to edify them even if we displease them. When we stumble others, we are causing them to sin or impeding their spiritual progress. In such a dilemma we should choose the best edifying rather than the easiest option. But perhaps we don’t want to be seen to get things wrong, we don’t want to lose reputation with others. It’s a real temptation or indeed a snare (Proverbs 29:25), as even an apostle found out.

This is what happened with Peter in Antioch. He was happy to fellowship with the Gentiles until some important and strict fellow believers came from Jerusalem. Out of fear for them he stopped having fellowship with the Gentiles altogether (Galatians 2:12). The power of the fear of man was so strong that he was ready to compromise the very gospel itself. Through this bad example, the other Jews at Antioch did likewise, even Barnabas (verse 13). Just like a hunter’s trap that captures and paralyses animals this is a real but subtle snare. James Fergusson shows us the many lessons that can be drawn from this in the following updated extract.

1. Fearing Others Can Ensnare in Serious Sin

This incident shows us the importance of the circumstances that concern our actions. An action considered simply in and of itself may not be sinful. Yet due to its accompanying circumstances, it may indeed become exceedingly sinful. Peter’s action was not simply abstaining from certain kinds of meats, to avoid offence to the weak as with Paul (Acts 16:3 and 21:26). It was exceedingly sinful in the circumstances which accompanied this abstinence:

(a) He withdrew from the Gentiles in eating as if they had not been true members of the Church with whom it was lawful to have complete fellowship; He withdrew, and separated himself.
(b) He abstained not at Jerusalem where the Jews came from but at Antioch where he had openly done the contrary in using his Christian liberty a little while before. He ate with the Gentiles before but when these Jews came, he withdrew.
(c) He withdrew not as though it was indifferent to do so and therefore doing it for a time for the sake of the Jews; but as if it had been in itself sinful to have eaten with them, contrary to what he knew and had been informed of by the heavenly vision. This is why it is called dissimulation
(d) His abstinence was not for the sake of weak Jews to get the opportunity to inform them of the annulment of these Levitical ordinances. Rather it was out of fear of losing esteem with and incurring the hatred of, those who were spying out their liberty. These would doubtless make bad use of his abstinence to confirm themselves in and draw others into their errors.
(e) By his example he harmed the other Jews who were beginning to be informed concerning the annulment of the ceremonial law and therefore had been eating with the Gentiles
(f) This practice of his (as is clear from verse 14) tended to compel or force the Christian Gentiles to take on the yoke of the ceremonial law to regain fellowship with Peter and the church. This would have been most sinful for them because they had never been under it.
(g) He gave a great blow to Paul’s teaching and that of the gospel concerning Christian liberty and the annulment of the ceremonial law. His behaviour implied it was still in force.

2. Fearing Others can Ensnare the Best

The best of men are so weak and inconstant that, being left to themselves, the least blast of temptation will make them break off their course of well-doing in the very middle. Without respect either to conscience or credit they openly desert what they were doing. Peter having begun well in his use of Christian liberty by eating with the Gentiles now gives evidence of great inconstancy in that for fear of offending others he did immediately moved away from this.

3. Fearing Others can Ensnare Dangerously

To separate from and break off communion with a true Church and its members cannot be attempted without sin. We cannot do this even to avoid the offence and stumbling of many. This separation from the Church of the Gentiles made Peter blameworthy. His separation was as though it was unlawful to maintain communion with them (even though the Jews would have been offended if he continued to do so).

4. Fearing Others Can Ensnare Leaders

It should be of great concern to men of grace and gifts, who are in a public position and enjoy the praise of many to be men of both courage and self-denial. Even when they enjoy the praise of everyone, they must be dead to it and die to it. Otherwise, if they think more of this than they ought, through their fleshly fear of losing reputation and incurring hatred from others they may venture to dishonour God. Even Peter sinned against the Lord because he feared the loss of his esteem among the Jews too greatly.

5. Fearing Others Can Ensnare Us Despite Our Principles

Sometimes good men under a violent temptation will in practice condemn that which they accept in their understanding. For any to sin against their light in this way highly aggravates their guilt still further. The guilt of Peter’s sin and dissimulation is aggravated by this. By his practice he now professed that fellowship with the Christian Gentiles was unlawful but he had been instructed to the contrary by the heavenly vision (Acts 11:9).

