Why we should pray about everything and hide nothing

Why we should pray about everything and hide nothing

Why we should pray about everything and hide nothing
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.

Even when we are aware of needing God’s help in many areas of life, we can still be reluctant to pray. We think it’s too much to ask, perhaps — or maybe it’s too insignificant to mention in prayer. But Obadiah Sedgwick, a member of the Westminster Assembly, urges us in the folloiwng updated extract to pray about everything, and hold nothing back. The reasons he gives are all in the prayer-hearing God and His overflowing compassion.

“All prayer,” extends itself not only to all the kinds and forms of praying, but also to all the matters or things for which we pray.

Five reasons to pray about everything

God can hear every request as well as any individual request. He can hear a multiplied request as well as a single request. He doesn’t take things in, or observe things, by discourse, where one notion may be an impediment to grasping another. By reason of His omniscience, all things are equally simultaneously present to Him.

Indeed, God can grant many and great requests, as easily as the single and smallest petition. The greatest gift comes as freely and readily out of His hand as the most common mercy — even Jesus Christ, and pardon of many sins, are the same price as our daily bread. Though by comparison with the latter, the former gifts of a much more elevated nature and dignity, yet in respect of the fountain of them, all of them come from the freeness of His goodness and love.

Christ, by whom we are to put up all our requests (for He is our advocate and intercessor) is as ready and able to plead many and great requests, as well as a few and inferior ones. As He is our mighty Redeemer, so He is our mighty intercessor. And His blood is as efficacious and meritorious for many sins as for some.

This is the reason why God has made manifold promises. We may put up many and great requests all at once. The promises are called “the wells of salvation,” and “the breasts of consolation.” Now living wells afford a plenty, as well as a scanting measure of water. And the child may move from breast to breast, and draw enough from either, if one alone will not serve. If one promise does not cover all your needs, yet all of them do, and as God graciously comprehends all our supplies in all of His promises, so He has propounded them all to us, so that we would then there urge Him for the supply of all our necessities.

Lastly, God is rich in mercy, and plenteous in compassion. His mercies are often referred to as manifold mercies, and His goodness is called an abundant goodness, and His redemption a plenteous redemption, and His kindness a great kindness. Now mercy is a ready inclination to pity and help, and multitudes of mercies are like a compounded, and doubled, and redoubled opening up of God’s tenderness to do a sinner good.

Why we should hide nothing from God

You should conceal not even one of your distresses from God. The heart and life of man are full of sin, and just as full of need. There is not any branch of the soul, nor limb of the body, nor turning of the life, but is replenished with some necessity or other. You have a mind which still needs to be enlightned, a judgment which still needs to be captivated, a heart which still needs to be converted and humbled. How many sinful commissions there are which need to be bewailed, and how many particular and vile inclinations yet need to be subdued! Besides all this, every grace which you have (and there are manifold graces in a holy soul), every one of them is in exigence, and needs more spiritual filling, both for its habit, and acts, and degrees. Indeed, all our duties are only lame-handed motions, which need more strengthning, or like mixed rivers, which should run more clearly.

In this case what should we do? to whom should we go? should we divide the principles of our helps, and go for some to God, and for the most to created things? O in no wise! for all our help is only in Him, who alone can help all!

Or should we branch out our helps, and present them as a beggar does his needs, one day mentioning one need, and some distance of time later, bring up another? O no! Come with all, and with all at once, to God, who is as able, and as willing, for many sinners, as well as for one sinner — and for many sins in one person, as well as for one in any. As they did with the impotent and sick man, they brought all of him, bed and all, and laid him before Christ, so should we bring body and soul, and every distress of either, and present the whole bulk before the Lord at once, root and branches, for a manifold supply. We should press Him for manifold mercies, for abundant strength, for God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we are able to ask or think (Eph. 3).

Beloved, as your own unworthiness should not put you off from being a petitioner at the throne of grace, so the variety of your necessities should not discourage you from commencing your appeals at the throne of rich mercies. There is reason in God which will hearten us, and there is reason in ourselves to crave as earnestly and as simmultaneously for all our helps as for some. You equally need the pardon of this sin, as whatever else it may be, and mercy is as ready and able for both, as for either.

And if that corruption was more subdued, and yet this remained altogether untouched, you would have just as many, and more forcible, doubts about your situation from this discrepancy, and the inequality of the victory. Wherefore, as Abraham in his petition for the people of Sodom and Gommorrah took up request upon request, descending from high to low, from many to few, so should we in our requests ascend from one sin to more, from more to many, from many to all. You know that confession of sins should not only be particular, but universal; and our sorrow for sin should respect the kinds of sin as well as the particular acts? Well, all of this signals that there is an ampleness of grants, so much mercy and supply corresponding to the required latitude of confessions and sorrow.

Certainly it’s true that some one sin may (for some special reason, either of some guilt, or present insolency) be more insisted on then another, just as one clause in the plea may be urged more then another. Yet it should not be to the exception of the rest. “O that sin, Lord, by which I have dishonoured Thee so much, and yet which rages so much, pardon it, subdue it, out with it — and not only that, but sins like them, and not only them, but all my sins, blot them out, cleanse me from them!”

 

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How to be guided by conscience

How to be guided by conscience

How to be guided by conscience
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.

Following our conscience is the right thing to do when our conscience is well-informed and characterised by the integrity that comes from being purged by the blood of Christ. We want neither a stupefied or seared conscience on one hand, nor a doubting, over-scrupulous conscience on the other hand. As Samuel Annesley shows in the following updated extract from his sermon on conscience, the sense of sin and the receiving of forgiveness need to be in the right balance. Then we will be equipped to navigate through life in a consistently Christian way.

How to get a reliable conscience

1. Get your conscience awakened from its natural lethargy.
2. Preserve your conscience tender from being seared.
3. Rectify its errors as you would get cure of blindness.
4. Resolve its doubts as you would a claim to your lands.
5. Break from your scruples as you would from thieves on the road.
6. Lay your head in Christ’s bosom to cure your trembling.

How to keep a reliable conscience

And then for the integrity and quiet of your conscience, observe these proposals, as meticulously as you would a doctor’s prescription in a tedious sickness.

1. Avoid sinning as you would a train of gunpowder.
2. Be as quick in your repentance as in the cure of a pleurisy.
3. Live under the felt presence of the jealous God.
4. Examine your heart, as princes sift out treason.
5. Pray for the grace you need, as starving persons cry for food.
6. Let every action be like an arrow shot at a mark.
7. Think of God as a wise physician.
8. Be as vile in your own esteem as you are in the eyes of the most hypercritical enemy.
9. Live on Christ, as the child in the womb lives on the mother.
10. Love God (as near as possibly you can) as God loves you.

Landmarks to use on the journey

But you may find these rules, even though I have condensed them, to be too many, and too long to be always remembered. So, to ensure that you will not be overburdened with things which should never be forgotten, I shall commend to you some directions, which may be to your souls in your pilgrimage towards heaven, as ship provisions in a sea voyage — generally sufficient, when others cannot be had.

Plainly practise these reminders of direction in all your conscientious walking.

Consult duty, not events

There’s nothing in the world for us to do, but to mind our duty. Curious speculations, that do not tend towards holiness, are one thing: but misgivings based on predictions of what may or will happen to you when you do your duty, may be reckoned among your grosser iniquities. To venture to sin in order to avoid danger, is to sink the ship for fear of pirates, and must be reckoned amongst your greatest follies, your worst of sins.

Some argue, in effect, “This way of duty will probably bring down some people’s displeasure on me, and therefore to prevent that, I’ll take the course which will certainly bring down God’s displeasure.” Is not their reason dangerously distempered? Unquestionably their conscience is. Besides, by-ways will not lead you to the place you aim at.

On the contrary, keep your consciences from being violated, and you cannot be miserable. How calm and quiet, as well as holy and heavenly, would our lives be, if we had only learnt this single lesson, to care about nothing but to know and do our duty, and to leave all effects, consequences and events to God!

The truth is, it is a daring boldness for silly dust to prescribe to infinite wisdom, and to let go our work, to meddle with God’s. He has managed the concernments of the world, and of every individual person in it, without giving occasion to any one to complain, for more than the past five thousand years, and does He now need advice from you? Therefore let it be your only business to mind your duty.

Aye, but how shall I know my duty? Take a second reminder.

The advice you would give to someone else, take yourself

The worst kinds of people are apt enough to lay such burdens on other folk’s shoulders, that if they would take them on their own, they would be rare Christians indeed. The outcry made by those who revile godliness, when they nitpick and dissect the misdeeds of Christians! Even they expect that those who make a profession of religion should be blameless beyond exception; and even they scorn those who fall away at all from their professed strictness. On the other side, those who are holy expect that even graceless persons should bear reproof, receive instruction, and change the course of their lives.

In middle cases, then, between these extremes, what exactness will serious Christians require from themselves, where the bias of their own corruptions does not misguide them? David was twice surprised to pass sentence against himself by parables in the abstract, where he did not realise he was implicated himself.

Where this rule is too short, add a third.

Do nothing on which you cannot pray for a blessing

Where prayer does not lead, repentance must follow. It is a desperate venture to sin on hopes of repentance. Every action of a Christian that is good, is sanctified by the Word and prayer. It is unseemly for a Christian to do anything, however trivial, that he can’t pray over. If Christians only but bestow a serious exclamatory prayer on every action, they would find that such prayers would cut off all things sinful, demur all things doubtful, and encourage all things lawful. Therefore do nothing but what you can preface with prayer.

But these rules are all defective, so I’ll close with an example that’s infinitely above defects.

Think, speak, and do what you are persuaded Christ Himself would do in your situation, if He were on the earth

The heathen kept in their view the best examples they had, and therefore let us follow the best of ours. There are many remarkable examples in Scripture, but I propose neither great nor small, but the King of Saints. It is better for a Christian to be an example, than to follow one. But by imitating Christ, you will come as near as possible to the best, for your fellowship shall be with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ, through the Spirit of holiness, the only one who can teach you what it is to abide in Christ, who was, and is, and ever will be our absolute copy.

O Christians! How Christ prayed, and redeemed time for prayer! How Christ preached, out of whose mouth proceeded nothing but gracious words, so that His enemies could not but admire Him! How little Christ valued the world, when He renounced it Himself and taught us to renounce it too! What time Christ spent in conversation, when He made the hearts of those who He happened to fall into company with burn within them! How Christ went up and down doing good to man, and always those things that were pleasing to God!

Four last reminders

Beloved, to summarise, I commend to you these four reminders, to be so many scarlet threads on every finger of your right hand, so that you would never put your hand to any action, but these reminders would be in your eye.

1. Mind duty.
2. What’s another’s duty in your situation, is yours.
3. When you can’t say, “The blessing of the Lord be on it,” do not meddle with it.
4. But above all, as you would never renounce your name as a Christian, never forget to look to Christ. Whatever treatment you meet with from the profane world, remember Christ your Exemplar, and follow His steps. “He did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth, who when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered he threatened not, but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously.”

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When pastors become predators

When pastors become predators

When pastors become predators
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.

Shepherds are God’s gift to the church, given because He wants His dear flock to be well looked after. But sometimes the shepherds turn rogue and instead of caring for God’s flock, they put their own interests first. Pastoral ministry becomes all about their own position and prestige and what they can get out of it. The needs of the flock are left unmet and instead they suffer spiritually at the hands of those supposed to nurture them. As the Westminster Assembly member William Greenhill noted, this may be endemic in a church culture, and daring to speak out against it may be penalised. While we are familiar with high-profile scandals in evangelicalism in recent years, this is not a new problem. Nor do things have to reach extremes of financial, emotional or sexual abuse in order for pastors to be guilty of flouting their responsibility to feed the Lord’s flock. Harshness, neglect and a multitude of little ways of lording it over the Lord’s heritage belong to the same category of un-shepherdlike behaviour. Yet as Greenhill points out in his remarks on Ezekiel 34, when the sheep suffer, God notices, and He will ultimately intervene to rescue His maltreated people.

