How church discipline can lead to better spiritual health

How church discipline can lead to better spiritual health

How church discipline can lead to better spiritual health

Church discipline is often seen as distasteful for those on both the giving and receiving end. Few of us are used to seeing church discipline done well; there are too many examples of unfairness, harshness, hypocrisy and poor explanations. In the worst cases discipline can be used merely as a weapon to punish those who do not appear to give unconditional support to the leaders or agree with them on everything. But the reason why Christ gifted discipline to His church was for the purpose of edifying people, not damaging them. Like medicine, the dosage should be measured out for the specific individual in question, and although it may be temporarily unpleasant to take or administer, it should lead to better health both for the member and the body overall. James Durham wrestled seriously with the question of how church discipline can be done edifyingly. In the following extract from a new edition of his work, Durham sets out the goals of church discipline and explains how each case needs to be treated on its own merits. Rather than being heavy-handed, the church leadership should act with sensitivity, and rather than being punitive, discipline should be healing and restorative.

The gift of governing (if we can call it that) reveals itself especially in the right managing of discipline in reference to the various different temperaments and characters which church leaders have to do with. For as in physical diseases the same cure is not appropriate for the same disease in all constitutions and times, and as ministers in their preaching are to apply the same things in different ways for different audiences, so this cure of discipline is not to be applied equally to all persons, not even to those who are have created the same stumbling block. For what would scarcely humble one may crush another, and what might edify one might be a cause for stumbling to someone else who has a different temperament and personality.

Therefore, we suppose there is no peremptory determining of rules for cases here. Rather, how you proceed in the application of rules is necessarily to be left to the prudence and conscientiousness of ministers and elders according to the particular, real-life case they are dealing with, in all the details of its actual circumstances. Yet we may lay down some general principles.

The Goals of Church Discipline

All disciplinary procedures which the church follows with people who have caused stumbling must be done with respect to the ends and goals for which Christ appointed church discipline and so as to achieve these selfsame goals. This, I suppose, cannot be denied, for the means must be suited to its end.

Now the ends or goals of the censures administered in church discipline are:

1. To vindicate the honor of Jesus Christ, as this is what suffers when a member of Christ’s church goes astray.

2. To preserve the authority of Christ’s ordinances and to chasten disobedience to Christ’s authority. This is why church discipline is called the punishment that was inflicted (2 Cor. 2:6), and it is said to revenge all disobedience (2 Cor. 10:6), because it is appointed as a kind of ecclesiastical whip to maintain Christ’s authority in His house and so to identify those who are unruly in it (2 Thess. 3:6–14).

3. For the good of the person who is being disciplined. As it says in 1 Corinthians 5:5, church discipline is intended for the destruction of the flesh so that the spirit may be saved. By this discipline, admonitions, reproofs, and indeed threatenings may have the more weight to bring the person to humility and to stir them up and constrain them at least to a more orderly walk in the church, as the apostle says in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14.

4. For the good of the church. Church discipline should prevent the leaven of profanity from spreading, and it should teach others to fear. This reason is given in 1 Corinthians 5:6, 7, and so on, and 1 Timothy 5:20.

When we speak of the end or goal of investigation and censure in church courts, we are referring to all these but especially to the more public and general ends, yet without neglecting the edification of the individual undergoing church discipline. Therefore, in disciplinary procedures, particular and special respect should be had to the manner which will most successfully achieve these ends—that is, whether to proceed by meekness or rigidity, by forbearing or intervening.

A One-Size-Fits-All Approach Is Unlikely to Be Edifying

Following on from this, we say that the same stumbling blocks (as far as the matter is concerned) are not to be pursued with church discipline equally at all times, nor in all persons, nor, it may be, in all places in the same manner. And the reason for this is clear, because, according to circumstances, a manner of acting which is edifying at one time and in one case, may be destructive in another and so is not to be followed, because the power which God has given is for edification and never for destruction (2 Cor. 13:10).

Accordingly, we see Paul in some cases censuring corrupt men, such as Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:20). In other cases, he threatens and yet spares them from censure, although the scandal in itself deserved censure, as when he says, “I would they were even cut off which trouble you” (Gal. 5:12) and yet does not cut them off, because he found that that was what was required for the church’s edification in this case. So also he had “a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled” (2 Cor. 10:6), which yet he thought not appropriate for the time to do in case it irritated them to more disobedience and bred some greater division or schism or made the authority of the ordinances less weighty, and so would have spoiled the goal he was aiming at, which was in all things (including this forbearing) their edification. As he expresses it, “We do all things [and so this also], dearly beloved, for your edifying” (2 Cor. 12:19).

When I speak of edifying someone, I do not mean pleasing them (for it is often destructive to them, and to others also, to please them). Rather, I mean acting in a way that is most likely to benefit them spiritually and build them up, even if temporarily or counterproductively they find it displeasing. We need to weigh up in Christian prudence, considering the time and place we live in, the nature of the person we have to do with, and the nature of those also among whom we live, whether it is more fit to follow this way with such a person, at such a time, or another way. And accordingly, as it seems probable that this way will honor God most, more fully vindicate His ordinances, more readily gain the person from sin to holiness (or at least to a regular walk), and most edify others, so accordingly ought church courts to take the way that leads most probably to that end. And therefore it ought not always to be accounted unfairness or bias or partiality when such difference in church procedure is observed.

Avoiding Misinterpretation When Church Courts Use Different Methods in Different Cases

Yet although it may well be a desire for edification rather than an unfair lack of impartiality when church courts use different procedures with different persons who have apparently created the same stumbling block, certain things must by all means be guarded against.

First, nothing must be done with respect to persons or appear to be done with respect to persons. That is, church courts must never for outward, civil, or natural reasons be more gentle to one than to another. Nothing brings church authority into greater disrepute, and nothing causes people more stumbling, than this kind of discrimination.

Second, any difference of proceeding must be seen to be in the manner and circumstances of proceeding rather than in dispensing with what seems to be material in reference to the stumbling blocks. Differences in procedures should be followed only for such forms of stumbling where there is no settled rule and where ministers and elders have more latitude. For instance, some offenses, such as fornication or something similar, are of such a public nature that usually they are followed with a public reproof. This public reproof cannot be conveniently omitted in any ordinary conceivable case. Yet in the manner of calling the person to appear before the church court and dealing with the person, or the manner of expressing or timing the reproof, there may be flexibility to allow for sensitive handling. But to omit it altogether would run the risk of neglecting the ordinance of public reproof, which would harm the edification of the church more than it would advantage any particular person. For another example, other forms of stumbling are more occasional, such as speaking reproachful words about someone or about a church officer. There is no definite law or practice in reference to such offenses. Therefore, in such cases there is more liberty to be flexible about which way of proceeding may be most convincing to the person involved.

Third, in attempting to analyze what may be most edifying, we are not to look to one end alone (i.e., the particular person’s good only or the public good only, etc.), but we are to put it all together and to see how jointly all these goals may be best attained.

Ministers and Elders Carrying Out Church Discipline Should Aim for Restoration

From the goals of church discipline it will be apparent that ministers and elders ought to carry out church discipline with such tenderness, love, and sympathy that they will not only have a testimony in their own consciences that they are acting in the best spirit but also that those who have offended, and others who observe what happens, will also be convinced of this. For if this is not the case, what can their censure gain? And if it is needful for a minister in preaching to strive to be tenderhearted, loving, and sympathetic, it is in some respects even more necessary in church discipline because ordinarily people (because of their corruption) are more ready to mistake people’s intentions in discipline.

And we conceive that in this a church court’s procedure ought to be discernibly different from a civil court in that they are not only out of justice censuring the offending party with an eye to the wider public (for whose good in some cases even the most penitent member must be cut off and cannot be reprieved) but they are also endeavoring to make sure that the church is free from stumbling blocks so that in this way the offending member may with all tenderness be restored and cured. And in experience we see that often church censures have weight just in proportion as they are perceived to proceed from love.

This material has been extracted from The Scandal of Undisciplined Disciples, published by Reformation Heritage Books (2022).


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How redemption dignifies diligence

How redemption dignifies diligence

How redemption dignifies diligence

A recent worldwide study of attitudes to work shows that UK citizens are least likely to say that work is important in their life, and among the least likely to say that work should always come first, even if it means less leisure time. Compared with other nations, the UK is also relatively less likely to agree that work is a duty towards society. While the Bible condemns grasping ambition and earthly-mindedness, it also commends diligence, productivity, and generosity. This is an application of the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.” In his commentary on Ephesians, James Fergusson looks at how Paul explores the transformation that takes place in every area of life when someone comes to know Christ savingly, including a radically changed attitude to work. In the following updated extract, Fergusson identifies the eighth commandment as informing Paul’s exhortation in 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.”

Knowing Christ transforms everything

The knowledge which the Ephesians had of Christ was inconsistent with a licentious life. “Ye have not so learned Christ” (Eph. 4:20) It is not every sort of learning Christ, or knowledge that may be had of Christ, which excludes profaneness.

