How Can We Stop Discernment Turning into Sinful Suspicion?

How Can We Stop Discernment Turning into Sinful Suspicion?

How Can We Stop Discernment Turning into Sinful Suspicion?
George Hutcheson (1615-1674) ministered in Ayrshire and Edinburgh and was a noted bible expositor. Like many other ministers he was removed from his congregation in 1662 for refusing to conform to the rule of bishops.
2 Nov, 2021

We need discernment and to be on our guard against what is spiritually harmful to ourselves and others. This may be in areas of truth or of living and the effects of what is spiritually damaging can be truly dangerous. But we also need to discern what is good and commend that (Hebrews 5:14). If we are not careful discernment can develop into superior condemnation rather than something that is used to edify and patiently reclaim others from the danger. It can go further and develop such a constant suspicion of almost everything that it makes unwarranted assumptions and misrepresent what people are saying. Being suspicious of individuals (rightly or wrongly), their words are automatically assumed to have ulterior motives or tendencies. When this happens, discernment has become so exaggerated it has turned into sinful suspicion. We need to discern how this happens and prevent it.

It is true that we may sometimes need to highlight things that are wrong; there may be legitimate suspicion based on reasonable evidence. This is different from readily jumping to hasty conclusions about things that could be charitably explained with the benefit of the doubt simply because we are ready to think badly of someone. There is, as Thomas Boston points out, a happy medium between complete gullibility and the evil groundless suspicion that Scripture condemns (1 Timothy 6:4). Such suspicions do not arise from any basis in reality but rather people’s own uncharitable spirits. It is uncharitably judging and condemning others in our hearts (Matthew 7:1). It moves swiftly and rashly to harsh condemnation contrary to the grace of Christian love (1 Corinthians 13:7).

As Boston notes, there is a danger of making ourselves the rule of everything, so that anything that does not meet our standard is automatically and absolutely condemned. It can also be done all too hastily because we trust our own instincts for faithfully distinguishing what is right from what is questionable. We then easily misrepresent others, their intentions, words, and actions and are ready to put the worst construction on them. It is all contrary to what is fair and just as well as love for our neighbour and the ninth commandment. Yet how easily it is done in relation to spiritual matters.

We might think that godly men will not fall into this temptation, but Scripture shows us otherwise. Indeed, the book of Job is full of this. Job must constantly resist the way that they rashly discern the punishment of secret sins and hypocrisy in the afflictions he experiences. His friends begin to charge him with all kinds of things merely on the basis of assumption. Rather than accept the limits of their discernment and understanding they start to dive deeply into hidden things with all sorts of conclusions. It is ultimately clear that they are utterly wrong in their unjust suspicions. This is why George Hutcheson says we must “not make the opinions of the best of men the rule of our consciences”.

Hutcheson shows how much we can learn from the book of Job on this point.
The Lord condemns this explicitly in Eliphaz and his two friends. He even says that in speaking against God’s people we may well be speaking against God Himself (Job 43:7). Their words and principles had wronged God (Job 13:7-8) by misrepresenting Him. It seemed as if they were valiantly defending God and His holiness and justice but what they said was not right but condemned by God (Job 43:7). He vindicates Job because the principles he maintained concerning God were right even though he was not perfect in what he said but sometimes spoke rashly himself. Wrong principles are worse than rash expressions in the heat of trials. God may be very displeased and angry against godly people who maintain such errors and attack other godly men in their trials.

In Job 32-37 Elihu avoids such false charges and seeks to respond to what Job is actually saying. Although he is not perfect. it shows us an example of how to respond to people in a just rather than unfair way. He promises that he will deal sincerely in speaking to him, without annoyance or partiality; and that he will speak truth clearly. It will be sincere and pure, without any dross or chaff (as the original word implies) like purified metal or winnowed corn. He will deal plainly and clearly with him, without evading or beating about the bush. He will not speak upon conjectures and surmises, but will speak demonstrably clear truths and things of which he has certain knowledge. He seems to contrast himself with the three friends who had dealt with Job in prejudice in speaking of him in an ambiguous way. They took surmises and false reports from others and charged him with them as if he had been guilty of them. Does this mean we should avoid lovingly and graciously pointing out what is wrong in the conduct of others? No, it is a biblical duty (Leviticus 19:17). In Job 35:16 Elihu makes his case and does not draw back from pointing out Job’s faults, but he does it in a more restrained way. How much wisdom we need to do likewise. Hutcheson’s comments on Job 33:3 and 35:16 in the following updated extract us help us learn how to stop faithful discernment turn into sinful suspicion.

1. We Must Deal with Others Uprightly

It is our duty to deal sincerely and uprightly with others, especially in speaking of matters which concern their soul. It is great cruelty not to speak truly and uprightly to them in that matter. Elihu says, “My words” (upon this subject) “shall be of the uprightness of my heart” or shall be the uprightness. That is, I shall speak sincerely my very heart in this business.

2. We Must Deal with Others Without Prejudice

We need an upright heart if we would speak sincerely and rightly to the condition of the souls of others. We should be careful that we are not biased with prejudices, or with fear to offend those with whom we have to do. Elihu professes uprightness of heart, as the principle of his speaking right to Job. If many examined themselves, they would find that their hearts do not go along with what they say. They do not believe and then speak (2 Corinthians 4:13). If they speak truth, it is from a false heart, or coldly, and not from the heart. Their biases and prejudices, rather than their solid convictions, make them speak what they speak.

