The Beauty of Christian Unity in a World of Division

The Beauty of Christian Unity in a World of Division

The Beauty of Christian Unity in a World of Division
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
18 Oct, 2019

Living in a western culture that is ever polarising in terms of values, ideas and political views, we get used to division. The sheer multitude of diverse contributions seems to highlight the absence of unity. Divisive rhetoric is the norm in a cacophony of voices and opinions. Christian values are frequently attacked with uncompromising hatred. Reconciliation and harmony seem unthinkable as well as unattainable. The fault lines can sometimes seem so deep that they are compared to a kind of civil war. The Church can also be the battleground of polarising notions and methods. Where we might most expect to see unity, we see division. How can we display the attractiveness of true unity in a world that is more divided than ever?

Anthony Burgess ministered in just such a period of division. He became involved in a project to unite the whole of the British Isles in the same doctrinal standards and church order. It was a unity that prioritised the truth. Besides the Westminster Assembly, he engaged in important defence of vital doctrines such as justification, original sin and the moral law.

In expounding John chapter 17 Burgess emphasises both the spiritual and visible unity that should exist within the Church. It is not a man-made unity that compromises the whole counsel of God. Burgess deals realistically and honestly with the divisions that exist amongst Christ’s people and the reasons for them. He does not accept that lack of unity is inevitable but boldly calls it what it is according to Scripture: sin.

Burgess gives practical counsel in this area in demonstrating the spirit that Christians ought to have one to another. He will not allow us simply to show regret and concern but do nothing about the divisions of the Church. We are under the strongest obligations, not only to ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ (Psalm 122:6) but also to do what we can. In the following extract from his sermons on John 17 he shows the attractiveness of unity.

UNITY IS SPIRITUALLY HELPFUL

Unity is necessary, because by this means a serviceable and beneficial helping one another in spiritual things is preserved. The people of God are compared to living stones built up together. While the stones keep in the building, they support one another, but if they are removed, it falls down. They are compared to members in the body. While they are joined together, there is a mutual ministration to each other, but when divided from the body, no part can receive any nourishment.

So it is here. While the people of God are in union, oh the wonderful help they are to one another! They provoke one another to good works and they stir up one another’s graces. But take these coals away from one another, and then the fire goes out!

And this may be the reason why our Savior does not mention the sanctification and holiness of believers, but their unity, because unity is a special means of preserving and increasing holiness. ‘Two are better than one,’ because of heat and of help, says the wise man (Ecclesiastes 4:10). So it is in this work of grace, two are better than one to warm one another. How greatly your zeal might help against another’s lukewarmness, and your faith against another’s diffidence! If it is so great a sin to see your brother in temporal need, and not relieve him, how much more is it a sin to see him in spiritual need, and fail to help him? He is to be restored (Galatians 6:1). Put this bone in joint again.

Experience tells us that where there are divisions and discord, there is no love, no compassion, no watching over one another. If this unity were established, a man would then strive for the growth of grace in others, as in himself. And therefore, observe that the power of godliness greatly abates when differences arise. There is not that heavenly communion, nor hearty concurrence in the ways of holiness, nor that mutual help of one another, as at other times.

UNITY SANCTIFIES

Unity amongst the godly is so necessary that God many times permits sad and heavy persecutions to befall them. This is so that their discords and divisions may be removed, and they may be more endeared to one another. Times of prosperity in the church produced the greatest heresies and schisms, but the times of bloody persecution made the godly more united. Thus, the martyrs, some of them in Queen Mary’s days, bewailed their differences and the contests they formerly had with one another, but prison and persecution made them highly prize one another. Joseph’s brethren in their plenty envied and fell out with one another, but in their distress they were glad to cleave together.

If sheep are scattered one from another, when a sudden storm arises, it makes them all huddle together. It may be that although just now the godly are so censorious, so shy, so strange to one another, God may in time work so that they will be glad to enjoy one another, glad to have communion with each other. One godly man’s company may then be worth more to you than the gold of Ophir.

If love and godliness do not unite you, take heed lest God sends some out-ward trouble and affliction to put you together. If you do not embrace one another willingly, He may bind you in His chains together. His promise to Judah and Israel, of making the two sticks one, was after the cruel enmity and opposition which had been amongst them.

UNITY STRENGTHENS

Unity confirms and establishes the church. The old rule is that strength united is stronger. Sunbeams united together send out greater heat. It is union in an army, in a nation, in any society, that preserves it. As a wise man said, public societies are immortal, if they do not kill themselves by division. Our Savior confirmed this, when He said, ‘No kingdom divided against itself can stand’ (Matthew 12:25). He brings this in as an argument to show that He did not cast out devils by the help of devils, but by the Spirit of God. Thus, if the people of God cast out error and profaneness by God’s Spirit, then they will not entertain error and profaneness themselves; for this would be to set a kingdom at variance within itself. The old rule is, ‘Divide and conquer.’

It was a unique providence that Christ’s bones should not be broken, to demonstrate by this (some say) that though Christ died, yet He did not lose His strength. We must justly fear that God has some heavy scourge on the godly when they are first divided. If their bones are broken, their strength is weakened, but their evil and misery will not stop there.

Thus, it is a very foolish and weak thing in the godly to continue in their divisions. Do they not have mighty and numberless enemies? Does not the whole world hate them? Is not the world as wolves to the godly, who are as sheep? Now if not only the wolf and the fox, but also one sheep shall devour another, must not this bring utter ruin? The apostle Paul speaks fully of this danger (Galatians 5:15). Observe the notable expression, ‘biting and devouring one another.’ How unnatural this is to sheep! It is dogs that do this! And further, by this means you will consume one another. What the devils of hell, and all your wicked adversaries could not do, you will do to one another. Do not look not on your differences as mere sins, but as heavy omens of God’s wrath. When the veil in the temple rent in pieces, this was a presage of the destruction of the temple.

UNITY IS BEAUTIFUL

Unity is a most comely and beautiful thing to see. It is a ravishing thing to behold such a harmony amongst the godly! Therefore, its completeness will be in heaven. There those many thousands will all have one heart and one tongue to praise God. There will be no difference. One shall not have one way of seeing God, and another, another way. There will be no censuring, such as using reproachful terms one against another. Now the nearer the people of God come to this on earth, the more similar they are to glorified saints in heaven, and to those innumerable companies of angels that do God’s will. The angels have no jarring and contests, one angel is not of one opinion, and another of another. We ought to do God’s will as the angels do it, not only in respect of zeal and purity, but unity also.

One of the Songs of Degrees is entirely in praise of unity (Psalm 133). Unity is compared to the precious ointment that was to be composed so carefully that no one was permitted to presume to make similar oil. It was only to be poured on the high priest. The psalmist also compares unity to the fruitful and pleasant dew on the mountains. The whole psalm is remarkable:

(a) Unity is for us to ‘behold’. The psalm begins with ‘behold’ to draw others to admire it. As if to say, ‘You have seen by bitter experience what disputes and differences produce, now look at this!’
(b) ‘It is good and pleasant.’ Profit and pleasure win everyone. By this we can see our aversion to such unity, that we need those low arguments to draw us. The psalmist does not say it is just, holy and acceptable to God, but simply that it is good and pleasant.
(c) It is ‘for brethren.’ He does not say men but rather ‘brethren’, because sinful discord is apt to creep in amongst them.
(d) It is ‘together.’ He does not speak togetherness of location but of soul. The sweetness of this unity is represented by the oil that was poured on Aaron and then ran down. It must be a peace grounded on Christ our Head and High Priest, which then should diffuse itself to others. Its profitableness is described by the dew. It is from heaven and so sanctifies the barren ground. This concord is God’s gift only and if received it wonderfully blesses the church.

Who would not have rejoiced to live in the days when all believers were of one heart and one soul? What a comfort it would have been, to hear no grudging or repining at one another! But the devil (that envious one) quickly sowed tares amongst them. Ulcers and sores appeared on that body, which once was as beautiful as Absalom’s body. So the apostles urge so greatly that all things should be done in charity, that they fulfill the royal law by loving, that they do not even grudge one another. This unity and peace is so glorious that the apostle makes it a goal. ‘Study (or be ambitious) to be quiet’ (1 Thessalonians 4:11). There is a great deal of carnal and worldly ambition after things that are fading and transitory. Here is godly and spiritual ambition, to be a peacemaker. To be a peace-preserver is the greatest glory God puts on us.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION

This article has been drawn from the new book Advancing Christian Unity by Anthony Burgess. It is lightly edited and in the Puritan Treasures for Today series. Burgess speaks of how union and communion with Christ and His people are “the life and comfort of believers.” Giving careful consideration of what Christian unity should look like, Burgess excels at uncovering common causes of division and promoting means to advance unity among God’s people.

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How Do I Know if I’m Putting Christ’s Interests First?

How Do I Know if I’m Putting Christ’s Interests First?

How Do I Know if I’m Putting Christ’s Interests First?
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
13 Sep, 2019

​More than a few churches lament that commitment is in short supply. It often seems to be the same people who are involved in most things. Thankfully it’s not always the norm. There may be many reasons why people are on the fringes of church life. But there are those who prefer to sit on the sidelines. They are ready with excuses about how busy they are and the amount of things that take up their time. It’s true that the pace of modern life presents challenges in meeting the demands of work and family life. No church should expect burnout. But God has given us sufficient time to meet our responsibilities. Are we merely including church alongside a number of other personal interests and hobbies?

​The apostle Paul lamented the same trend in his own time. Everyone, he said was seeking their own things and interests, not Christ’s (Philippians 2:21). “But”, you say, “church isn’t the same as Christ’s interests”. What does he mean by the interests and things of Christ? He is speaking about their service of faith, holding forth the word of life, serving in the gospel and caring for those in the church and serving one another as part of the work of Christ (Philippians 2:3-4, 16, 17, 20, 22 and 30). Edmund Calamy lamented the same half-committed Christians in his time too. In this updated extract, he explains further how the things of Christ are the things of the Church and how we can know if we are putting Christ’s interests first.

1. Why are the things of Christ’s Church the things of Christ?

  • Because Christ is the husband of the Church, and the things of the wife are the things of her husband.
  • Because Christ has purchased them for us by His death
  • Because of the great love that Christ has to His Church. It is so great that the Church’s interests are His interests, and her injuries His injuries (Acts 9:4).

Those who neglect the things of the Church therefore, neglect the things of Christ.

2. What are the things of Christ?

In general, they are nothing else except the preservation and propagation of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. They involve building up the Church of Christ in truth, purity and unity. But more particularly, the things of Christ are:

  • Christ’s pure worship in Christ’s way
  • Christ’s gospel and its precious truths
  • Christ’s Church governed according to the pattern of Scripture
  • Christ’s day
  • Christ’s godly ambassadors
  • Christ’s Church reformed when corrupted in doctrine, worship and government

3. How do I know if I’m putting my own interests first?

(a) If we seek our own interests and do not care about Christ’s

This is when a Christian seeks their own interests and does not care at all what becomes of Jesus Christ and His cause. They make themselves the principle, rule and purpose of all they do: acting from self as a principle, by self as a rule, for self as a purpose. The people of Meroz were self-seekers in this way and therefore the Israelites were commanded to curse them (Judges 5:23).

(b) If we seek our own interests before Christ’s

This is when a Christian seeks the things of Christ as well as their own, but seek their own things before the things of Christ. They seek their own things first but the things of Christ afterwards. The prophet Haggai complains of the same situation (Haggai 1:2-5, 9-11).