Ezekiel has already reproved the people and threatened the judgments of God against them for their sins. Now he comes chapter 34 to deal with their ‘shepherds,’ whose fault it was that the people had become so wicked. The first ten verses are God’s reproof of the shepherds, and the judgment He will bring on them.

The behaviour of the shepherds

The ‘shepherds of Israel’ (v.2) were the chief rulers, whether in church or state. A ‘woe’ or general judgment is threatened against them — a variety of evils, not just one but several sad judgments will come on them.

The shepherds should have been ‘feeding’ the people, leading and teaching them. But here was their sin — they ‘fed themselves, not the flock.’ Those who are shepherds in the church, are set up for the good of the people, to benefit and advantage them, not to seek themselves, to draw from the people what they can to make themselves great. They should be content with their allowance, and give themselves fully and wholly for the good of those who are committed to their trust. This interrogative, ‘Should not the shepherds feed the flock?’ highlights the heinousness of their sin, and the indignation of God against it. ‘What? You are shepherds, and you don’t feed the flock? You are perverting the course of nature, and violating the order which God has set!’ That is intolerable, and God will treat them severely for it.

Office-bearers should care like shepherds

Those who are set over the people in the church are shepherds, and ought to act like shepherds do towards their flocks. They should govern them gently, protect them constantly, provide for them carefully, feed them faithfully, and seek their good diligently.

God who is the great Shepherd does this. ‘He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young’ (Isaiah 40:11). ‘The Lord is my Shepherd,’ meaning He provided green pastures and still waters for him, and for all his (Psalm 23). He gave them David for a shepherd, ‘to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance;’ and he ‘fed them according to the integrity of his heart’ (Jeremiah 5:7).

Ministers should be like to God in all these ways. Yet few of those who are over God’s flock in the church prove to be what they ought to be. The political rulers were wicked, and so were the ecclesiastical rulers. They are called shepherds, but they did not do the work of shepherds. The shepherds of Israel did not feed the flock! From Ezekiel 22:25–28 you may see what the prophets, priests, and princes were like — not a true shepherd amongst them.

The three defining characteristics of wicked shepherds in the church are given here.

They feed themselves. They are covetous, self-seekers. They eat the fat, clothe themselves with the wool. They kill them that were fed, full of fat and flesh, they made a prey of the rich and wealthy. See how butchers deal with oxen and sheep, killing, flaying, chopping in pieces, breaking their bones, selling some parts, and eating others, and whatever they do is for their own interest. The shepherds in the church were selfish and covetous. ‘They are greedy dogs which can never have enough, and they are shepherds that cannot understand; they all look to their own way, every one for his gain, from his quarter’ (Isaiah 56:11). One’s gain comes from one quarter, a second’s from another quarter, a third’s from a third, and their eyes were upon their gain and nothing else. ‘The heads of Jerusalem judge for reward, the priests teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money’ (Micah 3:11). They all sought themselves, and so declared what they were.

They do not feed the flock. A good shepherd’s care and delight is to feed his flock. He shows his care by strengthening the weak, by healing the sick, by binding up the broken, by bringing back those that have gone astray, and seeking out those who are lost. These shepherds did none of these things.

They treat the flock harshly and cruelly. ‘With force and cruelty have ye ruled them’ (v.4). These shepherds did not distinguish between the weak and strong, the healthy and sick, so as to rule them wisely, gently, compassionately. Instead they were rough, rigid, bitter, and cruel to them. As the political shepherds were out for dishonest gain (Ezekiel 22:27), so the ecclesiastical shepherds also ruled after their own wills. The prophets were roaring lions ravening the prey — they devoured souls, they took the treasure and precious things, they made many widows in the midst of Jerusalem. The priests violated the law of God, and so wronged the people (v.25–26). The prophets and priests conspired together to tyrannize over the people, who were so accustomed to it, that they were content to have it so (Jeremiah 5:31). ‘My people hath been lost sheep; their shepherds have caused them to go astray’ (Jeremiah 50:6).

God notices the behaviour of bad shepherds

God’s flock here needs shepherds to look after it. Some in God’s flock are diseased or infirm, some sick, some broken, some driven away, some straggling and in danger of getting lost. God’s sheep are vulnerable to many evils, diseases, and dangers. These could be ‘vain customs’ (Jeremiah 10:3); being bruised and broken (Jeremiah 6:14); being hunted by wild animals (Ezekiel 13:18); being beaten and ground to pieces (Isaiah 3:15); being devoured (Psalm 14:4); errors, heresies, corrupt opinions and practices (Matthew 24:5; 2 Peter 2:2); backsliding (Jeremiah 8:5); mistakes and all sorts of evils (Isaiah 5:20).

It is mercy, indeed, great mercy, that God has appointed shepherds for His flock, to make provision for the weaknesses, maladies, and dangers of the soul. Where the shepherds are wicked, it is bad for the flock. If they are selfish, negligent, or harsh, the flock will suffer.

O pray to God earnestly, that He would give us good shepherds! There is a wonderful promise or two in Jeremiah. ‘I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them; and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking’ (Jeremiah 23:4). And, ‘I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you according to knowledge and understanding’ (Jeremiah 3:15) These promises speak of good shepherds for the church. Let us put these promises to a good use, and urge God to fulfil them.

In fact, wicked ministers, in God’s account, are effectively not ministers at all. He says His flock were scattered, ‘because there is no shepherd’ (v.5). There were many shepherds in the church, yet as good as none, because they were wicked, self-seeking, did not feed the flock, but ruled with cruelty. When shepherds degenerate so far as to be contrary to what they should be, then they are as non-shepherds before God. In Zephaniah 11:17, they are called ‘idol shepherds,’ and idols are nothing. When things are like this, then the sheep are scattered.

Yet God eyes the ones in positions in the church, and He deals impartially with them. He observed what the ministers did in their places, and, seeing them selfish, negligent, and cruel, he threatens them all: ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel.’ He saw they were all guilty of grievous sins, and they did not amend after His had shown them long forbearance, and therefore without respect He denounces judgment against them. God is greater than the greatest. He has no fear of the faces of princes or prophets. Let them cover their ways with whatever pretence they wish, the Lord discerns them. However terrifying they are to the people, the Lord will be a terror to them. However long they continue in their wickedness, God will eventually be avenged on them.

The Lord is against bad shepherds

‘Therefore, ye shepherds, hear the word of the Lord’ (v.7, v.9). Great indignation was in the breast of God against these shepherds. ‘Hear the word of the Lord, shepherds: He is vehemently displeased with you, and can hold back no longer.’ As surely as He is the living God, He will punish the shepherds who treat His flock like this (v.8), making laws, imposing burdens, finding out ways to enrich themselves and impoverish the people.

Verse 10 enumerates the punishments of these shepherds. The first is God’s enmity against them. They were so great that they kept all in such awe that no one dared to say or do anything against them. If any did, they were soon crushed. So the Lord says, ‘ Behold, I am against the shepherds’ — ‘I, that am the Governor of nations, the Lord of heaven and earth, the dread Sovereign of princes, priests, and prophets, I am against them.’ The Hebrew means, ‘I come to set myself against them;’ the Vulgate puts it, ‘I am above them;’ others translate it, ‘I am against them.’

Secondly, ‘I will require my flock at their hand.’ ‘Not only will I demand an account from them, what is become of My flock, but I will have recompence for every one that is wounded, weak, lost, or slain. I will require at your hand limb for limb, blood for blood, and life for life.’

Thirdly, He will displace them. ‘I will cause them to cease from feeding the flock.’ Some were cut off by the hand of justice (e.g., Jeremiah 52:10–11, 24–27; Lamentations 5:12). Others were carried away captive, and held in chains and bonds.

Fourthly, ‘Neither shall the shepherds feed themselves any more.’ They will be deprived of the opportunities they had to enrich themselves. They made a prey of the flock, using it to their own advantage, but they would not do so any longer.

The sins of ministers in seeking themselves, and neglecting and wronging the flock, greatly provoke God, and bring certain and severe judgments upon themselves.

God will eventually put things right

God promises, ‘I will deliver my flock from their mouth’ (v.10). Like a shepherd rescuing a lamb out of a lion or bear’s mouth, so God will pull His flock out of these predators’ mouths, so that they will no more be violated and devoured by these tyrants.

Instead God will relieve them, make them safe and set them at liberty. Many years His flock had been molested by wicked princes, priests, and prophets. They had eaten up many of His flock, and the rest were in danger of being devoured. The poor sheep could not withstand their violence; these shepherds were like young lions among the flocks, going through, treading them down, and tearing them in pieces, and none can deliver (Micah 5:8). But though the sheep had no one able to deliver them from these lion-like shepherds, yet God was able to do it, and did it. He was a lion to these lions, and tore them in pieces, rescuing his flock. He will do it eventually.

 

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How to get a good conscience

How to get a good conscience

How to get a good conscience
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.

Sooner or later, our conscience will do its work of passing a verdict on us, so as to produce either shame (when conscience blames us) or comfort (when conscience approves of us). Those who have been regenerated can legitimately take comfort from knowing that the blood of Christ cleanses them from all sin. But how is this comfort possible, when even the regenerate still keep sinning? Samuel Annesley published a sermon on the conscience, in which he describes the ‘good conscience’ and, as the following updated excerpt shows, gives a list of ten suggestions as to how to get a good conscience.

What kind of conscience should we desire?

Two kinds of conscience are desirable, and cannot be commended too highly.

A good honest conscience. Conscience is good in respect of its integrity when it gives a right judgement of everything according to the Word of God. I grant that the law of nature binds, ecclesiastical laws bind, and political laws bind, but the Word of God is the principal rule, which precisely binds the conscience, because of its author. “There is one law-giver, who is able to save and to destroy …” (James 4:12).

A good peaceable conscience. Conscience is good in respect of its peace when it excuses, absolves, and comforts as it should — that is, when it is pacified by the blood of Christ. There was once a dying man, and it is said that the devil appeared to him, and showed him a very long parchment, where his sins were written on both sides, and they were many. Three quarters of the words he had spoken in his life were idle words, and all his actions were classified according to the ten commandments. Satan said to the poor sick man, “Do you see this? Behold your virtues! See how you will be judged!” But the poor sinner answered, “It is true, Satan, but you have not included everything, for you should have added here below, The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all our sins, and you have also forgotten, Whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Why do we need a good conscience?

1. You cannot possibly get rid of your conscience, therefore be persuaded to get a good one. The unconverted do what they can to extinguish conscience. They flatter it with worldly reasoning, they bribe it with mock devotions, they wound it with heinous provocations, they scar it with habitual wickedness, they trample it underfoot by sinning in spite of it; they run away from it by diversions, and will not endure to hear it. Yet they can sooner turn their souls out of their bodies, than conscience out of their souls. Indeed, even amongst all these indignities, their conscience is as fresh and active as if it was not being abused in these ways. It is only waiting its opportunity to be heard, and then it will make what was done perhaps 40 years ago as if it had been but yesterday. A conscience you must have, and sooner or later it will do its job.

2. Your own conscience will be either your best friend or your greatest enemy (of all created things), to eternity. There’s no greater riches, no greater pleasure, no greater safety than a good conscience. However great may be the pressures of the body, the hurry of the world, or the intimidations of Satan, they can’t reach the conscience. A good conscience uniquely cheers the dying body, joyfully accompanies the departed soul to God, and triumphantly brings both soul and body to the tribunal to come. There’s no more profitable means, nor surer testimony, nor more eminent conveyer of eternal happiness than a good conscience. On the other hand, there is no greater torment than an evil conscience. Though its gentler checks may be disregarded, its louder clamours will make you tremble. What will you do, when conscience shall reproach you with your abuse of mercies, incorrigibleness under judgements, contempt of Christ, and hatred of holiness? If you can’t endure to hear what conscience has to say now, how will you endure it to eternity?