We rightly and savingly learn truth, when the knowledge of truth attained by our learning is such as Christ’s knowledge was, i.e., not merely theoretical and speculative, but practical and operative.

Three things are required from, and effectually produced in, the person who learns and knows Christ in this effectual way.

The first is a daily striving to “put off” (or “mortify”) “the old man” (v.22). This doesn’t mean the substance of our soul and body, or even the natural and essential faculties of the soul, but the natural and inbred corruption which has infected and polluted all these, and which we give way to in its “deceitful lusts.” The right order to go about the duties of sanctification is to begin with mortification in the first place, and then proceed to the duties of a new life, for the plants of righteousness do not thrive in an unhumbled, proud, impenitent heart.

The second thing is a serious endeavour to have your mind and understanding more and more renewed, or made new, by getting a new quality of divine and supernatural light implanted in it (v.23). It is not sufficient that we cease to do evil, and labour to mortify our inbred corruption, but we must also learn to do well, and endeavour to have the whole man adorned with the various graces of God’s Spirit, making conscience of all the positive duties of a holy life.

The third thing is the daily task of putting on the new man (v.24), that is, being more and more endued and adorned with new and spiritual qualities, by which not only is our mind renewed, but also our will, affections and actions.

Christians observe each of the ten commandments

The apostle then presses on them the exercise of some particular virtues. These belong to all Christians of whatsoever rank or station equally, and they are all enjoined in the second table of the law. He exhorts them, first, to lay aside and mortify the sin of lying (v.25), forbidden in the ninth commandment (where someone speaks what they know or conceive to be untruth, with an intention and purpose to deceive), and to “speak the truth, every man with his neighbour,” that is, to speak as they think, and to think of what they speak as it really is, so that our speech would conform both to the thing itself, and to our conceptions of the thing.

He exhorts them, next, to restrain and moderate their anger (v.26–27), for anger is forbidden in the sixth commandment. Anger is a natural affection, planted in our first parents at the first creation, and it was indeed also found in Christ Himself, who was without sin. So anger is not in itself a sin, nor always sinful. Instead, it is in its own nature indifferent, and becomes either good or evil according to the grounds, causes, objects and ends of it.

Christians keep the eighth commandment

In verse 28, the apostle exhorts either those who, when they were unconverted, acted contrary to the eighth commandment, stealing their neighbour’s goods, or those who were yet, after professing faith in Jesus Christ, guilty of that sin in some degrees and respects. He exhorts them to “steal no more.”

Christ redeems us from stealing and deceitfulness

The sin of stealing includes all the fraudulent and deceitful ways in which we may wrong our neighbour, without his knowledge, in his goods or outward estate, whether by taking what belongs to him (John 20:19) or withholding from him what is his (James 5:4), or indeed by partaking with those who do so (Psalm 50:18).

The apostle exhorts them also to the opposite duty, as a remedy of this evil. They should instead labour diligently – even to weariness (as the word means) – in any good and honest calling, supposing it is only in some labouring work or manual trade.

This remedy is all the more recommended because of the advantage which follows from it, i.e., that by doing so, and through God’s blessing on their diligence, they will not only acquire to themselves sufficient worldly goods that they will be kept from any necessity of stealing, but they will also be able to use some of what they have to meet the needs of others.

Jesus Christ does not reject the vilest sinner, not even thieves, or worse, for anything they have been. Yet they must amend their life subsequently. Nevertheless, some, after they have made a profession as Christians, continue to live in the practice of base and shameful sins, which hardly can be called the marks of God’s children. It is clear that some of the Ephesians were guilty of this sin before an offer of mercy was made to them in the gospel, and indeed that some were yet living in it.

In God’s good and wise way of ordering things, he has established property rights and differences in the ownership of goods and possessions. He has not left all things to be communal, as if everyone has an equal right to everything. Otherwise there could not be such a sin as stealing, nor would it be necessary to forbid theft. This ordering is intended to avoid confusion, strife, contention, and other problems. It also serves as an opportunity for some to show charity, and others to show patience.

Christ wants His people to labour in an honest way

Lack of a job, or idleness in it, brings about poverty and want, with the result that people are liable to temptations to steal, and to take other sinful courses of action, to keep themselves from dire straits. It is therefore the Lord’s will that everyone sets themselves to labour diligently in some lawful calling and employment. This is a remedy, not only against the evil of stealing, but several others also, which flow from idleness, and too much ease (2 Thess. 3:12; Psalm 73:5).

It is not absolutely necessary, nor yet convenient, or possible, for every individual to find work in some manual calling, or trade, and to “labour with his hands.” Not everyone is able to go about such a calling, and there are other lawful callings which require labour with the mind, comparable to those which require labour with the hands (1 Tim. 5:17). Yet there is no calling so lowly (providing it is honest), to which a person should not betake himself (whatever he be for birth, and nobility of descent) and spend his strength in it, even to weariness, rather than to steal, or use any sinful tactic to save himself from straits. “Let him steal no more, but rather let him labour, working with his hands.”

Even those things that were imposed on fallen mankind for a curse and punishment of sin, have their nature changed to believers, and are turned into a blessing and an effectual remedy against sin. In Genesis 3:19 it is imposed on Adam as a part of the curse, that he was “in the sweat of his face to eat his bread.” But here working is enjoined and commended by the apostle to believers, as an effectual remedy against the evil of stealing.

No necessity or want whatsoever can warrant someone to employ himself in any calling which is not lawful and honest, or which tends only to gratify the lusts of pride, vanity, prodigality and uncleanness. Our calling ought to be such as we may serve God in it with a good conscience (Colossians 3:23), and promote the good of either the church, family, or society (Galatians 5:13). To prevent stealing, the apostle restricts them in their choice only to good and lawful callings, “… working … the thing which is good.”

Christ blesses diligence enough for us to share our success with others

The Lord’s ordinary way is to bless conscientious diligence in a lawful calling with such a measure of success as the person may have whereby to sustain himself and to be helpful unto others. Exceptions are when the Lord see it otherwise fitting, to test and exercise that person’s faith, patience and other graces (2 Corinthians 8:2). The goal of labouring in a lawful calling proposed here (“that he may have to give to him that needeth”) is for the most part attained, otherwise it would have been no encouragement.

It is the duty of all whom God has blessed with any measure of worldly substance, to bestow some part of it for the help of others. So in the exercise of our callings, if we would expect the Lord’s blessing on it, we ought to intend not only the enriching of ourselves and ours, but also the means to do good to others.

Everyone is under obligation to give their might for the help of the indigent – not only the rich, but even the poor labourer, who can hardly get his livelihood from the work of his hands. We ought to give alms out of what is our own lawfully purchased, and not out of the gain of oppression, or hire of an harlot (Deuteronomy 23:18).

The Lord sees it fitting always to keep some among his people, poor and indigent, even objects of charity. This contributes to the exercise of their faith and patience, and to testing the charity and compassion of others (Deuteronomy 15:11). So the only ones who are to be relieved by our charity are needy, and indigent, and cannot relieve themselves, but not those who, being able to work in a lawful calling, simply choose instead a life of ease and idleness, and live on the charity of others. We are to give “to him that needeth.”

This extract from James Fergusson’s commentary on Ephesians dovetails with what he also discusses in his commentary on 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (“… that if any would not work, neither should he eat …”).



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What to do when the Lord seems absent

What to do when the Lord seems absent

What to do when the Lord seems absent

Sometimes it can seem that the Lord is ignoring His people, whether individually or as a church. Their prayers go unanswered and the Bible does not seem to speak powerfully into their situation. We know of course that the Lord never forsakes His people completely, yet these periods of apparent silence and withdrawal on His part are troubling and wearying for His beleaguered people. William Guthrie confronts this situation in a sermon on Isaiah 8, updated and excerpted below. Recognising frankly how we do not deserve the Lord to keep smiling on us, Guthrie nevertheless insists that the Lord remains committed to His people and actively concerned for their interests. The response Guthrie recommends can be taken both by individual Christians and, just as importantly, collectively as congregations and churches.

Sometimes the Lord seems to hide His face

In Isaiah 8:17–18 there is both the sad situation of the church of God (“He hideth His face from the house of Israel”) and also the duty of the people of God (“Wait upon the Lord that hideth His face”).

Saying that the Lord is “hiding His face” is a way of showing how the Lord seems to stand aloof from noticing the situation of His people. “Why standest thou afar off, O Lord? Why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1).

It also includes how He refrains His Spirit from the ordinances, or withholds His influences from them, so that the Word of the Lord does not have that kindly effect and operative power on the heart as it previously had. Instead your hearts are hardened from His fear.

He also refrains the spirit of prayer. “There is none that calleth upon thy name; that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee” (Isaiah 64:7). We do not have a heart to pray.

The Lord also keeps His mind hidden from His people. He doing strange things, but His people do not understand what He is doing. I confess that when the Lord conceals His mind in the public ordinances, it is the saddest of all these ways of the Lord hiding His face from His people.