(c) If we seek our own interests more than Christ’s

This is when we seek our own things first, not only before, but more than the things of Christ in terms of what they value and esteem in their love and affection. It is when we prize our own profit and advantage and love our own praise and glory more than the profit, praise and honour of Christ and His gospel. The Gadarenes preferred their pigs before Christ. Those in the parable made light of the call of Christ and preferred their business before Christ and His gospel (Matthew 21:3). Demas forsook Paul and embraced the present world. The Pharisees loved the praise of men, more than the praise of God (John 12:43).

(d) If we seek our own interests when we seek Christ’s

We may seek our own things in seeking the things of Christ. Jehu pretended a great deal of zeal for the Lord of Hosts. But it was only pretended, his zeal was to secure the kingdom for himself. Balaam pretended that if he was offered a house full of gold and silver he would not go beyond the commandment of God. But he loved the wages of iniquity and desired that Balak offered him.

(e) If we seek our own interests when they conflict with Christ’s

When our own interests are in competition with or in opposition to the things of Christ which do we choose? What if we must either part with possessions, liberty, and life, or with Christ and a good conscience? If we choose to part with Christ and a good conscience, rather than liberty, possessions or life, it is sinful self-seeking. The young man in the gospels who forsook Christ rather than part with his great possessions was like this.

(f) If we seek the interests of our body rather than our soul

This is when we bestow all our time, strength, concerns and endeavours in providing for our body which is perishing while we neglect to provide for our eternal soul. It is when we lay up all our treasure on earth, but have no treasure laid up in heaven. It is when we are anxious to live comfortably in this world, but strangely neglect to be concerned about living happily in the other world.

4. How do I know if I’m putting Christ’s interests first?

(a) If you seek them first, best and most

Does seeking your own things take up your time first, best, and most? Are the things of Christ the one thing necessary to which you give your energies or are they only given a little left over time? Does seeking your own things make you neglect the things of Christ or seek after them negligently? If so, it is a sign that you over-value and over-esteem your own things, and undervalue and love the things of Christ. If you pursue the things of Christ first and most, you are putting His interests first.

(b) If you mourn more for the afflictions of Christ’s cause

If you mourn more for personal miseries than for the distress of Zion it is a sign you mind your own things more than the things of Christ.  This frame of spirit is opposite to the true spirit of Ezra, Nehemiah, David, Daniel and Jeremiah who were more afflicted with the miseries of the Church than with their own. If you mourn more for Church desolations than personal miseries, you are putting Christ’s interests first.

(c) If you have courage for Christ and His cause

If seeking your own things takes away your courage for Christ and His cause. If the more you have of the world, the less you stand for Christ and His gospel. If the more honour you have in the world it makes you more fearful. If preserving your own things makes you betray the things of Christ by sinful silence or cowardice, it is a sign you prefer your interests to Christ’s. But if the more wealth you have, the more courageous you are for God, and are glad to have something to lose for Christ’s cause, you are putting Christ’s interests first.

(d) If you are prepared to defend Christ and His cause

If seeking your own things makes you seek out excuses to hinder you from defending Christ, it is a sign of self-seeking. The times in which we live are very sinful and dangerous: the truths and ministry of Christ are trampled underfoot, religion and reformation are neglected. God is calling you to defend His truths and His ministers and ordinances.

Conclusion

It’s easy for the cares and concerns of this world to take over (Luke 21:34). It’s possible to become so involved in things that are not sinful in nature, but still get in the way of commitment to Christ and His cause. If we do allow this, it is to our own spiritual detriment as well as that of the church. As Calamy has shown, the relationship between Christ and the Church is so close (as husband and wife, head and body, king and subjects) that their interests are the same.  Christians may, and ought, to seek their own things in a secondary way to the things of Christ (1 Timothy 5:8). But they must not seek their own things in opposition to the things of Christ. Timothy (Philippians 2:20) was willing to deny himself and exert himself for the church at Philippi. We need to learn from this zeal in correctly aligning our priorities.

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How Do I Know What God Commands?

How Do I Know What God Commands?

How Do I Know What God Commands?
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
14 Jun, 2019

When you look around you see so many different strands of Christianity and churches. You might have asked the question–”why?” It’s not just because of historical factors–ultimately it’s because there are different answers to the question of authority. What does God require from all Churches and Christians? What has God’s authority as opposed to the authority of mere human beings?

This is of course a huge question but let’s explore it in the most straightforward way we can. The Bible specifically tells us that we will be able to discern what the good and acceptable and perfect will of God is (Romans 12:2). Something has divine authority if it is commanded by any law of God or something that is equivalent to a divine law. Some of the London ministers at the time of the Westminster Assembly produced a book (Jus Divinum or The Divine Right of Church Government) which deals with this question. The following is an updated summary of various chapters in that book. There are five different levels of divine authority; they go from a lower level to the highest level.

 

1. Natural Knowledge

Before the Fall the natural knowledge man possessed was perfect in corresponding with the divine law of God’s image within (Genesis 1:26-27). Even after the Fall with the effects of sin in our nature we do have some sense naturally in our conscience and understanding of what God wants. He has put that knowledge there or it is evident from what He has created around us. The heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1-2). Food and weather declare the goodness and the wisdom of God (Acts 14:17). Paul makes it clear to the Athenians that God has been made known to them (Acts 17:27-28). Paul speaks about how this revelation of God’s “invisible Godhead” and attributes leaves people “without excuse” (Romans 1:18-21). They “knew God” but did not act in accordance with this knowledge. The law was also written in their hearts in some measure (Romans 2:12, 14-15). Sometimes Paul even makes an appeal to what nature teaches us when he is speaking to Christians (1 Corinthians 5:1; 11:13-15; 14:7-11, 34-35). In inspiring Scripture the Holy Spirit therefore condemns or commends certain things in relation to natural knowledge. Anything contradictory to natural knowledge in matters of religion is therefore condemned by divine authority and vice versa.

 

2. Bible Examples

There are obligatory examples in Scripture which God’s people are required to follow and imitate. The Holy Spirit has recorded and affirmed such examples for believers to imitate. This is clearer and more specific than natural knowledge. There are many examples in Scripture that we are not obliged to imitate. They are recorded for another purpose. We can conclude that Christ anything to be done that He makes known to His Church and people through an obligatory Bible example.

Christ’s humility in washing the disciples’ feet is intentionally affirmed as an obligatory example. It binds both the disciples and us to do the very meanest service to one another in love and humility (John 13:4ff, 13-15). Christ’s suffering innocently and patiently is an example for all Christians to imitate (1 Peter 2:21-23). Christians are to be generous as Christ was even if it makes them poorer (2 Corinthians 8:9). There are also others ways we follow Christ (Ephesians 5:1-2; 4:32; 1 John 2:6).

The examples of others are for us to follow (1 Corinthians 10:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; Hebrews 6:12; 13:7; James 5:10). The book of Acts for instance is a whole book of examples meant to guide us in relation to the Church. The apostles are frequently said to be those we are to imitate (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; 1 Corinthians 4:6-7; 11:1; Philippians 4:9). Certain examples are clearly commanded (3 John 11). These commands clearly prove that many Bible examples are obligatory for us to imitate. When God condemns or commends anything it is virtually the same as requiring or forbidding it.

We have to think through what is essential to the action and what are the circumstances surrounding it. We have to look at what was unique and what is of a moral and abiding nature. In general we can say that if the example of those who are godly and approved in Scripture does not go against the principles and commands of Scripture we should follow it. Here are some principles to guide us:
(a) if an example is commanded or approved we must follow it;
(b) if an example is of a moral nature we must follow it;
(c) if an example is said to be a pattern for us or is the common practice in Scripture we must follow it;
(d) if an example is done by someone in their capacity as a believer (as opposed to fulfilling a particular function) we must follow it; and
(e) if an example is related to extraordinary gifts and calling we must only follow it if we have the same extraordinary gifts and calling.

 

3. God’s Approval

When God approves something it is equivalent to Him commanding it. God cannot approve of something that is against His will. And vice versa, He forbids things by disapproving of them, showing that they are against His will and unlawful. God approves or forbids things in different ways.

(a) Commending or Condemning

God commended Josiah for his zeal in Reformation (1 Kings 23:25). The Angel of the Church of Ephesus is commended for not bearing with those who are evil and hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:2-6). Christ approved the Angel of the Church in Pergamus for not denying the faith when faced with danger and persecution (Revelation 2:13). That becomes a rule for all pastors and churches. God commending is divine commanding. The same churches are also reproved for their failings (Revelation 2:4, 14-15,20; 3:15). The Church of Corinth are condemned for their division and disorder (1 Corinthians 11:17).

(b) Promising or Warning

Christ makes promises to His people (Mark 10:29-30; Matthew 16:19;18-18-20; 20;23; 28:18-20 and John 20:23). He also warns and threatens His people for leaving their first love, tolerating false teaching and lukewarmness (Revelation 2:4-5, 14-15, 20-23; 3:15-16). These teach us what to do and what to avoid.

(c) Rewarding or Chastising

God rewards faithfulness (Exodus 1:17-21; 1 Timothy 5:17). He chastises disobedience (1 Samuel 13:12-14; 2 Samuel 6:6-7; 2 Chronicles 26:16). The Corinthians were chastised for abusing the Lord’s Supper as a divine warning to all Churches in the future to avoid partaking of communion unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:30).

 

4. God’s Actions

Anything God has done in or for the Church of God is of divine authority. For instance, God rested on the seventh day and sanctified and blessed it (Genesis 2:2-3). That action is taken to be significant in instituting the sabbath. The Lord’s Day under the New Testament was instituted by Christ (changing the seventh day to the first day). Christ rose on the first day of the week, He appeared to the disciples on that day and sent the Holy Spirit on that day. These actions (together with the practice of the apostles: Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2) have authority in setting apart that day. Likewise the whole ceremonial law is fulfilled by Christ’s death when He cried “It is finished” (John 19:30; Colossians 2:14; Ephesians 2:14-15).

 

5. God’s Commands

Whatever is commanded or forbidden by God in His Word is either a duty or a sin. We can divide these commands into explicit and implicit.

(a) Explicit

Some of these are obvious such as the Ten Commandments or commandments of Christ (e.g. Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-24). Commands that God gives through the inspired apostles are also of authority (1 Corinthians 7:12,25,40; 14:37). Whatever is explicitly commanded by God in plain and evident terms is of divine authority without any controversy. But we do have to consider the nature of the thing commanded and the Lord’s purpose in commanding. Some commands are moral and abiding e.g. honouring father and mother. Other commands are temporary like the ceremonial and civil law for Israel under the Old Testament. Likewise there are things commanded that have a special temporary relevance but can still be binding on us in terms of their principle. Acts 15 forbids the Gentiles from stumbling fellow believers who were Jewish in relation to certain practices. There may be aspects of this that were temporary but the principle of not stumbling others certainly remains. Others are unique to particular situations, like the Israelites “borrowing” gold from the Egyptians (Exodus 11:2).

(b) Implicit

Even the Ten Commandments imply more than the words in themselves state. The commandments that forbid sin also require us to do opposite duties and vice versa. Christ explains the sixth commandment in this way (Matthew 5:21-27,43). It is not only outward actions that are forbidden but also inward actions (Matthew 5:21-22). The same is true in relation to adultery, lustful looks and thoughts are forbidden (Matthew 5:27-30).  Everything implied in a commandment has divine authority.