How can we get a good conscience?

But how shall we get such good consciences? Here are some suggestions.

Count no sin small

Screw up your obedience to every command to the highest. Ferret out every sin to the most secret corruption. When you have set your watch against the first risings of sin, beware of the borders of sin. Do not venture on temptations to sin, for you will find, like children on the ice, there’s always danger, never any good.

Repent immediately

There’s not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not, therefore, without delay, set about the healing duty of repentance, and on every slip into sin renew it, speedily renew it. If only I could snatch you out of your state of impenitency, and persuade you to daily actual repentance!

Compose yourself to live as under God’s eye

Live as in the (more than) tangible presence of the jealous God. Remember, all things are naked and bare before Him. You cannot deceive Him, for He is infinite wisdom; you cannot flee from Him, for He is every where; you cannot bribe Him, for He is righteousness itself. Keep therefore fresh realisations of God in your thoughts. Speak as knowing that God hears you. Walk as knowing that God is nearer to you than you are to yourself. Read through Psalm 139. Christians, do nothing but what you are willing that God should take notice of.

Be serious and frequent in the examination of your heart and life

This is so necessary to the getting and keeping of a right and peaceable conscience that it is impossible to have either without it. We have a thousand matters to think on all the day long, the night too, the week, the year — but who questions with his own heart, “What am I? what am I doing? how do I live? is the course I follow good and lawful? is that which I omit my duty, or not? Is God my friend? Am I His? What hope do have I of heaven? Say I die tomorrow, today, this very hour, where is my assurance I shall be saved? what reply can I make against the accusations of Satan and my conscience? will Christ be my advocate, when I shall stand in judgement? Have I grace, or have I none? do I grow in grace, or do I decay? Am I better this year than I was last year? what sins have I conquered now, that held me in combat then? what graces have I obtained now, that I did not have then?” Review each day whether your hearts have been intent upon religion, and indifferent to the world. Have special care of two portions, of your time, i.e., morning and evening — the morning to fore-think what ought to be done, and the evening to examine, whether you have done what you ought.

Pray

Be much in prayer — in all manner of prayer, but especially in secret prayer. Do not dismiss your own appeal by the love of sin, and you shall certainly be heard when you pray for grace. Believe it, Christian, it’s not your inevitable weakness, nor the spiritual dullness you feel, nor your lamented rovings, nor your distractions, nor your mistaken unbelief — not any of these, nor all of them together, can shut out your prayer. If you do “not regard iniquity in your heart,” then be encouraged. It is the voice of your beloved that says, “Verily, verily I say unto you, whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.”

Let every action have reference to your whole life, not only a part

The emphasis of the apostle’s exhortation is very great, “Exercise thyself unto godliness.” Let your whole life be a preparation for heaven, like an athlete’s preparation for victory. Strip yourself of all encumbrances, so that you may attend to piety. Pleasures may tickle you for a while, but they have a heart-aching farewell.

Live more on Christ then on the graces in you

Do not venture to sin because Christ has purchased a pardon — that is a most horrible and impious abuse of Christ. For this very reason there was no sacrifice under the Old Testament law for wilful wickedness, lest people might think they knew the price of sin. But so that no one will be overwhelmed with the sense of their unworthiness, know that we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and our salvation is better, safer, more for God’s glory, and our comfort, in His hand then in ours.

Be in every way nothing in your own eyes

It is the humble soul that thrives exceedingly, and alas! what do we have to be proud of? Whether you look at our constitution, or our conversation [lifestyle], our conception is sinful, our birth is penal, our life is toilsome, and our death we know not what. But all this is nothing to the state of our soul. A convert, when he comes to be conscious of sin at all, sees more cause to be weary of his life than proud of his graces. To rise and fall, to confess sin and commit it, to see others outrun us, when they set out after us, to recover the time for communion with God which we trifle away in unobserved trivialities — surely for such persons to be low and vile in their own eyes hardly deserves to be called humility! Use Agur’s words about himself (or some think they are Solomon’s), “Surely I am more brutish than any man. My knowledge of holy mysteries is very little, and in comparison with my ignorance, nothing.”

Think good thoughts of God

Think good thoughts of God, whatever He does with you, whatever He requires of you, whatever He lays on you. We never arrive to any holiness (or peace) worth mentioning, till we lose our selves in God. Once we can unriddle God’s methods of grace, and decode God’s methods of providence, getting a good spiritual use out of both, then we are not far from having a good conscience.

Yet there’s still one thing lacking, and it’s implied in thinking good thoughts of God, but it must be eminently expressed.

Do all you do out of love to God

Spiritual love-sickness is the soul’s healthiest state. When love to God is both cause, means, motive and end of all our activity in the business of religion, then the soul is on the wing towards its rest. Our love to other things is properly regulated when it is the goodness of God that moves us to love them. We ought to love God in such a way that with Him or under Him we love nothing else, but all things only in Him, because otherwise we do not love Him with our whole heart. When husbands love their wives, and wives their husbands — when parents love their children, and children their parents, it is a rare pitch to love all these in God, i.e., to advance our love to God by them, and so far as any of them draw away our love to God, to say to them, as Christ said to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan, thou art an offence unto me.”

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How (not) to discern God’s will

How (not) to discern God’s will

How (not) to discern God’s will
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.

Where do we find God’s will for us? It could be His will for what doctrine we believe, or it could be His will for our life. Theoretically Christians will consult the Bible for this, but what place does this leave for getting guidance through dreams or impressions, or even God’s providence? William Bridge, a member of the Westminster Assembly, preached a set of three sermons on 2 Peter 1:19 titled “Scripture Light the Most Sure Light.” As the following abridged excerpt shows, he builds a case that Scripture is clearer and safer than all other sources, and all the light they can give us is only borrowed from Scripture.

Revelations or visions

Scripture light is a full light. Though God did sometimes speak by revelations and visions [in Old Testament times], now in these last [New Testament] days, He has spoken His full mind by His Son.

The stronger any Christian is, the more he walks by faith; and the more he lives by faith, the more he chooses to walk by the Scripture, the written Word of God, the object of faith. It’s in Scripture we have Christ pictured to the life before our eyes, not in revelations and visions.

Imagine that right now you had a vision. How would you know that this was the voice of God, and not a delusion of Satan? Obviously, by the truth that is communicated in the vision — but how do you know the truth, except by Scripture? Or maybe because the vision reveals some future thing which then comes to pass? Then read Deuteronomy 13:1–2: God may permit a revelation to come to pass, and yet it may not be from the Lord, but to test you, whether you love Him, and will cling to Him.

There is no danger in following Scripture light. But if people follow revelations and visions, they may easily be drawn to despise the Scripture. Indeed, what is the difference between an atheist, or an infidel, and a Christian, except that the Christian adheres to Scripture, and the other does not? Take away the Scripture from me, and there will be little difference between me and an infidel.

But, you will say, may God not speak by extraordinary visions and revelations? Yes, without all doubt He may. God is not limited. I’m not going to argue about what God may do. But though God may do this, yet it is a bad sign if I hanker for it, because such hankering implies that a person is not content with the Scripture.

Though God may sometimes work by extraordinary means, yet if that person’s heart is drawn off from the ordinary means by what is extraordinary, it is not right. It is possible for there to be visions consistent with the Word, but if you are more impressed by them than by the Word itself, then your faith is suspicious.

Dreams

Dreams often involve vanity, says the Preacher, “but fear thou God” (Eccles. 5:7). That is a check on paying too much attention to dreams. But the apostle says, “Let the word of God dwell in you richly,” and there is no check on that.

Dreams are also uncertain. It is hard to know whether a dream is natural or supernatural. Say it is supernatural. Then it is either from the devil or from God, and it is hard to know which. Say the dream is from God, yet it is hard to know its meaning and interpretation. Pharaoh had a dream, but all his magicians could not interpret it; that was a work for Joseph. The same with Nebuchadnezzar. Anyone may have a dream from God, but it requires no less than a prophet to interpret it. However, are we at such uncertainties in reading the Word? Can no one but a prophet understand the Scripture? No — the Word of the Lord is a lantern to the feet of all of us, plain in all things necessary to our salvation.

But may not God speak to us by a dream now, if He chooses? Without doubt He may; God is free. But Scripture does not indicate that dreams are an ordinance of God now.

Even if God did speak to me by a dream, yet if I made that a sign of my own godliness, or of God’s special love to me, then I am under a delusion. Even wicked men have had their dreams from God (Balaam, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, and others). If I dream a strange dream, and conclude that therefore I am in God’s love, because He speaks to me this way, then I am deceived.

Who in the world dares to venture his soul and salvation on a dream, or the interpretation of it? But we may and must venture our souls and salvation on the Scripture.

Impressions on the soul

Impressions (with or without a word of Scripture), even when they are good, are not our daily food. Our appointed daily food is the written Word of God (whether it comes with or without impression).

Good people are very prone to walk and live by impressions, but it is dangerous. It fosters ignorance, and keeps people unsettled in their spiritual state; for if a word comes, then they have comfort; but when none comes, then their comfort fails. Or, dwelling on the sweetness of the impression, they lose the sweetness of the very word which was impressed on them. But now take the written Word of God, and there is no danger in living and walking by it; indeed that is our duty.

Is there no use then of impressions? Yes, much, for they comfort in time of difficulty. When someone is in the dark, or does not know which of two ways to take to do God most service — or sees the way clear and yet many difficulties in the way — then God sets some word with power on his soul, it is much comfort to him.

But although God speaks by impressions sometimes, giving much light and comfort, yet if I make an impression the judge of doctrines, then I am greatly deceived. We are to judge doctrines by the written Word of God.

Although much comfort may be had from impressions, yet if the Word is not impressed on the heart according to its true sense, the impression is likely not of God, but an illusion of Satan. God only ever sets a word on the soul in its true sense. So, do I have an impression with a word? The impression may be God’s, yet the application may be my own. The Lord gave Abraham a word, that his seed should be as the stars; but Abraham made a false application of it when he went to Hagar for the fulfilment.

The safest, surest way is to keep close to the written Word of God, which is both the judge of all our doctrines, and the only rule of all our practices.

The light of grace in the saints

The light and law within us here is imperfect. “We see only in part, and know only in part” (1 Cor. 13:9). But the written Word of God, the Scripture and its light, is perfect.

The light of grace within us is not able to convince others. But the Scripture, by the breathing of the Spirit of God with it, is able. How are “gainsayers” to be convinced (Titus 1:9)? By the light within? No, but by sound doctrine fetched from the faithful Word.

Is there, then, no use of the light within us? Does God not direct people this way? Yes indeed. This inward light not only exposes evil in us, and inclines us to good, but also enables us to good.

But it is a principle of good, yet it is not the rule of our goodness, or our lives. If it was, why would we need the Scripture? But Scripture is settled in heaven, and endures for ever (Psalm 119:89). Timothy had the light, and law, and Spirit of God within him, yet he was to be ruled by the written Word of God (1 Tim. 6:14).

Someone might say, “The Spirit in me is the same Spirit who wrote the Scripture, so why do I need to be ruled by the external Word instead of the inward Spirit?” The reason is that the Spirit is sent to open the Scripture to you, not to take away the Scripture from you. He is not sent to be your rule, but to be your help to understand the rule.

Even assuming you have the same Spirit who wrote the Scriptures, yet you do not have the same inspiration of the Spirit. Because people do not understand this, they think that if they have the same Spirit, they may set aside the Scripture as to their rule. But if something in me is my rule, then I am effectively my own rule, and so I am God, and what is this but horrid blasphemy?