How we should respond when the Lord hides His face

In a situation when the Lord hides His face from His people, they should search and try their ways, and turn unto the Lord. This is dismissed as a commonplace truth, yet it is a good old truth. Many look for vain things to be done as their duty, but what we must do is to acknowledge our sins, and the evil of our own ways.

The Lord’s people should also justify Him in all that He does, and judge themselves to be guilty. Lay aside your ornaments, then, and lie in the dust. It is not a time now to dress up in a gaudy manner, but to sit in sackcloth and be humble before Him. Many are ready to say, “The king, the nobles, and ministers are to blame for all of what is now happening in the land.” But nobody says, “What have I done?” However, every one of us must look at what we have individually done, and justify the Lord, and acknowledge that He has done nothing contrary to the covenant.

The Lord’s people also have the duty of strengthening what remains. Is there anything left? Go, I beg you, and strengthen that. Is there nothing left but words? Then make use of these. “Take with you words, and return unto the Lord,” and speak all the more often to one another. Is prayer all that is left? Then ply it well. Can you pray better with others than by yourself alone? Then make good use of social prayer. Whatever duty you are most successful in, make it your care to go about that duty. Whatever remains, you should strengthen that.

Then, when the Lord’s people are doing these three things, their duty is to wait on the Lord and expect good from Him, both for themselves and for the church. “Let Israel wait upon the Lord, from this time forth, and for ever. Wait upon the Lord, and be of good courage; and He shall strengthen thine heart; wait, I say, upon the Lord.”

Even when the Lord is hiding, He is still there

Even when God is hiding Himself, yet He is still indoors, so to speak. Our text calls him, “the Lord that dwelleth in Mount Zion.” That is where He has His abode—in His church.

So we should remember that the Lord does not dwell in His church as if He is unaffected with her condition, whether good or evil. No; He is mindful of her concerns, and she is still “the apple of His eye.”

Remember too that as long as God dwells amongst His people, He always has some work to work amongst them. He is not there as an indifferent spectator.

Also remember that although He is in the church, yet He is not confined to any particular church in the world. Since the true ordinances of God are yet amongst us, we are then a people and a part of the church of God. And seeing God is in the church, He is not far off if we will seek Him. Seek Him therefore seriously, for He is most willing to be found by you.

When we lose self-confidence, we should keep confidence in God

When we are shaken out of all self-confidence, it is our duty then to wait on God.

“Wait on the Lord” is often commanded in Scripture. And a promise is annexed to waiting: “Those that wait upon the Lord shall never be ashamed.”

To wait on the Lord is the most quiescent and composed posture one can possibly be in. In an evil time, “it is good to hope, and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord.”

And waiting on God always has a joyful outcome. “Lo! this is our God, we have waited for him, we will rejoice in him.”

Our focus should remain on the Lord

In order to wait on the Lord, we must not be afraid of anyone or anything else apart from the Lord. We must focus on the promise held out to those who make Him their fear, “He shall be for a sanctuary unto them.”

Waiting then involves our hearts fixing on God, and none else. “My soul, wait thou only upon God: for my expectation is from Him.” Similarly, “Help us, Lord, for vain is the help of man.”

Also, let us have our expectation more on God Himself than on any created means. God can give you means, but if you do not get God Himself, then, no matter what you get, the means may turn into a plague, and not for your good. Plead with Him, therefore, and be positive with Him, and say, “Go with us, Lord, or else carry us not up hence.” Plead more for God’s presence than any other means under heaven.

Waiting also means submitting to the seasons of deliverance from your trouble, and how it and all your concerns are ordered, while you are under the trial.

It also means resolving to continue in the duty of waiting until He shows you what else you should do. Waiting on God is still your duty while you are in the dark, and can do nothing else for relief.


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Seven ways to identify superstition

Seven ways to identify superstition

Seven ways to identify superstition

It is likely that the word “superstition” conjures up the idea of some pagan ritual or elaborate ceremony in ancient religions such as Hinduism. A more trivial form of superstition which pervades society, but is not really taken seriously by Christians, is the concept of luck. For those who believe in the working of a divine providence, such practices as crossing our fingers, touching wood, or using some star sign to comfort us, however seriously used by others, are really just foolish or even childish superstitions.

The Reformation brought the charge of superstition much closer to home. Not only were the practices of the Roman Catholic church removed as superstitious, but anything that didn’t come with divine authority from scripture was removed from the worship of the church. Indeed, religious ceremonies or practices of any kind were declared unlawful when devoid of a biblical mandate. This sweeping principle removed more than the obvious superstitions of paganism – it declared to be unlawful what was not commanded in every aspect of religious life, as well as in worship.

But how can we tell if our practices are superstitious? George Gillespie ministered in a time when only a few apparently innocuous religious ceremonies were imposed on the Scottish church. These had been observed in England since the Reformation and the Scottish Reformers had removed them. The simple principle had been applied, that they did not have authority for them in the Bible. While still in his twenties, and before ordination, Gillespie wrote an extensive treatment of this issue. Published anonymously, the work became pivotal to the Second Reformation and the Westminster Standards. He argued that the imposed ceremonies were neither necessary, expedient, lawful or indifferent. In the following updated extract, Gillespie sets down seven ways in which any activity or practice in worship is superstitious.

When it is excessive

The basic way in which the vice of superstition is opposite to religion is that superstition goes to excess. The great theologian Zanchi said, “If you add something to what which Christ established, or if you follow something added by others, [e.g.,] if you add other sacraments …, or other sacrifices … or if you add rites to the ceremonies of some sacrament, all those are rightly called by the name ‘superstition’.” Superstition is done “beyond what is established” [by Christ]. It is something used in God’s worship on no basis other than human appointment.

When it is misdirected

Superstition gives worship either to whom it does not owe it, or not in the way in which it owes it. A ceremony is superstitious, even if it gives worship to God, when it is done inordinately, or when the worship is performed otherwise than it should be. For example, God is worshipped by baptism, but there is a problem with baptisms administered in private, because (as pointed out in the Leiden Synopsis) baptism is a supplement to public ministry, not to private exhortation. Similarly, the Church Fathers of the fourth century regarded the private administration of the Lord’s Supper as something “inordinate” in the same sense.

When it is not edifying

Some things have no necessary or profitable use in the church, and cannot be used without being superstitious. It was according to this rubric that the Waldenses and Albigenses taught against the exorcisms, breathings, crossings, salt, spittle, unction, chrism, etc., used in baptism. As these were neither necessary nor requisite in the administration of baptism, they occasioned error and superstition, rather than edification to salvation.

When it displaces necessary duties

A ceremony is superstitious when it is not only used in God’s worship unnecessarily and unprofitably, but in fact it hinders other necessary duties. People are superstitious when they set about to serve the true God, yet they do so with needless services, while they defraud Him of duties that are actually necessary. By “necessary duties” I mean things like worshipping God in a spiritual and lively manner, pressing the power of godliness on people’s consciences, maintaining faithful and well qualified ministers in the church, showing mercy and meekness, not offending the weak, having all things in God’s worship ordered according to the Word and not according to the will of man, not exercising lordship over the consciences of those whom Christ has made free, and abolishing past and present idolatry. If these and other necessary duties are shut outdoors by needless ceremonies, these ceremonies are superstitious.

When it promotes external activities above spiritual activities

Something is superstitious if it gives God a merely external service and a grace-defacing worship. God does not care for this. It makes fleshly observations step into the place of God’s spiritual worship. Augustine used the word, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), against superstitious persons, who devoted their primary concern to externals. Christian worship ought to be “in spirit.” Indeed, the kingdom of God comes not with splendour and worldly ostentation. Carnal worship, therefore, is superfluous in religion, and by consequence superstitious.

When it is regarded as holy itself

When people associate holiness and necessity with a ceremony, that makes the ceremony superstitious.

Holiness. For example, some say the festival days are “clothed with outward robes of holiness,” and “more holy than other days.” Some call the cross “a holy sign.” Of course, they claim that these things are not holy in themselves, by only per aliud (by virtue of something else) (such as their association with something holy). But read on in their writings and they claim that these things are worship in themselves! In practice they offer this or that ceremony as worship to God. So we see that superstition is not only offering to God in worship something which He has not commanded, but also using for help in God’s worship anything as if it was sacred or holy when He Himself has not ordained it.

Necessity. Some will say that observing this or that ceremony is necessary for God’s glory, or promoting piety, or for orderliness, peace, charity, and so on. Yet if something is observed for the sake of orderliness and policy, that must mean that it can be changed — yet the argument from necessity is used as a reason why it cannot be changed! Or sometimes they say it is necessary because the church leadership (or other influential people) have decided it should be done. Yet appealing to such human authority as the sole reason for doing something means it is superstitious.

When there is no distinction between appointment and consecration

We have to distinguish three things.

One is appointment, when you designate something for a certain use, yet reserving the right to put it to a different use as and when you wish. In this way the church appoints seasons and times for preaching on weekdays, yet reserving the right to use those times for other things when she sees fit.