Implicit commands also include the many things that are clearly deduced from explicit commands. Do ministers have an explicit command to baptise? No, but it is deduced from the command to the apostles and the promise that Christ will be with them always to the end of the world (Matthew 28:19-20).  So we have to draw out the logical consequences of what is commanded in Scripture. No one says that just because we do not have any examples or commands for women to receive the Lord’s Supper they cannot. We infer from the example of whole families engaging in the Passover (Exodus 14) and the fact that male and female are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Paul proves that minsters are to have financial support from the command concerning the ox treading corn and the support for priests (1 Corinthians 9:14; 1 Timothy 5:17-18).

 

Conclusion

This survey of establishing what God commands gives us the tools we need. God’s complete will concerning all things that are necessary for his own glory, our salvation, faith and life, is either explicitly stated in Scripture or can be derived from it in a valid way. There are differences within applying this. The Bible limits us to deriving our doctrine and worship from itself alone. If it’s not commanded it’s forbidden. On the other hand there are many commandments and principles in the Bible that teach us God’s will for our lives that are to be applied in the detail of everyday life. By it’s very nature this is much more expansive and requires much wisdom.

We are not to be unwise or foolish but to “understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17). We have a natural tendency not to want to do the hard work of searching out God’s will in Scripture. We also have a sinful tendency to want to limit God’s authority on our lives and activities – even in the life of the Church. The reality is that we are able to experience liberty when we seek God’s commandments (Psalm 119:145).

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How Should True Thankfulness Impact Us?

How Should True Thankfulness Impact Us?

How Should True Thankfulness Impact Us?
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
7 Jun, 2019

We have (properly) expressed our deep gratitude for the courage and sacrifice of D-Day. It was one of the greatest battles for freedom this world has ever known.  There has been little recognition in recent days of the debt we owe to God. President Trump repeated part of President Roosevelt’s prayer from the time of D-Day. Not indeed though, the close of that prayer which was “thy will be done”. Many prayers were offered 75 years ago for this deliverance and in God’s great kindness they were answered. Yet we have to ask ourselves how our nations have made use of this deliverance. Did we use the freedom to honour or dishonour God? Have we been thankful to God? What is true thankfulness?

We ought also to reflect on the many other reasons we have personally and corporately for being thankful to God. How has it left an abiding impact on our lives and hearts? Thomas Case speaks movingly in describing what he calls the “pure, holy, spiritual, active grace and duty of thankfulness”. True thankfulness to God does not “put him off with a few empty, formal compliments instead of the real, spiritual, and vital duty which he expects and deserves” from us. True spiritual thankfulness is a grace which comes down from heaven and ascends back to heaven.

 

1. True Thankfulness Exalts God

We exalt God (Psalm 30:1) and calls on others to help (Psalm 34:3). True spiritual thankfulness wants God to be more exalted and man less.

 

2. True Thankfulness is Prayerful

Truth thankfulness rises towards heaven and God in holy prayer (Psalm 116:13 and 17). We do not give up praying when God has put an end to our troubles (Job 27:10).  With the truly thankful prayer leads deliverance and deliverance leads to prayer. It is love not mere necessity that makes him pray. Love to prayer and love to the God of prayer.

 

3. True Thankfulness Shows Love to God

Love draws the heart out in great love to God (Psalm 18:1). This was David’s song in the day that the Lord had delivered him from the hands of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. The saints express this love in these three ways:

(a) Seeking to know God more  (Exodus 33:18). Moses had seen much of the wonders of God. Now his love is fired with desire to see and know the God of these wonders.

(b) Seeking to enjoy God more (Psalm 86:10-11). The Psalmist seeks to know the way to God to enjoy more communion with God. A thankful heart will only be content with God Himself, not merely the things of God.

(c) Seeking to glory in God more (Psalm 48:3-7, 12-13). The Church concludes that Psalm of rejoicing for victory with this as the greatest triumph “This God is our God for ever and ever (Psalm 48:14). The God that has done all these wonders is my God. She does not glory so much in the victories God had given her, as in belonging to the God of those victories.

 

4. Truth Thankfulness Requires Self-denial

Self-denial for God’s sake (Ezra 9:13-14). There is more thankfulness in one act of self-denial than in twenty days of thanksgiving.

 

5. True Thankfulness Fulfils our Vows

“What shall I render?” David says (Psalm 116:12). “I will pay my vows” (Psalm 116:14 and 18). This is as right a response as any for all the mercies of God to His people, whether national or personal, whether victories or supplies. All of these are God making good His covenant to them. We must pay our vows to God (Psalm 56:12).

 

6. True Thankfulness Trusts God

If God delivers a thankful heart it will trust Him another time (Exodus 14:31). A people or person cannot honour God more than by trusting Him. Abraham was strong in faith giving glory to God (Romans 4:20).

 

7. True Thankfulness is Life Changing

Thankfulness makes us order our life to God’s glory (Psalm 50:23). The main work of thanksgiving is the ordering of our lives (literally in Hebrew, disposing our way aright). Thankful lips do well, but thankful lives do better. A day of thanksgiving is something, but a life of thanksgiving is everything.

 

8. True Thankfulness Desires Others to Praise God

A thankful heart is filled with enlarged desires that others, that all would be thankful. The holy psalmist cries out to all that receive mercies, that they would respond with praise to God (Psalm 107:31). He observes how much people receive from God and how little they give back to God. He is troubled by this. He cries out like someone in pain and grief. He is not willing that God should lose anything by any of the wonders He does. Surely this a high expression of thankfulness, when the heart labours with holy desires for the whole world to give glory to God (see the whole of Psalm 148). A gracious heart does not think it enough to praise God alone; even though it would praise God supposing were there none in heaven or earth to keep it company.

 

9. True Thankfulness Speaks of God’s Works

A thankful heart delights to speak of the wonderful works of God (Psalm 145:5, 10-12).  The Church praises God’s great goodness, mercies and the multitude of His lovingkindnesses (Isaiah 63:7). The saints not only stir up one another to speak of His praises but seek to preserve the memory of His wonderful works to all generations (Psalm 145:4-7; Psalm 78:2-5).

 

10. True Thankfulness Longs for Heaven

Since gracious spirits adorned with thankfulness can only live a short while to praise God on earth, and since their generations will not continue forever to do this work–they long for heaven. There in the presence of God their praises will be perfected. Here they are feeble, weary, full of natural and sinful weakness There they will be vigourous, active, pure and perfect without change or end to all eternity (Revelation 8:4).  Thankfulness is a pure flame of a restless motion, always mounting upward until it comes to heaven. There it will sing everlasting hallelujahs to Him that sits on the throne and to the Lamb. There it will observe a day of thanksgiving that will never have an evening.

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How Should You Treat Rulers You Disagree With?

How Should You Treat Rulers You Disagree With?

How Should You Treat Rulers You Disagree With?
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
24 May, 2019

In an age of polarising politics and toxic political conversation it’s easy to be influenced by the way of the world. We’re likely to go along with anything which echoes something of our own views.  There’s no shortage of cynical comment, media hounding, social media posts or biting political satire that mocks those in power. It’s frequently thought that those in the public eye are fair game for such attacks. It’s part of a wider contempt for authority within our culture. Political comment fuelled by frustration, anger or ridicule is likely to go far and wide these days. We may agree with some of our rulers and deeply disagree with others. We are unlikely to agree with all of them all of the time. We may be frustrated by them or irritated by their words, actions or decisions. But how should we respond?

One may feel such a sense of opposition to a ruler and their policies that it can inspire a feeling of loathing. Cruel nicknames, ridicule and contemptuous language can abound. Things may be passed on that are not absolutely established as fact but we might almost feel that we want them to be true because of our deep opposition. People may get carried away with emotion rather than stopping to reflect on their responsibilities. We need to stop and think.

We need to think a little more carefully perhaps about the position that rulers in society have.  The Bible makes it clear that they deserve our respect and prayers (Romans 13:6-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-2). Are we as ready to pray for our rulers as we are to complain about them? There are a lot of duties that we owe to our rulers. The Larger Catechism shows how this issue is bound up with the fifth commandment. To some that is surprising because they only think of the fifth commandment as relating to our duty to our parents (Exodus 20:12). But the Larger Catechism goes further (Q124). It means not only our “natural parents” but all those who “by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority”.

This relates to the authority that God has placed in the Church. For instance Paul often speaks of himself in the role of a father to congregations (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12; 1 Corinthians 4:14-15; Galatians 4:19).  God’s servants in the Old Testament were often honoured in this way too (2 Kings 2:12; 2 Kings 13:14). But rulers of nations and societies are also spoken of as parents (Isaiah 49:23).  Authority is a great blessing ordained by God for society as well as the family (which is itself the foundation of society). Of course in one case it is natural and lifelong and the other case it is social and temporary. The degree of loyalty and support that a child owes to its parents is not however identical to that which a person owes to the state. The parental understanding of authority is helpful though because it explains that all relationships of authority ought to be marked by mutual respect and love within the context of their obligations.

We are in no way suggesting that rulers must never be criticised or opposed. Rather we are exploring what the Bible has to say on our overall attitude to rulers and how and when we must express our dissent and opposition.

 

1. How Should We Treat our Rulers?

We should treat them with proper respect. Those who have authority over us are to be honoured (Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:17). This honour is to be in thought (Ecclesiastes 10:20), word (2 Peter 2:10) and action (Ecclesiastes 8:2; 1 Peter 2:13-14; Romans 13:1,6). This includes giving obedience to whatever they require which is lawful according to God’s Word (Matthew 22:21). Honouring them also includes praying for them and expressing thanksgiving for their role (Nehemiah 2:3; 1 Timothy 2:1-2). We may also be required to protect them in certain circumstances (1 Samuel 26:15-16; Esther 6:2).

 

2. How Should We Not Treat our Rulers?

We should avoid displaying an attitude of envy (Numbers 16:1-3), unjustified rebellion (2 Samuel 15:1-12) or contempt (1 Samuel 8:7; 1 Samuel 10:27). We should avoid speaking evil of them (Titus 3:1-2).

There is justified rebellion but this is not at the least abuse of power or matter with which they are displeased. People should suffer long before they take the step of revolution in self-defence and use all lawful and non-violent means of redress in the meantime. When they resist they do not resist the office but the person who occupies the office who has exceeded the limits of the power of that office.

 

3. Should We Obey Anything Contrary to God’s Law?

It is never our duty to obey any commands that are contrary to the law of God (Acts 4:19; Daniel 6:13). Rather they must be resisted and disobeyed (Acts 5:28-29; Exodus 1:17; Jeremiah 1:16-18; 1 Samuel 22:17). No command contrary to God’s law has any authority. When any ruler requires something contrary to God’s law they are exceeding the bounds of their authority. Such laws do not derive their authority from God but are devised by “the throne of iniquity” (Psalm 94:20). Where we resist, however, it should be done with meekness and humility as far as possible (1 Peter 3:15). We should not be afraid of wicked rulers and wicked commands (Hebrews 11:23 and 27). Sometimes preserving our life from tyrannical rulers is necessary (1 Samuel 21:10; 1 Kings 19:3). But we need discernment as to how to act in situations where we may feel threatened (Ecclesiastes 10:4).