Though the law, and light, and Spirit within, may be a great help to us in our way to life, yet they must be tested by the written Word.

Christian experience

The written Word of God is more excellent than Christian experience. Whatever light there is in experience, it is borrowed from the Scripture, the Word of God written. Though experience is a great help to our faith, yet take it alone, abstracted from the Word, and it cannot heal our unbelief. The walking stick in someone’s hand is a good help, but it cannot heal their lameness. Experience likewise will be a good help in my way, yet it cannot heal the lameness of my unbelieving heart. But the written Word can, and does.

Is there then no use of our experiences? Is there no light in them? Yes indeed, for experience brings forth hope. “Experience worketh hope” (Rom. 5:4–5). But though experience is the parent of hope, yet it is not the ground of our faith. It is a help to faith, but not the first ground of our faith. The Scripture is, and the promise under Christ (Rom. 15:4).

Though we have much experience, yet if we do not trust in the Word, over and beyond all our experience, we do evil.

Divine providence

God sometimes tests us by His providence. He lays a providential dispensation before us, to test and see what we will do (Deut. 8:2). But the Scripture is the rule of our doing.

The providence of God extends to everything, including all our sins. When Jonah fled from God, there was a ship right there that heading for Tarshish: here was a providence! And when Joseph’s brothers wanted to get rid of him, who came by but some merchants who traded in Egypt: here was a providence! So we cannot make our decisions from a bare providence. You may, however, make your decisions from Scripture, the Word of God written.

Does God never speak by providence, or sometimes guide and direct by providence? Indeed He does. But though the Lord does sometimes guide us with His providence, yet if I make the providence of God the rule of lawfulness or unlawfulness, then I am in a great error, and I expose myself to all kinds of sin. When two lawful things are before me, then when providence opens a door to one, and shuts the door on the other, it is directing to that one, not the other. But the providence of God does not make lawful something which is in itself unlawful. Providence is not the rule of lawfulness or unlawfulness. But the Scripture is. The written Word of God is the only rule by which I may and must make up my judgment of lawfulness and unlawfulness.

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When our words about each other attack God

When our words about each other attack God

When our words about each other attack God
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.

When James wrote his letter to Christian believers, he included a section on our words. Our words have immense potential for either good or harm, but sometimes it’s not a case of either/or. Sometimes, out of the same mouth comes both blessing and cursing — and this is something which simply shouldn’t happen. Can a fig tree produce olives, or grape vine produce figs? The startling incongruity of these examples is nothing to the sheer wrongness of using our words both to praise God and to curse those who are made in God’s image. This point is developed by Thomas Manton as follows, in an updated extract from his commentary on the Epistle of James.

“Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God” (James 3:9). Here James shows the good and bad use of the tongue: the good, to bless God; and the bad, to curse men — as well as the absurdity of doing both with the same tongue, using the same part of your body for the best and worst purposes.

Our words should bless God

The correct use of the tongue is to bless God: “O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise” (Psalm 51:15). Since God gives the gift of speech, he must have the glory; we owe it to him. This is the advantage we have over the other creatures, that we can be explicit in praising God. “All thy works shall praise thee, O Lord; and thy saints shall bless thee” (Psalm 145:10). The whole creation is like a well-tuned instrument, but man makes the music. Speech, being the most excellent faculty, should be consecrated to divine uses. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving (Ephesians 5:4). So then, go away and say, “I will bless the Lord at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (Psalm 34:1). This brings heaven on earth. Some birds sing in winter as well as in spring. Stir up one another (Ephesians 5:19), just as one bird sets a whole flock singing.

We praise “our Lord and Father,” that is, Christ (see James 1:27). We bless God most cheerfully when we consider Him as a father. Thoughts of God as a judge do not bring comfort. Our meditations on Him are sweet when we look on Him as a father in Christ. But not everyone can learn the Lamb’s new song (Revelation 14:3). Wicked men can howl, though they cannot sing. Pharaoh in his misery could say, “The LORD is righteous” (Exodus 9:27).

Our words should not curse each other

“And with the tongue we curse men” (James 1:9). The same tongue should not bless God and curse men; this is hypocrisy. Acts of piety are empty when acts of charity are neglected. “God saith, ‘What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth? … Thou givest thy mouth to evil, and your tongue frameth deceit. Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother; thou slenderest thine own mother’s son’” (Psalm 50:16, 19-20).

Hypocrites are the most censorious, but true piety makes people meek and humble. Some people can curse and bless at the same time (Psalm 62:4); other people curse, pretending to be pious. The evils of the tongue, where they are not restrained, are inconsistent with true piety. With this tongue I have been speaking to God, and shall it presently be set on fire by hell.

Our words should reflect our high status as God’s image-bearers

Man is made after God’s own image. “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). We may catch glimpses of God in His works, but in man we see God’s very image and likeness.

God’s image in man consists in three things.

(1) In his nature, which was rational. God gave man a rational soul, simple, immortal, free in its choice; indeed, even in the body there were some rays of divine glory and majesty.

(2) In those qualities of “knowledge” (Colossians 3:10), “upright[ness]” (Ecclesiastes 7:29), and “true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).

(3) In his state — all inward and outward blessings combined, as he enjoys God, exercises power over creatures, etc.

But this image is defaced and can only be restored in Christ. This was the great privilege of our creation — to be made like God; the more we resemble Him, the more happy we are. Remember your original height. We have the custom of urging people to walk worthy of their origins. Plutarch says of Alexander that he used to strengthen his courage by remembering that he came from the gods. Remember that you were made in the image of God; do not deface it in yourselves, or make it open to contempt by giving others opportunity to revile you.

Our words should not attack God via His image-bearers

We are dissuaded from slandering and speaking evil of others when we consider that they are made in God’s image.

We might ask, How can this be a motive, since the image and likeness of God is defaced and lost by the fall?

The answer is, in part, that James is speaking about new creatures especially, in whom Adam’s loss is repaired and made up again in Christ. “[You] have put on the new man, which is [being] renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (Colossians 3:10). “Put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). God is sensitive about His new creatures; intemperance of tongue against saints is dangerous. Take care what you say: these are Christians, created in God’s image, choice pieces whom God has restored out of the common ruins.

The other part of the answer is that James may be speaking about all people, for there are a few relics of God’s image in everyone. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6). There would be no force in this reason if there were nothing of God left in man after sin, albeit much deformed. So this saying in James argues that there still remains in people some resemblance to God, such as the simplicity and immortality of the soul, some moral inclinations (instead of true holiness), ordinary evidences of the nature and will of God (instead of saving knowledge). Although these cannot make us happy, they serve to leave us without excuse. There is also some pre-eminence over other creatures, as we have a mind to know God, being capable of divine illumination and grace.

What is the force of the argument, that we ought not to curse people seeing they are made in God’s image?

For one thing, God has made human beings His deputies to receive love and common respect. Higher respect of trust and worship are to be reserved for God alone, but in other things Christians, even the poorest of them, are Christ’s receivers. “He that despiseth you despiseth me” (Luke 10:16). “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me” (Matthew 25:45).

For another thing, God Himself is wronged by the injury done to His image, just as, among us, contempt and spite for the king’s image or coin is taken as done to the king himself. In Matthew 23:18, to swear by the altar, which was the symbol of God’s presence, was to swear by God Himself.

Also, this is the fence God has placed against injury: “For in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6). This is referred not to the murderer, as if he had sinned against those common ideas of justice and right in his conscience, but to the victim, who is the image of God. God has honoured this lump of flesh by stamping His own image on him; and who would dare to violate the image of the great King? To speak evil against him is to wrong the image of God. All God’s works are to be looked on and spoken of with reverence, and much more His image.

So then, in your behaviour toward people, let this check any injury or impropriety of speech: this person is in God’s image. Though images are not to be worshipped, yet the image of God is not to be splattered with reproaches, especially if they are new creations: these are vessels of honour. Consider who the sin is against: it is spiting God Himself, because it is done to His work and image. Solomon says, “Whoso mocketh the poor reproacheth his Maker” (Proverbs 17:5).

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Living our fleeting lives

Living our fleeting lives

Living our fleeting lives
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.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we persist in assuming that our lives here on earth will continue indefinitely, and that we are free to plan whatever we like. Everyone knows that life is short and uncertain, but we tend to treat it as a truism and we don’t let it impact us personally. James wrote in his epistle about the folly of this approach — it comes from misplaced pride and it must end in dreadful disappointment. It’s not me who’s in control, but God. Instead of rebelling against this, it would bring us contentment and safety to believingly and thankfully embrace it. In the following extract from his commentary on James, Thomas Manton shows that the wise response is to recognise God’s right to direct all things in His providence, and to use the short time we have to prepare for endless eternity.

Many passages in Scripture show how brief our life is. It is compared to “the flowers of the field” (Isaiah 40:6–7), the “wind” (Job 7:7), a leaf before the wind (Job 13:25), and a “shadow” (Job 14:2).

There is a heap of similes in Job 9:25–26 — “Now my days are swifter than a post: they flee away, they see no good. They are passed away as the swift ships: as the eagle that hasteth to the prey.”

The Word uses all these similes so that every fleeting and decaying object would remind us of our own mortality, as well as to check those proud human desires for an eternal abode here, and lasting happiness in this life. In that passage in Job human frailty is displayed in all the elements: on land, a runner; on water, a swift boat; in the air, an eagle.

The figure of speech used here by James is that of a vapour. “What is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” This is simply to show how quickly life passes, and because human life is just a little warm breath coming in and out by the nostrils — a narrow passage, and soon stopped up (Isaiah 2:22).

Our lives are undependable and brief

We have no assurance of our lives and comforts, or the events of the next day. This is a common observation. Well then, let every day’s care be enough for itself; live every day as the last day. Ludovicus Capellus tells us of Rabbi Eleazer, who advised people to repent only the day before their death — that is, right now (for it may be the last day before we die). It is a sad thing to promise ourselves many years and to have our souls taken away that night — to measure out our time and years by our worldly projects, then all of a sudden our whole thoughts perish.

Human life is very short. It is a vapour that soon appears and just as soon disappears — dispersed as soon as it is produced. “Surely every man walketh in a vain show” (Psalm 39:6). Though they toss to and fro, yet the whole course of their lives is just a fleeting shadow, a little spot of time between two eternities. Augustine is not sure whether to call it a dying life or a living death.

We should adjust our behaviours accordingly

This checks those who pass away their time, rather than redeem it. They waste their precious time, as if they had too much of it. Our moment is short, and we make it shorter. It is time for all of us to say, “The time past of our life is more than enough to have wrought the will of the flesh” (see 1 Peter 4:3); or, as Romans 13:11 puts it, “It is high time to awake out of sleep” (this was the verse that converted Augustine).

Seeing how short life is, moderate your worldly care and projects. Do not encumber yourselves with too much provisions for a short voyage. A ship goes more swiftly the less burdened it is; people take in too much cargo for a mere passage.

Devote yourselves more to spiritual projects, so that you may lay up a foundation for a longer life than you have to live here. Do a lot of work in your little time. Shall we lose any part of what is so short? Will our short life only make way for a long misery? The apostle says, “I will put you in remembrance, knowing that shortly I must put off this tabernacle” (2 Peter 1:13). We will all shortly put off the outer garment of the body, so let us do all the good that we can. Christ lived only thirty-two years, or thereabouts, so He “went about doing good, and healing every sickness, and every disease.” You only have a short time, so be all the more diligent.

God’s providence should be in both our heart and our words

Now that James has exposed the false confidence of the worldly, he proceeds to rectify their attitude by urging them to a holy and reverent remembrance of God’s providence and their own frailty. “For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (James 4:15).