Distinguish this from dedication, when you devote a thing to some use (whether religious or secular), and waive all right to reclaim it subsequently. For example, you might dedicate a sum of money to build a hospital, or a church, and then you cannot later claim your rights to that money.

Distinguish both these from consecration (also called sanctification), when you set something apart for a holy and religious use, so that it cannot afterwards be put to any other use.

It is right and proper for the church to set time apart for ordinary and weekly preaching when they do this by “appointment”. The church is not then saying that 7pm on a Tuesday is a holy time, only that we are temporarily using that time for a holy use. Note too that we do not say that the worship is appointed because it’s appropriate for that time — only that the time is appointed as convenient for the worship.

Contrast this with “holy days” such as Christmas and Easter. They are regarded as holy both by “dedication” and by “consecration”. But if certain times (or places, or things) can be made holy by the church’s dedication or consecration, then it would follow that other things, places, or times are more profane, and less suitable for divine worship, even if they are used for the same holy activities. Yet, as someone has said, to us Christians, no land is strange, no ground is unholy, and every faithful company (indeed, every faithful body) is a temple to serve God in. For Christians, it is superstitious to bind religion to particular places (or things, or times). If I am standing in a churchyard when it rains, may I not go into the church to keep dry? A church building, then, may serve for a secular use in the same way as it serves for a holy use. It’s the same with preaching on weekdays — the time may rightly be used for something other than divine worship [something that cannot be said of the Lord’s Day].

Certain things are not in reality observed as circumstances of worship, for order and policy. Rather, as the chief parts of God’s worship are placed in them, they are kept and celebrated superstitiously, as if they have some sacred meaning, or are holier in themselves than other things. What happens in practice is that the worship which is performed around them is attributed to them, making it superstitious.



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Why is preparing for the Lord’s Supper such a serious duty?

Why is preparing for the Lord’s Supper such a serious duty?

Why is preparing for the Lord’s Supper such a serious duty?

Not many people associate illness and death with being unprepared when participating in the Lord’s Supper. But that is exactly what Paul does when he reforms the communion services in Corinth. Not being suitably prepared, or worse still, not being really converted at all, and going ahead and participating in this blessed Christian ordinance, is a serious life and death issue for professing Christians. Believers everywhere are seriously cautioned against partaking “unworthily” which really means to be unprepared and to act unsuitably to the sacredness of the duty and privilege. The personal remedy involves serious self-examination.

The following updated excerpt is from a sermon James Durham preached in Glasgow about preparation for the Lord’s Supper. Durham was himself converted at a Saturday preparation sermon preached in South Queensferry. Preaching to his own congregation years later from 1 Corinthians 11:29, “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” Durham, paraphrased the text in striking terms. “You had need to look well to the examination of yourselves, for if you neglect or miscarry in that duty, your hazard and danger is dreadfully great through unworthy communicating. If you would escape, then make conscience narrowly and carefully to examine yourselves.”

We cannot be ultimately accountable for others, any more than we can examine others. But if, like in Corinth, the Church comes under some spiritual judgement, there is encouragement here for those who sincerely examine themselves before participating, that they will personally escape the hazard. If not, they are sure to be affected in some way by the Lord’s chastisement of the Church. The special dignity and excellence of the Lord’s Supper is also a strong motive to the duty of self-examination. As Durham explains, communion with Christ in the Supper is the closest that His people come on earth to the communion they will enjoy with Him in heaven, and how then can we fail to approach His table with the greatest reverence and love?

How is the Lord’s Supper uniquely solemn?

In the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper there is a special eminence, excellence, dignity and worth. To put it another way, this ordinance is of a unique, solemn nature.

All the ordinances of the Lord are excellent. If all His works be excellent, then much more the gospel ordinances are a step above these. Yet the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper seems dignified with an eminence and excellence above them all.

1. In reference to what it sets out and exhibits. They all set out love, but this sets out love in an eminent degree, for it sets forth the Lord’s death, where the most eminent step and degree of His love shines. In fact, this ordinance sets out His actual dying, and so sets out His love in its liveliest colours, and its great masterpiece.

2. In reference to the excellent benefits communicated in it. It is true that, as to matter, it communicates only the same as what is communicated in the Word and baptism. Yet if we look at the words, “Take ye, eat ye, this is my body,” they hold out Christ Jesus not so much giving any particular gift, as actually conferring Himself in his death and suffering. The main scope of this ordinance is to confer Christ and all that is in Him to the believer.

3. In reference to the manner in which our Lord Jesus makes Himself over to us. I don’t mean only the clearness of it (for in this ordinance there is the clearest view of a slain Saviour, and of covenanting with God, and often the most comfortable manifestations of love go along with it), but also that there is here a clear glance of heaven on earth. Jesus Christ and His people are mixing and being familiar together — He condescends not only to keep company with them, but to be their food and refreshment. He gives them not only the word to their faith, but himself (as it were) to their senses (in so far as the means by which He communicates Himself is more sense-able, although of course it is by His Spirit that the means is made effectual). The very firstfruits of heaven are communicated, as it were, to the very senses of the believer. “I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of the fruit of the vine, until that day I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26 29). He seems to point out a more special way of keeping communion with His people in this ordinance, in resemblance to that which He will have with them in heaven. This ordinance seals up a special union and communion between the head and members, a type of what there will be in heaven.

What more could Christ have given us?

This lets us see how much we are obliged to Christ Jesus. What more could He have given than Himself? And what could have been invented, that could have more confirmed and warmed the hearts of His people than this, such a lively representation and commemoration of His blessed body?

Very likely we might come to discern His body better, if there we had a more high estimation of this ordinance. Not that there is any efficacy in the ordinance of itself to communicate grace, yet in view of the fact that it is Christ’s own institution, it is a most lively means of grace. There is not a circumstance in all the action but it is to be wondered at. It was instituted the same night He was betrayed, for example, and after the Passover, when the traitor Judas was going to bring the band of soldiers to take Him, and He warrants us to take it, and in it we have sweet communion amongst ourselves. Every thing in it ought to draw us to admire His sufferings, and the great love they came from, and their notable effects for us.

What frame of mind and heart should we have approaching it?

All of this should stir us up to make the effort to be in a solemn, divine, heavenly frame of soul for such a solemn, divine, heavenly activity as this is. We should thoroughly examine ourselves, to see that all things are in good order, like to a bride who is going to be married tomorrow, trying on her wedding dress, and seeing that everything is just right.

Without going into detail, I will only point out in general what frame is called for from you ahead of participating in the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper.

1. It should be how you would desire to be, if Christ was coming personally and visibly to marry you tomorrow. Consider what frame we would wish to be in, if we were to meet with Him, and clasp hands with Him personally and visibly. Pursue that kind of frame!

2. It should what we would desire to have if we were about to die, when all earthly things will be insignificant and of little worth to us — if our eternal peace and happiness were depending on this critical point. That would be a night of making our will, and adjusting our accounts with God, and bringing things to a point between Him and us, so that our debts would not grow any greater, otherwise it would not be so easy for them to be discharged.

3. It should be the kind of frame we would desire to be found in, if the day of judgement were to be tomorrow. How humble we would strive to be, how abstracted from the things of the present world, and how confirmed in the faith of God’s love, if the voice of the archangel and the last trumpet were sounding, and a solemn meeting of all before the tribunal of Christ was about to take place! What frame would you desire to be in, if that was the case? That is what you should strive to be in tonight — just as you would desire in that day. It will be a sting in many a conscience on that day, that they were so unconscientious about being in a suitable frame for this ordinance!

4. It should be a heavenly and divine frame, because this is what a heavenly and divine action calls for. How abstracted your heart should be from the world, and from your carnal delights! How much your heart should be in heaven and conversant with God! What a pitch your communion with God should be raised to, in apprehending Him, and meditating on Him, and considering and admiring at the sufferings of Christ and the love they came from, and tasting that He is good, and even delighting and solacing yourselves in His love! This is what the Lord grants His people, when they go about the action of the ordinance humbly and reverently.




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The willingness of the Lord Jesus to be our Redeemer

The willingness of the Lord Jesus to be our Redeemer

The willingness of the Lord Jesus to be our Redeemer

When sin entered human experience, it didn’t take God by surprise. Within the Trinity, arrangements had already been made to save some sinners. Patrick Gillespie (1617–1675) wrote at length on the subject of how God’s covenant undergirds the redemption of sinners. In the following updated extract, he shows how Christ, God the eternal Son, was involved in drawing up the covenant arrangements. As the Son He was not subordinate to the Father but freely consented to take on the work of redeeming sinners. As Patrick Gillespie takes us through the various aspects of the covenant arrangements, it helps us to realise what while salvation is free to us, on the Saviour’s side it was a costly, effortful work. We can also use these details as so many prompts to marvel more at the love which motivated Jesus Christ to take on this work so voluntarily.

He was under no obligation

Christ was not compelled to be our Redeemer. He was not under any necessity repugnant to his free and willing acting, when he took on the various offices, trusts, and relations of the covenant.