3. We Must Deal with Others Using Sound Doctrine

It is not sufficient that we are those of upright hearts in what we say, unless there is sound doctrine and knowledge in what we say. Elihu says, “My lips shall utter knowledge” (see 2 Timothy 4:2).

4. We Must Deal with Others Clearly

Men should also speak clearly in what they say, and make the truth plain and clear, not leaving people in the dark, or proclaiming surmises instead of verities. Elihu says, “My lips shall utter knowledge clearly”.

5. We Must Deal with Others Carefully

We ought to examine well what we are going to speak and refine it in our own minds (without taking everything on trust without trial). This will ensure our teaching is pure and free of mistakes. Elihu says he will utter pure and refined knowledge (as the metaphor implies).

6. We Must Deal with Others Patiently

Those who speak truth freely, clearly and uprightly, ought to be heard and listened to. This is an argument urged on Job for his attention. If even good men consider that they may err and need admonition, they will allow people to speak to them faithfully. They will esteem it an act of love and kindness not to let them go away with their faults. Those who cannot endure to be dealt with faithfully are cruel to themselves, especially if they still prescribe to others how they should teach and admonish them.

7. We Must Deal with Others About their Faults

Telling others their faults (when we have the calling and opportunity for it) is a proof and evidence of faithfulness. Elihu here freely points at Job’s misconduct. Even godly men may need to hear about their faults (especially during troubles) over and over again, before they own up to them with a felt sense of their guilt as they ought. Elihu tells Job all over again, what he had told him before (Job 34:35).

8. We Must Deal with Others Fairly

It is required, both in justice and prudence, that we charge people only with their true and real faults. We must forbear either unjust surmises and aspersions or unjust aggravations of their real faults. Otherwise, it may tempt them to reject all admonitions. Elihu tells Job his faults as they were and does not charge him with wickedness or blasphemy in relation to his complaints as Eliphaz did, (Job 22:13-14).

When people charge their friends with faults and misconduct they should do so on a solid basis and then they may be faithful in their censures and those who are reproved will be more easily convinced. Thus, Elihu concludes this from reviewing Job’s expressions and conduct, evidencing how Job had opened his mouth.

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The True Focus of Preaching

The True Focus of Preaching

The True Focus of Preaching
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
29 Oct, 2021

It is easy to make the text the key focus of preaching, after all it is being expounded and we are to preach the whole counsel of God. It is understandable to make people a primary focus of preaching too, application is the life of a sermon and lacking this it is a mere lecture. But the true focus of preaching rises above these things and must be kept constantly in view.

In a book called The Humbled Sinner Resolved Obadiah Sedgwick (member of the Westminster Assembly) explains what is the true focus of preaching. 

If believing in Jesus Christ is the only way of life, then Jesus Christ should be the main scope and mark of all our preaching and studying. “I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). It was the main theme and subject on which that blessed apostle spent himself.

So whether ministers preach the knowledge of sin, or whether they strive to make men conscious of sin, or whether they let fire the arrows of God’s threatenings on the conscience of sinners, or whether they touch on the mercy seat. All the end and scope is, or should be, to bring men to Christ, to make Christ more glorious in the eyes of sinners, and to incline their hearts to accept and embrace Him.  Christ may be preached two ways.  Either explicitly, when He is in His person, or offices, or benefits, is the only subject matter which is handled and proclaimed. Or virtually, when He is the end of the subject matter that is delivered.

Do I meet with a broken and afflicted spirit, groaning under the load of sinful nature and life, panting after the Prince of life and peace, willing to yield up itself to all the conditions of God in Christ? Here now I am to lift up Christ on His Cross, to spread His arms, to show unto that broken spirit, the very heart blood of Jesus Christ poured out for the remission of sins, to be a propitiatory sacrifice for his soul.

Do I meet with an obstinate and proud spirit, which dares to defy justice,
and presumptuously to complain about mercy? Here I open the indignation
of God against sin on purpose to awaken the conscience, to cast down the high and lofty imaginations.  Yet it is for no other purpose except that such a person being now come to the felt sense of their misery, may fitly be directed and seasonably encouraged to the sight and fruition of their remedy in Christ.

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How to Heal Rather than Deepen Divisions

How to Heal Rather than Deepen Divisions

How to Heal Rather than Deepen Divisions
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
13 Oct, 2021

We live in a time of deepening and widening divisions. The church is not exempt from this. Churches were not without their conflicts before 2020 but fractures have only accelerated since. It is obvious that COVID-19 and the measures used to contain it have caused major disruption to individual and congregational life as with most other things. Anxieties, distance, fatigue and uncertainty easily facilitate misunderstanding and mistrust. Beyond this, highly polarised and political differences can separate people once united on almost every other issue. Vaccines, masks, government requirements – we are all too aware of the pressing issues that currently impact on church life. There may also be potential or actual divisions on other deeply held concerns that do not arise from the current crisis. What can you and I do, not only to avoid deepening divisions but also to start to heal them?

