Knowing the unknowable God

Knowing the unknowable God

Knowing the unknowable God

When we think of God, it is alarmingly easy to fall into the trap of thinking that God is just another kind of creature – of course the best and greatest and most impressive in whatever dimension you consider, but ultimately just another creature. This line of thinking is something we should resist, because God is altogether other. He is in reality completely beyond us and above us, a different order of being entirely. We can truly know Him, but in order for this to be possible He has to accommodate Himself to us and make Himself known to us in ways that we can grasp. Hugh Binning highlights and underlines God’s transcendence in the following updated extract. He uses God’s self-description, “I AM THAT I AM,” as the basis for emphasising from various points of view that we must at all points maintain in our minds the distinction between the Creator and the creature, between God and everything else in existence. Only once we sense the littleness of our understanding are we in a position to start to learn who and what God is.

The chief point of saving knowledge is to know God. And the starting point of the true knowledge of God is to discern how ignorant we are of Him, and to find Him beyond all knowledge.

In Exodus 3:14 the Lord gives a definition of Himself, but such a one as is no more clear than Himself to our capacities. It is indeed a short one, and you may think it does not say much. “I am.” What is there that may not say the same? The least and most insignificant creature has its own being! Yet there is more majesty in this simple style than in all others. Let creatures compare with creatures – let them take superlative styles – let some of them be called good, and some better, in the comparison among themselves. But God must not enter the comparison.

No comparisons are valid

Paul thinks it an odious comparison, to compare present crosses to eternal glory (Rom. 8). But how much more odious it is to compare God with creatures! Call Him highest, call Him most powerful, call Him most excellent, almighty, most glorious in respect of creatures – and all you do is abase His majesty, bringing it down to any terms of comparison with them, seeing He is beyond all the bounds of understanding. All these terms only express Him to be in some degree eminently above the creatures. As some creatures are above others, so all you do is to make him the chief of them all, as some creature may be the head of one line or kind under it. But what is that to His majesty? He speaks very differently of Himself. “All nations are before him as nothing, and they are accounted to him less than nothing” (Isa. 40:17).

Certainly you have not taken up the true notion of God, when you have conceived him the most eminent of all beings as long as any being appears as a being in his sight, before whom all beings conjoined are as nothing. While you conceive God to be the best, you still attribute something to the creature. You imagine only some different degrees between beings who differ so infinitely, so incomprehensibly. The distance betwixt heaven and earth is but a poor similitude to express the distance between God and creatures.

All created things are inconsequential

Now, if you could imagine something that is less than nothing, then could you begin to guess at the vast distance between it and a being. So is it here: “Thus saith the Lord, All nations, their glory, perfection and number, all of them, and all their excellencies united, do not amount to the value of an entity, in regard of my majesty. All of them are just like zeroes. Join never so many of them together, they can never make up a number, they are nothing, and less than nothing.”

So then we ought to conceive of God, and to attribute a being and life to him, in such a way that all created beings vanish out of our sight. The glorious light of the sun, although it does not annihilate the stars, yet it annihilates their appearance to our senses, and makes them disappear, as if they didn’t exist. There is a great difference between the stars in the night, some lighter, some darker, some of the first magnitude, and some of the second and third, some of greater glory, and some of less. But in the day time all are alike, all are darkened by the sun’s glory. Let the glorious brightness of God shine once on the soul, and in that light all these lights shall be obscured, and all the differences between them unobserved. An angel and a human, a human and a worm differ much in glory and perfection of being: but O, in God’s presence there is no such reckoning on this account. All things are alike, God infinitely distant from all, and so not more or less. Infiniteness is not capable of such terms of comparison.

This is the reason why Christ says, “There is none good but one, even God.” Why? because, in respect of His goodness, nothing deserves that name. Lesser light in view of the greater is a darkness, and lesser good in comparison of a greater good, appears evil. How much more then shall created light and created goodness lose that name in the presence of God’s uncreated light, and self-sufficient goodness!

God’s self-sufficient perfection is absolute

This is why the Lord names Himself in this way, “I AM,” as if nothing else was. “I will not say,” He says, “that I am the highest, the best and most glorious that is; that assumes that other things have some being and some glory that is worth taking account of. But I am, and there is none else. I am alone. I lift up my hand to heaven, and swear I live for ever.” There is nothing else that can say, “I am, I live, and there is none else;” for nothing has its life of itself. No one can boast of what they have borrowed, and is not their own. As if a bird that had stolen from other birds its beautiful feathers, was to come out and argue with them about beauty. Would they not straight away every one pluck out their own feathers, and leave her naked, to be an object of mockery to all?

Even so, our breath and being is in our nostrils, and that depends on His majesty’s breathing on us. If He was only to hold in his breath, as it were, we would vanish into nothing. “He looketh upon me and I am not” (Job 7:8). That is a strange look, that not only looks man out of countenance, but out of life and being. He looks him into the first nothing-like existence, and then can he say, “I live, I am”? No, he must always say of himself in respect of God, as Paul says of himself in respect of Christ, “I live, yet not I, but Christ in me.” “I am, yet not I; but God in me: I live, I am, yet not I but in God, in whom I live, and have my being.” There is no other thing beside God that can say, “I am,” because all things are borrowed drops of this self-sufficient fountain, and sparkles of this first light. Let anything intervene between the stream and the fountain, and the stream is cut off and dried up. Let anything interpose between the sun and the beam and the sunbeam vanishes. Therefore this fountain-being, this original light, this self-being is the only one who deserves the name of being. Other things to which we give those names are nearer nothing than God, and in regard of His majesty, may more fitly be called nothing than something,

You see then how profound a mystery of God’s absolute self-sufficient perfection is infolded in these three letters, “I AM,” or in these four, “JEHOVAH.” If you ask what God is, nothing occurs better than this, “I AM,” or “HE THAT IS.” If I should say He is the all-mighty, the only wise, the most perfect, the most glorious, it is all contained in that saying, “I AM THAT I AM.” For that is really to be: to be all those perfections simply, absolutely, and as it were solely. If I say all that, and reckon out all the Scripture epithets, I add nothing. If I say no more, I diminish nothing.


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Discerning a call to secular service

Discerning a call to secular service

Discerning a call to secular service

There are various resources which can be used by those who are wondering whether they have a call to preach. Perhaps less is available for those who are discerning that they do not have a call to the gospel ministry. It can sometimes seem as though, if a young man has a pressing desire to serve the Lord, the only way to do this is to preach. However we still need to recognise the validity and the value of secular callings and the work that can be done for the Lord outside of the gospel ministry.
Someone who initially struggled to recognise their calling was Archibald Johnston of Wariston. A gifted young lawyer who desperately longed to devote his whole life (and death) to the Lord’s service, he wrestled earnestly with the problem of whether he was being called to the gospel ministry or to continue in the legal field. He kept a detailed diary of his spiritual and psychological turmoils, including how he came to the clear view that his calling was not the gospel ministry. The various aspects of his decision-making process are still appropriate today, as can be seen from the following updated extracts from his diary for August 1633. Setting aside time for prayer and fasting, he coordinated the advice of wise friends, helpful contemporary writers, and the teaching of Scripture in his analysis of his own inclinations and gifts and the requirements of a gospel minister. Wariston went on to have a stellar career in law and politics, making huge contributions to the good of the Scottish church. In the end he was executed by hanging for remaining true to his principles.

My brother-in-law exhorted me to settle my resolutions concerning my calling, and gave me reasons to continue in what I had begun, letting me see my impatience for catechising on the one part, and on the other part the possiblity of serving God and doing good as an advocate.


On Monday, after praising and praying, I resolved to keep a private fast to God all this week for my deliverance from my troubles, fears and perplexities, and for God assisting me against temptation and directing me in my confusions, chiefly concerning my calling. In this I prayed the Lord of heaven that He would direct me in choosing my calling, and bless me in what He made me to choose, and enable me in and by it to glorify Him, edify His servants and my friends, and the poor people, and to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling. (Lord, hear and direct for Christ’s sake!) I remembered how last Saturday night the Psalm which happened to be read was Psalm 127, “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it,” and I applied this to my calling.


On Thursday I heard Rev Henry Rollock preach on Genesis 2:2, where he argued that we should imitate God’s example and rest on the Sabbath day, “but,” he said, “it is most commendable to labour in our particular calling all the week.”

After the sermon I looked at William Perkins’s treatise on Callings (having first prayed to God to direct me and settle me in my calling, and reiterating all my vows to Him) [Perkins, A Treatise of the Vocations or Callings of Men (1603)]. When I read Perkins, and finding my mind much settled by it, I resolved to follow his rules of choosing a calling, and to examine myself by his signs. Perkins directs us to examine what calling God calls us to, 1st, by our affection and inclination, and 2nd, by our gifts.

Then I spent all afternoon testing by both tests whether I should apply myself to the ministry or to law.

First, I found that I truly respected and honoured more in my mind the ministry than law, but that my affection and resolution constantly carried me to the law. This was partly because I saw that my mind could not be bent to religious exercises constantly, but fainted if it was not sometimes diverted to secular things, and partly also because I did not dare to take on the burden of more souls than my own – for I found it genuinely difficult for my own soul alone to work out its salvation in fear and trembling. So I found that my inclination was always to serve God in this, fearing lest I would be diverted from it to something else.

Secondly, I found my gifts not so fitted for the ministry as for law. My gift is dialectic rather than didactic – fitter for disputing pro and contra than for teaching solid grounds. Also neither my invention, judgment nor memory was in favour of handling such deep mysteries. Again, in the judgment of all, I have no gift for speaking, and would have no utterance at all in preaching. I was never a good linguist, either in Scots, French or Latin. However, the main point of the calling to the ministry lies in catechising, and this I am utterly incapable of, due to my natural hastiness, crossness and impatience.

As for law. My affection. My continual resolution since my childhood. My plying of my studies to that end. The manifold opportunities of making progress in it. My gifts being disputative, and therefore naturally fitting me for it. Also, chiefly, the warrant of the apostle, commanding me to remain in the calling in which I was called (1 Corinthians 7:20); the commentators Bolton, Pareus, and Perkins on that text all advise against an unnecessary or rash change of calling.

All of this greatly settled my mind, and made me resolve that, having craved God’s direction in my choice and then His blessing on my choice, I would fall to my book next week.