1. There was no compelling necessity, as if when someone is bound hand and foot. There was no such necessity on the Lord to send Christ, to lay these offices on Him; for He is a most free sovereign agent – above counsel, much more above compulsion. “Who hath directed the spirit of the Lord, or being his counsellor hath taught him?” (Isa. 40.13). “Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did he in heaven and in earth, in the seas, and all deep places” (Psalm 135.6). He was not bound to change the law dispensation into a new dispensation of grace. Neither was there any necessity on Christ to take these offices and employments. He could not be compelled to lay down his life. “No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of my self: I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10.18).

2. There was no natural necessity, such as the necessity of the sun to give light, and the fire to give heat. God did not by any natural necessity send forth Christ; nor was the Son of God under any natural necessity to undertake the work of our redemption. God could have done things differently – He could in justice have prosecuted the covenant of works. There was no kind of necessity on God to send, or on Christ to go, on this errand.

3. There was no moral necessity, not so much as any command, motive, or inducement without Himself, either on God to lay this employment on Christ, or on Christ to take it on, and to undergo the work. God could have sent His Son or not sent Him, as pleased Him. There was not so much as a moral cause inducing him to it. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3.16) “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5.6,8). And Christ could have refused to undertake the work, or agreed, as pleased Him; for who could have laid a command on Him, if the purpose of love that was in His heart had not led Him to consent? “Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God. And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself unto death, even the death of the Cross” (Phil. 2.6,8).

He was involved in drawing up the agreement

Whatever different features different covenants may have, it is essential and common to all covenants that they are agreements. This covenant is an eternal transaction and agreement between the Father and Christ the Mediator about the work of our redemption. Let us inquire a little into the various eternal acts of the will of God that concurred to make up this agreement.

(1) Designating a person to do this work

There must needs have been a person set apart and designated from eternity to do the work of redemption, and this person was the Son only, not the Father or the Spirit: “Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you” (1Pe 1:20).

(2) Equipping that person to do the work

The person set apart to take our law-place, so that justice would smite Him in our stead, was prepared and fitted for this work. It was decreed by an eternal act of the will of God that the Son of God should be “Immanuel” — “God with us” or “God…manifest in the flesh” (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23; 1Tim. 3:16). To this grand qualification He was destined beforehand, so that He would be in a capacity to do this work. “A body has thou prepared me” (Heb 10:5).

(3) Calling the person who had been designated

Calling is a different act from designation — it is something further. Christ was by an eternal act of God’s will called to this work, long before He came into the world. “Then thou spakest in vision to thy holy one, and saidst, I have laid help upon one that is mighty; I have exalted one chosen out of the people” (Psa 89:19). And, “I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles” (Isa 42:6). “So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee” (Heb 5:5).

(4) Giving the person the powers needed for the work

The designated person was invested with offices, powers, and authorities for the doing of this work. By an eternal act of the will of God, He was set up and invested with these offices and powers from everlasting. He had the glory of the designated, called, invested Mediator, as He plainly implies, speaking as Wisdom, “I was set up from everlasting” (Pro 8:23). Several expositors render it, “I was called,” or “anointed.” “And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:5).

(5) His mission

Christ was sent to do this work by an eternal act in the counsel of God. He had a solemn, eternal, authoritative mission, a command to go, and was bidden to go. He had the will of God by an eternal act or commission given out to Him concerning all this work, long before He was actually made under the law (which is what He references when He says, “Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God” (Heb 10:7). That will of God was in the book of His eternal decrees: “And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me” (John 6:39), and, “This commandment have I received of my Father” (John 10:18).

He willingly consented

For His part, Christ concurred with this agreement with an eternal, personal consent to all these eternal acts of the will of God. For Christ, as God, equal with the Father, does not begin to consent and agree unto anything in time, nor can the eternal Son of God will anything in time, which He did not will and consent to from eternity. Christ was present with the Father and from eternity He consented and agreed to these eternal acts.

(1) He consented to be the person that would satisfy the justice of God. He heartily acquiesced and offered Himself. He said, “Lo, I come to do thy will” (Heb 10:5,7). He poured out His soul unto death (Isa 53:12).

(2) He consented to putting Himself in the low capacity that this work required. “Thou madest him a little lower than the angels” (Heb 2:7). He consented to leave the throne of glory and come down to His footstool, there to be in disgrace. The Lord of the law consented to be made under the law. The Holy One who knew no sin consented to be made in the likeness of sinful flesh. (Rom 8:3). “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phi 2:6–8).

(3) He consented to the eternal act of His calling to this work. No sooner was it His Father’s will that He should travel in the business, but it was His will also. He was like a ready servant. “The Lord GOD hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back” (Isa 50:5–6).

(4) He consented to take on the offices that the work of our redemption required. There was no force nor constraint on Him, no necessity of nature that He should step in between the disagreeing parties, that He should step into the fire that we had kindled, that He should make Himself a sacrifice for our sins; but frankly and freely He consented to do all these things. “No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself” (John 10:18). “As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him” (John 17:2). “I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was” (Prov. 8:23).

(5) He consented to His Father sending Him [on this] mission and was well content to do that errand. Indeed, so hearty was His consent that He took delight in it: “I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart” (Psa. 40:8). “Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work” (John 4:34).

To all these things He gives a personal consent from eternity, and with so much delight that He solaced Himself and took pleasure in the future accomplishment of these eternal acts of the will of God concerning the sons of men: “I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was … Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men” (Prov. 8:23, 30–31). This is the nature of this eternal transaction.




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Eight things that equip us to examine ourselves

Eight things that equip us to examine ourselves

Eight things that equip us to examine ourselves

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

The danger of deceiving yourself about yourself

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

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

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

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

Hypocrisy is a very natural and common thing

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

There are three sorts of persons in the world.

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

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

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

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

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

You can go far in religion without being truly saved

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

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

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

An impressive appearance may hide a rotten heart

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

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

Lack of integrity is utter folly

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

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

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

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

Insincerity deserves greater misery

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

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

Uprightness is difficult

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

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

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

Uprightness is attainable

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

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




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Why should Christians pursue heavenliness?

Why should Christians pursue heavenliness?

Why should Christians pursue heavenliness?

The pressures of secularism can mean that even Christians place more value on earthly things than heavenly, as if heaven was an afterthought in our lives and the really important things are to do with the here and now. This is entirely back to front, as James Durham realised and endeavoured to remind his hearers — Christians of all people should live in a heavenly way. Durham preached a sermon on the words, “Our conversation is in heaven …” (Philippians 3:20). When it was first published it was titled “A Very Heavenly Sermon.” The following updated extract explains what is meant by heavenliness, and explains why as Christians we should pursue heavenliness.

The word “conversation” or “citizenship” implies both entitlement to the privileges which belong to a certain township, and a distinctive manner of living and behaving according to the customs of that city. For Christians, it signifies a joint interest with the saints (as they are fellow citizens with the saints; Eph. 2:19), and assumes a way, walk, and lifestyle like heaven — having a nature, inclinations, desires, designs, and qualifications that are distinctively suitable to heaven.

There is a sort of heavenliness which all Christians without exception should pursue, and which is indeed their duty.

Through grace, heavenliness is in a great measure attainable. Paul and other believers attained it. It means a suitableness in respect of qualification, conformity and likeness, in so far as is incumbent to sojourners who are walking towards heaven.

It marks out the serious and suitably exercised Christian in a unique and contradistinguishing way from all others in the world. That Christian’s “conversation” is in heaven, while that of others is not.

Yet it’s not an ordinary and common thing among professing Christians, to have this heavenliness. “Many” (says the apostle) “walk, of whom I have told you, and now tell you weeping, that they are enemies to the cross of Christ: but I and a few others have our conversation in heaven.” The “many” that he speaks of here, I take to be those of whom he speaks in the chapter 1, who preached Christ, but out of envy, and exhorted people to holiness, likely with more than ordinary fervour, yet they did not have this heavenliness.

What is heavenliness?

Prizing heaven

Heavenliness is when we set heaven in our sights as our own great aim and purpose, next to the glory of God. Just as having an “earthly” conversation means that you mind earthly things, and you keep inclining towards them, and are wholly or mostly taken up about the things of the world, so to be heavenly is to have your mind taken up about heaven, prizing, affecting and seeking after heaven and heavenly things. “Seek after, or set your affections on, those things that are above” (Col. 3:1).

Actively making for heaven

Heavenliness includes taking the way that leads to the end — using all means and duties that lead to heaven. Paul indicates the earnestness and ardency of affections that Christians ought to have towards heavenly things, and how very much they should, with holy care and solicitude, be busy in using all means, and practicing all duties, which will further and promote heavenliness. It’s the counterpoint of how the worldly are taken up and exercised with carking cares, leaving no stone unmoved to promote and attain their earthly goals.

Acting like we will in heaven

Heavenliness means walking like those who are in heaven. Instead of being conformed to the world, or like the men of the world, we are to be like the angels and glorified saints in heaven, according to our capacity. As we are taught to pray, ‘Thy will be done on earth, as it is done in heaven.’ It’s to be one of a kind with and have a natural suitableness and proportionableness to those who are glorified in heaven.