Probably no one has written more on this subject than James Durham, certainly there has never been anything wiser and weightier.  He takes the issue as seriously as possible, and he is very realistic about the difficulties involved. Yet he brings biblical counsel to bear on a truly difficult area. He points out that divisions are not easily healed, even among the best (Proverbs 18:19). It is easy to deepen divisions by the way we contend for what we believe to be right and by putting labels on those with whom we disagree.  What language do we use about those with whom we disagree? Is it dismissive disrespect that harms their reputation or do we still seek to have others think respectfully about them? Here are some of things that deepen divisions according to Durham:

  • Heat and contention. Division engenders heatedness, strife and contention, and in this way, makes people carnal (1 Corinthians 3).
  • Division breeds alienation in affection and separates the fellowship even of those who have been most intimate.
  • Division breeds jealousy and suspicion about one another’s actions and intentions.
  • Harsh language. Division leads to harsh expressions and reflections on each other
  • Personal attacks. Divisions can come to the point that people do not spare to publish even personal attacks on each other.
  • Abuse of church discipline. Division has sometimes been followed with discipline as extreme as deposition and excommunication.

Durham’s book, A Treatise Concerning Scandal, maintains that division is a great evil, indeed that no greater evil can befall a church.  At one point Durham seeks to tackle the following great perplexing question. What should an orthodox church do, when it is divided in itself in what we may call some circumstantial truths or in contrary practices and actions, when still agreeing in the fundamentals of doctrine, worship, discipline and government, and having mutual esteem for one another’s integrity? What are they called to do for healing that division? Durham gives his answer in the following abridged and updated extract. Healing division according to Durham is not about ignoring problems and hoping they will go away by refusing to discuss the differences. Neither is it about one side having to concede to the other. It requires mutual concessions and genuine reconciliation. The following are the considerations we need to address before we start to implement the principles or practical solutions and methods that will heal division.

1. Recognise the dreadful plague of division

All, especially ministers, should have a deep impression of how terrible the plague of division is. If we thought of God as angry at a church and at ministers in a time of division, it is likely that people would be in a better condition to speak concerning healing.

Some time should be bestowed on this, therefore, to let this consideration sink down in the soul, so that the Lord’s hand in it is recognised. The many sad consequences of division should be brought before the mind and the heart should be seriously affected and humbled with this – just as if sword, pestilence or fire were threatened. Indeed, it is as if the Lord were spitting in ministers’ faces, rubbing shame on them and threatening to:

  • make them despicable,
  • blast the ordinances in their hands,
  • bring to nothing their authority among the people,
  • remove the hedges of the visible church to let in boars and wolves to spoil the vines and destroy the flock;
  • and, in a word, to remove His candlestick.

Ministers, or other persons who are involved in the division, do not only have to look to human opponents who are angry with them. They also have to look to the Lord as their opponent, for it is the Lord’s anger that has divided them. Failing to register this makes people more confident under the judgment. Rather, seeing it is a plague, even those who suppose themselves innocent as to the immediate origin of the division ought to humble themselves under the mighty hand of God on account of this plague, just as they would with other plagues.

2. Recognise division as a fearful snare

People should also view division as a snare. How many temptations accompany divisions (especially for ministers). How many afflictions, crosses and reproaches come on the back of them. Might it not make a minister tremble to think that now, due to the division, there is a snare and trial in everything (besides all his former difficulties and troubles).

In every sermon that he preaches, the temptation is that his own affection will steal in to make him hotter and more vehement against those who oppose him in the current controversy than he ordinarily is in things which more directly concern the glory of God. The snare is that he will make his ministry despicable before others if someone might provoke him by contradicting him. Even supposing no one would contradict him, he is in danger of laying less weight on what is edifying, because it is spoken by someone who differs from him on the controversial points.

When he sits in any meeting of a church court there is a temptation waiting in the least hint of the controversy, to discompose everything and make the meetings stumbling blocks to edification and burdensome.

Because of division all conversation almost becomes disheartening and comfortless. The most intimate brother is either suspicious or suspected. All constructions put on people’s sincerity in anything comes to be based on their interests. There is a failing of sympathy among brethren.

May not these considerations and many such like, make ministers circumspect, so that they would be slow to speak what may foment division, and wary in hazarding on snares. Alas, the opposite happens when people act with more confidence and liberty in attributing motives, speaking and acting, and with less sensitivity in times of division than at other times. Yet if people were impressed with the fear of sinning due to divisions, they would be much more disposed to speak of union.

3. Recognise our personal responsibility

Ministers and others should take time in secret before the Lord to take a sober view of their own spiritual condition and see if they have kept their own vineyard. They should examine things such as these:

(a) How have I prized union with the Lord? Have I striven to be, and to abide, in Christ, and to keep myself in the love of God?

(b) Is there any ground of quarrel in current trends or bygone practice, that might provoke the Lord to smite us in general?

(c) Have I been an accessory in any way to bring this evil of division in, for example by negligence and unfaithfulness, imprudence, heat, passion, tenaciousness, addictedness to personalities and too much reluctance to displease them, prejudice against others, uncharitableness to others, or the like?