Here the question arises, Must we always and necessarily use this form of speech, or some similar explicit reference to providence, “If the Lord will …”?

It is good to accustom the tongue to holy forms of speech, including such explicit and clear references to providence, e.g., “If the Lord please,” “If the Lord will,” “If it please the Lord that I live,” etc. Pure lips are appropriate for a Christian, and it is useful for stirring up reverence in ourselves and for the instruction of others. Such forms are confessions of divine providence and the uncertainty of human life.

The children of God use phrases like these frequently. “I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will” (1 Corinthians 4:19); “I must tarry a while with you, if the Lord permit” (1 Corinthians 16:7); see also Romans 1:10 and Philippians 2:19. The children of God know that all their goings are ordered by the Lord; therefore they often make references like these to His will and power.

However, when we use these forms, the heart must go along with the tongue. Using God’s name in common sayings is only profanity if the heart is not reverent. The words are common, but it is the meaning that matters.

It is not always necessary use these terms explicitly, but there must always be either implicitly or explicitly a submission to the will of God. Holy men of God have often expressed the intention to do things and yet not formally expressed such conditions — for example, in 3 John, “When I come, I will remember his deeds,” and Romans 15:24, “Whensoever I take my journey to Spain, I will come to you,” etc.

All our actions should be referred to the will of God

All our undertakings must be referred to the will of God — not only religious ones, but secular actions too. For example, our journeys: “O Lord God of Abraham thy servant, send me good speed this day” (Genesis 24:12; see also Genesis 28:20). If this is neglected, no wonder you meet with so many frustrating things — they do not come from your hard luck, but your profane neglect.

But what does is it mean to submit all our actions to the will of God?

Measuring all our actions by His revealed will. That is the rule of duty. We can look for no blessing on anything except for what is consistent with God’s revealed will. We must submit to His secret will, but first we must conform to His revealed will. Worldly desire has its own will (see Ephesians 2:2), but we are to serve the will of God until we fall asleep (Acts 13:36).

Acting with confidence when we see God leading us. We must have all the greater comfort and confidence in undertaking any action when we see God in it (e.g., like Paul when he gathered that God had called him to Macedonia; Acts 16:10). When we see God guiding and leading us, whether in the sweet means and course of His providence, or by inward instinct, we may walk in the way He has opened to us with all the more encouragement.

Not restricting God’s plans. In our desires and requests we must not bind the counsels of God. “Not my will, but thine be done” (Matthew 26:39). In temporal things we must submit to God’s will, both for the mercy itself, for the means of getting it, and for time of obtaining it. Creatures must not prescribe to God, and give laws to providence, but must be content to have or go without as the Lord pleases. If anything does not have good success, the Lord did not will it, and that is enough to silence all discontents.

Constantly asking His leave in prayer.

Always remembering that God reserves the right to do His will. We must continue to reserve the power of God’s providence. “If the Lord will,” “If the Lord permit.” God does not want us to be too confident in a worldly way; it is good to get the soul used to things changing.

We should remember God’s sovereignty and our frailty

There are two things we should often consider in this connection.

The sovereignty and dominion of providence

However much wisdom and skill you use in your enterprise, the Lord can bring it to nothing. He can nip it in the bud or stop it in the very moment you try to put it into effect. I have observed that God is usually very sensitive about His honour on this point, and usually frustrates those proud people who boast of what they will do, and think up unlimited plans, without any thought of how providence may stop them. “A man’s heart deviseth his way, but the Lord directeth his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). We make plans, but carrying them out depends wholly on God’s will and providence. When we make resolutions on our own authority, there is a contest between us and heaven about will and power; therefore, in such cases the answer of providence is more clearly and decisively to our loss, so that God would be acknowledged as Lord of success, and the first mover in all means and causes, without whom they have no force or efficacy.

The frailty and uncertainty of your own lives

Our being is as uncertain as the events of providence. “If we live,” and “If the Lord will,” are the caveats in the text, and together they imply that we must have a conscious awareness of our own frailty, as well as of the sovereignty of providence, so that our hearts will submit to God the better. “His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4). Frail as we are, we are full of thoughts and projects. We will do this, and we will do that, and we will go to that city, and we will promote our interests by this alliance, and we will gain so much by this purchase, and then we will raise up some stately building which will continue our name and reputation to the generations to come — and all because we do not think of the earth we carry about with us, and how soon the hand of providence is able to crumble it into dust. Certainly we will never be wise until we are able to number our days, and have sufficiently grasped in our souls the uncertainty of our stay in the world (Psalm 90:12).

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How effectively do we tell the difference between right and wrong?

How effectively do we tell the difference between right and wrong?

How effectively do we tell the difference between right and wrong?
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.

Conscience is our ability to decide whether something is morally right or wrong according to some standard. Conscience needs information in order to judge accurately, but we are not always good at evaluating the information available to us, or indeed assessing whether we have done right or wrong ourselves, so as to take legitimate peace and comfort for well-doing and appropriate shame and trouble for evil-doing. Samuel Annesley published a sermon on the conscience with the aim of helping people come to the peace which comes from a good conscience. Conscience is basically either ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ but Annesley provides a further breakdown of different kinds of conscience. The four kinds discussed in the following extract from his sermon can belong to either the converted or the unconverted. Helpfully, Annesley provides an analysis of what causes each of these problems and how the troubling conscience can be remedied.

The erring conscience

An erring conscience is one which judges otherwise than the thing is. Conscience is sometimes deceived through ignorance of what is right, by taking a false rule for a true, or an error for the will of God, and sometimes through ignorance of the fact, by misapplying a right rule to a wrong action.

A wrongly informed conscience takes human traditions and false doctrines, put forward under the guise of divine authority, to be the will of God. A famous instance of this is the case of Jeroboam, who was afraid that if the people went up to sacrifice at Jerusalem, he would lose his kingdom. So a council is called, flattering prophets come, and they have dreams and visions suitable to their purpose. A decree is made: “You have in the past gone up to Jerusalem, but now, behold your gods! These calves are just like the cherubim of the sanctuary!” This seems to the people to be a satisfactory warrant for them to readily follow the king’s commandment.

Much discussion has been had over whether we are bound to follow our erring conscience. The plain truth is that error cannot bind us to follow it. An erring conscience may bind us in such a way that it may be a sin to go against it, but it can never bind in such a way that it is a virtue to follow it. The violation of conscience is always evil, and the following of an erring conscience is evil, but there is a middle way that’s safe and good, and that is, to have conscience better informed by God’s Word, and to follow it accordingly.

What causes an erring conscience?

Of course there is original sin, which blinds the understanding, and there is also the just judgement of God on persons who do not receive, obey, and love the truth as it is in Jesus. But here are three causes besides these.

Negligence about learning the will of God, through slothfulness, and love of ease, and low esteem of the ways of God (Ecclesiastes 4:5–6).

Being too proud to consult others and to be taught by them. Even the sincerely conscientious are not free from a kind of ‘proud modesty,’ in being too shy to make inquiry into practical cases. The ungodly arrogate so much to their own judgment, that they know as much as anyone can teach them.

Having inordinate affection about things of which we are ignorant. This warps our consideration, for anyone who seeks truth with a bias will run counter to it when he comes near it, and not find it though he comes within striking distance of it.

What is the remedy for an erring conscience?

You may gather the remedies from the opposites to these causes of error. Be industriously diligent to know your duty — be humbly willing to receive instruction — and do not let your affections outrun your judgment.

There is one further rule I shall commend. Do what you know to be your present duty, and God will acquaint you with your future duty when it comes to be present. Make it your business to avoid known omissions, and God will keep you from feared commissions. See the psalmist’s prayer in Psalm 25:4–5 ‘Show me thy ways, O Lord …’ and the answer in verse 9, ‘The meek will he guide in judgment …’

The doubting conscience

A doubting conscience is one which with trouble and anxiety suspends its judgment, not knowing which way to determine. It is an ambiguity of mind which consists in a standing (or rather, a wavering) balance, neither assenting nor dissenting.

In fact, strictly speaking, a doubting conscience is not really a functioning conscience at all, because by definition conscience actually judges what has been done, or what is to be done, but where there is no assent, there is no judging.

When the apostle says, ‘whatsoever is not of faith is sin,’ by ‘faith’ there we must understand that persuasion and security of mind by which we believe and judge that this thing either pleases or displeases God (it does not refer to justifying faith). In all duties we must be unweariedly diligent to perceive the truth, so as to drive away doubtfulness, for the more certain our knowledge of the things we do, the more confident we may be in doing them, and the more joyful afterwards.

What causes doubting?

Lack of reasons, or equally weighted reasons, so that when we weigh things most impartially, yet we are not able to come to a determination, but the mind is still in suspense.

Specific reasons. General reasons are not sufficient to make a conscientious doubt; the mind must be fixating on some particular reasons that need to be duly weighed. A doubting conscience is bad anyway, but people make it worse when their doubts lurk in generals — they only have some cloudy notions from without, or foggy mists from within, and they take no due course to clear any of them.

How can you answer a doubting conscience?

About lesser matters, take the safest course. In doubtful things, ordinarily one way is clear, so take that. But this rule will not reach all cases.

So, secondly, establish where your doubt lies. Be sure that it really is a case of conscience — not of self-interest, or of prejudice, but of conscience, such that you are unreservedly willing for it to be resolved, and you can in prayer bring God a blank cheque to write whatever He pleases. Pare off all those quibbling demurs and worldly reasonings which may puzzle you, but can never satisfy you.

Then, write down your case as plainly as you can, with the reasons for your hesitation. Make two columns. On the one side write those reasons you judge cogent in favour; on the other side, put the reasons you judge weighty against. Weigh these impartially. You will find that your perplexed thoughts look different when written down than when floating, and that your own ink will ordinarily kill this fetter.

If this does not resolve your doubts, it will at least make you ready for advice. When you consult others, ask with sincerity what was said to Jeremiah, ‘Pray for us, that the Lord thy God may show us the way wherein we may walk …’ (Jer. 42:2–6), and request of them especially scriptures and reasons. One case thoroughly resolved like this will be singularly useful for scattering all future doubts in all other cases.

The scrupulous conscience

A scrupulous conscience determines that a thing is lawful, yet scarcely to be done, lest it should be unlawful. There is anxiety, reluctancy and fear in the determination. A scruple in the mind is like gravel in your shoe, vexing and hurting the conscience, and disturbing the soul in performance of duties.

What causes scrupulousness?

I shall name only two causes (forbearing to mention our ignorance and pride).

Natural disposition. Some people are naturally timorous or fearful and their imagination takes a sad view of things, making the person timid.

Temptations. This is the chief cause. If Satan cannot keep the heart a secure prisoner, he will do his utmost to overwhelm it with fears and suspicions, and he suits his temptations according to our natural temperament. He does not tempt the riotous with rewards, nor the glutton to the glory of abstinence.

How can we help a scrupulous conscience?

Firstly, while you should not be discouraged with your scruples, yet I plead with you, do not indulge them. Scruples naturally tend to do much spiritual damage. They are occasions of sin; they make the ways of God seem too restrictive; they hinder the work of grace; they hinder cheerfulness in the service of God; they quench the Spirit; and they unfit us for duty. These are all reasons to strive against them.

But yet, do not be discouraged, for God through His over-powering grace can make good use of them — to further the mortification of sin in us; to restrain us from worldly vanities; to abate pride; to make us more watchful; to make us strive to be more spiritual; and to almost force us to live more on Christ.