Visiting heaven often

Heavenliness means we are often in heaven as to our thoughts and affections, and our desires and delights. Although we live on the earth, we should have, as it were, more than our one half in heaven. David says, “Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul” (Psa. 25:1). We should make frequent visits to heaven — we should have much to do there, have much to-and-fro, commerce, correspondence and interactions in and with heaven. We should converse more where we love, than where we live. Scripture calls this walking with God, having fellowship with Him, following hard after Him, and so on.

Why should the Christian pursue heavenliness?

In verse 17, the apostle exhorted the Philippians to be followers of him, and here he tells them that his conversation is in heaven. He proposes himself as our pattern in this, and the Spirit of God by him presses it on us as our duty to imitate him in this thing. It is not so singular a practice that he alone has the monopoly on heavenliness. It was common to him and other serious Christians according to their measure, which is why he doesn’t say “my conversation” but, “our conversation.”

A Christian’s “conversation” or “citizenship” should be heavenly because all that a Christian has is from and in heaven, and is some way heavenly.

Look, first, at the Christian’s nature. It’s from heaven; he is partaker of the divine nature, he is born of God, he is of the new Jerusalem, his Father is heavenly (as he is taught to pray, “Our Father, which art in heaven,” or, “Our heavenly Father”)

Where is the elder Brother? In the heavenly places. The Christian’s treasure is in heaven; his hope is in heaven; heaven is the city, the mansion, the rest, to which he is travelling.

Look, secondly, at the believer’s calling and his obligation. He is partaker of the heavenly calling (Heb. 2:1). Separated from the rest of the world, the Christian ought not to live as the world lives. He has a heavenly law to walk by. He has heavenly promises to feed on and live on, and to comfort himself in. His happiness is heavenly. All the duties that he is called to are heavenly.

Are not his prayers and praises heavenly? and can a believer possibly pray and praise rightly and not be heavenly?

To be translated from darkness to light, to be a partaker of the sanctifying Spirit of God, to be a new creature, to have the spirit of adoption, to have boldness of access to God, to be an heir and a joint-heir with Christ, &c. — are these not heavenly?

Or if, thirdly, we look at the believer’s company, is it not heavenly? We are come (says the apostle, Heb. 12) to God the judge of all, to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, to the new Jerusalem (which refers to all the saints in heaven and the saints on earth), to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly of the first born, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.

In a word, whatever we look to, whether to the believer’s nature, or to his end, or to the rule of his walk, or to the promises, or to his work and way wherein he is to go, it is all heavenly.

How can we be convinced to pursue heavenliness?

We should understand from all this what a high level of holiness we are called to. Many have clearly never walked under the conviction that holiness is necessary as a duty; otherwise it would not be possible that so many men and women, who are called Christians and profess a hope of heaven, could or would dare to live as they do — some in profanity, riotousness and gluttony, some in mere respectability and morality, and others in formality and hypocrisy at best.

Let me ask you in all earnestness, are you not convinced that this is a duty? or do you think that Paul was joking, or flattering, when he exhorts us to follow him in this? Or that it’s possible to enjoy so many heavenly privileges, or be to any purpose performing heavenly duties, if you are not heavenly? Don’t get the wrong idea about Christianity, as if when you are exhorted to be Christians, you are only invited not to be profane, or only to go about the externals of religion, or only to have a sort of mere sincerity in it. Indeed these things are good in themselves and we do not, we dare not, reject them, but rather commend them. But you are called to more, to much more!

I know some are so profane, and others are so misbelievingly discouraged, that when they hear such doctrine as this, they will be ready, the one sort to say, “Well, we can’t all be saints!” and the other, “Sadly, whoever is going to be a saint, it won’t be me!” But let all such mouths be stopped. We are called and obliged indispensably to be saints. If we are not saints here, we shall never be saints hereafter.

There are also some who have such distempered attitudes that they either put off all or most duties, or at least go about them very heartlessly, because they cannot attain perfection in them. But it’s clear from the Scriptures that there is a kind of perfection that can be attained here in this life, which is this holiness and heavenliness. When you shall be called to a reckoning, God will not ask you so much whether you did not get drunk, whore, swear, lie, cheat, steal, or the like, as whether you were heavenly in your way of life? Holiness is not to be limited to some few particular duties, but is the requisite qualification of a Christian in all duties and in all actions. Whether Christians are praying, practising, hearing, reading, buying, selling, eating, drinking, or whatever it may be, they are to be heavenly in it all



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The knowledge the Christian needs

The knowledge the Christian needs

The knowledge the Christian needs

Some people like knowing things just for the sake of knowing things. But this isn’t an option when it comes to Christianity, when everything the Bible tells us has a definite purpose in view — to make us honour God more in our lives. Hugh Binning preached a sermon on 1 John 2:3, “Hereby we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments,” in which he emphasises that if we truly know God, this will be evident by our obedience to God. Theology and controversy are never ends in themselves, and should not distract us from the true knowledge of God which brings us to love and worship Him. In the following updated extract Binning outlines some features of true knowledge.

True knowledge of God is essential

The words of the apostle give the designation of a true Christian to be the knowledge of God, and the character of his knowledge to be obedience to his commands.

“Hereby we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.” Here, in a narrow circle, we have all the work and business of a Christian. The Christian’s direct and principal duty is to know God, and keep his commands. These are not two distinct duties, but make up one complete work of Christianity, which consists in conformity to God.

Then the reflex and secondary duty of a Christian, which makes much for his comfort, is to know that he knows God. To “know God and keep his commands” is a thing of indispensable necessity to the being of a Christian, and to “know that we know him” is of great concernment to the comfort and well-being of a Christian.

True knowledge of God is hard for sinners to find

Knowledge is a thing so natural to the human spirit that the desire for knowledge is restless and insatiable. But this is the curse of man’s curiosity at first, in seeking after unnecessary knowledge, when he was happy enough already. For that wretched aim, we are to this day deprived of the knowledge which Adam once had, which was the ornament of his nature and the repast of his soul. The track of it is so obscured and perplexed, the footsteps of it are so indiscernible, and the way of it is like a bird in the air, or a ship in the sea, leaving us few helps to find it out, that the majority of people lose themselves in seeking to find it. In all their inquiries and searchings, at length nothing is found out remarkable, but the increase of sorrow, and the exposure of ignorance.

“But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding?” The more people seek her, the more ignorance they find — the further they pursue, they see themselves at the further distance. That’s how it is in things that are obvious to our senses, and how much more is our darkness increased in spiritual and invisible things! For God himself should be the first and principal object of the soul, and his glorious light should first strike into our hearts. But of God, Job testifies, “How little a portion is known of him!” In natural things, we have one veil of darkness in our minds to hinder us, but when it comes to knowing about God, we have a twofold darkness to break through — the darkness of ignorance in us, and “the darkness of too much light” in him. God’s glorious majesty is all out of proportion to our low spirits.

Pride is the daughter of ignorance. “He that thinketh he knoweth anything knoweth nothing as he ought to know,” saith the apostle (1 Cor. 8:2.) For he who does not know his own ignorance, however much he knows, is the greatest ignorant.

It is a manifest evidence that people have only a superficial grasp of things, and have never broken the shell or drawn aside the veil of their own weakness and ignorance, when they do not apprehend deeply the unsearchableness of God and his mysteries, but think they have mastered them because they have made a system of theology, or set out some conclusions of faith and can debate them against adversaries, or because they have a model of theology, as of other sciences, in their mind.

True knowledge of God kindles both love and hatred

My beloved, holy Job attained to the deepest and fullest speculation of God, when he concluded, “Because I see thee, I abhor myself.” As Paul says, “If any man love God he is known of God, and so knows God” (1 Cor. 8:3).

From these testimonies of Job and Paul I conclude that the true knowledge of God consists not so much in the comprehension of all points of divinity, as in a serious apprehension and conception of the divine majesty which enkindles and inflames these two affections, love and hatred, towards their proper objects. It is the kind of knowledge which carries the torch before the affection, the kind of light which shines into the heart (as Paul’s phrase is, 2 Cor. 4:6) and so transmits heat and warmness into it, till it makes the heart burn in the love of God, and the loathing of himself.

True knowledge of God puts things in perspective

As long as you only hear of God in sermons, or read of Him in books, you keep a good conceit of yourself. That knowledge “puffeth up.” It blows you up full of wind and self-confidence, and commonly those who doubt least are not the freest of error and misunderstandings.

And truly, if you seriously reflect on the difficulty of knowledge, and darkness of our minds, and the general vanity and vexation of all things, you cannot but look at excessive confidence in the same way as people running a race at full speed in the dark night, on a route full of pits and snares. Often our confidence flows not from evidence of truth, but the ignorance of our minds, and is not so much built on the strength of reason, as the strength of our passions and the weakness of our judgments.