 

4. What Do We Do When we Disagree with Them?

It can be hard to respect some politicians. Sometimes indeed rulers cannot have our respect (2 Kings 3:14; 1 Samuel 15:35) and it must be withheld from them. But this should not be done hastily and in a fit of passion (Ecclesiastes 8:3). We must acknowledge the weighty responsibility and difficulty of their role. Patience and forbearance may be required at some times. It is easy for people in such circumstances to make mistakes and say things that are ill-judged. Sometimes we must give the benefit of the doubt and be charitable, other times we cannot. We read of some misgovernment more cautiously described as “an error” (Ecclesiastes 10:5). There may be certain weaknesses or “infirmities” (as the Larger Catechism describes them) with which we must be patient. We ought to be cautious too in our language in moderating how we express disapproval and dissent out of respect for the office of the ruler. When we protest against them or challenge them we ought to do so in a respectful way. It requires great wisdom for there is a time to speak and a time to be silent. Perhaps there are times when we must mourn and pray in secret (Amos 5:13).

 

5. What Do We Do About their Sins?

The Larger Catechism gives a very full summary of the duties required of rulers which are commonly neglected (Q128). Also covered are the sins that are only too familiar in those that exercise power (Q129). There may be sin and abuse of power in rulers and we are not to turn a blind eye to that (Ecclesiastes 10:5-6). We are not to excuse their faults any more than others (Mark 6:18). Sin and folly must be pointed out (Acts 4:8-10; Isaiah 5:23). It is often necessary to withstand a ruler in this (2 Samuel 24:3; 2 Chronicles 26:28; 2 Samuel 19:5; 1 Samuel 14:2). Their sin may often need to be rebuked publicly due to their position of influence (1 Timothy 5:20). The prophets were often required to do this. The sinful actions and decisions of rulers can have long last consequences for a nation (1 Kings 14:16). It is a great plague for a nation to have rulers who are wicked (Psalm 12:8). We can pray and speak against their sins and we can pray that they would be brought to repentance. But we must be careful that we are not tempted to have a sinful spirit ourselves towards them (Ecclesiastes 10:20). Vengeance belongs to the Lord (Romans 12:19).

 

Conclusion

We cannot hope to answer all the difficult situations that may arise in various contexts in such a short article. None of this is intended to give approval to any actions of specific rulers. But there should be enough here to make us reflect further on our attitude. We should not take our cue from the world in terms of our engagement with politics and with our rulers. Being salt and light means showing an attitude of grace in these matters. We should certainly care about how our nation is governed and express an opinion but that should not be coloured by the vitriol that commonly marks political conversation. It is very challenging. How do you pray for rulers that you believe are contributing to the moral destruction of your country? How do you express some measure of thanksgiving for them? It is very complex and requires a wisdom that we do not have in ourselves. We must seek it from God.

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How to Recover Our Souls When they are Withering

How to Recover Our Souls When they are Withering

How to Recover Our Souls When they are Withering
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
10 May, 2019

​We’ve heard about the decline of Christianity, church attendance and Christian influence. Aspects of this are matters of discussion and debate. Yet decline and increased pressure on the Church are certainly evident. Social and cultural pressures and a moral revolution that sets the agenda and seems to place the church continually on the back foot. Or the challenge of how to communicate the gospel in a world where people mistakenly think it no longer makes sense. There’s a danger that when we’re focussed on issues, pressures and commendable activity–the potential for inward decline. Has there been a decline of living Christianity in your heart and mine? It’s easy to fall into the temptation of becoming consumed by outward activity rather than motivated by inward love and grace. What if our souls have begun to wither and we’ve scarcely noticed. How would we know? More importantly, how can we recover a declining condition?

Christ tells His people who are withering in their souls to be watchful or awake (Revelation 3:2). This is the first step towards reviving a withered soul. As Obadiah Sedgewick puts it there can be “no reformation without diligent and serious consideration”. Those in Sardis were in a dying condition. The powers of truth and grace were extremely faint and seemed to be expiring. There were things “that were ready to die”. Spiritual life needs to be strengthened in such a dying condition. Outwardly things may have looked good to the eyes of others. But it was imperfect and incomplete before God. Their condition required remembering and repenting. Obadiah Sedgewick (a member of the Westminster Assembly) explains the implications of Christ’s exhortations in this updated extract.

 

1. How Do Our Souls Wither?

(a) In Our Profession. The leaves of our profession may wither when we do not have even the previous zeal and diligence for being at services. We may become so remiss in these things as to become something of a stranger to God.

(b) In Our Conversation. We may no longer delight to be with the people of God. When we are with them we avoid profitable conversation about heaven and holiness.

(c) In Our Affections. Christ tells the Ephesians that they had left their first love (Revelation 2:4). There was a cooling in the degree of love similar to the decline in the Galatians that Paul speaks of (Galatians 4:15).

(d) In Our Obedience. We obey God occasionally or in a distracted way or with a kind of cold, careless formalism. Before no time was too long and no excuse was sufficient to neglect serving God. Praying did not satisfy without lamenting groanings of spirit or more fervent wrestling with God. But now prayer and other spiritual activities are like a pulse hardly felt. Mere words and just doing the activity is enough.

(e) In Our Understanding. Previously our mind was taken up with delight in meditating on God and Christ, divine truths and ways. Now we are taken up with things that are empty and transitory. These so fill the soul that it becomes almost a stranger to holy meditations. It has almost lost its relish for deep thoughts of God, Christ, or salvation.

(f) In Our Gifts and Abilities. These become rusty and blunt because we want to be comfortable and do not use them aright or else focus them on worldly things.

(g) In Our Graces.  It is worst of all when we are dying in our graces. Physical health may go up and down and so it may be with a Christian’s graces. Perhaps they are not being kept active or being strengthened by spiritual activity.

 

2. Why Do Our Souls Wither?

(a) Error.  If poison gets into the body it weakens and endangers life. Unsound doctrine can do this as it did to the churches of Galatia. When the understanding is corrupted with any error, truth does not have the same power in the soul. Where truth loses its authority, grace will lose its strength.

(b) Sinning. Just as a wound in the body makes us lose blood and endangers our life, so there are things which fight against the soul and wound it (1 Peter 2:11). Sinning not only wounds the conscience but also our graces. Sinning is to graces as water is to fire, nothing is more opposite to grace than sin. When sin gets into the affections it is like a disease which will inevitably be a deadly wound to our graces.

(c) Neglect. Neglecting food makes the body decline. So the people of God may become careless through spiritual pride. They do not keep so close to the Word of life or to the Life itself by earnest and constant communion in prayer. It is no wonder that they become dying people. Just as plants live or die, flourish or decay in relation to how they benefit from the sun, so it is with us and God.

(d) Allowing Spiritual Disease. If ill health in the body is not treated it can become deadly. Unless sin is dealt with it will do the same to the soul. One sin may lead to another. Or the same sin may become stronger. This makes grace wither.

(e) Lack of Self-Examination. Previously we kept a careful watch over ourselves but then we began to think it was not so necessary. We therefore fail to see how either sin or grace is operating. The soul becomes weak. We cannot pray as before, we do not have the love to God and Christ we had before. We do not delight in the means of grace nor mourn over sin as before. We do not do the same good to others as before. Why is this? It is always true that the less searching of heart there is, the less strength of grace there is.

(d) Lack of Humbling Ourselves. Fasting and prayer have been ordained to help preserve our graces. When we neglect them or are careless in them we cannot have the same strength against spiritual corruptions. We therefore fall into spiritual decay.

(e) Laziness. A lazy Christian will quickly prove to be a dying Christian. Grace not exercised will quickly become weak and dying. It is put into the soul by God’s Spirit but there are means to sustain and strengthen it. Grace is like a fire that must be stirred up. He who will not use grace, will quickly lose it or decay in it.  Many Christians do not stir their hearts to believe, lay hold on God, or call upon Him, or to walk before Him. They do not use their knowledge, zeal and love for the good of those around them, including those they live with. They meet together but don’t stir one another up to greater holiness.

(f) Excessive emotion. Excessive fear, grief, anger, joy, agony, desire or worry can all impair grace. Desire for the world, or delight in it, fear of man, or grief for things we have lost can all damage grace.

 

3. Are Our Souls Withering?

(a) Examine Your Understanding. Previously there were strong endeavours to know the truths of God and search out the mysteries of salvation. There was an admiration of holiness and God’s favour. There were sweet meditations on the will of God; the mind was pre-eminently taken up with God and Christ, grace, obedience and heaven. Is it so now? Or do worldly things seem great in your eyes? Are we more concerned for our temporal than for our spiritual good? Are our thoughts of God fleeting and short? Do you desire to know God or see His favour in Christ to you? Where is that high regard for the truths of God? Where is that diligence to know the condition of your soul? Where is that sweet delight you once had to know Jesus Christ as your own?

(b) Examine Your Will and Affections. Time was that your will was flexible and found obedience easy. It was submissive to the divine will and cheerful in the duties of godliness. Your affections were delighted with God’s promises and ravished with love to Christ. You were concerned to please and to avoid offending.  You desired nothing more than God’s lovingkindness and hated all evil. But now your will grows weary and is reluctant to be persuaded. It often conflicts with God’s will. You are slow to pay heed to God’s counsels. Neither God’s mercies nor His warnings have the same effect on you.  You delight less in heavenly things and sin is not hated as it was.

(c) Examine Your Heart and Conscience. In the past conscience was quick to direct and restrain. It sought exact obedience. It was sensitive against doing wrong. It could not rest till peace was found. Is it so now? Can you sin and conscience does not strike you? Has your conscience become sleepy and almost dead?  Can you omit duties or do them carelessly or can you sin and either conscience says nothing or you do nothing?

(d) Examine Your Worship. How precious and delightful the means of grace once were to you. You would rather have spent a day in them than a hundred in other things. They brought powerful impressions on your heart; grief, joy and hope. They helped you conquer sin and temptation and have a more serious diligence in your walk with God. Is it so now? Does the Word warn and you do not tremble? Does it promise good and you do not love it? If your heart seems to be dead it indicates that you are a dying soul.

(e) Examine Your Conversation. Has our religion become just talk, criticism and debate?

(f) Examine Your Graces. When graces are scarcely active or are generally inconstant there is spiritual decline. Your faith does not commit things to God as before, your love is not so settled on Christ as before. Your patience cannot endure, your sorrow is dry and your zeal has become cool. If our physical capacities have become weaker it is an indication of declining strength in the body. The same may be said for our spiritual condition, if our graces are not as vigorous as they were.

 

4. How to Recover Our Withering Souls

God puts grace within the soul and also increases and perfects it. Strengthening grace means recovering the health of the soul. Christ also does this work, it is He who must make our withered branches to flourish again. He does this by awakening us through the Word and not leaving us to continue as we are. Ministers are also appointed to watch for the flock and exhort those who are going astray. Christ supplies strength and grace that enables us to repent and pray. There is renewed grace to go on in holiness and regain our former strength of holy understanding, faith, will, love, desire, fear, and obedience. But there are also means for Christians themselves to use to strengthen grace within.

(a) Serious Consideration. Seriously consider and take to heart your condition. Think about what it was formerly and what it is now; what strength there was then, what weakness there is now (Psalm 119:59). Consider how much glory God had then, what dishonour God has now. Consider what peace of conscience you had then, what wounds in conscience now.

(b) Confession. Go before the Lord and fall down before His footstool with shame, bitter weeping and lamentations. Confess your condition.