6. Fearing Others Can Ensnare Us Despite Our Piety

The bad example of those are eminent, gracious and learned can be of such great force that not only the weak but even those who are strong and richly endowed with grace and gifts will sometimes be corrupted by it. We usually (without being aware of it) esteem such to be something more than others and once this is so we do not examine their actions as closely as we would those of others. Thus, not only the other Jews but even Barnabas himself an eminent apostle (Acts 13:1-2) was carried away with Peter’s bad example. Barnabas was carried away with the dissimulation of the other Jews. His example in turn had a kind of compulsion towards the Gentiles to make them do as he did (verse 14).

7. Fearing Others Can Ensnare Many

A flood of bad examples, especially if they are otherwise devout, can be so strong and of such force that it will carry others along in their conduct. So much so that even the very best of men can hardly stand against it at all. The dissimulation of Barnabas is not only due to Peter’s bad example, but also, if not mainly, to the influence which the bad example the other Jews had on him.

8. Fearing Others Can Ensnare Others With Us

It is of great concern to all in authority, especially those who are eminent for piety and talent, to take diligent heed lest they give a bad example to others. The sins of others (which are occasioned by the bad example of any) will be justly charged on those whose bad example they follow. The dissimulation of the Jews and Barnabas is mentioned as something that adds to the seriousness of Peter’s sin since it brought such dreadful consequences.


Perhaps we do not think we are as invested in our own reputation as we really are, we scarcely question our motives. In its worst form it can lead to unacknowledged but powerful forms of control within the church. We need to take action about our fear of others because as Peter shows us, those whom we fear we obey. This can even lead us to disobey God or to reject others and their spiritual good. It can lead us to care more about what other people threaten to do than what our conscience or God’s Word says. To be fearless in this context isn’t the same as being careless, it’s not being reckless and inconsiderate. Rather it is caring more about how to edify as much as possible rather than being restrained from this out of fear of disapproval.


In The Scandal of Stumbling Blocks, James Durham helps us to consider the matter deeply by defining the nature of stumbling as well as showing its serious consequences. He looks in considerable detail at different kinds of stumbling and identifies the ways that people can stumble and be stumbled. Durham provides practical advice for avoiding and preventing offense.



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How to Avoid Being Catechised by the World

How to Avoid Being Catechised by the World

How to Avoid Being Catechised by the World
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.

It’s hard even to buy shoes these days without being surrounded by prominent messages about diversity and expressive individualism. From advertising to social media influencers and other media messages, we are not just being persuaded to buy or adopt something – we are also being told how to think. In a context of woke capitalism and cancel culture, celebrities and organisations are jostling with one another in virtue signalling. It manifests apparent moral certainty and religious zeal. Some messages are more subtle, playing on our desires and emotions and sowing questions in our minds about biblical truth. Whatever goes near our hearts, engaging our energy and affection easily becomes a thorn to choke the word and let error grow (Matthew 13:22). We are being catechised by the world, possibly without being aware of it. How can we and others be best prepared to resist it?

The apostle Paul wrote to people surrounded by false religion and philosophy, including dangerous heresies. Arguably, woke values are a kind of Christian heresy. They often present concerns of compassion and justice within a moral framework that subverts Christian teaching. It is often a gospel without grace, forgiveness and reconciliation. People clearly derive some comfort, security and a lot of self-righteousness from being “on the right side.”

Paul was concerned for those who were susceptible to false ideas. He wanted to see them established in the truth. This was especially so with the Colossian Christians, he had a great struggle and conflict for them (Colossians 2:1). He wanted them to know the comfort of being firm in the faith and to be able to resist false messages that could be very enticing (Colossians 2:4). We need to be deeply and firmly established in the truth if we are going to resist the world’s catechising.  We cannot rest satisfied with the bare minimum, we need the fulness of knowledge that Christ intends us to have. Gospel truth is not a few basics but the truth as it is in Jesus leads us to a fresh and deeper appreciation of who He is the more that we explore it. The better we know the truth, the better we will discern error even when it is very subtle. In the following updated extract, James Fergusson shows what practical spiritual help we can derive from Colossians 2:1-4.

1. Gospel Truth Produces True Comfort

Everyone is naturally destitute of solid comfort. Even the people of God, when driven to extremities find their comfort greatly shaken (chiefly when the truth of the gospel -from which they draw their consolation – is questioned). For the time being the Colossians had their comfort shaken when the truth of the gospel was being questioned by these teachers of error (v2).