My resolution was confirmed by reading Genesis 3:19 (“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread …”) and Matthew 25 (about the servants who received the talents). Also Mark 6:3, “Is not this the carpenter?” from which Perkins says that Christ used carpentry as His particular calling, and Exodus 20, “Six days shalt thou labour,” which according to Perkins is a command. Also 1 Corinthians 12:28, “God hath set some in the church, first apostles, gifts of healings, helps of governments.” Ephesians 4:28, “Let him that stole steal no more, but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.” Colossians 3:22, “Servants, obey in all things your masters, and, whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not unto men, knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance, for ye serve the Lord Christ.” 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “This we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. Now them that work not at all, but are busybodies, we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work and eat their own bread.”

My mind was strongly prompted by these passages to be settled in a calling, and was then confirmed in my first resolution by Perkins’ rules of examination, but especially by 1 Corinthians 7:20, and I blessed God heartily for settling my mind so well.


I remembered how I had presented to God as my greatest request that He would be well-pleased to settle me in a particular calling, in which I could glorify Him, edify His servants, and work out my own salvation with fear and trembling. This made me confident of the general principle that assuredly God would bless me in my calling. I also remembered how, having craved God’s direction concerning my choice of a calling, I got the same passage, 1 Corinthians 7:20, brought to my memory in my prayer as an answer.

Also, God answered all the objections that I could bring against my calling to law. The first objection was that God seemed to thwart me in the study of this calling. Answer: It was because I had not till now sought God’s direction and blessing so urgently. Now, after being so urgent with God, I can say with David, “The Lord hath delivered me out of the paw of the lion and out of the jaws of the bear, he will deliver me also out of the hand of this Philistine.” So the Lord who protected me in my travels [to France] and directed me in my marriage, will bless me also in my choosing and in my calling. All the more so, since on the one hand what I am praying for now tends more to His glory and the good of His servants and my salvation, and on the other hand the manner of my praying is [by His help] more humble, more frequent, and more fervent than before.

My second objection was that I would shame myself by something I said. Answer: That would be to distrust God’s assistance, which He will not refuse to any who truly desires it, not only in divine discourses, but also secular discourses tending to His glory and the good of the commonwealth.

Thirdly, I had a doubt about the distractions associated with law. Answer: My devotion, not being continually bent [towards spiritual things] would be the benter when it was [from time to time] employed in God’s service.

Fourthly, I had a doubt about the temptations associated with law. Answer: Those temptations are less dangerous than either medicine or theology, for there they endangered either the soul or the body, but with law they only endanger the purse. Also, those temptations would be like so many pricks in my side to keep me awake all the time, and to hold God’s graces in exercise, and to maintain my tenderness of conscience (which, if never stirred, would grow obdurate).

Then, for my greater confidence of a blessing, I remembered how all my prayers run on this line, that God would glorify Himself both in my life and in my death, and that He would send either life or death as He thought fittest to His glory, the best interests of church and commonwealth, and my own salvation. So that, seeing God now sends life, I may be confident that He has some work to do with me yet for His glory, the wellbeing of His servants, and my own good.

Thereafter I spent that night in confessing, praying, and praising for all His mercies, and in particular for settling my mind so well that day in my particular calling. Blessed by His name for it, for now and for evermore!

Archibald Johnston of Wariston kept a diary for many years. Extracts have recently been republished in a book titled, ‘For Christ and Covenant: The Spirituality of Archibald Johnston of Wariston,’ edited by Ruth E Alcalay.


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Two ways we argue with God

Two ways we argue with God

Two ways we argue with God

The welcoming Saviour occasionally seemed to push people away. This was what appeared to happen to the woman who came to ask for His help in Matthew 15. He made a seemingly dismissive comment counting her as one of the dogs instead of one of the children belonging to the family. Amazingly the woman didn’t take His words at face value but perceived the welcome disguised behind them. In humility she actually turned His words to her own favour, pointing out that even the dogs would eat the crumbs that fell from the meal table. She perceived that a crumb of grace was as good as a whole loaf. In the following updated sermon, William Guthrie takes a closer look at humility. Unlike this woman whose faith and humility were genuine, we can sometimes say apparently humble things which in reality expose our lack of faith and indeed our pride.

True humility does not argue with Christ Jesus, but sweetly complies with Him. But let me show you what way false humility works. False humility is always at one of two extremes. It is either lower than God would have it, or it is higher than God can tolerate.

1. False humility goes lower than God wants

Leaving our responsibility to God

For example, there are many of you who will leave it to God whether to save or damn you. That is false humility, because He has declared His mind peremptorily to the contrary. People are to keep pressing to get into heaven, until they are actually cast into hell. They will get no thanks from God for that kind of humility.

Giving a latitude to God where He takes none

False humility leaves it up to God to save you whether you believe or not. “We know,” say some, “that people should believe; but He may save us in any way. He may bring folk to heaven equally well without faith as with it.” Do you imagine that God will bring people to heaven if they do not believe? You are making a great mistake. “He that believeth not shall not see life. Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.”

Putting you lower than the reach of free grace

When a man takes such a look of his guilt that he thinks himself below the free grace of God, it is false humility. Though he does not want to say that he has sinned the sin against the Holy Ghost, yet he thinks God cannot pardon him. But it is a sin to think like this, when God has said, “All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven.” In this way false humility justles out the whole of God’s arrangements in the covenant of free grace.

Taking more care of the glory of God than He does Himself

It is a strange sort of humility when someone stands up and says, “I think it would be an encroachment on the holiness of God to show mercy to me. He may show mercy to whoever He pleases, but He cannot pardon me.” That is a strange thing. You do not need to worry about encroachments on His holiness, when He has declared that He has found a ransom. Will you be wiser than God? He will never regard that as humility! It is enough to us that He has made a declaration through the world, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear you Him.” As if to say, “I shall satisfy myself in myself. Don’t trouble your heads about that. I am satisfied.”

Thinking it is a mistake to take little problems to God

False humility goes lower than God allows when it treats it as a faux pas to put little things into God’s hand. Many think it would be injudicious for them at such a time as this to ask God to heal their sore head which incapacitates them from hearing the preaching, or to help their faint heart that hinders them from profiting by the Word. But this is the devil’s humility, for the Lord counts all the hairs of your head. Some think it would be some sort of gaffe to ask for a bag of meal from God, and a coat to put on their back at such a time as this – but He has commanded you to put all your needs onto Him, from your salvation to your shoe-latchet.

Thinking it a mistake to come to God often about the same thing

This humility justles with the majesty of God. This is the case with many of us. You have told God often what you are. You have frequented many communions, and yet you are not the better. You have come often with one and the same thing, and now you blush to come to Him again.

But in this you are humble overmuch. Really you should be ashamed that you have not come again and again about one and the same thing! Never account it a mistake to come to Him repeatedly (though the world would think it was), while He has told the brother to forgive the brother seventy times seven in a day. How much more will the great God of heaven forgive us in one day!

2. False humility rises higher than ever God allowed it

“I’m not good enough to be saved by Christ”

False humility goes higher than can be tolerated, in refusing to go into debt to God. This is when people are still seeking for some qualification before they dare approach Christ in believing. They say they would not hesitate to go to Him if they could only get their hearts so and so broken—that is, if they could endure some penance for their sins. But this is to justle with God, for He sings this one note, “Come without money, and without price.” Many are playing upon this string, “If only I had such and such a measure of sorrow for my transgressions”—i.e., “I’m not willing to venture on Him absolutely.” But you won’t get anything but God’s curse or displeasure if you don’t change your tune. If you stick out over any qualification, you spoil the market of free grace wholly.

“I’m too much of a sinner for Christ to save me”

A false humility is unwilling to be absolutely in Christ’s debt. Those who have it resolve to be only a very little in His debt, even though they realise they must be in His debt to some extent. “For,” they say, “He may show mercy to any other sinner, but not to such a sinner as I am. I know He can pardon sinners, but I don’t want to assume that He will pardon the kind of sinner I am.”

But remember what distance is between you, the creature, and God; and between sin and free grace. The difficulty here is, to make God stoop to man, when there is such an infinite distance between God and the creature. But there is no comparable disproportion between your sin, and the sin of anyone else. Has free grace stooped to pardon the sin of any? Then the hazard is past. So your humility is proud humility, because you don’t want to be absolutely in His debt. You would dare to venture the pardon of one sin on Him, as long as it was only a bad thought, or suchlike, but you dare not venture the pardon of a great sin. That is strange ignorance! Since free grace has stooped to pardon any sin, then if you have the heart to venture the pardon of one idle word on Him, then you may also venture on Him the pardon of drunkenness, covenant-breaking, and indeed, every sin. No sin can stand in the way, because the disproportion is between sin and grace, and not between grace and a particular sin.

“I can’t go to God until I’ve got a broken heart”

False humility also justles with God about sin after conversion. Many, when they come first to close with Christ, realise they must resolve to take Him on His own terms, and to be absolutely in His debt. But afterwards they think they cannot come if they don’t have such and such a stock of grace. “Am I supposed to go to God,” they say, “in such a frame as this, before I get my heart humbled?”

But don’t you agree that all your exercises of faith, repentance, etc., are from God, and absolutely from God? Then you have to be in His debt for repentance and a broken heart, as well as for the pardon of sin. This is not the time to be haggling with Him. You must be absolutely in His debt now after conversion, just as much as when you first closed with Him. It is true you ought to be in a better frame, yet you must be always in His debt. Since you lack a better frame, and cannot get it, you must always be in His debt – for new debt, as well as for the old. I grant it is your duty to seek for a good frame of spirit, but if you cannot get it, you are to cast all on Himself together, for He cares for you.

“All my experiences are worthless”

False humility will not acknowledge crumbs to be real and true bread. Because people don’t have the special experiences that others report – because there is something they’ve never had, because they never knew a remarkable answer to prayer or a wonderful sense of God’s presence – therefore they despise everything they have experienced. Truly that is very proud. You think nothing of heart conviction – but someone may have something worse than that. You think it nothing that you see Christ to be a precious jewel; you think it nothing that your desire runs towards Him. But indeed I think very much of it. You think nothing of it that you account all His commands to be right, and that you have a respect to both small and great of them. But that is a miserable humility, since the Scripture has said, “They shall never be ashamed who have respect to all his commandments.” The crumbs are really bread just as much as big loaves. The woman in Matthew 15 was prudent; she could make do with little crumbs until she got more.

“I’ll make do without the things that God can give me”

This high-handed humility says it won’t hold God to some promise, on condition that He will perform other promises. Some would not ask God for bodily health, or the life of their wives or children, provided He would save their souls and keep them from the troubles of this time.