(c) Resolve. Resolve that you will not continue in your decayed condition but rather shake off all the causes of having decayed. Put away sin. Turn away from carelessness and slothfulness. If the world has caused your decay, resolve to turn from its allurements.

(d) Reform. Remember where you have fallen from and do the first works again (Revelation 2:4). Go to prayer, reading, holy meditation, spiritual conversation and hearing again.  Stir up those coals and embers of grace. There is life in you yet, exercise faith and repentance.

(e) Fervent Prayer.  The Lord can give the strength you need (Psalm 86:16). Implore Him to pity and help you, to be your strength and salvation. Seek that He would weaken the sins which have so much weakened you. Ask that He would crucify your heart to the world, which has so much crucified your heart to your God. He can increase strength to those who are faint (Isaiah 40:29). He is able to revive and strengthen the holiness that He himself planted in your heart.

(f) Submit to the Word.  Strive for a pliable heart submissive to whatever the Lord will direct you to by His word. Desire to do God’s will. Co-operate with the Word received when it has got into your soul and stirred you in any way. Take note of what impressions the Lord makes on your spirit by His Word. Stir up your heart to embrace them and apply them again and again to your conscience. This is the way to make your weak spark grow into a flame.

(g) Find Strong Christians. Seek out strong and lively Christians who walk in the ways of grace. If they are good and know how to do good they will have hearts to pity you, heads to direct you and arms to bear you up. Listen to their heavenly wisdom in counselling you and their exhortations to you. Follow their examples in careful communion with God. You will be helped by their prayers for you.

 

Conclusion

It is a serious matter when our souls are in a withering condition. We cannot just accept it, we need to address it. It is a matter that Christ takes extremely seriously in the letters to the Seven Churches of Asia (Revelation 2-3). This is one of the various themes of our new forthcoming study course called Outside In. It helps to identify the problem of declining in love and grace and what we can do by God’s grace to return from that condition.

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Are All Sins Equal?

Are All Sins Equal?

Are All Sins Equal?
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
12 Apr, 2019

Is quite common to hear the notion that all sins are the same in God’s sight or that no sin is worse than any other sin. The reasoning behind this is that one breach of God’s law makes us guilty of breaking all commands (James 2:10). Another way this is justified is by saying that all sin meets the same penalty (Romans 6:23) or that its remedy is the same in the cross of Christ. The motivation behind this can be well-intentioned, perhaps not wanting any sin to be seen as small in itself. It deflects unwanted moral judgments by requiring that others must be without sin themselves to avoid hypocrisy. Perhaps the overwhelming emphasis on equality in our culture also steers people towards this idea. But is it right to say that all sins are equal?

It is certainly true that the least sin is an offence against the infinitely holy God and therefore absolutely evil. There is no such thing as a sin that doesn’t matter. But this is not all that can be said. The claim that sins are judged absolutely equally by God does not stand up to Scripture (James 3:1; Matthew 23:14; Matthew 11:24; Luke 12:48; Mark 9:42; 1 Corinthians 3:10-17).  Forgiveness also relates to different levels of sinfulness (Luke 7:41-42, 48). To reason from what sin deserves to what sin is in itself risks ignoring what the Bible says about whether some sins are more sinful than others (1 John 5:16). Christ Himself says that some sins are greater than others (John 19:11).

Let’s be clear that Scripture does say that some sins are worse than others (Exodus 32:30).

  • Some idolatry is even worse than other forms (Ezekiel 8:6, 13,15; Ezekiel 23:11);
  • Some commandments are of greater weight than others (Matthew 5:19; Matthew 23:23);
  • Some sins are worse because they involve sinning wilfully and defiantly (Numbers 15:30 and 15:22, 24, 27, 29);
  • Some sins are worse than others, such as sexual sin (1 Corinthians 6:18);
  • Some sexual sins are worse than other sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1; Romans 1:26-27; Leviticus 20:10-16 compared with 20:17-21)

 

What Makes Some Sins Worse Than Others?

None of this excuses or belittles any sin, it simply gives us God’s perspective on degrees of sinfulness. The Westminster Larger Catechism (Q150), like the Shorter Catechism (Q83) makes it clear that “all transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous”. Yet some sins “are more heinous in the sight of God than others”. They are either more heinous “in themselves” or because of certain “aggravations”. Aggravations are the things that make a sin more serious. It is a term still used in the law courts to mean an aspect of a crime which increases its guilt over and above the offence itself. Aggravated assault, for example, is different from simple assault depending on the intent, the weapon used or the extent of the injury. In Q151 the Larger Catechism goes on to explain what these “aggravations” are in relation to God’s law. When we consider these we see that the whole subject is much more extensive and challenging than the “all sins are equal” mantra acknowledges.

(a) The Person Sinning Makes Some Sins Worse

  • if we are older and “of riper age” (Job 32:7,9; Ecclesiastes 4:13) it is more serious than in someone younger. Wisdom should have come with years and experience. This is because we have had greater opportunity to learn God’s will, experience His grace and how to overcome temptation.
  • if we have greater experience or grace. Solomon had experienced much from God and the example of his father yet he sinned against what he knew and had received (1 Kings 11:4,9). The greater progress someone has made in holiness and godliness, the less excuse they have and the greater their fall when they sin.
  • if we are “eminent for profession” of Christianity. David made the enemies of God to blaspheme (2 Samuel 12:14) because of the prominent nature of both his sin and relationship with God. The inconsistency of one so committed to serving God made it worse than it would have been in others.
  • if we have greater gifts and responsibility. Where God has blessed us with greater knowledge of the Bible and opportunities to gain this we are more responsible for using these gifts not to sin (James 4:17; Luke 12:47-48). Where we are in a position of responsibility towards others in society, work, church and family we have greater guilt in sinning because our actions carry more weight and influence (Jeremiah 5:4-5. 2 Samuel 12:7-9; Ezekiel 8:11-12. Romans 2:17-24). Higher standards are expected of us and more eyes are upon us.
  • if our example is likely to be followed by others. If we are likely to lead others astray we incur guilt for that as well as our own actions. It can have a significant impact on a lot of others who may follow our example (Galatians 2:11-14).

(b) The Person Sinned Against Makes Some Sins Worse

  • sinning against God is worse than sinning against others (1 Samuel 2:25; Acts 5:4; Psalm 51:4). This is because of the infinite majesty and holiness of God and because our greatest responsibility is to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind.
  • sinning against things by which God makes Himself known is worse. This may include His attributes (Romans 2:4) or name (Exodus 20:7). It may also include despising His worship (Malachi 1:3-4) which is meant for displaying His glory.
  • sinning against Christ and His grace is worse. We are warned solemnly against refusing His message, promises and offers of grace in the gospel (Hebrews 2:2-3; Hebrews 12:25)
  • sinning against the witness and working of the Holy Spirit is worse. If we lie to Him or resist, despise and blaspheme Him it is worse (Acts 5:3-4; Hebrews 10:29; Matthew 12:31-32; Hebrews 6:4). If we grieve and quench Him it is worse (Ephesians 4:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:19)
  • sinning against superiors is worse. This is because they have a God-given authority and are to be respected and obeyed (Jude 8; Numbers 12:8-9; Isaiah 3:5)
  • sinning against relations is worse. We have particular family or other social bonds that we must respect and not abuse. We have greater obligations and responsibility towards them (Proverbs 30:17; 2 Corinthians 12:15; Psalm 55:12-15).
  • sinning against the souls of others is worse, such as when we mislead them spiritually especially in matters of salvation (Matthew 23:15; 1 Thessalonians 2:15).
  • sinning against believers is worse because of the bonds and ties of grace. (Matthew 18:6; 1 Corinthians 6:8; Proverbs 6:19).This is especially so in relation to those of the Lord’s people who are weaker (1 Corinthians 8:11-12; Romans 14:13,15,21).
  • sinning against a corporate body is worse (Joshua 7:20, 21, 25; 1 Kings 14:16).

(c) The Nature of the Sin Makes Some Sins Worse

  • the clearer the command sinned against, the greater the sin. The more expressly God has commanded or forbidden something the greater the guilt in disobeying (Romans 1:32; Ezra 9:10-12; 1 Kings 11:9-10).
  • the greater number of commands sinned against, the greater the sin. Some sins break more commands than others. Covetousness is idolatry as well as being against the tenth commandment (Colossians 3:5; 1 Timothy 6:10). Achan’s sin involved coveting and theft (Joshua 7:21). Ahab coveted and took Naboth’s land by perjury, theft, murder and injustice.
  • the greater the impact, the greater the sin.It is a serious thing to stumble and harm others by our sins (Matthew 18:7; Romans 2:23-24).
  • the more openly committed, the greater the sin. Sin is still sin in the heart but when it is expressed in words or actions it brings greater public dishonour to God and damage to others (James 1:14-15; Matthew 5:22; Micah 2:1).
  • the greater the consequences, the greater the sin. We cannot make amends for our sin by our own actions as it relates to its guilt before God as though we could atone for it. But sometimes we can pay back something that was stolen or lost. It is more serious when we cannot make any restitution. David could not restore the life he had taken away or the marriage he had destroyed (1 Samuel 12:9; see also Deuteronomy 22:22 compared with Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Some damage to reputation and honour cannot be removed (Proverbs 6:32-35).
  • the greater the restraints, the greater the sin. God may use various means that ought to restrain us from sinning. Some saw the miracles of Christ and heard His teaching but it did not restrain their unbelief (Matthew 11:21-24; John 15:22). It increased their guilt that they had such privileges. God’s goodness, mercies and deliverances towards us should also restrain us (Isaiah 1:3; Deuteronomy 32:6). It is a serious matter to despise His goodness and forbearance (Romans 2:4). To sin against judgments also increases our guilt (Amos 4:8-11; Jeremiah 5:3; Revelation 9:20-21). Other things that should restrain us are the light of nature and convictions of our own conscience (Daniel 5:22; Titus 3:10-11). Certain things should be obvious to us even without special revelation (Romans 1:20, 26-27; Romans 2:14-16). Outward restraints include the warnings of others in public or private (Proverbs 29:1). Official church discipline (Titus 3:10; Matthew 18:17) and civil punishment (Proverbs 27:22; Proverbs 23:35) ought to restrain us. It is also serious when we sin against our prayers, purposes, promises, vows, covenants, and engagements to God or others (Psalm 78:34-37; Jeremiah 2:20; Jeremiah 42:5-6,20-21; Ecclesiastes 5:4-6; Proverbs 20:25; Leviticus 26:25; Proverbs 2:17; Ezekiel 17:18-19).
  • the greater the wilfulness, the greater the sin. If we sin deliberately, wilfully, presumptuously, boldly, boastingly, maliciously, frequently, obstinately, with delight, continuance, or relapsing after repentance (Psalm 36:4; Jeremiah 6:16; Numbers 15:30; Exodus 21:14; Jeremiah 3:3; Proverbs 7:13; Psalm 52:1; 3 John 10; Numbers 14:22; Zechariah 7:11-12; Proverbs 2:14; Isaiah 57:17; Jeremiah 34:8-11; 2 Peter 2:20-22).  

(d) The Circumstances Make Some Sins Worse

  • sinning in or around the time of worshipping God or on the Lord’s day is worse (2 Kings 5:26; Jeremiah 7:10; Isaiah 26:10; Ezekiel 23:37-39; Isaiah 58:3-5; Numbers 25:6-7; 1 Corinthians 11:20-21; Jeremiah 7:8-10; Proverbs 7:14-15; John 13:27,30)
  • sinning after God has chastised us is worse (Ezra 9:13-14)
  • sinning in public, or in the presence of others is worse. This is especially true if they are likely to be encouraged to sin by it (2 Samuel 16:22; 1 Samuel 2:22-24).