But, secondly, if you want to have these benefits, you must use this other remedy. Do what you possibly can to get rid of your scruples. If you cannot get rid of them, act against them. It is not only lawful but necessary to go against a scrupulous conscience, otherwise you will never have neither grace nor peace. Should you avoid praying, or receiving the sacrament, every time your scrupulous conscience tells you that it’s better to omit the duty than perform it in such a manner? You would soon find to your sorrow the mischief of your scruples. Be resolute therefore, and tell the devil that as you do not perform your duty at his command, so neither will you omit it at his bidding. By performing your duties, your scrupulous fears will vanish. Meanwhile act against them by disputing them down, and opposing their reasons, and not hearkening to them.

The trembling conscience

The trembling conscience is disquieted and distressed with the (perceived) hazard of the soul’s condition, and does nothing but accuse and condemn and frighten the soul.

What causes a trembling conscience?

The twin cause of a trembling conscience is sense of sin and fear of wrath. ‘Never was there sin like mine! Never a heart like mine! Never a case like mine!’ Such are the constant complaints of a troubled spirit.

What is the cure for a trembling conscience?

It goes without saying, never take the devil’s advice. Break through all carnal reasonings to acquaint yourselves with some faithful spiritual physician, or experienced Christian, who may show you the methods of divine grace, and what has been successfully done by others who have been just in your condition.

In the midst of your saddest complaints, bless God that your conscience has been awakened while there is still hope of a cure. We should not be too quick in administering comforts, but we cannot be too quick in provoking ourselves to thankfulness. If you can at present be thankful that you are out of hell, you shall before long be thankful for assurance of heaven. This rule may seem strange, but (by experience) practicing it will show the excellency of it.

Observe that it is God’s usual method to bring the soul through these perplexities to the most solid spiritual peace. Augustine excellently expressed his spiritual conflict, how God followed him with severe mercy, till He made him insistent on thorough holiness. Believe it, Christian, God is now storing you with experiences which will be a useful treasury throughout your life. Only hold on in the vigorous use of all the means of grace.

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Six ways that sin disguises its power

Six ways that sin disguises its power

Six ways that sin disguises its power
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.

Am I under grace or under sin? In one of the epistles, sin is personified as a tyrant that keeps us under its cruel dominion. This tyrant is cunning enough to disguise the shackles that bind the sinner, so that we may imagine we have escaped when in reality we have never been set free to serve righteousness instead. In the following updated extract, Obadiah Sedgwick (who contributed to the Westminster Assembly) exposes six of the lies that we tell ourselves about our sin, which lull us into a false sense of freedom. It should make us highly value the divine work of making us free from sin to serve God, resulting in sanctification and eternal life.

People may delude their own hearts, and deceive themselves about the dominion of sin. Therefore it is convenient to test ourselves whether or not sin really has dominion. There are many things we may erroneously think are good signs, and so deceive ourselves that sin does not have dominion over us. Here are six.

I don’t feel my sin is very powerful

One is being unconscious of the power of sin. A man may feel no violent sinful inclination, no stirrings, no opposition, no commands, but there is a calm and quietness in his spirit and in his way, and he thinks this would not be possible if sin had dominion over him.

But this is a deceit. For one thing, it is most probable that sin has the strongest dominion, where the heart is least aware of the rule and demands of sin. When the strong man keeps the house, all is quiet, said our Saviour. Where subjection is peaceable, there the dominion is (in all likelihood) most absolute and complete. What is certain, is that where Christ sets up His sceptre (which casts down the dominion of sin) is the greatest stir. The law of the mind will war against the law of the members (Rom. 7:23), and the spirit will lust against the flesh (Gal. 5:17).

For another thing, this unawareness and quietness may arise, partly from the uniqueness of sin, and partly from our ignorance of our sinful condition, and partly from the habitual custom of sin. Whether the sun is shining or not, there is still the same number of motes flying in the room. There they are really, though we are not aware of them till the light comes in to make them manifest. So someone may be utterly unaware of sin for lack of saving light and the holy experience which arises from a new nature.

The hand which is used to iron, and nettles, does not feel them. So the frequent actings of sin may suppress the inward sense of sinning. Much sinning adds to the strength of sin, and disables the sense of the sinner, sears their conscience, and makes their mind reprobate, and as it were without feeling.

I don’t do many very sinful things

Another thing that may deceive us may be that we are free from many kinds of sinful behaviours. Someone may not live in all sorts of wickedness, and indeed, their ways may seem to keep clear of various iniquities.

Yet, though you do not do all evil, and your ways or patterns of behaviour are not universally spreading in all the kinds of sinning, still sin may rule in you, and have dominion.

Being subject in one detail is sufficient to establish that you are under dominion. A servant has only one master, and is not the servant of everyone in the parish, yet he is a true servant in respect of that one master. A subject does not obey every prince in the world, yet if he obeys any one, it is enough to prove that he is a subject. So, though the sinner is not at the command of every lust, yet if he is the servant of any one lust, sin has the dominion over him. It is not the multitude of sins which absolutely and necessarily concur to dominion, but subjection to the power of any one.

One person may do all the service to one sin which others do to many sins. That person may devise ways to fulfil it, cheerfully and greedily receive its commands, heartily love it, and go on in it, and for its sake oppose the sceptre and dominion of Christ, and consecrate all their strength to the obedience of it.

As in politics, there are several forms of government, such as democracy, and aristocracy, and monarchy. Sometimes the dominion is exercised by many, sometimes by one alone, yet subjection to any of them is true subjection, and sets up dominion. So though in some people, many sins rule, and in other people, one sin only, yet whether the heart obeys many, or few, or one, it is enough to say that sin has dominion. Subjection to no sin, indeed, denies dominion, but if the dispute is over many sins versus few sins, then either way, subjection to any shows that sin has dominion.

There are plenty sins I’m opposed to

Someone may also think, ‘I’m actually opposed to many sins — this cannot possibly be consistent with being under the dominion of sin.’

Yet there may be notable deceit in this also, for it is not so much the greatness of the sins as the power of sin which means it is reigning. The least sin granted house room, loved, served, is sufficient to mean that you are under sin’s dominion.

Also, there are different kinds of opposition to sin.

In your professional life you may be opposed to certain kinds of sin, but indulge them in private life. A justice of the peace may oppose many sins on the bench, yet lie in those same sins at home in his own house and dealings.

Or, it is one thing to be opposed to sin simply because it is sin, and another thing to be opposed to sin because it is shame. This latter may well befall someone who is under the dominion of sin.

Once more, it is possible to be opposed to sin because it is against God’s will, rather than because it is against another sinful way and inclination. All sin has a contrariety to the law of God, yet some sins have a contrariety among themselves; prodigality is contrary to covetousness, for example. It is possible for someone to oppose a sin, not on account of its natural vileness, but on account of his own personal inclination, because it is a way of sinning that would overthrow that other sin which he loves, and in which he is resolved to walk.

In a word, it is not opposition to particular sins, but universal opposition to all known sin, which shows that you are not under the dominion of sin.

I have grievous heart-trouble after I commit a sin

Something else that may deceive us depends on the troubles which we may feel after some sinful actings. A person’s soul may be grievously heavy and perplexed, and on this basis he may conclude that sin does not have dominion over him, because he thinks that the dominion of sin excludes all trouble for sin.

Nevertheless, although hardness of heart after sin is just as bad a symptom of wickedness as impudence before sin, yet trouble for committing sin is not an infallible argument of sin’s dominion.

Even the worst of men may have after-troubles for former sinnings, and partake of great anguishes and troubles of conscience. I refer you to Ahab and to Judas, and to those of whom he speaks in Job, that “the terrors of God did drive them to their feet.”

Trouble for sin in respect of the conscience only, is only a judicial act, part of the wages of sin. Trouble in the affections (which theologians call ‘godly sorrow’) is indeed an effect of grace, but not mere trouble in the conscience, which consists in the sense and accusation that God brings on the sinner for his transgressions. God awakens the conscience after sin to accuse for sinning, even though the directions and checks of conscience could not avail to prevent that person from sinning. This is how a person whose heart is in no measure changed by grace (and is therefore of necessity under sin’s dominion) may be filled with extreme bitterness; the very terrors of hell may shake and confound his soul. Although grace is required to raise godly sorrow, yet conscience, awakened and actuated only by light and divine command, is abundantly sufficient to accuse, condemn, vex and trouble the sinner.

I only sin occasionally

There may be spaces, or interim periods, between sinning. People do not every moment, or every day, indulge in their sin, but there are often some pauses and distances of time between sinning and sinning. They may therefore conjecture that sin does not have dominion over them, thinking that where sin has dominion, then the person sells himself to sin, and wallows in sinning, and makes it his trade, at which he spends his life and strength.

But sin may yet have dominion, though there are some respites between sinning and sinning. Some respites do not arise from a nature which refuses to subject itself to sin, but only from lack of opportunities to sin. A thief may not steal because he is sick, and there is nothing convenient to take.

So we cannot identify the dominion of sin by an uninterrupted propagation of sinful acts — the drunkard is under the power of drunkenness, although he is sober from time to time — but by the disposition of the heart. If sin is the main thing you intend, and what you yield up your heart to, then it is immaterial whether you are always or only sometimes committing it.

In fact, to give no respite to your sinful actings would go against the wisdom of the flesh. Though the propensity to sin is constant, and the love of sin is great, yet the actings of sin may often vary, and depend on private reasons and considerations (such as safety, or quiet, or profit, or pleasure, etc).

I do plenty things which are good

Finally, someone may practice some actions which are contrary to all outwards sinnings. Let’s say a man is perhaps a constant church attender, and has a course of duties (such as they are) in his family, and makes many vows, and can condemn sin effectively. Surely sin has lost its dominion in that man?

Not necessarily, because the dominion of sin is inward. It may coexist with many visible acts of piety. A hypocrite may step out into all outward conformities, yet there is no visible act of impiety which a hypocrite either does not, or may not, perform.

Although acts which are materially good are formally opposite to sinful acts, yet we identify a Christian and a sinner alike more from the affections than from the actions. Indeed, it is the disposition of the heart which defines and decides what has dominion — the heart may be really rotten and false, and the true harbour of a sin, though the person manages to perform some visible duties of piety. There must be more than external performances in duty to show that sin does not have dominion over you.

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Can arguing about theology ever be helpful?

Can arguing about theology ever be helpful?

Can arguing about theology ever be helpful?
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.

Assuming that there is such a thing as truth versus error, how can we ever distinguish them? Some are afraid of discussing theology because it’s so easy to be taken in by subtle arguments, or because they believe it’s too difficult to explain sacred things to ordinary people. Others at the opposite extreme will argue about everything, even things as pointless as how many angels can dance on a pinhead. The Westminster divine John Ley of Solihull, Warwickshire went into print on multiple controversial issues as well as contributing to the discussions at the Westminster Assembly. He also wrote a discourse ‘On Disputations’ where he conceded that there is wisdom in avoiding religious disputes and highlighted the risk of being addicted to arguing for its own sake. Yet, as shown in the following updated and abridged excerpt from this discourse, he insisted that out of concern for people’s spiritual welfare, it is unloving to leave them to be choked with the chaff of error instead of ensuring that they get the finest wheat to feed on spiritually.

Some are too averse to disputes

There is a danger that disputations in religion will be inconsiderately undertaken, or indiscreetly managed. As [the scholar] Ludovicus Vives put it, “The truth by too much scratching and alteration may be lost; and error by artificial arguments and ornaments may have such a glorious flourish and varnish set upon it, as to make it to be taken for the truth.”

This is not unlikely, for copper (he says) can sometimes have a more glorious lustre than true gold. Nothing, as Cicero observes, is so incredible, but by eloquence it may be made to appear probable; nothing is so horrid, but by a garnish of words it may be made to shine. This imposture is easily put on simple, ordinary people; for it is very easy with volubility of tongue to deceive. What people do not perceive with understanding, they receive with admiration; nor can they put a due difference betwixt garrulity and authority.