But is it fair, do you think, to set such limits to the free bounty and holy majesty of God, so that you do not deal liberally with Him according to His own Word? Does He hold back anything from you? He is of a liberal heart, and allows His people to devise liberal things at His hand. Is He going to be in your debt, so to speak, if you let Him off from performing one promise as long as He makes good another one? Absolutely not, and in fact He allows you to seek your salvation and your health, and the health of your children, with food and raiment to you and them, and every other thing that may be for your good. I grant that if the Lord calls you to give up these things, you are to submit them all to Him, but when He is not expressly calling you to that, then you are not to do it, but to hold Him to His promise.

Has He not promised, “Thou shalt have bread, and thy water shall be sure”? Then you may seek it from Him, for He can well spare it. He will never thank you for not asking a temporal benefit, even if it was just the cure of a sore head, or sickly body. I say, Seek health, food, and raiment, and as much means as may carry you through the world without being burdensome to others. He hates the manner of a churl. “The liberal man deviseth liberal things, and by liberal things he shall stand.”



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The cold comfort of a changeable God

The cold comfort of a changeable God

The cold comfort of a changeable God

Unlike us, there is nothing precarious about God’s existence. He has life in Himself and He is altogether perfect. He never changes, either for better or worse or to adapt to changing circumstances. So when a recent survey has shown that almost half of evangelicals in the US say ‘yes’ to the question, ‘Does God change?’ it raises questions about how solid someone’s faith is if they are not relying on the unchangeable God – and how lively their hope for the future can be. With our circumstances continually in flux and fears often threatening to overwhelm us, the comfort and hope that comes from the constancy of God cannot be underestimated. Faith in the unchanging and unchangeable God was what sustained one overwhelmed and fearful believer in Psalm 102. In the following updated extract, David Dickson points out the various weighty reasons for the believer’s distress yet balances them against the eternity, omnipotence, and immutability of the Lord.

The church needs comfort

Psalm 102 is consistent with the time when the Jews were in captivity in Babylon. About the end of the captivity, when the seventy years were now nearly expired, the weight of the misery of God’s people, and the mockery of the heathen, and the people’s longings for delivery, greatly afflicted the prophet and so he pours out this prayer.

It is no strange thing for the dear children of God to be under heavy affliction. They may be afflicted, and even overwhelmed. Yet the way for an afflicted and overwhelmed Christian to have relief, comfort and deliverance is, “to pour out his soul before the Lord.”

From the opening of the prayer we learn that a soul who is seeking relief and comfort in God, may both confidently pray for, and certainly expect a hearing and acceptance of their prayer. “Hear my prayer, O God. Let my cry come unto thee” (verse 1). Indeed the Lord permits His children to speak to Him in their own babbling forms of speech, even though the terms they use are not really fitting for His spiritual, invisible, and incomprehensible majesty (such as, “Hear me,” “hide not thy face,” “incline thine ear to me,” etc.) (verse 2).

The causes of the prophet’s grief are three. First, the church was experiencing the reproach and cruelty of the enemy (verse 8). Second, he had the sense that God’s anger was apparent in his situation (verse 9–10). Third, his comparison between the prosperity of the church in the past, and the adversity of the church in the present, made the present situation all the heavier (verse 9–10).

He sadly reflects that the consequence of this is likely to be that he and the church would be cut off without comfort or hope of deliverance. The church as a whole, or the scattered parts of it, may be almost disappearing, and utterly decaying under long-continued trouble: “My days are like a shadow that declineth; and I am withered like grass” (verse 11).

The Lord remains constant till the end of time

But from verse 12, the prophet strives to comfort himself in the hope of grace to be shown to the church. “But thou, O Lord, shalt endure for ever …”

His first source of comfort is that God has purposed to perpetuate the remembrance of Himself to all generations, and He endures for ever to see it done.

There is therefore ground of hope to believers, even in the saddest condition of the church; for although believers are mortal, yet God (in whom their life is hid), is eternal. “Thou, O Lord, shalt endure for ever.”

God wants His name to be known in all generations, and wants to have people making use of His word and ordinances in order to preserve the memory of His attributes, works and will. This is why the church must continue from age to age.

The Lord’s constancy will bring changes for the better

In verse 13 the prophet reasons from God’s unchangeableness to conclude that the condition of the church will change from worse to better. This is good reasoning. “Thou shalt endure for ever,” he says, and therefore, “thou shalt arise, and have mercy upon Zion” (verse 13).

We can even aim for and be encouraged by the expectation that there will be an enlargement of the knowledge and fear of God among those who do not yet know Him. The psalmist is looking forward in verse 15 to the heathen coming to fear the Lord. The Lord has a time when He is pleased to arise, to restore His afflicted people to comfort, and to restore religion to its own beauty, even in a way that makes kings fear and tremble when they see how God cares for His own despised people.

God will have glory in in restoring His church: “When the Lord shall build up Zion, he shall appear in his glory” (verse 16). Whatever instruments the Lord uses for this, He wants Himself to be seen to be the builder. As the glory of the Lord is obscured when His church is scattered, so when He sets up His own ordinances again, His glory is displayed. The connection between God’s glory and the salvation of His church is a reason for comfort and hope. However badly the church may be demolished, yet it shall be restored and repaired again.

The Lord’s constancy guarantees that the church will never be consumed

The prophet sorrowed on the personal level because he looked likely to die of grief for the church, and on another level because the church looked likely to perish in their captivity, and not go on to the hoped-for coming of the Messiah, and the conversion of the heathen, which was necessary for the perpetuation of Christ’s church to the end of the world.

In the history of Israel, it did sometimes seem that they were being stopped from going on in their journey to the coming of Christ. The tribe of Judah got so weak that it appeared there was no possibility it would last, or make any progress. There was the fear that if Judah was cut off, and Israel was abolished, then the Messiah who was supposed to be coming from them would never appear. This was the terrible fear with which the prophet is wrestling here (verse 24).

Against this fear and temptation the prophet (in the name of the church) is wrestling in prayer. He strengthens his faith by various arguments taken from God’s (which is to say, Christ’s) eternity, omnipotence, and immutability (see Hebrews 1:11–12).

Whatever difficulty faith is brought into, faith goes and deals directly with God. “God is the doer of what is done,” the believer says, and so he deals with God by prayer for relief. When it appears that we are going to perish, this should not hinder us from praying, but rather it should sharpen us in our duty. When God’s promises and God’s providences seem to disagree, we may appeal to and argue from the covenant, and not displease God by so doing.

The Lord’s constancy is the believer’s consolation

The eternity of Christ is the consolation of the believer in his mortality; and the eternity of Christ as God is the pledge that the believer will be preserved, and that all God’s promises will be performed.

The immutability of God is a notable comfort to His afflicted people because, since He is not changed, therefore they shall not be consumed. “Heaven and earth shall perish, but thou shalt endure” (verse 26); “thou art the same” (verse 27).

The prayer concludes with the prophet’s victory over the fear and temptation, expressed in a solid assurance of the perpetuity of the church from one generation to another, founded on those attributes of Christ (eternity, omnipotence, and immutability). So those who are sorry for the affliction of the church shall have consolation from God, and a gracious answer to their prayer, as the experience of the prophet teaches us.

The perpetuity of the church may be solidly concluded from the unchangeableness and eternity of God. Whatsoever change may befall the visible church before the world, yet before God she is fixed and stable, like a house built on a rock.


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How the Word of God gives us words for God

How the Word of God gives us words for God

How the Word of God gives us words for God

Every so often the suggestion is made that we should use gender-neutral language to refer to God. There is certainly a need for carefulness in how we speak about God, so that we don’t inadvertently make Him seem inaccessible or unavailable to specific groups of people. Yet this should not be driven by our perceptions of what might make God unappealing to sinful preferences, or by the demands of certain groups that God should fit the mould they want Him to fit. God has actually chosen to make Himself known to us in His Word – in human language. Yet human language fails almost before it starts to express the greatness of God. We must therefore confine ourselves to speaking about God in ways that He legitimises (in that He has used these terms Himself in the Scriptures) while constantly realising that even these words are not adequate. God is so great that He cannot be confined in any way – not the whole universe can contain Him – and certainly He cannot be reduced to the kind of creature whose identity changes in the eye of the beholder according to which are currently the preferred pronouns, as dictated by sinful imaginations or to suit self-serving human interests. Our job is not to conform God to our political agendas or passing ideological fixations, but to conform ourselves to Him. As the following updated extract from a textbook by Hugh Binning makes clear, we can only ever know and speak of God on His own terms.

“God is a Spirit, and they who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Something of the nature of God is pointed out to us here, as well as something of our duty towards Him. “God is a spirit,” is His nature; and “we must worship him,” is our duty, and “in spirit and in truth” is the right manner of doing our duty. If these three were rightly pondered, till they sink in to the depth of our spirits, they would make us real Christians.

We need to know accurately who God is

It is presupposed for all Christian worship and walking, to know what God is. This is indeed the primo cognitum of Christianity, the first principle of true religion, the very root out of which springs and grows up walking suitably with and worshipping appropriately a known God.

In too much of our religion we are like the people of Athens, who built an altar to an unknown God, and the Samaritans, who worshipped they knew not what. Such a worship, I don’t know what it is, when the God worshipped is not known!

True knowledge of God is not comprised of many notions and speculations about the divine nature, or high and strained conceptions of God. Some people speak of these mysteries in some unique way, using terms far removed from common understandings, which neither themselves nor others know what they mean. But this only shows that they are presumptuous, self-conceited, knowing nothing as they ought to know. There is a knowledge that puffs up – a knowledge that only makes people swells up, it doesn’t make them grow. It’s only a rumour, full of air, a vain and empty and frothy knowledge, that is neither good for edifying others, nor saving themselves. A knowledge that someone has, so as to ascend on the height of it, and measure himself by the degrees of it, is not the true knowledge of God. The true knowledge of God doesn’t know itself, doesn’t look back on itself, but looks straight towards God, His holiness and glory, and sees our baseness and misery. Therefore it constrains the soul to be ashamed of itself in such a glorious presence, and to make haste to worship, as Moses, Job and Isaiah did.

We cannot worship God without knowing accurately who He is

This definition of God, if we truly understood it, could not but transform our worship.

God is a spirit. Many people form in their own mind some likeness and image of God, who is invisible. They imagine to themselves some bodily shape. When they conceive of Him, they think He is some reverend and majestic person, sitting on a throne in heaven. But I beseech you, correct your mistakes about Him! There is outward idolatry as well as inward. There is idolatry in action, when people paint or engrave some similitude of God, and there also is idolatry in imagination, when the fancy runs on some image or likeness of God. The latter is too common among us. Indeed it comes to much the same thing, whether to form similitudes in our mind, or to engrave or paint them outwardly. The God whom many of us worship is not the living and true God, but a painted or graven idol. You do nothing more than fancy an idol to yourselves when you conceive of God under the likeness of any visible or tangible thing. Then whatever love, or fear, or reverence you have, it is all but mis-spent superstition, the love and fear of an idol.