This should include a view both of the sins that procure division, and the evils which create a breeding ground for it and increase it . It also requires impartiality and thoroughness. For it is preposterous for someone to begin removing differences when they do not know how it stands with themselves.

4. Recognise it in repentance before God

Once they have taken stock, there should be repentance appropriate to what is found, in special humbling and secret prayer to God. This should be not only for themselves and for their own condition in particular but for the whole church. In particular, for healing the division so that by healing the breach God would spare his people, and not allow His inheritance to be a reproach. It is no little furtherance to union to have people in a spiritual and mortified condition. For we are sure that even if it does not remove the difference, it will in a great part moderate the division, and restrain the carnality that usually accompanies it. It will also dispose people to be more impartial to hear what may lead further towards unity.

5. Do what you can to recommend unity

People should not stop here, but should seriously endeavour by speaking, writing, imploring and in other ways, to commend union to those who differ. Indeed, even those who differ should commend union to those who differ from them! We see the apostles do this frequently in the New Testament, not only in general to churches, but also to persons who are particularly entreated by name (Philippians 4:2).

People should encourage others with whom they agree, to be conciliatory , and should seriously entreat them. When they go to extremes, they should rebuke them for the good of the church. This is often of great weight. Often also, those who are most prominent in a difference will be hotter and carry things further than others of the same opinions will allow. Those who are less involved in the controversy ought not to be silent in this case.

6. Make unity the priority

Serious and single-minded thoughts of union should be laid down, and union should be purposely driven at as the great duty, so that endeavours would not principally tend to strengthen a side, or to let anyone exonerate themselves, or get advantage over others, etc., but to make one out of them both. Therefore, when one means or opportunity fails, another should be attempted. Neither should they be weary in this, although it often proves a most wearisome business.

7. Act with sensitivity and respect

All this should be attempted with sensitivity and respect to people’s persons, actions and qualifications. For often when division occurs, people are alienated from each other in their affections, which then disposes them to put bad constructions both on their opinions and their actions. Indeed, this is often the sticking point, that people’s affections are not satisfied with one another and that prevents them from trusting each other.

We see in Scripture that commending love as well as honouring and preferring others above ourselves, is ordinarily subjoined to the exhortations to union, or reproofs for division (Philippians 2, Ephesians 4, Matthew 18, etc.). This giving of respect could or should be manifested in ways like this.

(a) Being respectful when mentioning them and their concerns, whether in word or writing, especially those who are are most eminent among them.

(b) Putting good constructions on their aims, intentions and sincerity, even in such actions as are displeasing.

(c) Refraining from loading their opinions and actions with palpable absurdities and high aggravations, especially in public; because that only tends to make them odious, and it stands in the way of a future good understanding, when one has represented another as so absurd and hateful a person.

(d) Abstaining from all personal reflections, as also slighting answers, disdainful words and greetings, and such like. Instead, there should be love, familiarity, and tenderness. If there has been any reflection or bitterness which has occasioned misunderstanding, and even if it has been unjustly understood, there should be willingness to back down to remove it. I have heard of a worthy person who had been led away in an hour of temptation. Many of his former friends disapproved of him and discountenanced him, which only led him to defend what he had done and resent them for losing respect for him. It almost ended up in a division. But then he encountered one who, although he was most opposed to his present way, nevertheless, as lovingly and familiarly as ever, embraced him, and did not mention anything about it. It is said that his heart melted instantly with the conviction of his former opposition. And so any further drift towards a division was prevented, when he saw that he still had a place in the affections of the most eminent of those he differed from.

(e) Expressions of mutual confidence in one another. These should be apparent not only with respect to personalities, but also with respect to the ministry of those they differ from, endeavouring to strengthen and confirm it.

(f) Supportiveness towards them and confidence that they are trustworthy and fit to hold leadership positions in the church. This is a way of not only engaging with a particular person, but all who have the different opinion or practice, and it demonstrates confidence in them notwithstanding the difference. Whereas the contrary is disobliging and irritating to all, because it proposes that all who follow that opinion or practice are unworthy of office-bearing or trust, which is hard for anyone to stomach. And in a way, it forces them in their state of division to endeavour some other way of holding office, and to increase their reservations about those who manage matters so partially (in their esteem at least), and prefer the strengthening of a side, to the edification of the church (as any different party cannot but expound it, seeing they seem to themselves to have some persuasion of their own integrity in the main work).

(g) Mutual visits and fellowship, both in everyday things and specifically Christian fellowship. If this has been happening already, it should be increased even more. For if people have some confidence that others love their persons, respect them as ministers, and have a high esteem of them as Christians, they will be easily induced to trust the others in these ways also.

(h) Treating pejorative terms as unacceptable . In debates, if anyone uses bitter terms or casts aspersions (as even good men are too ready to grant themselves a liberty in debate to exceed in this), they should not be included in such fellowship visits and meetings .

8. Stir each other up in the things that matter

Ministers should not only in their own practice, but in their teaching, and in other ways, stir up others to the practice and life of religion. We constantly find the apostle Paul, on the back of his exhortations to union, urging them to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, etc. And in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, when he exhorts ministers to stay away from foolish and jangling questions, strifes and contentions, the remedy is stated either previously or subsequently, that they should press the believers to be zealous of good works, and careful to maintain them (Titus 3:8-9); and that they would follow after love, righteousness, faith, peace with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart (2 Timothy 2:22-23).