But when once you come to see God, and know Him in a lively manner, then you see your own weakness and vileness in that light, and you cry out with Isaiah, “Woe is me, I am a man of polluted lips!” You discern in that light the loveliness of God, which ravishes your heart. Then, as Jeremiah says, you will not glory in riches, or strength, or beauty, or wisdom, but only in this, that you have gotten some discovery of the only fountain of happiness. Then you will not think so much of tongues and prophesyings, and knowledge of controversies, nor gifts of body or of mind. Nor will external appendages of providence much affect you. You will be content to pass over all of these into a fuller discovery and enjoyment of God Himself.

True knowledge of God is plain

When we search the Scriptures, they do not entertain us with many and subtle discourses on God’s nature, and decrees, and properties, nor do they dwell on the many perplexed questions about which so many volumes are spun out, to the infinite distraction of the Christian world. The Scriptures do not claim to satisfy your curiosity, but to edify your souls.

That is why they hold out God in Christ, as clothed with all His relations to mankind, in all those plain and easy properties that concern us everlastingly — His justice, mercy, grace, patience, love, holiness, and such like. From this I gather that the true knowledge of God does not consist in comprehending all the conclusions that are deduced and controversies that are discussed, but rather in the serious and solid apprehension of God as He relates to us, and consequently in the moving of our hearts to love, and adore, and reverence Him. He is displayed to us only in those garments that are fit to move and affect our hearts.

You may know all those controversial things, and yet not know God Himself, for knowing Him cannot be abstracted from loving Him — “They that know thy name will trust in thee, and so love thee, and fear thee.” This is the only possible natural result, if He is truly known at all, because there is nothing and nobody more beautiful, more dreadful at the same time, and more worthy of choice. Seeing infinite beauty and goodness, and infinite power and greatness, and infinite sufficiency and fulness are combined together in Him with infinite truth, the soul that truly apprehends Him, cannot but apprehend Him as the most ravishing, and the most to be revered too. If you do not find your heart suitably affected, it is an evident demonstration that you do not truly apprehend Him, but an idol.

True knowledge of God wins our obedience

But everyone thinks they know God. So the Holy Ghost, as He designates a Christian by the knowledge of God, so He characterises knowledge by “keeping the commandments.” “Hereby we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.”

Religion is not defined by a number of opinions, or by a collection of certain articles of faith, but rather by practice — obedience to the known will of God. Knowledge is instrumental to something else. In Scripture, knowledge is not principally intended for itself, but rather for obedience.

Perhaps some may think that the Scripture, or theology, is merely contemplative, because of the many mysteries infolded in it, which seem irrelevant to our practice. I confess that it is a departure from the great purpose and plain intent of the simplicity and easiness of Scripture to use it with such industry and subtilty to discuss so many things of mere speculation and notion, dry and sapless to the affection, and unedifying to our practice, and to force these on people’s consciences as points of religion.

All that is in the Scriptures either directly intends us to practice God’s will, or is ultimately intended for that end — either it prescribes our obedience, or else it tends principally to engage our affections, and so to secure our obedience. Those elevated discourses about God, His nature and properties, His works, and all the mysteries infolded in them, are directed towards this end. Further than mere knowing, they are to bring the heart of a believer to more love, and reverence, and adoration of God, that so he may be brought more easily and steadily to a sweet compliance and harmonious agreement to the will of God, in all His ways.

True religion is an art

This shows us the notable art of religion — to extract affection and obedience to God out of all natural contemplations. True theology, engraved on the soul, is a kind of architectonic science, which gives structure to all other points of knowledge. Whatever they are, a holy heart can apply them to the divine uses of engaging itself further to God and obedience to God. “Who would not fear thee, O King of nations!” (Jer. 10:7) “Fear ye not me, who have placed the sand as a boundary (etc)?” (Jer. 5:22). That’s what extracts praise (Psa. 104:1) and admiration (Psa. 104:33), and submission and patience under God’s hand (Job). If we only seek to know things so that we will know them, and can discourse on them, we disappoint the great purpose of the whole Scriptures, and we debase and degrade spiritual things. We transform holy things into a carnal, empty, and dead letter, whereas true knowledge spiritualises earthly and carnal things into a holy use.


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How Paul preached about original sin

How Paul preached about original sin

How Paul preached about original sin

In the rush to get to God’s mercy, and perhaps out of discomfort at the unpleasantness of the subject, the topic of original sin can be overlooked in our churches, both in preaching and hearing. When James Fergusson reached Paul’s discussion of God’s saving grace in Ephesians 2, however, he identified the balance in Paul’s letter. Paul did not soft pedal our desperate sinfulness as sinners, yet his awareness of the graciousness of God’s grace did not allow him to leave his readers in despair. As the following update extract shows, Fergusson therefore picks out some aspects of Paul’s Spirit-inspired technique in how he presents both sin and grace, highlighting them especially as hints for preachers to follow as they bring these doctrines to their own congregations. It also prompts us to assess how willing we are as hearers to accept this kind of preaching and how we respond to these truths when our pastors bring them to our attention.

Preach misery as well as mercy

The apostle is intending to establish the Ephesians in the doctrine of salvation by free grace in Christ. For this end, he sets out the happiness of the state in which free grace had placed them, by showing the misery of their previous state, before conversion. That is, they were dead – not naturally, but spiritually, for there was nothing in them of the spiritual life which consists in the union of the soul with God (John 5:40), and the power of the soul, flowing from this union, to do things which are spiritually good and acceptable to God (John 15:5).

The efficient and formal cause of this spiritual death is their sins and trespasses. These two words are used equivalently in Scripture to express one and the same thing, and both of them in the plural here sets forth the multitude of sins under which they lay in this dead condition, for example, their original sin, their actual sins, sins of omission, sins of commission, and especially their manifold idolatries, which are chiefly pointed at as those sins in which the world was wallowing before Christ came in the flesh (Acts 17:29–30).

From observing Paul’s method we can see that it is not sufficient for the servants of Jesus Christ only to preach privileges, and hold forth to believers the happy state to which they are lifted up through Christ. It is necessary also that jointly with this minsters call them to think of their woeful, miserable, and lost estate by nature. Setting forth the one against the other makes both appear more clearly in their own colours. It also helps the hearers avoid the two dangerous rocks of growing vain because of what they now are (2 Cor. 12:7), and of turning discouraged and diffident because of what they once were (Psa. 25:7).

Preach personally and impartially

The apostle then applies this doctrine to the Jews, of whom he himself was one; and therefore he designates them by the pronoun “we,” and affirms them to have been before conversion equally miserable with the Gentiles.

He explains the doctrine of human misery very fully, pointing out that his own people were just as obstinately rebellious against God as the disobedient Gentiles, analysing the corruption of nature into subdivisions, and identifying the root cause of our miserable slavery to sin in our nature as “children of wrath.”

Of all pieces of a minister’s task, the one where he has most need of a spirit of wisdom and impartiality is when he is about the reproof of sin, and the exposure of people’s vileness by reason of their wickedness. If he respects persons at this point, those whom he reflects on most will be irritated, conceiving themselves to be unfairly dealt with. Others, to whom he does not apply this convicting doctrine so directly, nor with such an edge and vehemence, will be puffed up above others in their own conceit. The reality is, “among whom also we all had our conversation.”

Preach to give both light and warmth

The apostle moves on to hold forth our deliverance from that woeful state. He does so in such a lively, ravishing, and comprehensive strain of speech that he not only gives them the doctrinal information, but also works on their affections so that they will embrace and adhere to these truths.

He declares God to have been the prime author and efficient cause of their deliverance. He calls Him “rich in mercy,” to show that He was motivated to save them, not from their worth, but from His own abundant mercy, and that it was only His great and ancient love towards them which set His mercy to work for their deliverance.

He also propounds the first branch of their deliverance to be God’s “quickening of them together with Christ.” By this he means the Lord’s work of regeneration, and bestowing on them a spiritual life of grace (in opposition to the spiritual death he had previously spoken of), together with all those benefits which accompany and flow from regeneration in this life. They are made alive “with Christ,” not in their own persons (for they were quickened a long time after Christ’s resurrection), but in their head and attorney Jesus Christ, who was made alive after death as a sure pledge that they, every one in his own time, would be made alive also (1 Cor. 15:20), by the virtue purchased by His death (Rom. 8:11), and by Him who is now alive, and liveth for evermore for that end (Heb. 7:25).

And before he mentions the other pieces of their delivery, he ascribes the whole work of their salvation to God’s free grace. This is the same in effect with His mercy and love, only it further expresses the freedom of those, in opposition to any merit or worth in the persons to be saved.

Preach the riches of God’s free grace and goodwill

The ministers of Christ have more to do than simply to inculcate the doctrine of sin and misery. Once they have gone into this subject enough to bring down the high conceit which people naturally have of their own righteousness, and to convince them of their need of Jesus Christ, a Saviour, then it is timeous for them to open up the riches of God’s free grace and goodwill to save the vilest of sinners, and what He has freely done to bring salvation to their hand.