God is beyond the reach of our senses

Know then that God is a spirit, and therefore He is like none of all the things you see, or hear, or smell, or taste, or touch. The heavens are glorious indeed, the light is full of glory, but God is not like that. If all your senses were to make an inquiry, and search for Him throughout the world, you would not find Him, even though He is near at hand to every one of us. Your eyes and ears and all your senses could travel the length of the earth and breadth of the sea, and would not find him, even as you might search all the corners of heaven before you could hear or see an angel. If you cut a person into pieces, and resolved him down into atoms of dust, yet you could not perceive a soul within him. Why? Because these are spirits, and so beyond the reach of your senses.

God is beyond the capacity of our language

If God is a spirit, then He is invisible, and dwells in light inaccessible, which no man hath seen or can see. Then our poor narrow minds, which are immersed (as it were) in bodies of clay, and receive all knowledge from the senses, cannot frame any suitable notion of His spiritual nature. We cannot even conceive what our own soul is, except when some tangible activity flows from it. The height that our knowledge of ourselves amounts to, is only the dark and confused conception that the soul is some inward principle of life and sense and reason. How then is it possible for us to conceive rightly of the divine nature, as it is in itself?

In a dark and general way, we guess at His majesty by the glorious emanations of His power and wisdom, and the rays of it which He displays in all the works of His hands. From all these concurring testimonies and evidences of His majesty we gather at best the notion of Him that He is the fountain of life, the self-independent being, the very life and light of men, who makes all things visible, and He Himself is invisible.

This is the reason why the Lord speaks to us in the Scripture of Himself in terms of His face, His right hand and arm, His throne, His sceptre, His back parts, His anger, His fury, His repentance, His grief and sorrow. None of these are properly in His spiritual, immortal and unchangeable nature. He speaks in this way because of our dullness and slowness in apprehending spiritual things. It is almost beyond the comprehension of the soul while in the body, because the soul is almost addicted to the senses of the body. The Lord therefore accommodates Himself to our terms and notions. Like a father babbles with his babbling children, He speaks to us in our own dialect, but at the same time He wants us to realise that He is not really like this, but infinitely removed in His own being from all these imperfections.

So when you hear these terms in Scripture, O beware that you do not conceive God to be such a one as yourselves! In these expressions so below His majesty, learn your own ignorance of His glorious majesty, and your dullness and incapacity, when the Holy One must come down as it were in some bodily appearance, before you can understand anything about Him.

God is most powerful

If God is a spirit, then He is most perfect, and most powerful. All imperfection, infirmity and weakness in the creature is founded in its material part of it. A body, when the soul and spirit is out of it, has no more virtue nor efficacy than so much clay, though when it had the presence of its spirit, it was active, agile, swift, strong and nimble. Consider then what a one the God of the spirits of all flesh must be – the very fountain-spirit, the self-existent spirit. When the soul of a human being – or even the spirit of a horse – has so much virtue as to stir up a lump of earth and enliven it to so many different kinds of activities, even though that soul and spirit did not and indeed could not make that piece of earth they dwell in – then what must be the power and virtue of Him who made all these things?

God is immense

If God is a spirit, then He is not circumscribed by any place; and if He is an infinite spirit, then He is everywhere. No place can include Him, and no object can exclude Him. He is within all things, yet not included or bounded within them, and He is outwith all things, yet not excluded from them. As you know, every object has its own bounds and limits circumscribed to it, and it shoots out all other objects out of the same space. But a spirit can pass through all of them, and never disturb them. A legion of spirits may be in one man, and have plenty space. How much more the maker of all spirits fills all in all! The thickness of the earth does not keep Him out, nor does the largeness of the heavens contain Him.

O, how narrow thoughts we have of His immense greatness! How often, I wonder, do you reflect on His immensity? God is near at hand to every one of us. Who among us think of a divine majesty nearer us than our very souls and consciences? For “in him we live and move and have our being.” How is it that we move, and do not think with wonder of the first mover, in whom we move? How is it that we live and persevere in being, without continually considering the fountain-being in whom we live and have our being? We go about all our business as if we were self-existent, and independent of anyone, never thinking of the all-present, quickening spirit, who activates us, moves us, speaks in us, makes us to walk, and eat and drink! Who of us believes this all-present God? We imagine that He is shut up in heaven, and takes no notice of what is going on below, but certainly, He is not so far from us.

God’s understanding is unsearchable

If God is a spirit, then, as He is incomprehensible and immense in being, so also there is no comprehension of His knowledge. He is an all-knowing spirit, an all-seeing spirit, as well as all-present. “There is no searching of his understanding” (Isa. 40:28, and Psalm 147:5). “Who hath directed his spirit, or being his counsellor hath taught him?” (Rom. 11:34; Isa. 40:1).

O that you would always set this God before you – or rather, set yourselves always in His presence, in whose sight you are always! How it would compose our hearts to reverence and fear in all our actions, if we really did believe that the judge of all the world is an eye-witness to our most unobserved and secret thoughts and doings! If any other human being was as privy to your thoughts as your own spirit and conscience, you would blush and be ashamed before him. If every one of us could open a window into one another’s spirits, I think this assembly would disperse as quickly as when Christ invited those who were without sin to cast a stone! We could not so much as look one upon another. O then, why are we so little apprehensive of the all-searching eye of God, who can even declare to us our thought before we think it? God “knows our down-sitting and up-rising, and understands our thoughts afar off, and is acquainted with all our ways” (Psalm 139). O, how we would ponder our path, and examine our words, and consider our thoughts beforehand, if we set ourselves in the view of a spirit who is within us and outside us, before us and behind us!


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Blessings, boundaries and the church

Blessings, boundaries and the church

Blessings, boundaries and the church

The Church of England recently voted in favour of allowing blessings for same-sex couples although with assurances that the church’s doctrine of marriage will not change. To many this seems incoherent, and it exposes a lack of clarity on the boundaries between what is and is not acceptable in the realm of sexuality and marriage. In the New Testament model, the church and the world are on different sides of a clear line of demarcation and the church has no need to feel pressurised into adopting the agenda and mores of the world. In the early days of the church of Corinth the pressure was real and the church in some significant ways capitulated to societal expectations. The boundary markers in these ways collapsed and the apostle Paul needed to write more than once to reinstate them. Particularly in the area of sexual ethics the divergence needed to be crystallised between how the surrounding culture regarded people’s behaviour, and how Jesus’ apostles expected the church to react. Immorality of any kind, including same-sex relationships, is not something for the church to bless, but to help people avoid. As David Dickson’s commentary on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians draws out in the following updated extract, Paul teaches both that sexual immorality has no place within the church, and that forgiveness is available.

Indifference to sexual purity is a pagan attitude

Like the other Gentiles, the Corinthians regarded sexual immorality as a “thing indifferent,” neither right nor wrong in itself. But in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul rejects this point of view. Anticipating and forestalling that their excuse would be, “All indifferent things are lawful for us now that we are Christians!” Paul makes several counter-points.

Firstly, in verse 12, he qualifies their major assumption, “All indifferent things are lawful!” by limiting it to “lawful as far as they are beneficial,” i.e., helpful, and, “lawful as long as our sinful desires do not win the mastery over us,” for by the intemperate use of our liberty we can sin even in the use of indifferent things.

Then in verse 13 he also challenges their secondary assumption, that fornication is something indifferent. He says in effect, “Granting that food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, there is a big difference between food and fornication!” It is lawful to eat any kind of food, because God has ordained food to be a natural good. Yet we have to reckon with the fact that God will destroy both food and the stomach, at least as far as its current functions are concerned. So for the sake of our stomach we must not endanger our eternal salvation, or the salvation of others, by eating in a way that causes others to stumble. However, the big difference is that sexual immorality is never lawful. It is simply a sin, and to be avoided.

The body is simply not made for immorality – it is not in any way comparable to how food is ordained for the stomach and vice versa. The body is ordained to be a member of Christ our Lord, who is ordained to be the head, to govern the whole body, so that it would be kept holy. In fact, in the resurrection our bodies will be raised as glorious bodies, just as the body of Christ was raised. Therefore they ought not to be defiled with fornication.

Paul goes on to refer to what should have been an obvious, known fact about marriage: the two become one flesh. The members of Christ are not to be made by fornication the members of a prostitute (verses 15-16). For “he that is joined to the Lord is one spirit” (verse 17). Believers are members of Christ, because they are united to Him by faith, and are one mystical body with Christ – one spiritual body, or one spirit with Christ.

Paul then provides an exhortation. “Flee fornication!” (verse 18). Returning to his argument, he draws a comparison with other sins. Other sins misuse something or other that is external to the body, but sexual immorality abuses its own body, and for that matter dishonours the body more than any other sin (verse 18).

Especially considering that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, they ought not to be polluted with sexual immorality. Additionally, believers are not their own – they have been purchased with the blood of Christ. They must therefore take heed that they do not defile themselves with immorality, but rather by a holy way of life both in body and soul they should endeavour to glorify God their Redeemer, whose they are.

Sexual impurity has no place in the church

Towards the end of chapter 4, Paul has been warning the church of Corinth that formal church censures would come their way if they continued in their schismatic and divisive ways. Lest they should think these are empty words, he tells them at the start of chapter 5 that they must excommunicate a certain individual who had committed a certain type of sexual sin. “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you” (1 Corinthians 6:1-2).

Paul here reprimands the church because they ought long ago to have grieved for this great offence, and excommunicated the wicked person from fellowship, instead of excusing his fault by minimising it, or making a joke of it, or glorying in it as if they were impressed with what he had done.

One reason for excommunicating this individual is because he was defiled by heinous wickedness. Even the Gentiles would not so much as speak of this sin without detestation.

Paul recognises that as a church, they have the power to excommunicate a wicked person like this. But now he adds his additional apostolic authority to the situation. “For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 6:3-5).

“Truly,” he is saying, “you have my opinion and authority concerning that wicked person. Therefore, when you are gathered together, be fortified by this letter, which comes with apostolic authority, and by the authority of Christ, in whose name the censures of the church should be given, and excommunicate this wicked person.”