Only the teaching of the gospel best establishes a disconsolate and afflicted spirit. Comfort and stability result from having that teaching established when erring spirits would call it in question. To know also that others who are dear to God, sympathize with us in our troubles contributes greatly to our stability and comfort. The apostle has a concern and endeavour to have them established in the truth of the gospel (which was then being questioned) so as to contribute to their hearts being comforted (v2).

2. Gospel Truth Produces True Unity

Unity of heart and affections in the Church is so necessary that the lack of it greatly obstructs the solid comfort which might otherwise be reaped by the gospel. Their comfort depends on their being knit together in love, literally (in the original) as a piece of timber joined together by a carpenter (v2).

Unity of heart and affections also greatly depends on union of understanding and constancy in truth. Where there is discord in the understanding about main and substantial truths, there can be no through and lasting concord of the will and affections. Paul makes their being knit together in love one fruit of their constancy in truth (v2).

3. Gospel Truth is Deeper Than We Realise

Christians are not to rest contented with the knowledge of the common and easy principles of Christianity (Hebrews 6:1). We are to grow in the knowledge of other more difficult truths, such as those that relate to various spiritual difficulties and the defence of truth against adversaries. Growth in these follows from perseverance in truth. Such a growth is meant here by the riches of understanding and it is another fruit of constancy in truth (v2).

Neither are they to rest on simple knowledge of gospel truths (Matthew 7:21), they are to know them with affection and love to these truths. They are to know the reality of them from experience. This is implied in the word “acknowledge”, which means literally to know again with more than ordinary knowledge (v2).

4. Gospel Truth Produces True Stability

They are not to rest on a fluctuating, doubting knowledge but rather strive for a full persuasion and assurance, both of the truth of the gospel in general and the reality of their own individual claim to its promises. This is also attained by stability in the truth, the full assurance of understanding is spoken of here as another fruit of constancy.

5. Gospel Truth Deepens Our Knowledge of God

God is the author of the gospel, devising it in His eternal wisdom (Ephesians 3:10). Christ was the Father’s Ambassador to preach and reveal it (Matthew 12:18). So “God, and the Father, and Christ” are the prime object of the Gospel. The gospel plainly reveals the great mysteries of the unity of the Godhead, the distinction and order of the persons, the incarnation of Christ, His person, natures, and offices, His saving benefits and love to sinners. Thus, the gospel is called “the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ” (v2).

6. Gospel Truth Deepens Our Knowledge of Christ

Christ is the storehouse that contains all saving knowledge imparted to those who strive to know Him. There is in Christ and the gospel, sufficiency of knowledge in all things necessary to salvation.  Christ is the very way to life (John 14:6) and the gospel is that teaching that shows this way completely (John 20:31). Christ is equipped with all knowledge and graces as Mediator to bestow the grace of saving knowledge on all the elect in a sufficient way (John 1:16). Notwithstanding all that is revealed of Jesus Christ, His worth is unsearchable. The ablest of created understandings cannot reach the depth of it. In Him are “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (v3).

7. Gospel Truth Guards Us Against Persuasive Error

Satan endeavours to sow the seed of error wherever the gospel is preached.  Ministers should therefore guard people against error in opinion, as much as against ungodliness of life. The one will damn us as much as the other (2 Peter 2:1). Paul is aware of the beguiling of false teachers (v4).

Ministers should labour to instruct their people well in the grounds of Christian truths. They should especially instruct them in the knowledge of Christ and the fullness of sufficiency which is in Him. This is a most effectual antidote against all those errors which tend to draw the minds of people from Him. Anyone who would engage with the study of disputed truths with good purpose and without incurring danger ought first to drink in the knowledge of those grounds.  The apostle proceeds in this method, first, instructing them in them and then dissuading them from contrary errors.

Satan labours to engage the ablest intellects to promote errors. When such are engaged they spare no efforts for seducing others by abusing their otherwise useful intellects and gifts for that end. They use them to try to blind people’s understandings with sophistry and the kind of arguments which do not prove not what they seem to. They lead the affections of others captive by deceitful and insinuating persuasions. Thus these seducers against whom the apostle seeks to guard were men endowed with logic and eloquence which they abused to seduce people to accept error. They abused logic by using false arguments, the word “deceive” literally means to deceive by distorted reasoning which seems plausible. They abused their gifts of eloquence by using subtle persuasions, which are called here “enticing words.”