For when either ministers or church members are exercised and taken up with these things, there is little opportunity for other things! Then also they discern the necessity of union the more, and are the more disposed for it themselves, and others are the more easily induced to unite with them. Besides, it is never in such things that the godly and orthodox differ, but differences arise when they are diverted away from these. That is why so often much heat in particular differences carries with it a decay and lukewarmness in more practical things, while on the contrary, zeal in these material things ordinarily allays and mitigates heat and fervour in the other.

9. Appeal to God

There should solemn appeals to God for directing and guiding in the way to this end. For he is the God of peace, and ought to be acknowledged in removing the great evil of division. Hence the apostle subjoins prayers for peace to his exhortations to peace. Indeed, we are commanded to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (i.e. church peace) no less than civil peace.

It may be that the neglect of these appeals to God is the reason why those who love the welfare of Zion  and are sound, godly and peaceable still continue to be divided and cannot find any means of healing the division. Perhaps (a) the necessity of the Lord’s intervening may be discerned by this inability, (b) so that we would purposely appeal to the Lord for this thing, and also (c) so that people would not underestimate the seriousness of division, whether by:

  • failing to recognise it as a rod (seeing it is God with whom they have to do);
  • being content to live with it without seeking to have it removed by Him, just as we would plead with Him for the removal of any temporal plague; or 
  • fruitlessly expecting a blessing on the gospel in the absence of peace.

BOOKLET RECOMMENDATION

A different excerpt from Durham’s book is available as a booklet for £1.00. 

It includes Durham’s positive and practical biblical counsel on how to restore union when division exists.

Never did men run to quench a fire in a city, lest all should be destroyed, with more diligence, than men ought to bestir themselves to quench division in the church” – James Durham

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10 Ways to Take the Pulse of Our Times

10 Ways to Take the Pulse of Our Times

10 Ways to Take the Pulse of Our Times
The Covenanters were a group of faithful ministers and Christians in Scotland who worked to uphold the principles of the National Covenant of 1638 and Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 in order to establish and defend Presbyterianism against the imposition of Episcopacy by the state. They suffered severe persecution through imprisonment, fines and execution rather than abandon their principles.
5 Oct, 2021

The word crisis is attached to many things and events these days. It signals alarm and urgency and often a perceived lack of leadership. Crisis is originally a Greek word that speaks of using one’s judgment to make a decision at a particular turning point. We have been placed in a particular generation with particular advantages and challenges. It is pointless wishing it was any different, we need to understand our times to serve our generation (Acts 13:36). In our time of crisis, we need those with wisdom to discern our time (Ecclesiastes 8:5-6) and avoid its particular pitfalls (Ecclesiastes 8:12). We need those like the men of Issachar “who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). Taking the pulse of the times helps us remain watchful to take proactive or evasive action as we discern their impact and influence on the Church.

Robert Fleming said that it is possible to take the pulse of the times just as you can monitor the body’s heart rate, it makes us aware of the current condition of the Church and how it is responding to health threats. He was particularly concerned with the dangers that any particular time may present. We can have a blind spot for either the unique advantages or threats for the Church at a particular moment in time. It is important not to lose sight of the opportunities and reasons for encouragement and we hope return to this another time, but sometimes the threats of our times are less obvious so we need to know how to discern them. Fleming gives his counsel as to how to identify particular snares for the Church in the following updated and abridged extract.

1. When Suffering is Unavoidable

Each time has its unique diseases and dangers accompanied with special power and prevalence. The godly must observe this watchfully. The temptations of the time go along with the diseases that reveal themselves either by a hot boiling fever or a deadening lethargy. The temptations follow the diseases that are in that time most contagious. These are those which carry away the multitude and are incubated under the warm favour of those who are influential. Yet their greatest assault is on the godly. The danger lies in the evils which promise some outward advantage and security from trouble when the choice is between sin and suffering. This is where the present snare lies. The godly have a special duty to keep their distance from acceding to it in the least way. Next to the salvation of their soul, they must be solicitous to have their garments kept from the smallest stain and spot. A touch, a small defilement from a publicly prevailing evil can impact more deeply on the conscience and be more difficult to escape than that of many other personal failings.

2. When Truths are Questioned

There is some aspect of the truth of God in each period of the Church, that is more questioned and debated than at other times. This helps us know with greater clarity where the danger lies. Error will direct its aim at the godly man to assault and entangle them in his duty to contend for the truth. If one keeps their eye well on their present duty, they will find out more easily where the particular snare of the time is and how it seeks to obstruct them from doing that duty.

3. When Duties are Questioned

We may also discern a danger that is prevailing and gaining ground by the increasing tendency in a day of testing, to question and make new investigations about duties that were once clear and unquestionable. They were not questioned in the past because their opinions were not influenced by any outward pressure. This questioning suggests they are looking for a sad reason to be rid of their conscience. Seldom do any take this course without succeeding all too visibly in it to their further ruin. Balaam tried this and was successful in it. Hesitation and fainting in the heart due to lack of resolution to suffer for the truth will not long lack a doubt in the head to begin a debate about. It is then easy for a snare to enter. How tenderly we should guard the light of truth; it is like the apple of the eye which may be hurt by the least thing and not easily healed. People easily find the previous strong impressions about matters of duty without realising. Before they are aware have their judgment by a judicial stroke determined in that, which was before their desire. Those who are not jealous concerning a change of convictions in an hour of testing know little of the depth of the heart. The natural tendency is to spare ourselves at such a time.