Paul uses the expression, “Deliver him to Satan,” because when anyone’s outward status is that they have been rejected and cast out of the church, and excommunicated from the privilege of the fellowship of the saints, then as far as their outward status is concerned, they are declared to belong instead to the kingdom, slavery, and power of Satan. To be a citizen of the kingdom of God (that is, the church) even outwardly, is a greater honour than to reign outside of the church. To be excommunicated is to lose your reputation and honour and dignity, and be reckoned as belonging to the subjects of the devil.

Having said this, the actual purpose of excommunication is to be a means of repentance and salvation. Truly by the censure of excommunication the pride of the flesh should be mortified, and the new creature will be saved in the day of judgment.

Impurity is a contagion

Paul continues in verse 6, “Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” The risk was that the whole church would be infected and polluted by the contagion of so great a wickedness, just as a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. That is why they needed to excommunicate the wicked person. Continuing with the metaphor, Paul says that the Christian church must be purged from things which bring reproach on Christ and cause others to stumble – and the hearts of Christians must be purged from all the corruption of their old nature – with at least the same diligence as the houses of the Jews were purged from literal leaven before the Passover. Doing this would have the beneficial effect “that ye may be a new lump,” a new and holy society, new creatures really and indeed (verse 7).

The church should be a place where holiness flourishes

Confirming his argument, Paul explains that the thing signified in the Passover – the sacrifice of Jesus Christ – commits Christians to have a care that holiness would flourish in us and in the church. Putting away malice and wickedness both from ourselves and from the church will mean that we can worship and serve the Lord cheerfully and in a holy way, in sincerity and truth. We cannot live in a holy and righteous way (as the meaning of the feast of the Passover lamb requires of us) unless the leaven of our past life and our wicked practices are purged away out of us and out of the house of God, and unless we endeavour to keep sincerity and truth in us and in the church.

The church should not judge the world, but itself

Paul wraps up his argument by referring to a previous letter he had written to the church of Corinth, in which he had told them not to have fellowship with fornicators (verse 9). By consequence they should have understood that fornicators were to be excommunicated from the church, and much more so those who committed incest.

Of course, this gives them no excuse for thinking that this instruction about immoral persons referred only to those who were in the world, or outside of the church. That would have been to command something impossible, because they must necessarily either live amongst such wicked persons or else go out of the world (verse 10). They lived in Corinth, after all, where the majority remained pagans. Paul clarifies that he means they must not keep fellowship with anyone who claims to be a Christian, or a brother, who commits sexual immorality. That brother is to be excommunicated, if after the church has convinced him of his sin he remains wicked and impenitent (verse 11).

Neither the apostle nor the church had the right to impose church censures on those who were outside the church. Those outside the church are left to the judgment of God. But the conclusion they ought to have drawn from this is that judging members of the church certainly is part of the church’s work – this power does belong to the church. That is why their responsibility was to put away or excommunicate that wicked person from among them.



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Breaking the cycle of intergenerational perversity

Breaking the cycle of intergenerational perversity

Breaking the cycle of intergenerational perversity

A failing health service, the social care timebomb, disregard for the safety of women and children, economic stagnation, the aftermath of the pandemic, immigration woes, a crisis in law and order, the deficiencies of our energy policy – yet even the boldest politicians seem to offer little more than sticking plasters, if not proposals that will positively make things worse. Even secular commentators are talking in terms of Britain’s “fall from grace” and expressing frustration at how little yield there is for our efforts. We seem to have inherited problems from the previous decades and generations which we cannot solve, while inheriting opportunities which we fail to exploit to our advantage. At the national level it is as if something is preventing us from achieving what we could.

Yet this is not a new experience. In the 1600s commentators such as William Guthrie were keen observers of national trends and their analysis moved beyond the political and economic to also take into consideration the spiritual dimension. In Guthrie’s view, national stagnation and failures were the price the nation paid for collectively forsaking the Lord and loosening their commitment to His ways. In the 1700s Thomas Boston, sharing essentially the same outlook as Guthrie, elaborated further on the perversity of his generation. It was a perversity which seemed to actively incite God to thwart their attempts to better themselves.

The following pair of updated extracts from their writings show Guthrie’s self-accusation of the nation and Boston’s earnest exhortations to “save yourselves from this untoward generation.” Although politicians will always disappoint us with the limited solutions they can offer to the nation’s problems, it is not inevitable that we keep sinking into ever worsening decline. If we accept Guthrie’s and Boston’s analysis and advice, we can break out of the cycle of intergenerational perversity and thrive under God’s blessing.

God is right to be angry with us when we refuse to be humbled by His chastisements

By William Guthrie

We have responded with deep-rooted complacency, impenitence, obstinacy and incorrigibleness under all the dreadful chastisements of God.

Although God has visited us with dreadful chastisements, we have responded with complacency and incorrigibleness. God has also given us tokens of his indignation against us because of these attitudes, yet our attitudes do not change. So while he continues to smite, we are so far from humbling ourselves and turning to him that we grow worse and worse, and sin more and more.

This is surely undeniable. We only need to observe the condition of the land, and the present character and behaviour of the people. Virtually everyone is crying out for their afflictions, but almost no one is mourning for his sin.

What kind of generation is this?

By Thomas Boston

“Save yourselves from this untoward generation” is part of Peter’s advice to his hearers in his sermon in Acts 2. What kind of generation was this?

A generation that has become impervious to the means of grace and the glorious gospel of Christ.

And is not this the case of the present generation? We have long enjoyed the gospel, and now we are like those who are made deaf by the continual sounding of many waters. To whom shall preachers now speak? Who now believes the report of the gospel? Some who once trembled at the Word, now sit like brazen walls against it. Some whose consciences were once touched, are now apparently seared with a hot iron. What can be expected, but that God will change his messengers, and try sharp rods after a slighted word?

A generation in which corruption of life and manners is become universal, having overspread all ranks of society

Alas! is not this our very case? Is not profaneness and wickedness like a flood gone over all its banks? If we look at the congregation, what profane swearing, drunkenness, biting and devouring one another, and uncleanness abound among us, even in the midst of gospel-light! Is this the fruit of plenty, fulness, and thriving in the world? If we look abroad through the nations, religion is truly fallen under contempt. Looseness and licentiousness are become fashionable, the flood-gates of debauchery are set open, and there is no stemming of the tide. The generation has not stopped at ordinary crimes, but they have proceeded to an open defiance of heaven by atheism and blasphemy. What prodigious blasphemies have been heard of, of late! The foundations of Christianity are sapped by damnable heresies. The principles of true religion are in hazard of being lost, not only among people, but pastors. What a dreadful conjuncture this is, when in England and Ireland the supreme Godhead of Christ, and His equality with the Father, is denied, while in Scotland legalism, by which the purity of gospel-doctrine is corrupted, prevails and is countenanced so much!

A generation deaf to the calls of providence, who are not drawn by mercies, and not driven to repentance by lesser strokes

Our generation has met with a great variety of providences. Uncertainty as to who the new monarch would be – but God gave us King George and not another Stuart monarch. Civil unrest in the Jacobite Rising of 1714 – but God stopped it from filling the whole land with blood. Impoverishment following the failure of the Darien Scheme. The threat of pestilence, which rages in France – but so far God has averted it from us. What is the fruit of all these mercies, strokes, deliverances, and long-suffering? Are we bettered by them? So far from it, that we are visibly growing worse and worse. We take one bad step after another, so that the reasons why God is angry are still multiplying.

A generation resistant to check, control, or reproof in their sinful courses, but determined to have their own way

People cannot endure reproof. Church discipline is despised. Personal interventions are apt to incense the reproved against the reprover. Ministers challenging people in the preaching of the Word, people are not able to bear, if they are too close to the bone. Everyone cares more about reputation than conscience.

How can we save ourselves from this generation?

As a first step, we must open our eyes, and look.

1. Look around you, and observe the generation, and consider seriously the way they are going, and the perversity which this manifests. Otherwise you will never bestir yourself to save yourself from it.

2. Look above you, to God. Take notice how the course of the untoward generation is displeasing to Him, how it dishonours Him and robs Him of the glory that is due to his name. God is the governor of the world, and He is not an idle spectator of what people do on earth. Since He looks to us, let us look up to Him.

3. Look within you, and see what perversity exists within your own heart, and appears in your own life and way (Isaiah 6:5). Nobody saves themselves from an untoward generation without beginning here.

More particularly:

1. Return to God by Jesus Christ, in the way of the everlasting covenant held out to you in the gospel. “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39). Be stiff-necked no longer, but yield yourself to the Lord. Take salvation closely to heart now at last, and enter into the covenant, if you are still a stranger to Christ. And if you are the friend of Christ, renew your covenant, give a renewed consent to the marriage-covenant between Christ and your soul.

2. Endeavour to walk closely with God in your personal capacity, as Noah did (Genesis 6:9). Strive to be acquainted with the life and power of religion in your own souls. When the church is going through a dark and cloudy day, it is hard to keep fast to a religion you don’t feel. When the winds of error and delusion are left to blow, they will hurt anyone who doesn’t know God. In a time of general calamity, anyone who cannot live by faith will find it hard to live.

3. Beware of and stand at a distance from the sinful ways and courses of the untoward generation. “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:11). Let it not encourage you to sin, that you see others take liberty to themselves to do so, for that way you only enter into the conspiracy against God with the multitude. If you are ever to save yourselves from this untoward generation, you will be instructed of God (as Isaiah was), that he “should not walk in the way of this people” (Isaiah 8:11).

4. Mourn over the sins of the untoward generation, as well as over your own, otherwise you are not free of them (Ezekiel 9:4; Psalm 119:136). “Rivers of waters run down mine eyes,” said David, “because they (the wicked) keep not thy law.” God is dishonoured, His name is profaned, His ways, truths, and ordinances are trampled on by this untoward generation – and we stand by as unconcerned spectators, or else join in! What? is God our Father? is Christ our elder brother? are we on heaven’s side or are we not?

5. Make the welfare of Christ’s church a matter of your own personal concern. Take a personal interest in how it fares with the church of Christ in this untoward generation.

There has been much contending in Scotland, even unto blood, for all the parts of our covenanted reformation. Few of the Covenanting generation remain now, but in this current generation the work is at risk of going to wreck at our hands. It is much to be lamented that church members generally are very easy and complacent about the matter. They do not see the danger, they do not perceive the weight of it, and they are not inclined to take much interest in it. Hence no wonder they are not busy wrestling with God about it. But you are called to bestir yourself on Zion’s behalf. Our Lord takes notice how people behave in times when His interest is sinking. He will look after His own interests Himself in due time, but those who stand aloof from it are in a dangerous position, according to what Mordecai told Esther, “For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed” (Esther 4:14).