Ordinarily too, people are more affected by what is said by those who contradict solid and long-believed truth under pretence of new discoveries of truth, and more taken with error than with what has warrant from the Word of God and the consent of all the Christian churches of the world of both ancient and later times. Sometimes the fallacy is all the more attractive because these promoters of novel doctrines make an impressive profession of self-denial, refusing the advantages of a comfortable living, which their opponents enjoy, and they position themselves boldly against authority.

It is therefore wiser to be unwilling to give too much leeway to religious disputations (or rather, disputations of religion), partly because of the subtilty of some of unsound principles and partly because of the naivety of others of a better belief. They suspect no deceit, and they have confidence in the strength of truth, and so they are easily entangled with invitations to dispute. This brings the greatest disadvantage to their cause, for they do not forethink how their adversaries may be equipped for assault, and what liberties they will take when they report the outcome, either to make show of victory, or to shadow a foil.

There are also two great groups, which are opposites to each other, and which are too opposed to all disputations, namely the Muslims and the Pope.

Mohammed (that famous impostor and false prophet, the founder of that impious and impure sect of the Muslims) not only forbids all disputes about the religion of the Koran, but if any are disposed to dispute, he instructs his deluded disciples to answer them like this. “Say unto them,” says he, “‘God alone knows all thy acts, and at the last day will discuss all controversies.’ Again, to incredulous men say, ‘I follow not your law, nor you mine; therefore let me alone with that which is mine, and I will let you alone with yours.’”

Meanwhile, Pope Gelasius decreed against disputing with those who are of another communion, and Azorius the Jesuit in his Moral Institutes says that it is not lawful for laymen to dispute publicly about the faith. If there are any disputes of matters of faith between Catholics and heretics published in any mother tongue, they are forbidden in their Index of prohibited books.

Some are too addicted to disputes

Others are diverse from and contrary to these, in that they are too much addicted to disputation. They are too forward to make or accept offers to debate, and too ready to multiply needless and presumptuous questions in matters of religion.

Some have such a high opinion of their own giftings for knowledge and communication that they think their eminence cannot be sufficiently known, nor they enough admired and honoured, without public ostentation in a polemical debate. Perhaps by the imitation of heathen philosophers, or perhaps by natural corruption, various Christians been puffed up to high degrees of vain glory. They are proud of those preeminences for which (according to the apostle’s caution) they should rather be humble and thankful (1. Cor. 4:6). Paul expostulates with pathos with those who think too well of themselves, and disdain others: “Who maketh thee to differ from another, and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why boastest thou as if thou hadst not received it?” (v. 7), that is, as if it were your own of yourself, without being beholden to another — especially to God, who could just have easily made the one you despise glorious, and you contemptible.

Felix, the Manichean heretic, was so forward as to provoke Augustine to public dispute. But he was so unqualified for it that the one who published the report of the debate wondered which was more astonishing, the impudence of Felix braying rather than disputing, or the patience of the people, hearing his absurd arguings without tumult, or the stomach of Augustine, who so patiently continued to long to address his unlearned follies!

Said a wise and learned statesman, “The itch of dispute is the scab of the church.” Ludovicus Vives uses a similar expression: “When you scratch an itch too much, you draw blood, and the momentary relief is succeeded by raw soreness. So, those who scratch the truth too much by disputation, wound it, and only put it in need of further curing and healing.”

As some have itching ears (in the apostle’s words, 2 Tim. 4:3), so some have itching tongues, and some itching fingers and pens. The Scholastics, for example, multiplied the number of needless questions far beyond the limits of sober, reasonable and respectful inquiries in religion. The early church father Gregory Nazianzen accused some of being so wretchedly affected that they make it their delight to make trifling disputes over divine matters, and are just as presumptuous in resolving their curious questions as they are rash in putting them forward for debate. Such precipitateness and temerity Gregory thought needed to be bridled and restrained.

They are “men of corrupt minds,” too prone to perverse disputings, and the apostle reproves them for this (1 Tim. 6:5). By their disputings, questioning and resolving, they aim to be wise above what is written (1 Cor. 4:6), and so betray their egregious folly to all the world. They are neither as wise nor as holy as they should be. Not so holy, because they are so bold as to put up for debate undoubted principles of divinity, lacking the humility which is essential to true holiness. And not so wise, because the extent of your pride is the extent of your folly.

Disputes may still be profitable

Disputations on matters of religion are however warrantable by Scripture and reason, and not only lawful, but sometimes also expedient and profitable.

For the undoubted duties of morality, the apostle prescribes present and prompt obedience, “without murmurings or disputings” (Phil. 2:14). Yet for matters of faith and conscience he requires no such thing either in affection, or in fact. Instead he gives leave, and advice, to Christians to bring both people’s spirits and their speeches to the test (1 John 4:1; 1 Thess. 5:21). He requires of Christian believers that they be “ready always to give an answer to every one that asketh a reason of the hope that is in them” (1 Pet. 3:15). If this is required of a Christian, much more of a minister, who should be “able by sound doctrine both to exhort and convince the gainsayers” (Tit. 9:11), just as Apollos “mightily convinced the Jews, and that publicly, showing by the Scripture that Jesus was Christ.” This may stop the mouths of some adversaries, in the same way that if a light is hung over the lake where there are frogs, the frogs will stop croaking.

Nevertheless some are so contumacious against the truth, and so malicious against those who powerfully plead for the truth, that they prefer to use violence to stop the mouths of those who have overcome them by the power of truth (like they did with Stephen; Acts 7:54, 57, 59), rather than confess themselves convinced or satisfied with the clearest evidence produced in the plainest cause that can be debated. This is not the fault of disputation itself, but the perverseness of the disputants, who persist in disputing though they do not have one wise word to say in favour of their foolish and false opinions. We must, said the ancient great theologian Hilary of Poitiers, “not flee from erroneous doctrines, as afraid to encounter them, but must repel and conquer them by disputations.”

As the philosopher Picus de Mirandula said, “Dispute is the sieve to separate the fine flour of truth from the coarse bran of error.” This is for the honour of the truth and, at least equally, for the benefit of those who embrace it, for when truth and error are clearly distinguished, it is not only more beautiful to the eye, and more pleasant to the taste, but more nutritious, because it provides better and purer nourishment to the soul. As it is a duty of love that those who have the responsibility of caring for souls are to feed them with the finest of the wheat and to satisfy them with honey out of the rock (Psalm 81:16), so is it also an act of love not to allow these souls to be choked with the bran of error and heresy, which many are too forward to force down the throats of poor people who don’t know any better.

Indeed, being seduced into heresy is even more dangerous than that, for the apostle said of heretics such as Hymeneus and Philetus that “their speech will eat like a canker, or gangrene” (2 Tim. 2:17), which is easy to catch, and hard to cure. We know that canker and gangrene are very dangerous diseases, and those who are spiritual physicians ought out of love to do their best to keep their flocks from such infective and destructive mischiefs. If debate is a means of doing so (as it can be, when done wisely), it may be expedient that way to curb and discourage heretics from corrupting the flocks, and may serve also for an antidote to preserve them from the venom and poison of heretical tongues, which, if they are left without opposition, will go on to subvert “whole houses” (Tit. 1:11).

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Eight things that equip us to examine ourselves

Eight things that equip us to examine ourselves

Eight things that equip us to examine ourselves
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.

Most of the time Christians are actively living out their faith, looking upwards to serve God and around themselves to serve others. Yet there should also be periods for quiet reflection and self-analysis, when we put our hearts under the microscope and see how we measure up to God’s requirements. Knowing that we will never be perfect in this life, we still need to ascertain that we are honest, upright, and sincerely walking with integrity. Whereas a Christian genuinely pursues God’s interests rather than their own, with a hypocrite, it’s the other way round. In the following updated extract, the Westminster divine Obadiah Sedgwick takes an unflinching look at the ways our own hearts betray us, yet ends on the conviction that sincerity is truly attainable. Warning us against hypocrisy he offers eight considerations which should stir us up to test the uprightness of our hearts.

The danger of deceiving yourself about yourself

There is no deceit or error in the world which has more dangerous consequence, than to deceive yourself and err about the calibre of your soul. You may make mistakes about the depth of your riches, or the altitude of worldly friendship, or the latitude of your intellectual qualifications and abilities – you may think yourself rich, and popular, and learned, when perhaps you are not. But these mistakes are about nostra, not about nos – ours, but not ourselves, and the danger may be only a tempest, but not a shipwreck.

But to deceive yourself about your heart, about your soul – what more do you have? what do you have that are like them? This is a fundamental error. If a builder lays a rotten foundation instead of a sound, all his building eventually sinks into the ground. If a traveller sets out in a beautiful ship, whose bottom is unsound and leaking, he loses himself in the voyage.

Maybe you’ve spent many years in a form of godliness, in respectable behaviour, in courting God by some external performances. Then you come to die, and then your conscience rises up and opens up the secrets of your heart and life, and makes you to know and feel that notwithstanding all your claims and conceits, your heart had continually harboured many known lusts, and you weren’t thinking of God but basely thinking of yourself in all that you did.

What a fearful day that will be! How it will make your soul tremble, when you have no more time left now, except to see, and to eternally bewail your own errors and deceits! “O Lord, I have deceived my own soul, I thought myself to be this or that, but my heart has deceived and beguiled me!”

Hypocrisy is a very natural and common thing

Secondly, consider that hypocrisy is a very natural and common thing.

There are three sorts of persons in the world.

  • The openly profane. They go wrong both in the matter and in the manner. They are neither really good, nor do they look like it. They are really wicked, and declare themselves so to be.
  • The hiddenly hypocritical. They don’t go wrong so much in the matter as in the manner. They are wicked but seem good. They perform some good, but love more wickedness.
  • The truly upright, who are upright both in the matter and manner of God’s worship.

Now I say that hypocrisy is very natural, and it has been and is a very common sin. Job 15:34 speaks of a congregation of hypocrites, as if there were whole assemblies of them, or at least some of them in every congregation. Isaiah complains that in his time, everyone is a hypocrite – scarce a man but he dissembled with God (9:17; likewise 29:13). David tells us often that the Israelites flattered God Himself with their mouths – gave Him (in their distress) mournful, submissive, promising words (O what would they be! and what would they do! if God would deliver them!) and yet their heart was not right in them. Jeremiah accuses the people of his time of this very thing too. Many, indeed, most, of them cried, “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” and yet committed adultery and lies. When Christ was in the world His greatest contestation was with scribes and pharisees, hypocrites. Paul speaks bitterly against those who took on them the form of godliness, but denied the power thereof, and in 2 Timothy 4:12 he foretells of much lying hypocrisy in the latter times.

Take us in the general tenor of our best ways. The good God be merciful to us, what a distance there is many times, when we profess to serve God, between our tongues and our hearts, between our eyes and our hearts, between our ears and our hearts, between our bodies and our hearts! Our tongues are praying, and our mouths singing, and our eyes are looking at the minister, and at the same moments our hearts are plotting, projecting, arranging our own domestic affairs, or (which is worse) basely contemplating and practicing some abominable lust within us. Do you call this uprightness? If this is not hypocrisy, I don’t know what is.

Go a little further. Take us in our best performances, when we bring our thoughts and intentions, and some affections, and some workings to our work. Yet tell me seriously whether in it you are not looking besides God. You pray long and with much emotion in company, though when you are alone, a little is good enough. Are you not somewhat like the chameleon? Aren’t you a bit like Jehu, “Come and see my zeal!” Isn’t it the pharisaical spirit of vain-glory, “to be seen of men”? And is this not hypocrisy, directly and intentionally jostling God aside, to serve our own praise in a pretence of serving Him, so that others would admire us, and speak well of us?