4. When the Godly are Divided

We may also discern a snare by the way the adversary uses it to his advantage to divide the godly. It is easy to enter through such a division and throw the bait into such muddy waters. It is far too obvious how far a snare can prevail where jealousy and bitter strife and quarrelling between individuals take their eyes off the public danger. It also blunts the edge of contending for the truth in their smiting one another. There may often be a necessity for the godly to withstand their friends to their face. It may even need to be done to the most eminent in the Church such as Peter (Galatians 2:11) when the truth is concerned. But this should be done with the greatest caution and tenderness to avoid a division or quarrel which is like a flood (Proverbs 17:14).

The adversary is watching and waiting to get his advantage at such a time. It is all too sadly known, how a small wedge driven in with this tendency makes way for a further snare to come in (see 1 Corinthians 11:16-19). What a sad connection there is between a time of division in the Church and a further departure from the truth. But we must always take heed, that we pursue union among ourselves in such a way that Christ and His cause are not left alone [i.e. we do not abandon His truth].

5. When Enemies Change Tactics

Present danger may be seen by the sudden change of known adversaries and the friendly insinuations of those who previously threatened. There is an ambush in this, it is merely a change of weapons for advantage. This should be grounds for fear and caution and being much alone with God to know the voice of the shepherd, lest they follow after a stranger. It is more usual to be swept off our feet in calm weather than blown down by a storm. It is hard to stand before the flatteries of men where that sweeter peace with God is not maintained in the soul. It is a special means of making the ear deaf to the most charming voice of the enchanter. It is often obvious that adder’s poison is under their lips, while wrath is boiling in their heart (Psalm 140:3-5). The cruel man can change his demeanour when it is convenient to lay a snare, and like Joab embrace those in their arms whom they intend to smite under the fifth rib.

6. When Fear of Man Prevails

A snare can be discerned by the degree to which the fear of man prevails in that time. It has an unusual command at particular times over the spirits of even those whose former zeal and resolution for the truth have been prominent in other times of testing. There is cause for watching at such times for there is a snare in the fear of man (Proverbs 29:25) which will take its advantage when it finds people now fleeing men. The godly have a breastplate, but no piece of armour for their back when their turn their face from resisting. It is sad when the adversary is taught to pursue us by our fainting. It is sad also when the spirit that seems to be on the ascendant in the world prevails even over the spirits of the godly. It then makes them debased and contemptible in the eyes of those enemies whose hearts would have previously trembled at the authority of God evident on them. This becomes too obvious in a time when the Church is humbled and tried until the hour of her trial has passed.

7. When Sin Succeeds

A snare is to be feared and watched against when success accompanies a sinful course; especially when this lasts for some time. New queries will then be raised and strange reports spread undermining the Lord’s way with great subtlety and seeking to make the godly question it. The Psalmist found it was not easy to stand before this. It made him begin to debate his principles and the benefits of his convictions (Psalm 73:13). The adversary knows how to assault the followers of the truth and attack them at their weakest at such a time. The scandal of the cross causes many to offend. It is hard for those to suffer who do not know the fellowship of the cross of Christ which is part of the greatest and closest fellowship with Him on earth. The Church may endure more danger from some of her friends than from the professed adversary at such times. It is often in this way that a prevailing snare is assisted. It cannot but be a searching and dangerous time when many are turning aside. Even some who have understanding may be permitted to fall and be ready to press their sin on others as their duty. Such seldom fall away without being more active to engage others in the same course. Sometimes they are more energetic in this than they were in holding their former integrity to the truth. We have seen this and it happens, let us, therefore, hear this and be aware of it for our good.

8. When the Church is Harmed

A snare of the times may be discerned by its tendency to produce corruption in the Church. It still produces the same effects, whatever people pretend, when it manifests itself by the hands of Esau though it has the voice of Jacob. Does not the ruin of many who have been dashed on such a rock, put a sad marker on it? Scripture and observing the Church’s experience show us warning beacons that (unless we shut our eyes to it) will make any snare obvious. We can see clearly what a sad tendency had for making shipwreck of faith and a good conscience. It is also clear how hard it is to dance about the fire and not be burned or to stand in the way and counsels of ungodly men and not be ensnared.

9. When Circumstances Alter

A snare seems to be threatened when people enquire about the duty of the times without considering it in the light of present circumstances. A snare can be in things that are at other times indifferent, yet in other circumstances neglecting them may mean abandoning duty. Or by the same token doing something indifferent which is lawful in other circumstances may be morally wrong in other contexts. Something indifferent in itself which is merely around sacred things and the worship of God may be required by civil government by virtue of their sole command. This may bring the godly into subjection in things in which they are not to be subject and harm the separate jurisdiction of the church. To enquire into this as a general principle without making particular application to the present complex situation is dangerous.