Now is the time to save yourselves. God is still on a throne of grace. He is calling to you, however far you have gone on with the untoward generation, to save yourselves now from this generation.


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The wrong kind of fear

The wrong kind of fear

The wrong kind of fear

​Anxieties are rising as people are struggling to respond to a complex combination of problems. The cost of living crisis, fuel costs, the war in Ukraine, the discontent that has led to so much strike action, the weaknesses of the NHS and the social care system – there are plenty reasons for concern.

Fear is an instinct which can sometimes helpfully prompt us to avoid danger, yet other times damagingly paralyses us. In spiritual terms, fear can get the better of us when we forget both how great and how good God is. According to Matthew 14, the disciples in the boat in the storm cried out for fear. In the following updated extract, William Guthrie discusses the debilitating effects of fear in the Lord’s people, before suggesting ways to avoid being wrongly fearful.

The people of God are very prone to the wrong kind of fear, when new difficulties appear to them.

What is the wrong kind of fear?

God’s people are troubled with a fear that is sometimes called “slavish fear.” It arises from various sources, including the misbelief of what God has said, and forgetting what He has said concerning them. It flows also from fixing on His providence [instead of His Word], and putting the worst possible construction on it.

Another source it flows from is despondency of spirit and heartlessness. That weakens their hands in the use of lawful means for bearing their own trial and working for their own deliverance. Their faith and hope and all goes to wrack and ruin. Then there often arises an inclination to follow some unlawful means for deliverance, and even if they do not actually follow it, still the heart is naturally laid open for such a temptation. Ordinarily, complaints are the fruits of slavish fear.

To summarise, slavish fear consists in an atheistical putting of created things in a channel of independency on God, as if the creature could come and go of its own accord without commission from Him. “It is God who comforteth: who art thou that art afraid of a man that shall die, &c.?” (Isaiah 51:12). The truth is, the Lord’s people had forgotten the omnipotent power and sovereignty of God, and thought that mere humans could do with them what they pleased without God. When you are so minded, it is a hundred to one if you don’t attempt to get out from under the trial in some unlawful way.

Why do God’s people have this fear?

First, there is the great ignorance of God’s care for His people.

That is the cause of all their slavish fear, and it is what He challenges His people for. “Thou hast feared every day, and hast forgotten me: who art thou that art afraid of a man that shall die?” (Isaiah 51:12–13) We imagine ourselves as standing alone without God. “There feared they, where no fear was.”

The second reason is unbelief.

Thirdly, there is atheism, a growing sin, i.e., when His people think of God as like some creature, and created things like God, as if created things can work what they wish without Him. They put God above the creature in some things, and the creature above Him in some other things.

The fourth reason is, because his people yield to this fear too soon. You think that you never have a fear without reason. Yes, but you are obliged to shut out those things that look like reasons, when they come in on you. When slavish fear begins to mutter in our bosom for us to harbour it, it makes it prevail.

Why is this fear so damaging?

This fear weakens the hands of God’s people in all duties. When they begin to fear out of measure, they lose all, and grow indifferent whether they do duty or not. No one will bide by their duty when their faith fails them; or if they do go about any duty, it will be just as if they are doing it by rote.

This fear also brings discouragement of soul. Nothing can comfort the people of God, where this fear prevails.

Also it brings discomposure of their countenance, which damages the reputation of their religion. Whenever slavish fear gets the upper hand, it makes people look as if they served a hard master, who makes his people undergo things that he will not allow them expenses for.

This fear also disobliges God to work for their deliverance from whatever it is they are afraid of. As it says, “He could do no mighty works, because of their unbelief.”

This fear makes them incapable of understanding their own mercy, when it begins to appear. This is what left the Israelites in Egypt unable to understand what Moses said about their deliverance. When people succumb to this fear, all duty is a burden to them.

Although God may do anything for His people in His sovereignty and mercy, there is no promise we can look to in the Bible that God will help someone who has yielded to slavish fear. James 1:6-7, “Let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord, because he asketh not in faith.”

How can this fear be cured?

The thing that cures the disciples’ fear in Matthew 14 is Christ approaching to them in favour. Behold, he is coming, but they mistake him. Only bring Christ and the believer together, and whoever they are, He will heal them of all their disputes and diseases. Christ approaches the disciples, and speaks friendly to them, until they heard the words, “It is I, be not afraid,” together with His approaching. What completely allays all their fear is Christ coming in to them, and nothing else does it.

What can we do to avoid this fear?

All the people of the Lord should be aware that they have this kind of infirmity. Then, when difficulties are renewed against you, and slavish fear labours to take possession of you even though you have fled to Christ, guard against it, and know why it is so damaging, and encourage yourselves against it.

In a cloudy and dark day, when your fear grows, remember what a care God takes for His people. They are set as a seal upon His heart, and written upon the palms of His hands. He has said, “He that toucheth you, toucheth the apple of mine eye.” Would we be afraid, if we believed that any who trouble the people of God, it is as bad as if they took on God?

Believe this also, that whatever the Lord does, or allows others to do, it shall work together for the good of His people. It is a common truth in everybody’s mouth, certainly, but I may say the least believed truth in all the Bible! You may not question the truth of the promise, but yet you stop short of applying it to yourselves. I offer you that promise, and you put it to yourselves, and solidly acquiesce with it in your heart, that all the distresses and afflictions His people are under in Britain and Ireland shall work together for their good. If it is so, why then do you not believe it, and find peace from fear?

Believe also that nothing befalls His people, except what comes by His providence. You say, “That’s true, but there are many things that we meet with, that God does not allow.” I say there is nothing you meet with, but it comes either by His active or permissive providence. There is no evil done in the city but what the Lord knows. That the ministers in Britain and Ireland are put out of their houses, kirks, and lands, and banished out of the country, is all His providence, and shall work together for their good. If so, then your fears can be quieted.

Know that there is nothing to be feared, except God and an evil conscience. As a man in Ireland said to a bishop, when he threatened to imprison him, he answered, “I know no prison worse than an evil conscience.” If you resolve to fear nothing but the God of heaven and an evil conscience, you need not fear people, for the fear of these will quiet all your other fears.



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The heavenly wisdom of a soft answer

The heavenly wisdom of a soft answer

The heavenly wisdom of a soft answer

In Prince Harry’s recent memoir we can see the effect of the insatiable voyeuristic appetite for celebrity gossip. We no doubt feel sympathy for those whose lives are picked over endlessly by commentators who seem to say what they like with little fear of contradiction. Perhaps we have all felt the impulse sometimes to tell our own side of the story, take control of the narrative, speak our own truth. There are more wise and less wise ways of doing this. Laying bare your heart does not necessarily lead to acceptance and respect, it can sometimes give more fodder for ridicule. Worse, telling your story may involve you in making accusations against other people. Now you have also shredded other people’s reputations. So the drama rolls on and the prospects of reconciliation fade further away. And it’s all words! The consequences of our words can sometimes be enormous, as the apostle James pointed out long ago. In the following updated extract, David Dickson explains James’s insistence on the need to bridle our tongues. It is impossible without God’s grace, yet the counterintuitive act of responding with meekness when we are provoked is the way of heavenly wisdom and it leads to peace and righteousness. Christians should strive by God’s grace to be people of integrity – like a fountain which sends out one consistent stream of water, not alternating between the pure and the defiled – and so show who really is in control in their hearts.

James chapter 3 contains two pieces of advice. The first is for governing the tongue (verses 1–13), and the second is to do with the meek wisdom which assuages the evils of the tongue, and avoids strifes and contentions (verses 14–18).

Control your tongue and you control your whole self

James tells us to bridle the tongue, that is, to hold back from invective, and rigid rehearsals of other people’s vices or infirmities. “Be not many masters,” he says (verse 1), i.e., do not arrogate to yourselves the authority of a master over others, and too much liberty to carp at things (as many do), but instead bridle your tongues.

One reason for this is because those who unjustly censure others will suffer heavier judgement from the God who avenges injuries (verse 1). Also, seeing we all have many failings (“in many things we offend all,” verse 2), it is better for us to deal more diligently with the infirmities of others, not to arrogate the authority of judging without a calling, or to be unjust in judging.

Anyone who knows how to govern their tongue shows the sign of being “perfect,” someone who can moderate all their actions (verse 2). Anyone who cannot moderately rule their tongue, but in all things carps at other people’s behaviour, has the sign of being a hypocrite.

If you are guiding the horse’s bridle, you have control of the horse; and if you have your hand on the rudder, you are steering the ship. Even so, if you have your tongue under control, you rein in your whole body, and keep your outward actions in check (verse 3–5).

Great care is needed in governing the tongue, because of how gloriously it can boast. It can on both sides perform much good – in speaking the truth, in constancy, in letting things slide, in courtesy, and so on – and it can do much evil, in lies, reproaches, calumnies and so on (verse 5).

Let fly with words and you stir up a world of evil

As a small fire can kindle and devour may things, so the tongue, unless it is appeased and bridled, can stir up a world of evils, and create infinite sins (verse 5–6). Although it is a small part, it is nevertheless a part of the body, which means it can involve all the other members of the body in what it does. It can defile the whole body with wickednesses, and with its wickedness set on fire the wheel of all our natural faculties.

When the tongue is ready to serve the devil in this way, there is some affinity between the evil tongue and hell (verse 6). From the devil the tongue can send out enough flames of lies, slanders and quarrellings to burn the whole world.

There is no kind of animals, but may be tamed by human reason or skill, and experience teaches that some of all kinds have been tamed (verse 7). But the tongue can be tamed by no human reason or art. It is an unquiet and an unruly evil, full of deadly poison, by which it is ready to bring, and does bring, deadly mischiefs to others (verse 8). Therefore you must by God’s supernatural grace diligently endeavour to bridle the tongue.

Be honest in your words and you show you have supernatural grace

The tongue is mutable, deceitful, crafty. One minute it makes itself out to be very good, blessing God, the next minute it openly shows its real nature, by cursing other people (and indirectly God, according to whose likeness people are made). This it does from the same mouth, sometimes sending forth blessing, sometimes cursing (verse 9). But this is absurd and monstrous, and must in no wise be tolerated by those who belong to Christ (verse 10).

James then uses four similes – a fountain, a fig-tree, a vine, and the sea (verse 11–12) – arguing from these natural impossibilities to expose this irrational incoherence in our practice. It is simply not natural that sweet and bitter water should flow from the same channel of the fountain, or that a fig-tree should bring forth grapes, and a vine figs, or that the same sea should yield both salt water and sweet. So reason will not allow us to think that it is the tongue of someone who is regenerated, which, although sometimes it blesses, yet being unbridled, it otherwise curses – for a bad tree does not bear good fruits.