It’s easy for us to have our thinking shaped by our culture, it creeps into our very assumptions and outlook. The world is very good at catechising in a way that is appealing and sounds clever. It uses a kind of emotional reasoning and language that seems persuasive and ear catching at face value. It knows how to sow questions and prompt well-crafted and memorable slogans for answers. But the more that we allow these messages to filter in unchecked (and the less we seek to grow in the knowledge of the truth) the more we are at risk of being led astray by them. We may not yield some convictions but without realising certain unpopular and uncomfortable biblical truths become eroded to the point where we have no clear grasp of them. If only the church knew how to catechise as effectively as the world. There is a fulness and sufficiency in the knowledge of Christ and the gospel that we should seek to experience in a richer, deeper way. It will truly strengthen, comfort and satisfy us – the world promises this but can never accomplish it.



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Avoiding a Minister’s Greatest Temptation

Avoiding a Minister’s Greatest Temptation

Avoiding a Minister’s Greatest Temptation
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.

Whoever we are it’s easy for us to contribute to a minister’s greatest temptation. It’s also a real temptation for all of us. Put simply it is people pleasing. Why is that so bad? We are meant to serve others. Surely it is right to put others first and love our neighbour as ourselves? But people pleasing makes others the standard of our actions and guiding principle: fearing their criticism, seeking their approval or a certain perception of us. The reality is we are not loving them we are loving ourselves. Faced with difficult choices it becomes clear we want our own comfort rather than their good when we simply take the option of just pleasing them. It is not the kind of self-sacrifice that pursues the good of others (1 Corinthians 10:33), people-pleasing is secretly about benefiting ourselves (Jude 16). It’s pride and idolizing ourselves and others when we pursue what pleases others rather than establishing what honours God most. It results in obeying others before God and against Him, valuing their favour and approval of man before or against God’s approval. Or it is fearing the displeasure of others more than God. The danger is that we put others in the place of God. When everyone thinks that the pastor’s job is to please everyone we ensure his greatest temptation. Perhaps the temptation is more to please fellow ministers rather than those in the congregation. People pleasing was a temptation to which the apostle Paul was alert, and we can learn much from this.

We may not think that we are people pleasers, but we easily succumb to the pressure to find the easiest way. The fear of man is a very subtle snare. Paul shows how it can be an occupational hazard in any calling (Ephesians 6:6; Colossians 3:22). Paul refers to this temptation on various occasions (Galatians 1:10; 1 Corinthians 4:3). In fact, he goes as far as to say that this kind of people pleasing stops him from serving Christ. The antidote to people-pleasing is honouring God first. In one passage it is clear how this affects Paul’s speaking and preaching (1 Thessalonians 2:3-5). James Fergusson helps us in this updated extract to identify and avoid a minister’s greatest temptation. But first we need to establish that not all people pleasing is wrong.

1. What is Commendable People-Pleasing?

The minister of Jesus Christ ought not to set himself on purpose, and without necessity to displease people. Nor should he by imprudent and discourteous conduct irritate and stir up their corruptions which will make the Word in his mouth objectionable to them. He ought to endeavour to please all people by avoiding anything which may be just ground of offence to them (2 Corinthians 7:2). He does this by restraining himself in the use of his Christian liberty in indifferent things so that he may be least offensive to them (1 Corinthians 10:32-33) and best win them over (1 Corinthians 9:20-22). He seeks to accommodate his public preaching to the case, capacity and state of all, by assigning to everyone what is appropriate (1 John 2:13). He is to please people for their good and edification (Romans 15:2).

2. What is Sinful People-Pleasing?

Yet, there is a sinful way of pleasing people which is inconsistent with fidelity in Christ’s service. This is when a minister conceals any necessary truth which he is otherwise called to deliver. He does this lest he displease people (1 Kings 22:13-14). It also happens when his highest aim is to gain applause from others (2 Corinthians 4:5). In general, he is so fearful of people that he will willing rather to venture the displeasure of God by omitting any part of His duty, than to irritate and displease the sinful preferences of men by faithfulness in the discharge of his calling (Acts 4:10).

A minister who sets himself so to please people in this way and who resolves not to meet with the displeasure of some, cannot be a faithful servant to Jesus Christ. A man cannot serve two masters, (Matthew 6:24; Galatians 1:10). A faithful servant of Jesus Christ will prize acceptance and approval with Christ and the testimony of a good conscience for fidelity in His service more, than all the favour, praise or advantage he can receive from others. Before he endangers the loss of the former, he will a thousand times rather gladly embrace the most certain loss of the latter.