It may be said a snare is entering when the prophet’s consideration “Is this a time for such a thing?” (see 2 Kings 5:26) is not regarded much in the present questions. It was innocent in itself for the disciples to refresh themselves with sleep, but that they could not watch at that one hour with their Master in His sufferings must of necessity alter the situation since it was in that case deserting Him.

10. When Spirituality Declines

Is it not evidence of a snare getting an advantage when private concerns and outward interests have a prevailing influence on our spirits? A snare does not come in without an opportunity and its greatest strength and advantage is within us. Conformity to the world together with an unperceived decline in tenderness of soul too often breeds a tendency to conform to an evil course in a downhill motion. The snare will follow in after this worldly conformity that has the mastery over them. How many in embracing the world have fallen from the truth at the next step? No weapon has ruined more and has been more made use of against the Church. Where other snares have killed their thousands, this has slain its ten thousands. Where this appears at a time of testing for the Church it is like the appearance of grey hairs. It is not easy for any to stand, resist or keep their feet from a snare when they gone backward so far that the truth has ceased to have command over their heart.

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The Subtle Snare of Fearing Others

The Subtle Snare of Fearing Others

The Subtle Snare of Fearing Others
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.
21 Sep, 2021

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

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

1. Fearing Others Can Ensnare in Serious Sin

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

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

2. Fearing Others can Ensnare the Best

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

3. Fearing Others can Ensnare Dangerously

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

4. Fearing Others Can Ensnare Leaders

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

5. Fearing Others Can Ensnare Us Despite Our Principles

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

6. Fearing Others Can Ensnare Us Despite Our Piety

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

7. Fearing Others Can Ensnare Many

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

8. Fearing Others Can Ensnare Others With Us

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

Conclusion

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

AVOIDING SPIRITUAL HARM

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

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The Devotional Value of the Westminster Confession

The Devotional Value of the Westminster Confession

The Devotional Value of the Westminster Confession
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
12 Aug, 2021

The Westminster Confession of Faith is not simply a document full of doctrinal statements. It has a practical and devotional use for every Christian. It is a document that may be made utterly personal. It is both for the church and for the individual. It is the role of the church to confess, to worship God, and to structure itself as God requires. But it is also the role of individuals to take an informed and intelligent approach to confession, worship, and organisation—both as individuals, in their personal devotions, and as members of the body of the church.

Clear understanding

People’s personal grasp of the many doctrines taught in Scripture and from the pulpit can be quite fuzzy and patchy. The Westminster Confession offers a precise articulation of the key doctrines of Scripture in a systematic manner so that you can be clear and orderly about the truth in your own mind.

With a clear understanding in place, then you can respond with the appropriate worship. Our devotions can only be enhanced as we grow in an accurate knowledge of what God is like and what God has done. Our best devotional responses of praise and adoration spring out of our best grasp of the identity of our Saviour and the nature of the salvation He provides. 

Personal Commitment

The personal commitment and attachment to doctrine from the vows that office-bearers often take when they subscribe to the Confession. They are often asked, is this “the confession of your faith”?  They must own it in a personal way as the confession not simply of the Church but of their own faith. 

They confess publicly that the truths of this document have become their convictions by the work of the illumination of the Holy Spirit on the Word of God. They have come to love them. The fact that they have not written the words themselves is not relevant. It cannot reduce their personal devotion to the truths. They are able to make use of them because it is the same Spirit that has opened the mind and heart to receive them.

Paul Woolley comments on the fact that “most modern people hold the view that a creed is something to be forced, or imposed on other people. That is utterly perverse …. Nothing could be further from the proper function for a creed. It ought to be a very joyful affirmation of the truth which has benefited the affirmant, and which he wants to pass on to others in a clear and simple form.”(Paul Woolley, ‘What is a Creed for?’ in Scripture and Confession, ed. John H. Skilton).

The embodiment of the gospel

BB Warfield calls attention to some of the reasons as to why the Confession possesses this character. It is because the Westminster divines ‘wrote these definitions aiming before all things to be saints: is it strange that we see the saint through the theologian and have our hearts warmed by the contact? Certain it is that the Westminster Standards have a spiritual significance to us which falls in no wise short of their historical and scientific significance.
Open these standards where you will and you will not fail to feel the throb of an elevated and noble spiritual life pulsing through them. They are not merely a notably exact scientific statement of the elements of the gospel: they are, in the strictest sense of the words, the very embodiment of the gospel.

Knowing God

They not only know what God is; they know God: and they make their readers know Him—know Him in His infinite majesty, in His exalted dominion, in His unlimited sovereignty, in the immutability of His purpose and His almighty power and universal providence, but know Him also in that strangest, most incomprehensible of all His perfections, the unfathomableness of His love. Their description of Him transcends the just limits of mere definition and swells into a paean of praise—praise to Him who is “most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.”

And how profound their knowledge is of the heart of man—its proneness to evil, its natural aversion to spiritual good, its slowness of response to spiritual influence, the deviousness of its path even under the leading of the Holy Ghost. But, above all, they know, with a fulness of apprehension which startles and instructs and blesses the reader, the ways of God with the errant souls of men—how He has condescended to open the way to them of having fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, how He has redeemed them unto Himself in the blood of His Son, and how He deals with them, as only a loving Father may, in disciplining and fitting them for the heavenly glory.