This is why it is so important for the regenerate to follow the simplicity of holiness in speech, and to endeavour to bridle their tongues.

Wisdom consists in avoiding contention

In the second part of the chapter, James gives another piece of advice. He exhorts us to wisdom joined with meekness, which is the remedy for the evils and jealousies of the tongue. If anyone is going to show themselves a prudent Christian, they ought to show it in innocence and meekness.

Laying aside meekness, and instead cherishing contradictory vices in the heart, such as jealousy and contention, is no matter of glorying, but rather of shame (verse 14). Indeed, it is effectively lying against the truth – falsely boasting yourself to be spiritually wise (or, Christians) but in fact showing yourself to be wicked. This is why we must make an effort to strive after the wisdom of meekness.

Wisdom does not lead to vengefulness

The wisdom of contention, envying, revenging of personal attacks, is not the wisdom which descends from heaven, from God. Instead it is earthly, sensual and devilish (verse 15). Its origins are in fallen nature and the devil. Where there is not wisdom with meekness, but envy and contention, there tumults, seditions, and every wickedness reigns (verse 16). These are more reasons to pursue the wisdom of meekness.

Wisdom makes peace and is peaceable

In verse 17, James gives eight characteristics of heavenly wisdom, the wisdom which is joined with meekness. (1) It is pure and chaste, i.e., it holds fast truth and holiness, lest it be in any way polluted. (2) It is peaceable, avoiding contentions. (3) It endeavours after equity. (4) It easily gives place to right reason. (5) It is full of mercy towards those who err and sin. (6) It is full of good fruits, omitting nothing of those things which are fitting in those who are good and pious. (7) It does not enquire suspiciously into the blemishes of others. (8) It is without hypocrisy, with which chiefly carnal wisdom is delighted. All these are reasons why we ought to endeavour after wisdom joined with meekness.

Those who endeavour after this wisdom joined with meekness, simultaneously endeavour to make peace, or to be peaceable themselves (verse 18). They are in peace. They work righteousness, or increase their holiness. They sow to themselves for time to come, and for life eternal, so that they may reap the fruit of righteousness in due time.


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Why love is one of God’s commandments

Why love is one of God’s commandments

Why love is one of God’s commandments

The love between God’s children is a stronger bond than mere niceness, it is something definite, active and fruitful. It is also something that God commands His children to show to one another, and it is pleasing to God when they do walk in obedience to this commandment. In the following updated extract, Hugh Binning outlines some of the reasons why God likes love enough to command it, based on 1 John 3:23: “this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment.”

The relationship between love, lifestyle and faith

I wish you to rightly observe this conjunction, that these are inseparably knit together, love to God and love to other people – delight to do His will – to love Him and live to Him. Do not deceive yourselves with vain words. If you do not find the doctrine of grace laying this restraint on your heart, you are yet in your sins. This is the reasoning of a believing soul: “Shall I, who am dead to sin, live any longer therein? Shall I not delight in those commandments, when Christ has delivered me from the curse of the law?” Although that person falls and comes short, yet the pressure of their heart is in that direction.

At the same time, pay attention to the order. You must first believe on the Son, and then love Him, and live to Him. You must first flee to His righteousness, and then the righteousness of the law shall be wrought in you.

Therefore do not weary yourselves to no purpose. Do not wrong your own souls by seeking to reverse this order, which was established for your joy and salvation. Know that you must first meet with satisfaction in all the commands of Christ, before your obedience to any of them can be accepted. Then, having met with that, know that the sincere endeavour of your soul, and the affectionate impulse of your heart towards your duty, is accepted.

And if you find yourself afterwards surcharged with guilt and inconsistent walking, yet you know that the way is to begin at this again, to believe in the Son. This is the round you must walk, as long as you are in the body. When you are defiled, run into the fountain, and when you are washed, strive to keep your garments clean, but if defiled again, get your hearts washed from wickedness.

How far-reaching love is

Now love is a very comprehensive command. It is the fulfilling of the whole law (Romans 8:10, Matthew 22:37–38. It is indeed the true principle and pure fountain of our obedience unto God and men. All fruits of the Spirit are moral virtues that grow out of the believer. Whether pleasing to God, or refreshing to other people, they are all virtually in the root of love. That is why the apostle names one for all, i.e., brotherly love, as the bond of perfection (Colossians 3:14).

Love is a bundle of many divine graces, a company or society of many Christian virtues combined together. They are named bowels of mercies, long suffering, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, forbearance, and forgiveness, all which are tied to the believer’s girdle by charity. So where love is, every good comes. After love comes a troop of so many sweet endowments and ornaments, and where love is lacking (as truly it is the epidemic disease of the time), many sins abound, for when iniquity abounds, “the love of many shall wax cold” (Matthew 24:12).

Oh! that is our temperament, or rather our distempered nature — our love is cold, and our passions are hot! When charity goes away, out come the wild and savage beasts of darkness, i.e., bitter envying and strife, rigid censuring and judging, unmercifulness and implacableness of spirit towards others’ failings and offences. Self-love keeps the throne, and all the rest are her attendants. For where self-love and pride is, there is contention, strife, envy, and every evil work, and all manner of confusion. They lead one another as in a chain of darkness (Proverbs 13:10; James 3:16).

Do not think that love is a mere compliment, an idle feeling. It more real than that, more vital. It has bowels of mercy, which move when others are moved, and which bring their neighbour’s misery into the inmost seat of the heart, and make your spirit a companion in their misery. It is also exercised in forbearing and forgiving. Charity is not easily provoked — therefore it can forbear, it is easily appeased — therefore it can forgive, it is not soon displeased, or hard to be pleased, “forbearing and forgiving one another in love.”

How helpful love is

Focus more then on this grace of love. See it to be the fulfilling of the law, for “the end of the commandment is charity, out of a pure heart, a good conscience, and faith unfeigned.” The end of the law is not strife and debate, nor the intricate and perplexed matters which bring endless questions and no edification.

Though people claim to be motivated by conscience and scripture, yet they violate charity, the great end of both, which mainly strives for edification in truth and love. It is a violent perversion of the commandment to love, to overstretch every point of conscience, or every point of difference, so far as to rend Christian peace and unity. All these names of war, and all these fiery contentions among us, what have they been kindled by if not the lack of charity? What James says of the tongue, I may likewise say of uncharitableness and self-love — they set on fire the course of nature, and they are set on fire of hell.

True zeal and the love of God is a fire that in its own place has a temperate heat, and does not burn or consume what is round about it. But our zeal is like fire that is mixed with some gross material, a preying, devouring, and consuming thing, zeal down in the lower region of man’s heart, where it is mixed with many gross corruptions, which are as oil and fuel to it, and gives it an extreme intemperate destroying nature.

How significant love is

But then consider that this commandment of love is our Lord and Saviour’s last testamentary injunction to His disciples (John 13:34–35). “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

It is Christ’s last will, and it is given us as a token and badge of discipleship. Every profession has its own signs and rules, every order has its own symbol, every rank its own character. Here is the differential or unique character and identification of a Christian — brotherly love. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

I remember a story of a dying father who called his sons to him on his death bed. Having sent for a bundle of arrows, he tested them one by one if they could break them, and when they had all tried this in vain, he caused them to untie the bundle, and take the arrows one by one, and so they were easily broken. By this he gave them to understand that their stability and strength would consist in unity and concord, but if love and charity were broken, they were exposed to great hazard.
I think our Lord and Saviour gives such a precept unto his disciples at his departure out of this world (“A new command I give unto you,” John 13:34) to show them that the perfection of the body, into which they were all called as members, consisted in that bond of charity.

Indeed love is not only a bond or bundle of perfection in respect of graces, but in regard of the church too. It is that bond or tie which knits all the members into one perfect body (Colossians 3:14–16). Without this bond, everything will necessarily be tears, rags, and distractions.

How pleasing love is to God

Truly believing in the Son must be gratifying to God, not only from the general nature of obedience to His will, but also because this does the most honour both to the Father and to the Son. The Father counts Himself much honoured when we honour the Son, and there is no honour the creature can be in a capacity to give Him like this, to cast all our hope and hang all our happiness on Him (John 5:23–24), to set to our seal that He is true and faithful (John 3:33), which is done by believing.

But most of all, it is pleasing in His sight because the Father’s good pleasure centres on the same point as the soul’s good pleasure, that is, on the well beloved Son, Christ. Therefore faith must needs be well pleasing to the Father, for what else is faith but the soul’s delight and satisfaction in the Son. As the Father is already well pleased with His death and sufferings, so He holds him out in the gospel, that you may be as well pleased with Him as He is. This is believing indeed, to be pleased with Him as the Father is pleased, and this pleases the Father too.

Oh that you could understand this! The gospel is not brought to you so that you would reconcile God, and bring about a change in His affection, but instead, to beseech you to be reconciled to God, to take away all hostility out of your heart. This is the business which preachers have to do, to persuade you that the Father holds Himself abundantly contented with His Son. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And to move you to be as well contented with Him as He is, he says, “Hear Him!” “I hear Him for you, now you hear Him for Me! I hear Him interceding for you, now you hear Him beseeching you!”

This serves to take away all ground of suspicions concerning our welcome and acceptance with God. It cannot but be an acceptable and pleasing thing to God, when the affection and desire of your soul falls on and gathers into your bosom with His good pleasure Christ His Son!

How harmonious love is with God’s love

And then, it is well-pleasing to God that we love one another, not only because He sees His own image and likeness in our love (for there is nothing in which the Christian more eminently resembles their Father, or more evidently appears to be a child of the Highest, than in free loving all, especially the household of faith, and forbearing and forgiving one another, and so God cannot choose but like it well), but especially because your love centres on the same objects as His love — these whom the Father so loved that He gave His only begotten Son for them, and the Son so loved them, that He gave Himself for them. If these are your delight, and you show forbearance to them as the Father and the Son has done, that concentration of affections into one point cannot but be pleasing to Him.


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How to defy discouragements

How to defy discouragements

How to defy discouragements

Much as we would like to start a new year with a sense of optimism, sometimes the outlook only seems forbidding. January blues may conspire with nagging feelings of being spiritually in a low place to make Christians discouraged. The Covenanting minister John Welwood (1649–1679) was aware of many reasons for pessimism, yet in the following updated letter he wrote of ways to turn every possible discouragement into a reason to take comfort.