3. How Does People-Pleasing Conceal the Truth in Preaching?

It is not enough for a minister preach nothing except that which is the truth of God. He must also preach the truth sincerely, not concealing any part of necessary truth, or misapplying truth so, as that thereby he may please the sinful affections, whims, and temperaments of others. He must aim solely to approve himself to God in doing his duty (2 Corinthians 2:17). It is not sufficient that a minister does not pervert the truth but preaches the pure word without error. He must also preach it sincerely, solely for God’s honour and the salvation of His people, without any worldly motives. Paul does not think it enough to purge corruption from his teaching, he must also purge insincerity in the delivery of it.

Paul’s preaching was not of deceit (1 Thessalonians 2:3). It was not suited to the corrupt opinions of men as the preaching of the false apostles was, who mingled the law with the gospel to avoid the hatred of the Jews (Galatians 5:11). It was not of uncleanness, indulging people in their filthy lusts as the preaching of the false apostles was (Jude 10). His exhortation was not in guile, that is, he did not deceitfully seek his own worldly advantage from them, under a pretext of seeking God’s glory in their salvation, as he more fully declares (1 Thessalonians 2:5-6). It is sincerity and faithfulness in a minister’s conduct that creates much trouble, strife and suffering for him from his unspiritual hearers. Such want ministers to preach as pleases their preference. Thus Paul’s faithfulness was the occasion of his trouble spoken of in 1 Thessalonians 2:2.

4. How is People-Pleasing Opposed to Pleasing God?

Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 2:4 that his purpose was never to please the sinful preferences of others, but to approve himself to God and to be approved by Him. He gives two reasons (a) the privilege of being entrusted with the gospel, and (b) God’s omniscience in knowing and trying the heart, (Jeremiah 17:10; 1 Samuel 16:27).

The sin of people-pleasing is inconsistent with sincerity and God-pleasing in anyone, least of all in a minister. Paul strove to please the Lord; he spoke not as one pleasing people but God. We must approve ourselves to the Lord, by doing not only what he commands (Romans 12:2) but also doing it in the way which He prescribes (1 Corinthians 10:31). We must seek after, and rest satisfied with His approval of what we do and how we do it without stepping a hair breadth off the way of duty to get praise or approval from others. Paul laboured to please God or approve himself to Him.

It is clear evidence of a minister’s call from God, when the conscience of his calling prevails with him to conduct himself in all aspects of his employment both as to what he does and how he does it. He does this so that he may approve himself to God who has called him. The conscience of Paul’s calling prevailed so much with him. He spoke of being entrusted with this work by God and so obliged to speak not as pleasing men, but God.

5. How is People-Pleasing a Kind of Flattery?

In 1 Thessalonians 2:5 Paul makes it clear that he did not use flattering words at any time. He did not use speech designed to please the worldly corrupt preferences of others in order to gain favour or some reward from them. The sin of flattery, at least when given way to and indulged is inconsistent with the grace of sincerity in a Christian (much less in a minister). Where a man enslaves himself to please the sinful preferences of people and will not upset them on any terms he will not avoid perverting the truth of God to make it serve his base purpose, by strengthening the hands of the wicked and promising them life (Ezekiel 13:22). Paul denies that he used flattering words, as being inconsistent with that sincerity previously spoken of.



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Truly keeping our promise to pray for others

Truly keeping our promise to pray for others

Truly keeping our promise to pray for others
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.

Facebook is testing out a new “prayer post feature” allowing people to post prayer requests in a group and others to respond by clicking a “pray” button to say they have prayed. There may be many thoughts about such a development in relation to how it can inadvertently shape our view and practice of prayer. One obvious connection is the fact that Christians often promise to pray for others. It is important, not doing the least but rather the most we can for them. The trouble is that we can make that promise sincerely out of good intentions and then promptly forget. Or perhaps the prayer is rushed under a sense of constraint. Are we largely expressing a quick thought rather than deeply pouring out our hearts for their spiritual growth? How do we by grace, persevere in prayer for others in the best spirit?

The Apostle Paul gives us an example of timely, constant and fervent prayer for others. He even gives us some of the words that he used in prayer for others to encourage us to seek the best things on behalf of others. He assured the Colossian believers “we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you” (Colossians 1:9). He had heard of their love and his longing was that they might be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, in wisdom and that they might be grow spiritually.