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What is the Purpose of Life?

What is the Purpose of Life?

What is the Purpose of Life?
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
8 Mar, 2019

Why did God make me? What is the purpose of life? Why am I here? These are important questions that most people ask at some point in their lives. The Shorter Catechism dives in at the deep end by tackling this fundamental issue in the very first question. “What is man’s chief end?” is basically asking, “What is the point of our existence?”

This article is a chapter from the book “Bible Truth Explored” by Murdo A N Macleod.

 

No special purpose?

Many people think that we have no special purpose in life. They think everyone can choose their own goals in life, because there is no more to life than enjoying ourselves and getting the most out of our time here. What a poor, selfish attitude that is! Jesus told us about a man who said to himself, “eat, drink, and be merry” (Luke 12:19). Because that was his sole purpose in life, God called him a fool. The Catechism tells us that we do have a purpose, or an “end,” a goal or aim in life.

 

Many special purposes?

Many people also think that there are many special purposes for living. They include to work and look after our families, education, science and development, and of course recreation. While all these are important in their own place, none of them is our chief end. We have one “chief” purpose, one supreme aim. Our “chief end” is our foremost special purpose, the whole point of our existence.

What is the chief end of man?
Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

 

To glorify God

Our chief end has two aspects. The first aspect is “to glorify God.” Does this mean that we have to try and make God more glorious than He already is? No. We cannot add to God’s glory. It is already perfect. It can neither be increased nor reduced.

“We have one ‘chief’ purpose, one supreme aim.”

However, there can be variation in how God’s creatures display His glory. Think of the sun. We cannot make the sun shine brighter, but clouds sometimes hide or block the sun’s brightness. We cannot make God any more glorious than He is. But our sins are like clouds, which hide or overshadow God’s reputation. Our sins make the world a darker place and obscure God’s honour.

To “glorify God” is not to add to His glory but to live in such a way as honours Him and declares His gloriousness to all who see and hear us. It is to live a life of obedience to God, not hiding His glory behinds clouds of disobedience.

Our duty is to do everything to the glory of God. Our lives are not divided into parts, one part about spiritual matters and the other part worldly concerns. It is not a case of having one part of our lives obeying God and another driven by a desire to please and glorify ourselves. Whether at home or work, study or leisure, our whole lives are to be focused on glorifying God.

 

To enjoy God

The other aspect of our chief end is “to enjoy God forever.” Enjoying God means being pleased and delighted with who God is, finding Him to be the one source of our deepest satisfaction and pleasure. This enjoyment is a consequence of glorifying God, although it should not be our main motivation for glorifying God. We should glorify God because God is so glorious, not because of the pleasure we may consequently experience. When we think of how we enjoy God, we can think both of enjoying Him in this world and of enjoying Him in the world to come.

 

Enjoying God in this world

The Christian enjoys the presence of God. This is because God has restored a friendly relationship between Him and them. Instead of being afraid of God and antagonistic towards Him, the Christian finds pleasure and satisfaction in the presence of God.

The Christian enjoys pleasing God. Instead of making it their priority to please themselves, or keep other people happy, the Christian enjoys thinking about God and how they can serve Him and glorify Him best with their lives and talents.

The Christian enjoys activities in which they meet with God. Instead of being most happy when God is pushed to the back of their minds and feels very far away, the Christian enjoys every opportunity to spend time with God. These opportunities include reading the Bible, praying, and church services on the Lord’s Day.

 

Enjoying God in the world to come

The Christian’s enjoyment will last “forever” because God is everlasting. The enjoyment of God which the believer has in this world is only a little foretaste of what they will enjoy in eternity. In heaven, they will be able to completely and continually glorify and enjoy God.

Our chief end is something that should absorb our attention and energy. It should never be far from our thoughts that the main reason for our existence is to glorify and enjoy God. When we are more concerned about our own glory, and find our pleasures in other things, we show that we are not fit for our main purpose and our priorities are all wrong. We should take Paul’s advice: “do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

BIBLE TRUTH EXPLORED

Based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, this book helps us to see how Bible truths fit together, relate to and depend on each other so that we can learn, live and love the Truth.

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You are What You Digest (Spiritually)

You are What You Digest (Spiritually)

You are What You Digest (Spiritually)
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
22 Feb, 2019

You are not what you eat but rather what you digest. If we merely consume food without digesting it properly or at all it will fail to do us good. If this is true in physical terms it is even more so in spiritual things. We can consume a lot of bible reading by hurriedly squeezing it into our schedule. We hear sermons on a regular basis. We read and listen to lots of Christian content. But it doesn’t seem to register a significant impact on our hearts and lives. Not equivalent to the time invested at any rate. Why is that? Simply because we don’t digest what we consume. What do we mean by spiritual digestion?

It’s something that few people speak about these days, yet it’s vital for our spiritual growth. It’s called meditation and the Bible speaks about it often. It’s not emptying our minds as false methods of meditation suggest. Rather it is filling our mind with biblical truths and getting the benefit from them by taking the time to apply them to ourselves.

God’s Word is life and health to us (Proverbs 4:22) and we must feed on it (Hebrews 5:12-14; 1 Peter 2:2; Jeremiah 3:15). Yet, too often before we get a chance to chew and digest our spiritual food we are distracted by something that takes our attention or diverted by something that seems important. We have chronic spiritual indigestion. As John Ball put it, “Without meditation, truths are devoured, not digested.” Richard Baxter observed people who could go from sermon to sermon, “are never weary of hearing or reading, and yet have such languishing, starved souls, I know no truer or greater cause than their…neglect of meditation.: They have “appetite, but no digestion.”

Baxter put it in quite a striking way: “I think that as a man is but half an hour in chewing and taking into his stomach that meat which he must have seven or eight hours at least to digest; so a man may take into his understanding and memory more truth in one hour than he is able well to digest in many. A man may eat too much, but he cannot digest too well.” He doesn’t mean mere intellectual engagement with Scripture.

The stomach must prepare the food for the liver and spleen, which prepare for the heart and brain, and so the understanding must take in truths, and prepare them for the will, and it must receive them, and commend them to the affections. While truth is but a speculation swimming in the brain, the soul has not received it, nor taken hold of it. This is the great task in hand, to get these truths from your head to your heart.

It is not just what we eat and how we eat it: our lifestyle and overall condition also affect our digestion. The same is true spiritually. Just as physical failure to digest can cause discomfort, lead to medical complications, disorders and serious disease—spiritual indigestion is particularly damaging.

Meditating on Scripture helps us apply ourselves to the Word with delight and also apply it to ourselves thoroughly. Just as food well digested gives the necessary nutrients and energy to the body, so meditating on the Word absorbs it into our hearts, life and experience so that we practice it. Nathaniel Ranew emphasised that meditation “is like the assimilating or digestion power, by helping to concoct spiritual food and turn it into spiri­tual nourishment…Meditation highly conduces to this spiritual digestion by its pondering…reasons and incentives as work the heart into compliance and obedience.” Edmund Calamy explains this principle further in the following updated extract from his book The Art of Divine Meditation.

 

1. Digesting the Things of Heaven

This holy meditation is dwelling and abiding on things that are holy. It is not only knowing God and about Christ but dwelling on the things we know. As the bee dwells and abides on the flower to suck out all the sweetness that is in the flower; so we must suck out all the sweetness we can in the things we meditate on.

To meditate is to continue and fix ourselves and our hearts on the things we know. Scripture calls meditation holy musing (Psalm 39:3). It is to commune with our own hearts (Psalm 4:4). It is both communing and consulting with our own hearts or “bethinking” ourselves (as in 1 Kings 8:47). The Hebrew word in 1 Kings 8:47 is: if they will bring back to their hearts or reflect on themselves. Meditation is a reflecting act of the soul by which the soul is carried back to itself and considers all the things that it knows.

Meditation is an inward, spiritual act of the soul by which it looks back on itself and considers all the things that concern its everlasting happiness.

You read in Leviticus 11 of the clean beasts and the unclean beasts. The clean beasts that they were to eat were those that chewed the cud. The unclean beasts were those that did not chew the cud. A meditating Christian is one that chews the cud—chews on the truths of Jesus Christ. They do not only hear good things, but when they have heard them, the chew them over and ruminate on them. This is so that they may be better for digestion and spiritual benefit. An unclean Christian is one that does not chew the cud, does not ruminate and ponder the things of heaven.

 

2. Digesting Sermons

The reason why all the sermons we hear do not do us more good is lack of divine meditation. It is the same with sermons as it is with food. It is not having food on your table which will feed you, you must eat it. You must not only eat it but digest it, or else your food will do you no good. So it is with sermons, it is not hearing sermons which will do you good but digesting them by meditation. Pondering what you hear in your hearts will do you good. One sermon well digested, well meditated on is better than twenty sermons without meditation. A little food well digested will nourish a man more than a great deal of food if it is not digested. You know that many hours are required to digest a little food eaten in a short while; so a Christian should be many hours digesting a sermon that they hear in one hour.

Some are sick with a disease, that whatever they eat comes up again immediately, the food never does them any good. This is the same with many of you, you hear a sermon, you go away and never think of it afterwards. This is just like food that you vomit up. Some have a disease that all the food they eat goes through them, it never stays with them. This food never nourishes. So it is surely, with the sermons you hear on week days and on the sabbath day. They go through you, you hear them and hear them and that is all you do. You never seek to root them in your hearts by meditation. This is the reason why you are so lean in grace, though you are so full fed with sermons. I am convinced that this is the great reason why we have so many lean, hunger-starved Christians, lean in knowledge and lean in grace. They may hear sermon upon sermon but they digest nothing. They never ponder and meditate on what they hear.

This is what our Saviour Christ speaks of as the seed that was sown by the highway-side. This is someone who hears the Word and never thinks of it after he has heard it. He allows the devil to steal it out of his heart. When the farmer sows the seed in the highway he never plows it, he does not expect that it will come to anything. There are many of you and the sermons you hear are like the seed sown in the highway. You never cover it by meditation, you never think of it when you have heard it. This is the reason you do not get more good by what you hear.

 

3. Digesting the Promises

The reason why the promises of God do not affect your hearts more and you do not taste more sweetness in them is because you do not ponder and meditate on them. The promises of the gospel are like confectionery it you do not chew it but swallow it down whole you will never taste any great sweetness in it. The way to taste the sweetness is to chew it. The promises of God are full of heavenly comfort, but you will never enjoy this comfort unless you chew them by meditation. Unless spices are bruised they never smell sweet. The saints of God live with so little comfort all their lives long, because they do not chew these promises.

This will enable you to rely on the promises for the good of your souls. The reason that the promises are not sweet to you is because you read them but you do not chew them by meditating on them. If you meditated on them they would be sweeter than honey and the honey-comb, especially if join application with meditation. Abraham was the father of the faithful, and he was strong in faith. What made him strong in faith? He did not consider his own body which was now dead nor the deadness of Sarah’s womb, but he considered the promise of God (Romans 4:19). The reason why the saints of God are so empty of comforts, hang down their heads and walk so disconsolately is because they consider the deadness of their own souls and their imperfections. But they do not meditate on the promises, the freeness and the riches of them.