I could add one thing more (which perhaps may make some of our hearts to tremble). There are some who explicitly and deliberately, with much studious art, take to themselves a look, a way of speaking, a facade of holiness, for no other end in the world, but to blind their secret sins from the eyes of the world. This is a most execrable kind of hypocrisy, yet some do abuse the name of Christianity only to satisfy their own beastly and damnable lust.

You can go far in religion without being truly saved

Thirdly, a hypocrite may go very far. In general there is no external part of religion into which the hypocrite may not only step, but perhaps (for show) exceed the sincerest and most upright Christian.

Does the true Christian hear? So do I, says the hypocrite. Does the true Christian pray? So do I. Does he shed tears? So do I. Does he fast? So do I. Does he give alms? So do I. Does he show respect to the minister by greetings and invites? So do I! Is he forward? I am zealous. Does he reprove? I thunder. Does he speak some words in prayer? I speak many. Does he do any good? I do more, in hearings more, in fastings more, in discoursings more, in outward actions more, every way more!

List and categorise duties every which way – for object, for place, for time – still the hypocrite keeps up religious duties, praying privately, praying publicly, hearing, reading, preaching – and in all these he may even have some joy. The hypocrite may be as sociable, as just, as fair, ingenuous, affable, generous, compassionate as any one I know. The Pharisees were the most punctilious of their times. No person living was more exact. Hear one of them speaking for all the rest, blessing and commending himself, “I am no extortioner, no adulterer, not like this publican, I fast twice in the week, I give alms of all that I possess …”

An impressive appearance may hide a rotten heart

Yet there is some secret lust which coexists and persists notwithstanding all this. Perhaps Herod’s sin, or Demas’s sin, filthiness or worldliness; or the wondrous covetousness of the Pharisees.

And the hypocrite’s ends are base. A pirate may rig and trim and steer, and order his ship as skilfully and exquisitely as any pilot who is the king’s most faithful servant, only their hearts and their ends are different. One is disloyal and the other is true. One goes out to catch a prey and a booty, a prize for himself; and the other sails for his master’s honour and service.

Lack of integrity is utter folly

It is certain that you cannot be a hypocrite without putting some effort into it. You need to be very officious in pretences and duties. It has to cost you some money to give alms, and much time to pray, etc. Yet when all is done, nothing comes of it.

The hypocrite has no reward with God. There is no reason to give wages to someone who bestows no service on us: but the hypocrite serves himself and not God, his own praise and not God’s glory, and therefore he can expect no reward from Him. He cannot say, “I prayed for grace so that I would honour Thee, and for abilities so that I would glorify Thee.”

And if someone is known to be a hypocrite, then he loses on all hands. The wicked hate him simply for the show of goodness, and the good scorn him for his base dissimulation and rottenness.

Or if he can conceal his hypocrisy, then all the reward he ever gets from other people is just an airy applause (Matt. 6:5). They get what they look for, the applause of men, and that’s all. Isn’t this a sad thing, when someone’s reward is only from man? – when all his reward is in this life, and no rewards are reserved for him hereafter?

Insincerity deserves greater misery

Hypocrisy is a most perilous sin. “You shall receive the greater damnation,” said Christ. Damnation! That is the eternal grave of the soul! That is misery enough – everlasting separation from God, and everlasting flames of wrath in hell. Yet that is the portion of the hypocrite (Isa 33:14). An ordinary hell is not enough for a hypocrite. The lowest and deepest punishment shall fall on the one who presumes to put on the fairest show with the foulest heart.

And do not think this strange, for what is hypocrisy but a mocking of God? The hypocrite tries to trick God, and thinks to deceive omniscience, and has such a low opinion of Him that he thinks mere shows would satisfy Him. In fact, he jostles God out of His prime place, by referring all his services to himself, and not to God, and so adores his own name above the name of God. Hypocrisy is so diametrically opposite to uprightness.

Uprightness is difficult

Again consider, that it is a very difficult thing to be upright.

Partly because the deceitfulness which is in our heart is “above all things” (Jer. 17:9). There is nothing so cunning thing as our heart, not a thing in all the world which can delude us so easily or so often as our own hearts. It is not easy to do good just because God commands it, or only because He may be glorified.

Also uprightness is difficult because it requires spirituality. The very soul itself must act, if the heart or way is upright. Not only your lips but your spirit must pray. Not only your ear but your heart must hear. You must not only speak against sin, but your soul must hate and abhor it. All this must be spiritual and not carnal, from God and for God.

Uprightness is attainable

Nevertheless, to be upright is a possible thing. It is possible to attain it. Indeed, everyone who is good does attain it. Noah was upright and walked with God, Abraham was upright before Him, David served the Lord in uprightness of heart, Hezekiah walked before Him with an upright heart, Paul served God in all good conscience, willing to live honestly in all things.

Though no one can say that he does all that God’s commands require, yet he may say he has respect to them all. Though no one can say that he has nothing, or does nothing, which the law of God forbids, yet he may say, “I hate every false way,” and, “Search me, O Lord, if there be any way of wickedness within me.” This is uprightness.

 

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Seven ways to combat secret sins

Seven ways to combat secret sins

Seven ways to combat secret sins
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.

It makes big news when a prominent leader in church, business or politics is exposed for committing sins behind closed doors. Inappropriate relationships, misuse of funds and bullying all thrive under cover of secrecy. Technology now offers everyone many previously unimagined opportunities to sin without anyone else needing to know what we’re doing. Sinning in secret also includes the sins which remain in our thoughts or our attitudes. Unspoken they may always remain, but they are not unseen from God’s vantage point. Nor are they innocuous simply because they do not come to outward expression. As the Westminster divine Obadiah Sedgwick points out, secret sins are sometimes more harmful to our souls than what we do openly. In the following updated extract from a set of sermons he preached on Psalm 19 (“Cleanse me from secret faults”), Sedgwick offers seven suggestions for what we can do to combat our secret sins. Although we cannot change our own nature and give ourselves integrity, this is something that God can and does do in regeneration and sanctification.

Sins may be called secret either when they are disguised with some semblance of virtue, or when they are kept out of public view, or when they are kept within the thoughts or the heart so that they are not visible to anyone.

Beloved, there are two sorts of people. Some are dissembling and evasive: their concern is not not to sin, but to be cunning in sin. Others are conflicting and agonizing against inward impulses, outward opportunities, and strong temptations: the desire of their soul is to fear the Lord and to do no iniquity.

Secret sins are in some ways more dangerous than open sins. By artfully keeping your sin hidden, you deprive yourself of help for your sinfulness, like someone who keeps their wound covered, or who bleeds inwardly. Help does not come because the danger is neither described nor known. If someone’s sin breaks out openly, there is a minister at hand, or a friend near, and others to reprove, to warn, to direct. But if a person sins inwardly, they prevent all public remedy and work towards their own damnation by covering their secret sins with some plausible varnish.

But, you will say, it is fearful to sin in this way! What means can be used to get and keep my soul away from secret sins?

What I would commend to you are the following.

Be humbly penitent for what you’ve done

If you have been guilty of secret sins, be humbled and repent. You will hardly stave off a new sin, if you have not been humbled for an old sin of the same kind. Future carefulness seldom manifests itself without former sorrow. If you have been a secret adulterer, fornicator, thief, backbiter, oppressor, liar, drunkard, then, O hasten, hasten in by speedy sorrow, by speedy repentance. Bewail your secret wickedness deeply – to the extent of tears of blood, if that were possible! if you do not judge yourself, God will surely judge you, and don’t think that because your sinnings were secret, therefore your compunctions can be small. You ought rather to abound in self-reproach, and be in more floods of tears, and of bitter contrition, considering you dared to provoke God in this way.

Avoid opportunities to keep sinning

Why are you saying, “O this bad nature of mine, O this heart I’ve got, O that wicked tempter Satan”? Yes, you’ve shed many tears, you’ve felt many sorrows and troubles, you’ve made many vows and resolutions, you’ve put up many prayers and petitions. Yet you are still continuing in your secret sinnings. Why? What could be the reason? Do prayers do nothing against sin? Do tears do nothing? Troubles? Vows? All of these will indeed achieve something, as long as something else be added: if the leak is stopped, if the windows are shut and the doors are locked. I mean, if occasions and provocations are conscionably and carefully avoided. Otherwise they are pointless. If you pray and then test your strength against what draws you into your secret sin, what are you doing in effect but seeking God one minute, and the next rising up and tempting Him? Keep close to heaven, and keep away from the opportunities, and then tell me whether God will not keep you from your sinnings.

Crush temptations at the root

Although you can turn away from opportunities and the things which prompt you to sin, yet you cannot get rid of your self. There is something in the self which can fetch in an opportunity to sin by representation, by inclination, by contemplation. Sometimes someone else provokes you to sin, which happens when you are in company. Sometimes your own heart provokes you to sin, which is when you are solitary. One moment the thoughts steal out, now imaginations confer with your mind, with your will, with your affections. So if you want to free yourself from secret actings, you must free yourself from secret thinkings. David prays, “Let the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).

Two strategies will never fail you in your attack on secret sinnings. One is to dig up the root of all sinnings. The other is to stifle the first conception of sins.

Beloved, to tie Samson’s arm was pointless, because his strength didn’t lie there. It was only if the hair of his head was cut off that his strength would be gone, and he became weak. To tamper only with the acts of sin is not the way to be rid of sinful acts. The one and only way to be rid of bad acts is to be rid of a bad nature.

If you could only get a holy nature, which would be at defiance with sin in its throne! Don’t you realise that a new nature and daily combat will greatly help against secret sinnings? The sin which is most of all combated within the heart is the sin which is least lively of all, for sin has least practise where it has most opposition, of all oppositions those that are inward are most weakening to sin.

Hate sin

Get a hatred of sin, the kind of hatred which will oppose sin in all kinds, and all times, and in all places.

Fear the sin-avenging God

Get the fear of God implanted in your heart. This fear will preserve you against three kinds of sins. (1) Pleasant sins, which entrap your senses with delight. (2) Profitable sins, which entrap the heart with gain. (Although, what shall it profit me to win the whole world and lose my soul?) (3) Secret sins of either kind. Joseph was tempted to a sin that could have been kept secret, and which could have resulted in him being promoted. But he didn’t dare to sin that great sin of uncleanness, and why? Because the fear of God kept him away from it. He had an awe-filled regard for God, he knew the greatness of His holiness and His power. “How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9).

Brothers and sisters, if we fear the Lord, it is not the night which the thief takes that will prevail with us, nor the twilight which the adulterer takes, nor seasons of secrecy or places of obscurity. Instead our prevailing principle will be, “But God sees me.” “The great judge of heaven and earth, the holy one, the God who hates all sin, whose eyes are brighter than the sun and purer than to behold sin, who is mighty in power and just in his threatenings – He sees and beholds, therefore I dare not.”

Believe in God’s omniscience

Believe God’s omniscience and omnipresence. Believe that the Lord is everywhere, and that all things are naked and open to His eye. You can’t intend to think – you can’t whisper out your thoughts – you can’t finger the closest bribes – you can’t incline yourself to the most abstracted kind of secrecy in the world – but God sees you clearly, perfectly.

If you could believe that God is always right here with us, and that there are two which constantly go around with us, both the judge and the recorder, God and conscience, and that God is acquainted with all our thoughts, paths, ways, this would put an awe on you. Would a wife cheat on her husband in his sight and presence? would a servant filch out of the box if he saw his master’s eye on his hand?

Be upright in your heart

Get your heart to be upright. Uprightness is an inward temperament, while hypocrisy is an outward complexion. Psalm 119:2–3: “Blessed are they that seek him with the whole heart. They also do no iniquity …” Sincerity makes the inward self its business, it employs itself in forming and fashioning the heart. Sincerity knows that God delights in truth, and indeed truth in the inward parts: it endeavours to please God in all things, and to be most to God in the very place where others can observe the least, that is, in the secret and hidden frame.

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