Sometimes our prayers for others are very specifically about some difficult situation they may be facing but not always that the Lord would use it to make them grow spiritually in particular ways. Paul prays that the Colossian believers might have an increased and fuller knowledge of God’s will. This was not simply about guidance and direction. He prays that they would have increased wisdom to grasp the heavenly mysteries revealed in Scripture. He also seeks that they would have a fuller understanding to know their duty and the right way of putting all their knowledge into practice. Paul also therefore prays that they would increase in holiness (v10). Another petition is that they may be strengthened to joyfully and patiently endure whatever afflictions they meet with in doing their duty.

This is truly keeping our promise to pray for others, when we pour out our desires for their greatest spiritual good. We certainly do not need to be stuck in knowing what to pray for others. Perhaps we can turn to these words of Paul when we are seeking to pray for others. James Fergusson expounds some aspects of these verses in the following updated extract.

1. Pray in Response to the Grace Evident in Others

The graces of God’s Spirit in any, are not only reasons for thanksgiving to God but also reasons to pray that they would be increased. Grace in the best is imperfect, and liable to decline or be abused. Paul gave thanks for their grace (v4) and prays to God for them that it would increase.

2. Pray for Others CONSTANTLY

Praying to God for others is real evidence of our affection for them. Expressing our sympathy in this way should therefore, be begun in a timely way and constantly continued in. Paul testifies of his affection towards this Church by showing that he prays for them in a timely way. Since the day he heard it, and constantly without ceasing. This does not mean he had done no other thing except that. Rather it means he had a firmly rooted desire after their good, and always expressed it in prayer when there was opportunity to do so.

3. Pray That Others Will Grow in Understanding Scripture

The knowledge of God’s will revealed in Scripture, is to be studied above any other knowledge. It is more sublime, pleasant, and more profitable than any other. Paul prays that they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, speaking of His revealed will (Deuteronomy 29:29). Those who know most of God’s will revealed in Scripture, come far short of what they should know. There is a fullness of knowledge which no one attains to but all should aim at.

4. Pray that Others Will Grow in Applying Scripture

Wisdom or knowledge of divine mysteries and the things of faith is necessary. But understanding, or knowledge of our duty and the right way to go about it is also very necessary. We need wisdom to discern how to follow our duty in specific times (Psalm 1:3), places (Ecclesiastes 5:1), companies (Psalm 39:1) and other circumstances (Luke 8:18). We need “all wisdom and understanding” to order our lives in the right way (Psalm 50:23). Spiritual knowledge, wisdom, and understanding must be sought after not to make us puffed up (Colossians 2:18) or complacent (Luke 12:47) but that we may order our lives according to it. It is so that we may “walk worthy of the Lord”.

5. Pray that Others Will Grow in Patience

Paul prays that they may be strengthened to all patience and long-suffering. God is well-pleased with, and much honoured by those who are (in a Christian way and for the right reasons) patient and cheerful under affliction.
Our spiritual adversaries are very many (Ephesians 6:12) and so are their attacks on all sides (2 Corinthians 2:11. So necessary is it to overcome not only one, but all of them (Hebrews 12:4) that no less is required than “all might” for victory in this Christian warfare. This is not their own, they are weak in themselves, even though renewed and sanctified (Romans 7:18). Their strength must be sought by prayer from God and His glorious power which gives them the victory.

Christian strength is best seen under the saddest sufferings. When affliction is endured with patience and long-suffering it reveals much of Christian strength and courage. It is “all patience” in the highest degree, extending to the whole person, to all kinds of afflictions and times.

7. Pray that Others Will Grow in Joy

Our patience must not be unwilling, and, as it were, forced out of us. It ought to proceed from a joyful mind, knowing all things work together for our good; and that one day we shall be above sufferings (Matthew 5:12). It is “long-suffering with joyfulness”.



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Battle Discouragement by Encouraging Others

Battle Discouragement by Encouraging Others

Battle Discouragement by Encouraging Others
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.

It is never difficult to find reasons to be discouraged within us and around us. And we can be particularly adept at dwelling on them and sharing them with others, whether in a spirit of murmuring or otherwise. Uncertainty, criticism, division and a growing tide of ungodliness seem to surround. And if you feel that way, it is more than likely your fellow Christians do too and (perhaps even more so) your pastor. Whether it is for these reasons or a general weariness, fatigue or dissatisfaction, heavy-hearted discouragement is real. No doubt it is not helped by reduced contact with other believers. Many of the “one another” duties to which the New Testament exhorts us have been greatly curtailed. If we seek out reasons and opportunities to encourage others it is bound to help encourage ourselves.