 

4. Digesting God’s Commands

We must so meditate of Christ as to live according to the life of Christ. We must so meditate of God as to obey the commands of God. Meditation must enter three doors: the understanding, the will and affections and practical living. Otherwise it is of no use. The understanding helps the heart and affections like a mother helps a child. She prepares food for the child. She cuts it so that the child may eat it. So, the understanding prepares divine truths for the heart and affections, that the heart may receive, eat and digest them. But if the mother eats the meat and gives nothing to the child, the child may starve. So although the understanding receives the most glorious truths, if it does not convey them to the heart and affections, it is of no benefit.

Many spend their time in meditation as a butterfly feeds on the flower, not to be fruitful and useful.  They study and ponder divine things— God and Christ, sin and the promises—but because they do not convey them to the heart and affections, they become neither holier nor better. True meditation is this, when we so meditate on Christ as to be transformed into Him. When we so meditate on God as to love and desire God, rejoice in Him and live according to His commands. When we so meditate on sin as to hate, abhor it, and turn from it. It is to so meditate on the promises as to embrace and receive them.

 

5. How to Digest

The understanding prepares divine truths for the affections to eat and digest them and to turn them into holy living. You never meditate aright, unless the affections are elevated as well as the understanding. Both heart and head are the parts that must be exercised in the practice of the duty of divine meditation. The work of the head or understanding is serious consideration of the truths we come to meditate on. The work of the heart is increasing in devotion and holiness by these meditations.

I will give you directions to help the understanding and affections in this. Choose a suitable subject or truth to meditate on. Fix your thoughts on it, consider its different aspects. Try to remember all you might have read or heard about it. Think about its causes and effects and the things that are opposed to it. Think about the way that Scripture describes it. Pray to God to get a delight in it.

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Applying the Most Popular Promise of the Year

Applying the Most Popular Promise of the Year

Applying the Most Popular Promise of the Year
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
20 Dec, 2018

​According to the YouVersion Bible App, Isaiah 41:10 “was shared, bookmarked and highlighted more than any other this year” on their platform. It’s one of the many “fear not” verses of the Bible and some find that significant. No doubt the focus on bible verses addressing fear may be facilitated by the emoji-based search on YouVersion’s Bible App. This allows users to tap images corresponding to various emotions which in turn locate related Bible verses. Apparently individuals conducted more than 18 million searches to find what the Bible might say to them in the midst of their emotional highs and lows. Apparently the app is used by 350 million devices worldwide. Bible promises are meant to be treasured and to be used in times of trouble and need; they are meant to strengthen our faith. Of course this doesn’t mean that we are to use the Bible like a pick and mix counter of sweets where we select only positive thoughts. It’s one thing to appreciate, highlight and share a promise and another thing to meditate on it and live according to it. Before we consider how to apply Isaiah 41:10 perhaps we need to think about what God’s promises are and how we should use them.

Understanding the promises is vital for prayer, meditating on the Word, encouraging others and living by faith. An old method of making use of the promises is that where we find a command or precept in the Bible we should look for a promise that is directly connected to the precept. Then we should pray the promise and seek to live in obedience by depending on it. Edward Leigh (who was a member of the Westminster Assembly) speaks of how the promises strengthen faith, quicken hope, inflame zeal, reinforce patience, and foster all the graces of God’s Spirit. They help us in all troubles whether inward or outward. But we need to understand them better in order to apply them. Here are some principles in an update extract from Leigh’s large book on the subject.

 

1. Understanding the Bible’s Promises

(a) What is a Promise?

The promises are outward declarations of God’s will concerning good to be received, and evil to be removed.

(b) What is the Most Important Promise?

The main promise is Jesus Christ. All promises for outward blessings, such as food, clothing, health, peace, freedom, deliverance in temptations, safety in danger depend on the main promise of Christ. All God’s promise are sure and certain to God’s children in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). True Faith first of all directly fastens itself on the main promise of God in Christ. After and with this it exercises faith in all other promises that concern either soul or body. Abraham by the same faith by which he was justified believed God’s promise of a son (Romans 4:18).

(c) What Makes the Promises Precious?

The promises of God are a rich mine of spiritual and heavenly treasures. They are the unsearchable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8). The apostle Peter says that they are exceedingly great in quantity and precious in quality (2 Peter 1:4).

  • The giver is precious. God is said in Scripture to be the giver of them (Romans 1:2; 1 Timothy 1:1; Titus 1:2).
  • The price for them is precious.  Jesus Christ for whose sake we obtain them and the price He paid to purchase them (1 Peter 1:19).
  • The way they are given is precious. They are given freely out of the precious loving kindness of God (Psalm 36:7).
  • The way they are received is precious. The precious grace of faith lays hold of them (2 Peter 1:1).
  • The benefit of them is precious.  Being made partakers of the divine nature that is, of the graces of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:4).
  • The things promised are precious. If the promise is so sweet how much more sweet are the things promised: life and godliness or glory and virtue (2 Peter 1:3).

 

2. Applying the Bible’s Promises

The right use of the promises helps to sweeten all our afflictions, strengthen our faith, spur us on to well-doing and to breed contentment in all circumstances whatever.   But how can we use them in the right way?

(a) Know the Promises

If we have a remedy to hand that would ease our pain but we do not know it what good will that do us? If we do not know the promises even though they are in the book how will that make things better for us?

(b) Remember the Promises

We should strive to remember the promises. What we do not remember, we do not known. David hid God’s promises in his heart and they upheld him in his trouble (Psalm 119:111). God’s promises gave him great comfort (Psalm 119:50). The promises of God are the Christian’s title deeds for heaven. The Hebrew Christians were fainting in their minds because they had forgotten their comfort and strength (Hebrews 12:3, 5). They had forgotten promises of God made for strengthening their faith in the fiery trial. As an oil lamp will soon be out unless it has a supply of oil, so faith will soon fail unless it is nourished with continual meditation on God’s promises.

(c) Apply the Promises

We should believe the promises and apply them to ourselves. Faith not only believes the promises to be true but applies them. Promises are never believed unless they are trusted (Matthew 9:29; Mark 9:23). There are two ways of applying the promises:

  • Meditation, we should take note of and ponder the promises well.
  • Prayer. We should have fervent prayer that God would by His Spirit reveal to us the precious promises He has made to His people in His holy Word and give us wisdom to assess and apply them aright. All our prayers must be based on God’s promises (Genesis 32:9,12; 2 Samuel 7:27-29).

Special promises made to individuals can apply more widely. The promise to Joshua (Joshua 1:5-6) is applied to all believers in Hebrews 13:5. The promise to Peter (Luke 22:32) is applied to all believers in John 17:15.

We should also notice the conditions in a promise and what they depend on. God promises grace and glory (Psalm 84:11) but notice it is grace first then glory. Godliness has the promises of this life and of that which is to come. We must note the order that the Saviour uses, first seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness and then all these things will be added to you (Matthew 6:33). When God has called us to the knowledge of Christ we must not look for the immediate accomplishment of God’s promise of salvation or perseverance by God’s sole power while in the meantime omitting all concern about holiness in our life. God does not only fulfil His promises in us but also by us. The promises also relate to His commands and our duties.

 

3. Applying the Promises of Isaiah 41:10

(a) Promises of God’s Special and Gracious Presence

This is the sweetest comfort which God used to sustain His children in the Old Testament. Those such as Isaac (Genesis 26:3, 24) and Moses (Exodus 3:12 and 4:12) as well as others (Joshua 1:5, 9. and 3:7; Ezekiel 3; Jeremiah 1:8, 19). David encouraged his son Solomon with this (1 Chronicles 28:20).

It applies to the whole Church in general (Isaiah 41:10 and 43:2). Christ is spiritually present with His Church (Revelation 1:13 and 2:1). Christ left this comfort in His farewell to His disciples and their successors: “Lo I am with you…to the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).

(b) Promises of Growth and Increase in Grace

God has promised to give grace abundantly, not only to drop but pour it (Isaiah 44:3-4). Their soul shall be as a watered garden (Isaiah 58:11 and Jeremiah 31:12). God promises to make His people fruitful. He says He will give strength to His people to walk in the ways of the Lord (Isaiah 45:24; Isaiah 40:29, 31; Psalm 29:11; Isaiah 26:4, 12; Isaiah 41:10; Zechariah 10:12; Philippians 4:13). They go from strength to strength (Psalm 84:7). The righteous will hold on his way and be stronger and stronger (Job 17:9). His path is as the shining light shining more and more (Proverbs 4:18). If we are rich in the work of the Lord, our labour will not be in vain in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58).

(c) Promises for Those that Suffer as Well-doers

The promise of “fear not” in Isaiah 41:10 relates to fear of those who oppose them (Isaiah 41:11-12). Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for their’s is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:10; 1 Peter 3:14).  There are promises for those who suffer either for truth or goodness and also those who suffer for both together (2 Timothy 2:11-12; 1 Peter 4:13; Romans 8:35-37).  God will subdue all their enemies (see Genesis 12:3; Deuteronomy 30.7; Jeremiah 12:14; Psalm 37:14-15, 17; Job 8:22; Isaiah 41:11-12; Isaiah 54:15; 59.19; Proverbs 22:23 and 21:1).

 

Conclusion

When we apply the promises within the overall context of Scripture and of God’s priorities for His glory (which includes our good but also our obedience) we are more likely to apply them in the right way. All God’s promises are sure and certain in Christ and the promises should lead us back to Him in faith (2 Corinthians 1:20). God’s promises relate to our growth in holiness as well as our blessing and protection. The Bible is full of precious promises, do we know, value and apply them?

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Ordinary Means of Extraordinary Grace

Ordinary Means of Extraordinary Grace

Ordinary Means of Extraordinary Grace
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
30 Nov, 2018

Every so often we hear a new methodology or approach to ministry being championed. It will transform the Church’s appeal, we are told, by transforming what the Church does. These approaches have been proven “to work” and therefore they must be the right way. Usually, however,  they explicitly require trading the historic Christian view of how the Church worships and functions for the new way. These things must be tested by Scripture. It also becomes a practical question for the individual believer. How can we best grow spiritually? What sort of church should we attach ourselves to? Is it right to be discontent with a way of worshipping that just seems…ordinary?

We tend to despise the ordinary as customary, commonly practiced, fixed and regular and unexceptional. We prefer what is novel. The ordinary isn’t high-octane, it just doesn’t seem to excite. We are naturally attracted by what pleases our senses and what fits with the assumptions that we draw from the culture of the world around us. The ordinary also represents order and naturally we do not want to be restrained by boundaries.

The Westminster Standards and historic Christianity represent an altogether different perspective. They speak of ordinances that have been ordained and ordered by God in His Word. They are ordinary because that is God’s purpose. He wants us to use them because He has appointed them for ordinarily communicating His grace. God’s grace is not an ordinary thing of course and therefore we can expect extraordinary things to happen spiritually by God’s grace and Spirit.

After reading about an extraordinary work of God’s Spirit on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 we discover that the Church did not try to invent new things to whip up an excitement that comes from the flesh. Instead it moved to the ordinary means of prayer, fellowship and the Word (Acts 2:41-42). When Christ gave a mission to the Church through the apostles He sent the apostles to use specific means: preaching and baptising.