8 July 1675

Dear sister,

We have to live by faith

If I had things according to my own wishes, I would have the light of the Lord’s countenance shining over on me, and the upper hand over all my enemies. But when I was restless in this way and unsatisfied, I was taught to live by faith – a very profitable thing for us, and pleasing to God, but we are so backward to it, because we do not want to believe until we can see.

Yet the Lord is much displeased when we doubt His love, especially since we have so many evidences of it, since He has often manifested Himself to us, and worked in our souls. Unless He is actually smiling, we will not believe that He loves us! If He dandled us in His lap for twenty years, and then hide Himself from us, we would instantly be suspicious whether He had ever loved us at all. But it is much more pleasing to Him, and profitable and comforting to ourselves, to venture to believe that He does love us. He does not play tricks on His people. We may build on His Word and His work in our souls, for Christ is no dissembler.

I know nothing that should discourage a Christian. There is not one discouragement in all the Word of God, but many are His encouragements. But through our folly and unbelief we lose the comfort of them.

We don’t need to be discouraged by guilt

Should guilt discourage us? God “hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God through him.” Christ says to the Father, “If the Christian owes thee anything, put that on my account.”

Or by God’s wrath

Should wrath discourage us? “He hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us,” and, “There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.”

Or by our ignorance

Should our darkness and ignorance discourage us? He is continually with us, and leads us like a flock. Our safety lies not in our wisdom and leading, but His. Even if we are foolish, or pilot is skilful and careful.

Or by our sinfulness

Should a body of sin and death discourage us? We certainly have good reason to cry, “O wretched ones that we are!” It deadens and deceives us, and holds us back from duty. Yet His grace is sufficient for us. Not grace within us, but grace outside us is where our safety lies. He is the one that keeps us from temptations and delivers us from evil.

Or by our small progress

Should our little growth in grace and in the knowledge of Christ discourage us? Indeed it is our great complaint, “Our leanness, our leanness!” It’s fitting that folk grow downwards in low thoughts of themselves, for He dwells with the humble. The more folk have of grace, the more they see of corruption, and the more they have of faith, the more they see of unbelief.

But perhaps we make an idol of grace, and prize it more than its author, the Lord Jesus. He may well say to us, “Am I not worth more to you than never so much grace?” The God of all grace is ours – the fountain is ours – we are complete in Him, and He is fit to hold the purse-strings for us. It is better that He should hold our treasure than we ourselves. We would want to have as much as would serve us for all our journey right now. This is always the aim of our hearts. We want to have a stock of grace inside us, so that we would not need to rely on Christ, or be beholden to Him, for continual supply. We think it a poor life to live like beggars, but that’s because we think that what’s in our hand is surer, and will more easily be effective, than what is in Christ’s hand! But Adam had his stock in his own hand, and see how quickly he went bankrupt.

If we had never so much grace, we would ruin ourselves if Christ’s grace were not daily and moment-by-moment keeping us. It is not our grace and worthiness that commends us to God, but the righteousness of Christ. We are obliged to God for the grace we get, not He to us. If He chooses to keep us with little in hand, we ought to be content, and not fall out with Him because He will not fill our purses with money – after all, we have access to the treasure house!

Or by a sense of distance from the Lord

Does a sense of desertion discourage us? Sometimes there are many fogs and clouds in the air, but it is all bright above. Though to our senses His love changes, yet with Him there is no variableness, nor shadow of turning. He loves us just as much when He hides His face as when He smiles, and He has many wise and holy purposes in all the afflictions we meet with. They are to ballast us. Also they purge out our sins and make us partakers of His holiness. They keep us waking and watching.

Our Lord will not leave us nor forsake us. We may be sure of victory. And what an inheritance we are predestined to! It sits all wrong to be unthankful and discontent when the Lord has showed us that mercy, to teach and instruct us that we should not walk in the way of the world. He could have left us to run to the same excess of riot with them, to forget God and our own soul altogether. Is not God our Father? Is not Christ our husband? Is not the Spirit our constant companion? Are not angels our attendants? Are not the devil, the wicked, sin, death, and hell all under our feet? Is not the creation all working together for our good? And heaven our home?

Satan and our folly combine together to make us pore over the things that will sadden us and keep us from seeing our privileges. Here is our duty: to rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, and continue instant in prayer.


Now as for your situation, cast all your care upon him, for He careth for you. To trust Him honours Him greatly. Acknowledge Him in all your ways, and do nothing to offend Him. He is a shield to them that trust in Him. Remember also that afflictions are the gateway to heaven. Consider Him that endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself, lest ye be weary and faint in your mind.


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Six things to pray for in the new year

Six things to pray for in the new year

Six things to pray for in the new year

As a new year opens, what will the future hold? What are we justified to hope for, and what is realistic to work towards? In the prayer of Moses the man of God, we get an insight into what a bright and desirable prospect would look like for a believer and the church collectively, and what we can legitimately throw our energies into striving for with the Lord’s help and blessing. Time seems to be passing so quickly and there are so many things that cause grief even at times when we are conditioned to take an optimistic view. In this light David Dickson comments on the six things Moses prays for in Psalm 90 in the following updated extract.

1. Wisdom for eternity

In the concluding part of Psalm 90, Moses prays for six things in response to the short and sorrowful life of the Lord’s people. The first petition is for wisdom to provide in time for the remedy of sin and everlasting misery, before this short and uncertain life ends. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (verse 12).

Although our life is both short and uncertain as to how soon it may end, yet our tendency is to look on its indefiniteness as if this meant its duration will be infinite and our years innumerable. When Moses prays, “Teach us to number our days,” it implies some acknowledgement of this.

It is easy for us to calculate how many of our days are already past, and easy to consider how few there are to come by the course of nature (or God’s ordinary providence), yet this lesson must be taught by God before we can make any profitable use of it. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”

The only remedy for sin, and the wrath of God, and the misery of mortal humans for sin, is the wisdom which is taught by God in the Scripture, i.e., that sinners should seek reconciliation with God through the sacrifice and obedience of Christ, and keep friendship with God by the power of His spirit.

The right use of the things we see manifested in our lives of sin and wrath and judgments is to deal with God by prayer, not only that He would inform us of our danger and duty, not only that He would reveal to our minds the mystery of grace and reconciliation, but also that He would effectually move our will, heart and affections by faith which worketh by love, so that we would make application of the remedy for ourselves. “So that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

2. Comfort from God

The second petition is that God would not only remove the evidences of His displeasure against His people, but that He would also now at length show Himself to be reconciled by changing His dealings with them in a course of comfort. “Return (O Lord), how long? And let it repent thee concerning thy servants” (verse 13).

Although the Lord does not go away from His people (He always remains with the in one or another gracious working) yet in terms of His comforting presence He may turn away until His people request Him to return.

When the Lord does withdraw His comforting presence from His people, however short a time it may be, it sems a long time to us in this short life. “Return, O Lord, how long?”

Although the Lord does not change His affections or repent like a man, yet He can change His dealings, like a father who commiserates his child’s affliction, and tries to cherish and comfort him after disciplining him.

“Let it repent thee concerning thy servants.” Although we are very slight servants, and sorely smitten for our disobedience, yet we should not cast away our calling, nor act as if our relationship with God has been dissolved. Instead we should cling to Him in any way we can. Here they still call themselves His servants.

3. Spiritual refreshment

The third petition is for some spiritual comfort and refreshment to their souls, which would keep them in good heart and in hope of eternal salvation. “O satisfy us early with thy mercy, that we may rejoice and be glad in our days” (verse 14).

When a soul is conscious of God’s wrath, he or she has as great a hunger for spiritual comfort as a famished man has for food. “O satisfy us!” The renewed confirmation of God’s mercy, pardoning sin and giving us a clear sight of our reconciliation, is able to comfort us in our greatest sorrow. “O satisfy us with thy mercy!”

As physical hunger cannot tolerate delay, so neither can a sense of God’s wrath, or the desire for favourable acceptance long endure the absence of consolation. After a night of trouble they earnestly expect a morning of comfort. “Satisfy us early!”

A poor hungry soul, lying under a sense of wrath, knows it will be happy for ever if only it can find again what it felt before – one sweet fill of God’s mercy made known to it. “Then we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”

However great our trouble, and however long it lasts, the renewed sense of God’s reconciliation to us seasons and sweetens all our trouble, recompenses all our losses, and makes our situation in this short and miserable life very comfortable. “Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil” (verse 15).

4. God’s work to grow

The fourth petition is that God would continue the work of building and enlarging His own church, and of glorifying Himself in their sight, and in the sight of their posterity from generation to generation. “Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children” (verse 16).

The building, purging, enlarging and propagating of the church, and the manifesting of God’s care for it, is the Lord’s own proper work. He will not give it up. Although He may hide His activity for a time, yet He is still at work, and His people should pray for and may expect the manifestation of it.

As it is the glory of the Lord to manifest His grace and mercy to His people, or the visible church, so correspondingly it is the desire of the Lord’s people to have Him glorified, no less than to have themselves preserved or comforted.

The church in every age should have a care that their posterity would participate in the same merciful work of God which they have themselves experienced, and that their children would profit by how their predecessors were corrected.

5. The beauty of the Lord

The fifth petition is that God would beautify His people. He beautifies them with His holy ordinances, with order and unity and peace, with a holy lifestyle, and with the evidences that He is dwelling among them as His own covenanted people, proper subjects of His kingdom, and those who belong to His own family.

God is the glory of His people – their beauty and ornamentation is in Him. This is how they are made honourable in the sight of all nations, as the bride is made beautiful by her clothing and ornaments. This is how His people should think of Him, and value Him, and love Him. They should remember Him and seek their beauty in Him.

The time when the beauty of the Lord is on His people, and seen to be on them, is when they are behaving like His covenanted people – when they are walking in faith and obedience before Him, and is showing Himself to be their covenanted God, protecting and blessing them.

6. A blessing on what we do for God

The sixth petition is that God would bless the endeavours of His people for promoting God’s work among them, and for transmitting His ordinances and truth to their posterity. “Establish thou the work of our hands” (verse 17).

If we pray for the Lord’s work to progress in His church, we must resolve not to be idle, but to commit ourselves to endeavour, in our places and callings, according to our ability, to promote His work, just as His servants and instruments should be doing.

When we do go about building the Lord’s church and promoting Christianity, we must acknowledge that the success of our labours depends only on God, who must be entreated for the blessing.

Our work is so mixed and defiled with imperfections and sins that God would only be just if He withdrew Himself from it. We must therefore all the more earnestly deal with Him to keep His own hand on His work, and keep our hands in it.


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