Paul emphasises the importance of encouraging one another frequently in 1 Thessalonians (see 1 Thessalonians 3:2; 4:18; 5:11 and 5:14). Paul uses a word that means to comfort and strengthen, to draw alongside. It means to be called to come alongside and often means exhort (as in Hebrews 10:25). Often, we are to do this with the words of Scripture. This builds up and edifies and that is the emphasis in 1 Thessalonians 5:11. Believers should comfort themselves together in response to God’s dealings with anyone in particular that calls for comfort. It is not just a general warm positivity, they are to exhort one another to make progress in the life of grace. Exhortation stirs us up to our duty and sometimes that may even mean loving instruction and rebuke, it does not always what we think of as comfort. Indulging our failings would not be edifying. James Fergusson explains the fuller application of this verse in the following updated extract.

1. All Believers Need Encouragement

All Christians of all ranks stand in need of exhortation, consolation and to be edified and furthered in the way of grace by all lawful means. Thus, both pastors and people ought to make conscience of discharging all those duties. Pastors should do this not only privately but also publicly in the congregation (1 Timothy 5:20). It is an important part of their particular calling, office and authority to do this (Titus 2:15). Believers should do this privately in their families (Ephesians 6:4) as well as among their friends and neighbours (Acts 18:26). They do this because of the bonds of Christian love they should have towards all the members of the same body (1 Corinthians 12:25). Paul shows us that everyone stands in need of being exhorted, comforted etc. It is clearly the duty of all to do so, because he says to comfort, or exhort and edify one another.

2. All Believers Need Encouragement to Be Watchful

Making conscience of these duties among Christians is a unique means of keeping people in a lively and watchful spirit. Negligence in them, however, necessarily brings great deadness along with it. It leads to complacency and the decay of life and vigour in the exercise of any saving grace and obeying any commanded duties. This duty is connected with being sober and watchful as well as being a help in exercising faith, love and hope (see connection with verses 6-8)

3. All Believers Need to Resist Discouragement

There are many discouragements which people must encounter in the path of duty. These include the small progress they have made in the way of duty, the unwillingness of their own spirit to engage in it (Romans 7:18); the great opposition from outward and inward trials in relation to it (1 John 2:16). They often, therefore, need as much consolation and encouragement, as they do exhortation and admonition to make them advance in it. Paul therefore urges them to do this.

4. All Believers Need Encouragement to Grow

No believer is so far advanced or so diligent in the exercise of any grace, that they do not need the spur of exhortation, at least to make them persevere. The best are ready to faint (Jonah 2:7; Galatians 6:9). They need this to make them do better, seeing even the best come far short of what they ought (Philippians 3:13). He exhorts them to this duty, even though he commends their present diligence in it since they are already doing it.

5. All Believers Need Encouragement to Keep Encouraging

A prudent minister should stir up the Lord’s people to do their duties in such a way that does not ignore the good beginning or progress they have already made. He should let them know that he takes notice of that and this may prove to be a strong encouragement to some to make faster progress and guard others against discouragement. Nothing is a greater enemy to diligence in duty than discouragement. Paul takes notice of how they already edify one another in exhorting them to continue.




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Can Evangelicals Save Marriage?

Can Evangelicals Save Marriage?

Can Evangelicals Save Marriage?
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.

Marriage is in continued decline, falling to an all time low in many nations according to the latest statistics. And it’s not yet clear what impact the current crisis will have on the institution of matrimony. Despite studies that show marriage is good for society, its relevance is widely undermined. Marriage is vital for the future of the church as well as society as well as for the glory of God. It gives us a picture of Christ and the church. Research shows that while rates of marriage are higher amongst evangelicals, they are following the same downward trend. The Future of Christian Marriage is a book that examines the trends among young people identifying as Christians across different nations. It reveals that marriage is seen as more of a nice to have aspiration than a need to have essential. It seems that our view of marriage needs to be changed if we are going to preserve it. Not only that but we need to change. And that change is something we all need (married or unmarried) as we will see.​

In The Future of Christian Marriage, Mark Regenerus writes, “As a researcher, studying the demise of marriage has been like watching an invasive fungus slowly destroy a stately old oak tree.” What is the disease that is attacking marriage? The same pervasive disease that is attacking the church and society. It’s the prevailing principle (indeed idolatry) in our culture: expressive individualism. It proclaims that the highest good is individual freedom and self-expression. Its chief purpose is therefore to glorify and enjoy ourselves as we choose, resisting anything that would constrain.