When the Lord’s ministers take up the subject of God’s delivering lost sinners from their natural state of sin and misery through Christ, they should labour to speak to it so fully, affectionately, sensibly, and with such life and power, as that they may not only inform the understandings of the Lord’s people in those truths, but also inflame their affections with love to them, and admiration at the wisdom, mercy, goodness, and other attributes of God manifested in this work; for so doth the apostle speak of this purpose, not simply by saying God hath quickened us, but “ God, who is rich in mercy, according to his great love,” and so forward in the two following verses.

But what will enable a minister to speak to the commendation of God’s free grace in the salvation of sinners with the fullness, sense, life, and affection that he ought? Nothing contributes more to this than the minister having a deep insight into his own misery, and the great need which he himself stands in of God’s mercy. It’s after Paul shows how conscious he was of the depth and breadth of his own misery that he can go on to speak so fully and movingly, “But God, who is rich in mercy,” etc.

Preach with confidence in God’s power and Christ’s merit

The quickening of sinners, and drawing them out of nature to grace, is only God’s work. Nothing less than omnipotent creating power is required to bring this about (see v. 10). Not only is there no principle left in man by which he might work with God in working towards his own quickening (Rom. 9:16), there is also much to oppose and resist it (2 Cor. 10:5). In the first instant of his conversion, and until a new heart is given him, and the seeds and habits of saving graces are infused in him, the sinner is wholly passive (Jer. 31:33). Paul, discussing the cause of their quickening, pitches, not on their own free-will, in whole or in part, but on God only. “God, who is rich in mercy, hath quickened us.”

The doctrine of our natural misery and spiritual death through sin is a lesson most necessary to be learned. Yet we have no great pleasure to learn it, and it’s something we are prone to forget, as to a deep and lively impression of it, even when it is learned. Yet the doctrine of God’s mercy is not applied in order to our deliverance from sin and misery, unless the doctrine of sin and misery has been applied and accepted first.

Though love and mercy in God are what set Him on work to quicken dead sinners, yet this work cannot be brought about or accomplished without the intervention of Christ’s merit and intercession. Christ satisfied divine justice, and thereby acquired to us the things which God’s love and mercy had prepared for us (Isa. 53:5). They were all lost in Adam (Rom. 5:15–16), but Christ, being now exalted, also applies them to us (Acts 5:31). God’s mercy and love are the inward impulsive causes moving God to quicken these sinners, yet the apostle shows that their actual quickening had a necessary dependence on Christ’s merit and mediation.

The necessity for Jesus Christ to strike in with His merit and mediation, in order to acquire and apply saving grace and salvation to us, in no way hinders the fact that our complete salvation, from the first step to the last, flows wholly from God’s free grace. It was of grace that the Father sent the Son to die for us (John 3:16). It was of grace that the Son undertook the work (John 15:12–13), and it is no less grace that what He did or suffered is accepted in our name (Rom. 3:24–25). So that it is all is of grace and free goodwill as far as we are concerned. “By grace are ye saved.”


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When knowledge misses the point

When knowledge misses the point

When knowledge misses the point

We all need to be instructed in the truths of the gospel, because that is the way that we grow spiritually. But both preachers and hearers can be busy around the truth without really getting to the heart of the truth. John Carstares was a ministerial colleague of James Durham and wrote an extended endorsement of Durham’s book, The Great Gain of Contenting Godliness. Carstares picks up on Durham’s theme of “exercising yourself unto godliness” and points out that there are various ways in which we can be active and energetic – full of zeal – but it’s misdirected even though we have flickers and flashes of truth in our view. In the following updated extract, Carstares picks out some ways in which – whether as preachers or hearers – people miss the point and truth and godliness slip away from them.

We should exercise ourselves to godliness knowingly and solidly, having a right understanding of its nature, and a thorough grasp of what it consists of, so that we do not make a mistake about it, as many do who claim to have it, to the great harm of their souls, if not their utter ruin.

There is a “zeal that is not according to knowledge,” and zeal about what is not good (Romans 10:2). Then the more zealous and exercised someone is, and the faster they run, the further they go wrong and out of the way. The greatest zealots in unwarrantable things readily become the most dangerous. “My son,” said dying David to Solomon, “know thou the God of thy fathers,” while to Israel he said, “Keep and seek for the commandments of the Lord your God.” Remarkable words, keep and seek, plainly implying that there can be no keeping of God’s commandments without seeking to know and understand them well. Little knowledge of God, of the nature of godliness, and of the principles of religion, with this wrong kind of zeal, have produced much damage to the gospel, and brought it under great contempt.

Since it is those, and only those, who keep His commandments that have a good understanding (Psalm 111:10), we should by all means strive to have our practice marching side by side with our light, and not to have any of our light detained in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18), made a prisoner under a guard of corruptions to keep it from shining out and influencing our practice.

Seeking knowledge for its own sake

There are many who seek to know only or mainly so that they would know, and make others know that they know. In religion they are all notion without motion, having a head full of light and a heart void of all life. They talk all their religion and do not walk it. Their knowledge aggravates their guilt and heightens their damnation.

Avoiding knowledge of the most important things

There are some on the other hand who become weary and almost sick of things that are preached or written with the aim of familiarising them with the form of sound words and the principles of religion. They would prefer only and always to have something spoken to some case of conscience, or some doubt or some spiritual exercise. Of course Christians should covet to have their souls’ cases and their present spiritual exercise spoken to, and their doubts cleared. I do not deny this, but willingly and readily grant it. Our blessed Lord Jesus by His learned tongue loves to speak words in season to weary and seriously exercised souls.

Yet these people should also like having their judgment well informed in the principles of the religion which they profess. Otherwise, by their ignorance in these matters, they risk keeping themselves in an inextricable labyrinth of puzzling and perplexing scruples, doubts and difficulties about their own soul’s state and condition. Not only so, but they also expose themselves as a ready prey to be caught up by seducers and erroneous persons, especially those who claim to have more than ordinary victory over sin, more than ordinary spiritual insight, and special strictness in their walk. At the same time these puzzled and vulnerable souls, because of their great ignorance, expose the practice of godliness to reproach and obloquy.

Prioritising peripheral points

There is a third sort that have a liking only to hear of something controversial. Even if it is only debated amongst truly godly churchmen, and even if it is the kind of topic where both sides may retain their different opinions to their dying day without the least risk to their salvation — or for that matter, something which doesn’t in any way prevent God accepting and blessing their service. By comparison with these disputed points, these people loathe the great and substantial truths of the gospel. For them it’s as if all religion is rooted in these debatable and peripheral things, so that they are drawn out from the heart and vitals of religion to the extremities and outskirts. These souls greatly endanger the power of godliness, and its very soul and substance of godliness, both to themselves and others also.

I do not for all this (God forbid I should) condemn seriously and soberly manifested dislike of sinful silence as to anything that is indeed contrary to sound doctrine and the power of godliness (anything that is certainly displeasing to God and that may be a reason why He has a controversy with us, even if it is found in those who are truly godly and otherwise faithful). Nor do I mean that we should in the least involve ourselves in so much as the constructive approbation of anything we judge to be sinful; or that we should behave lukewarmly and unconcernedly in even the lowest concerns of Jesus Christ and of religion. In all of this, both preachers and professing believers are not a little blameworthy. Only I do not want all religion and serious godliness swallowed up in the gulf of endless debates and disputes about more remote and less momentous things, when they are points of difference amongst those who are truly godly.

While some hearers like this kind of preaching too much, it may also be the case that some preachers preach like this too much. Their sermons are at best jejune and lean, when compared with the great and substantial truths of the gospel. Maybe in a whole sabbath, or in a whole sermon, the poor people have got little or nothing to feed on but bare, barren and dry debates, or invectives against owning the authority of lawful civil rulers, or declamations directly or indirectly against hearing faithful ministers of the gospel because of some lesser differences, whether in judgment or practice. Some are so taken with these discourses that they say, “O! such a blessed day of the gospel! We never saw such a day of the gospel!” Yet in fact very little of the gospel was preached. Little was spoken to commend Christ and serious godliness — little to provoke us to the exercise of repentance, mortification of sin, humility, self-denial, heavenly mindedness, tenderness, and other graces and Christian duties. Instead the things that were only or mainly emphasised had little genuine and native tendency either to the conversion or building of souls. That is after all the great end of preaching. “Whom we preach,” says the apostle, and, “I determined to know nothing amongst you, but Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Correlating our zeal with spiritual value

As it is good to be always zealously affected towards things that are right, so the zeal of ministers and individual Christians ought to be suited and proportioned to the nature of things. Then the whole or greatest part of their zeal would not be permitted to be spent on things more debatable (especially amongst the knowledgeable and godly), and things that are further removed from the heart, soul, life and power of religion, while in the meantime little zeal is reserved for the most necessary momentous and substantial things.


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Seven ways to combat secret sins

Seven ways to combat secret sins

Seven ways to combat secret sins

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

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

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

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

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

What I would commend to you are the following.

Be humbly penitent for what you’ve done

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

Avoid opportunities to keep sinning

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

Crush temptations at the root

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

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

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

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

Hate sin

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

Fear the sin-avenging God

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

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

Believe in God’s omniscience

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

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

Be upright in your heart

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



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