There is a common notion currently that because so much has changed in the world around us, we must therefore change our methods. Why do we think that we need to invent new means of mission for a sovereign God? Surely our duty is simply to follow what He tells us in His Word. How much have things really changed in terms of the needs of the human heart and God’s appointed ways of addressing them? Faith still comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. Christ’s sheep still hear His voice in His Word. If we despise God’s ordinary means as common, boring and irrelevant it says nothing about the means themselves. Instead it says volumes about us and our confidence in God and His Word.

Means used to convey vital and important things may often be unassuming and appear ordinary but that does not reduce their importance. Rather it draws more attention to what is conveyed. God uses the things that the world despises in order to bring greater glory to Himself (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Naaman despised the idea of washing in the Jordan but if some great thing was asked of him he would have done it (2 Kings 5:13).

It’s striking how often the Standards speak of that which is ordinary as positive not negative. They speak of God’s ordinary work and the ordinary means He has appointed to convey His extraordinary grace. Both the Larger and Shorter Catechisms ask questions concerning “the outward means” by which Christ communicates to us “the benefits of redemption” (Shorter Catechism, Q88).

This does not happen automatically, these means cannot save or communicate grace by themselves. We need to make use of these means by faith. “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts; and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word: by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened” (Westminster Confession 14:1). The Larger Catechism gives, it tells us a lot about the ordinary means:

The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation (Q154)

 

1. The Ordinary Means are Outward

Why outward? This distinguishes them from the inward work of the Spirit by which we are born again, sanctified etc. The Spirit uses outward means ordinarily as part of this work, although He is free to work without them in extraordinary cases. He makes the outward means effectual by His inward work.

These outward means include the Word read and preached as well as prayer in the name of Christ (1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 4:2; 1 Timothy 2:1, 8). It may also be the Word sung (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). It is striking that the Shorter Catechism states that the “Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” (Q89). The means also include the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper which are meant to bring increase and growth in grace as we use them by faith (Matthew 28:19; Matthew 26:26–28).

2. The Ordinary Means are Christ’s Gift

God has given us not just the message to proclaim but also the means by which it should be proclaimed. These outward and ordinary means are ordinances which have been given to the Church. Sometimes it seems as though they are unwanted gifts because many wish to diminish their role or substitute other things instead. These are the means by which Christ wants His Church to grow and flourish spiritually.

3. The Ordinary Means are for the Church’s Wellbeing

Christ has not just given us the spiritual life we need but also the means to gather and grow the Church; to nourish and edify that spiritual life. Christ has given to the Church “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world” (Westminster Confession 25:3).

Christ has also given us the means to preserve the peace and order of the Church. Disorder comes from fallen man, order comes from following God’s appointed way. “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints”. Therefore, let “all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:33, 40). On the other hand, new methods invented by our own mere wisdom tend to divide and unsettle the Church.

4. The Ordinary Means Connect us to Christ

If these are the ordinary means by which Christ communicates the benefits of His redemption then they have been given to connect us to Christ. Christ is communicating His benefits to His Church through these means. They are where we meet Christ and have communion with Him. As Samuel Rutherford put it, “Lord’s way of coming to us, and our way of coming to Him” is through His appointed means (Isaiah 64:5).

5. The Ordinary Means Communicate Grace

The Scriptures are spoken of as the word of God’s grace (Acts 20:32). This is their purpose. The same verse goes on to speak of how they build us up. In prayer we come to the throne of grace to find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).

6. The Ordinary Means Are to Be Used Diligently

We are to use these means patiently and consistently (Proverbs 2:1-5; 8:33). They are not instant nor a quick fix. God has the sovereign liberty to bestow His spiritual influences when and how He chooses according to His own secret will and purpose. But He has promised such spiritual influences and grace in His appointed means. We use them prayerfully depending on God’s promised grace. We are to work and expect that God will work within us (Philippians 2:12–13).

7. The Ordinary Means are Not Just Those Effectual for Salvation

Notice that the Catechism lists the three means that are made effectual to salvation. There is one other outward and ordinary means. This fourth means is the fellowship of the Church (Acts 2:42). It means all that is shared in the mutual, active functioning of the Church together and what keeps them together. The Sum of Saving Knowledge therefore highlights Church government as a means of grace. By means of this, Christ “will have them hedged in, and helped forward unto the keeping of the covenant”.

This aspect is generally forgotten. The order and governing of the Church is a manifestation of concern for the spiritual welfare and edification of those within it. It ensures that the other ordinary means are maintained in an orderly way in the public gatherings of the Church. It also ensures that Christ’s Word is followed out in practice and seeks to keep His people within the way of His commandments. This requires the loving exercise of Church discipline (Matthew 16:18). The
purpose is to edify and bring to repentance (2 Cor. 10:8; 2 Thessalonians 3:14). This is how it is a means of grace. It is the Word of God practically applied with instruction, exhortation and rebuke.

Conclusion

We ought therefore to have confidence that God in His own extraordinary way is able to make use of ordinary means for the spiritual benefit of ordinary people. He has promised He will do this. May we all experience that (in His sovereign will) on the Lord’s Day.

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The Answer to a Political Crisis

The Answer to a Political Crisis

The Answer to a Political Crisis
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
16 Nov, 2018

There is no shortage of feverish opinion and speculation in a deepening political crisis. The rhetoric and debate may be polarised in all (not just opposite) directions. As onlookers perhaps we are thankful we do not bear the burden of managing it. But do we have a duty? Should we be concerned or resigned to whatever will happen? It seems impossible to find a solution that everyone can support. Events seem to compound rather than resolve the difficulties. How will a resolution be found? Is there an answer that has not been considered?

Surely when things come to such a conflict and intractable impasse we can see that a greater wisdom is required. Rather simply but not glibly, the answer is to seek wisdom beyond ourselves. This is what Solomon did out of a sense of the weight of the responsibilities he was to carry (1 Kings 3:9). The following is extracted and updated from a sermon by Lazarus Seaman on Solomon’s request for wisdom. He was a minister in London and a member of the Westminster Assembly. He preached the sermon before the House of Commons in 1644 on a day set aside for public fasting during a time of political crisis. He shows how Solomon’s request for wisdom is a precedent for all who are in authority. We can learn from this how to pray for those in authority and also how we ought to act.

 

1. All in Government Have a Special Need for Wisdom

Solomon’s request for “an understanding heart” must be theirs for themselves (1 Kings 3:9). National governors have much business to conduct. They have many enemies to encounter: foreign, domestic, or both.  There will be some, even from within, that will drive their own agendas and consult their own interests. Thus, they make parties and factions to the prejudice of the public good. David makes a sad complaint to Abishai about Absalom his own son seeking his life (2 Samuel 16:11), something similar is too often verified in others. Flatterers, hypocrites and false friends are enemies as well as those who are divisive, rebellious and subversive. It requires no small measure of wisdom to deal with all these effectively.

The trust committed to supreme rulers is great. They have to govern many people with different situations, attitudes and opinions. There is a mixture of contrary inclinations in them all. That which pleases some, others abhor. One person’s rise is from another’s ruin. The aims are to be high and noble but the means are not easy to identify and are often unsuccessful. The lack of a little wisdom prejudices not only the reputation of those in authority but also the success of their affairs.

David was happy for a while; whatever he did “pleased all the people” (2 Sam.3.36). Even if all in authority were always as happy as this, there is a strict account to be given to God afterwards. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10). Even if we can get the approval of the world therefore, that will not satisfy. All the lions of the world must give an account to the Lamb, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He alone is to continue King forever (1 Timothy 6:15).   

 

2. Wisdom is Better than All Earthly Blessings

Wisdom is better than riches and a long life (Ecclesiastes 8:12; 5:13). It is better also than success in business, for that is common to wise men and fools (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Wisdom directs governors how to discharge their duty to God and man aright in all respects. It is the knowledge of what ought to be done, and a readiness in doing it.

 

3.What Kind of Wisdom Do Those in Government Need?

They need wisdom to direct them how to go in and out (1 Kings 3:7). They need to know how to order all their affairs and each part of their office at all times according to the right ends. This is so that what is done may be just, honourable, appropriate and most gracious (Ecclesiastes 8:5; Proverbs 14:8).

 

4. How Can they Obtain this Wisdom?

Prayer is a special way to obtain wisdom (James 1:5). Good books, good thinking, good counsel, good example and studying God’s Word can help greatly to get and perfect wisdom. Yet all this is in vain without prayer. It is God who gives wisdom to the wise (Daniel 2:21).

(a) Prayer Obtains the Blessing

Prayer alone can obtain the blessing on other means. The blessing on all things whatever depends on prayer. There is an event and some outcome of all that is said or done. But who can take any comfort though it prospers if they did not seek God? Who must have the blame except ourselves if anything does not succeed, when we restrained prayer beforehand? Strong resolutions, vigorous endeavours, a prudent choice of suitable means, the nick of time and all possible carefulness come to nothing if God opposes; or indeed if God does not graciously intervene. When He is humbly sought in prayer we will make the progress Eliezer did in providing a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24:15). It will be as if the things we desire ran on wheels toward us.

(b) Prayer is the Most Effective Means

Prayer is the most efficacious of all other means. God will respond to the humble request of His servants and do that which He will not do on any other occasion. Daniel is praying and the angel Gabriel interrupts him with the news that he had come to give him understanding (Daniel 9:20, 22).

 

5. We All Need This Wisdom

Which of us can say I am wise or I have my due proportion either for the soul, for the body, or for outward things? We need it in every aspect of outward things and much more in spiritual things , but most of all for matters of eternity. And I fear we lack it. Who knows how to order his own family as he ought? Or how to order himself? Differences (both smaller and greater) might either be prevented, lessened, or sooner remedied if we had more wisdom. Families, Church, State, ourselves and our posterity are all in a perishing condition.  

 

6. We All Need to Pray For This Wisdom

Let us pray earnestly for ourselves and for one another that we may be richly supplied with this grace. We should pray that each of us may have it according to our need in all respects. We should pray for those in government and the Parliament and everyone in the land.

When God blesses Church or State He will provide wise and just governors for them. They will so order things that everyone may lead a quiet and a peaceable life in all godliness and honesty ( 1 Timothy 2:2). But it is as hard a matter to obey well as it is to rule well. This sometimes because the “powers which be” are sometimes divided against God and among themselves.

Pray that God would teach us to know our duties towards Him and to one another in every way. It may be that one reason there is not sufficient wisdom among us is because we do not seek it. Or perhaps we only desire it for ourselves and do not care how destitute others are. The Lord has enough in store for us all.

The only wisdom is for everyone to be wise for themselves: to know their own duty and to do it. We ought to pray therefore that the Lord would teach us how to strengthen our friends and (if possible) win over our enemies. But above all, teach us how we may glorify God by doing or suffering in the midst of all the scandals and blasphemies by which He is dishonoured. Let us practice, exercise, and manifest our wisdom in all affairs and at all times.

 

Conclusion

God will pity your frailty and supply your defects. His wisdom will richly supply whatever is lacking in yours. Strive to do your whole duty. Pray earnestly that your love (to the nation) may abound in all wisdom.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7). Those that have no fear of God before their eyes are seldom of God’s counsel. They have rejected the word of the Lord, and what wisdom is (or can be) in them (Jeremiah 8:9). There is also a wisdom which God curses. He takes the wise in their own craftiness; He knows the thoughts of the wise that they are vain (1 Corinthians 3:19-20).

Let our nation be the Lord’s and His Christ’s in the first place entirely, lest we come to be no more a people. If He is not the cornerstone of the whole building both in Church and State, all will prove to be but a Babel, and end accordingly.

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