It influences us in subtle ways and more than we care to admit. Its impact on marriage is clear. Marriage is either delayed or abused by pursuing individualist goals. We need more than some light touch teaching about the benefits of marriage and what it will bring us in fulfilment. We need to have the spirit of loving self-sacrifice that Scripture puts at the heart of marriage and all relationships. This is why it is so counter-cultural. “The oak will not perish” says Regenerus. “In fact, marriage will increasingly become ‘a Christian thing,’ which means the church will bear increasing responsibility for an institution with an uncertain future.” But this will only be carried out faithfully as we implement the challenging teaching of Scripture in this area.

The classic passage to go to in relation to marriage is Ephesians 5:21-33. The last verse sums up in two succinct statements the key responsibilities that Paul has expanded on. The key principle is self-denial in the fear of God, because we have already given ourselves first to the Lord. This is to be expressed in their love (Titus 2:4; Colossians 3:19), sharing in what they have and living together (1 Peter 3:7), mutually bearing one another’s burdens and weaknesses (Galatians 6:2). In other words they are to live out Christian character and grace in the context of marriage. The husband must not seek his own and love himself more than his wife, he must love her as himself (Ephesians 5:28-29). The wife must equally deny herself in respect and submission to her spouse (v22).

The verse that opens this section outlines this key principle of mutual submission and self-denial (v21). He gives a general exhortation that applies to all members of families. As James Fergusson observes, the submission Paul speaks of here is that service of love which everyone owes to each other for their mutual good and benefit in their respective roles and relationships (Galatians 5:13). It is submission to others that flows from a principle of love to them, and actually intends their good and advantage. It must be done with a humble spirit, being willing to debase ourselves not proudly thinking our duty to others is beneath us. It is to be done in the fear of God because humbling ourselves in this way is an evidence of fearing God and because it is the reason why we do it (Colossians 3:22-23). The fear of God defines the extent of our submission to others, since we are not to submit to more than or in opposition to God. In this updated extract there are lessons for all of us.

1. Denying Ourselves Glorifies God

We are not to neglect the duties of our calling and those which we owe to others by pretending that we have to engage in the worship God instead. God allows us time for both, we are to take time for both. It is consistent to have a conscientious regard for both. The apostle instructs both duties of worship (v19-20) and towards others (v21ff) as it were in one breath. This is clear from the grammatical construction of the words in the original “giving thanks always….submitting yourselves one to another”.

2. Denying Ourselves Manifests God’s Grace

Conscientiously discharging the duties we owe to our neighbour in our various responsibilities (in a way acceptable to God) requires an abundant quantity of the saving work of God’s Spirit in the heart. It is no less necessary in these duties that in those of God’s worship and service. Verse 21 depends on and is constructed with verse 18, so that we read it “Be filled with the Spirit…submitting yourselves”. [i.e. These verses belong together in one connected thought showing the effects of the Spirit’s influence, “be filled with the Spirit …Speaking to yourselves…Giving thanks always…Submitting yourselves”].

3. Denying Ourselves is For Everyone

There is no-one living whom God allows to live only to themselves. Everyone is obliged to inconvenience themselves in their respective employments for the good and benefit of others. Even those in authority must do this for the good of those under their responsibility. This command is given to everyone without exception: “submitting yourselves one to another.”

4. Denying Ourselves is Mutually Beneficial

As God has obliged us not to live to ourselves alone, but also to others (whose good we are to aim at in our place and position) so He has provided for a mutual benefit or reward. In this way there is a kind of equality. He has obliged others to live to us and in one way or another do things for our good and advantage also. Both this command and the obligation on which it is based are reciprocal; “submitting yourselves one to another”.

5. Denying Ourselves Pleases God

Where the fear of God is rooted in the heart, it will make a person conscientiously careful and sensitive in relation to their duty towards others. They will not only do their duty, but also do it from a right principle and motive. This will keep them from overdoing things and displeasing God, while they endeavour to please others. The fear of God is the fountain, motive and rule of that submission which is here prescribed “submitting one to another in the fear of God.”

Further Reading

Worldwide Statistics on Marriage and Divorce 

Are Evangelicals Redefining Marriage?

Is the Christian Family Disappearing in a Post-Familial Age?

How to Define Not Redefine Marriage




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