The Christian experience

Where elsewhere may we find more vitally set forth the whole circle of experience in the Christian life—what conversion is and how God operates in bringing the soul to knowledge of Him and faith in its Saviour, what are the joys of justifying grace and of adoption into the family of God, and what the horrors of those temporary lapses that lie in wait for unwary steps, and what the inconceivable tenderness of God’s gracious dealings with the stumbling and trembling spirit until He brings it safely home? Who can read those searching chapters on Perseverance and Assurance without feeling his soul burn within him, or without experience of a new influx of courage land patience for the conflicts of life?

It is not a singular experience which Dr. Thornwell records, when he sets down in his journal his thanksgiving to God for this blessed Confession. “I bless God,” he writes, “for that glorious summary of Christian doctrine contained in our noble Standards. It has cheered my soul in many a dark hour, and sustained me in many a desponding moment.”

We do not so much require as delight, with consentient mind, in his testimony, when he declares that he knows of “no uninspired production in any language, or of any denomination, that for richness of matter, soundness of doctrine, scriptural expression and edifying tendency can for a moment enter into competition with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.” The Westminster Standards, in a word, are notable monuments of the religious life as well as of theological definition, and, speaking from the point of view of vital religion, this is their significance as a creed.” (BB Warfield “The Significance of the Westminster standards as a creed”).

Earnest and intelligent devotion

John Murray in “The Work of the Westminster Assembly” wrote similarly. ‘The work produced by the Westminster Assembly has lived and will permanently live. The reason is obvious. The work was wrought with superb care, patience, precision, and above all with earnest and intelligent devotion to the Word of God and zeal for His glory. Sanctified theological learning has never been brought to bear with greater effect upon the formulation of the Christian Faith. While it would be dishonoring to the Holy Spirit to accord to these documents a place in any way equal to the Word of God either in principle or in practical effect, yet it would also be dishonoring to the Holy Spirit, who has promised to be with His church to the end, to undervalue or neglect what is the product of His illumination and direction in the hearts and minds of His faithful servants. Other men laboured and we have entered into their labours’.

It should be our delight to find increasing devotional value and spiritual significance within the Confession, simply because its doctrines are the doctrines of Scripture. Devotion must be derived from and feed upon the fulness of the truth. As Thornwell puts it, our devotional requirements will be met in the “richness of matter, soundness of doctrine, scriptural expression and edifying tendency” of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

A GUIDE

Our Faith helps to unpack the Confession of Faith to get most from it. Its simple approach helps everyone engage with it and grow in their understanding of Scripture.

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Avoiding a Minister’s Greatest Temptation

Avoiding a Minister’s Greatest Temptation

Avoiding a Minister’s Greatest Temptation
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.
6 Aug, 2021

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

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

1. What is Commendable People-Pleasing?

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

2. What is Sinful People-Pleasing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Reformation in Africa is a Key Priority

Why Reformation in Africa is a Key Priority

Why Reformation in Africa is a Key Priority
George Hutcheson (1615-1674) ministered in Ayrshire and Edinburgh and was a noted bible expositor. Like many other ministers he was removed from his congregation in 1662 for refusing to conform to the rule of bishops.
13 Jul, 2021

Africa’s population growth is exponential, it is doubling every thirty years and expected to surpass 2 billion by 2038. By 2060, six of the world’s ten largest Christian countries will be in Africa. Of course, the question is, what sort of Christian will that be? In 1910 there were 2 million identifying as Christians in Africa, today there are 650 million but 200 million of these are evangelicals. There are many opportunities for biblical truth but there are also many challenges. Scripture indeed holds out specific hope and promise for those labouring to bring greater reformation to Africa.

We are well aware of many challenges such as extreme poverty, conflict, corruption and disease among other challenges. There is also great spiritual poverty. Less than 20 percent of evangelical pastors have received seminary training and biblical illiteracy and heresy wreak havoc. In some places Christians face persecution from Islamist extremist groups. These challenges are also opportunities and Scripture offers great encouragement in seeking to meet them with the truth of God’s Word. One particular passage is Zephaniah 3:9-10. This speaks of how God will make pure doctrine, worship and profession spread to many people both Jews and Gentiles in New Testament times. They will combine together in serving Him and helping one another in His obedience (v9). This unity and common profession is described as “a pure language” (see Isaiah 19:18). The Lord promises that He will gather them from the furthest parts of the world to seek Him and offer service to Him (v10). This promise is accomplished, partly in His gathering together in Christ His people dispersed throughout the world and its remotest corners (see John 11:52). The regions beyond Ethiopia are especially mentioned. These peoples will be included among the rest in a time of great blessing. George Hutcheson comments further on these verses in a way that is helpful for us.

1. The Lord Will Gather His Church in Africa

It is cause for praise to God and of encouragement to the godly that however it goes with nations, God will not lack a Church. He may gather it from among pagan Gentiles and those of whom there is little apparent hope. He will get many people, even from beyond the rivers of Ethiopia.

2. The Lord Will Reform His Church in Africa

Purity of doctrine, worship and profession is the glory of a gospel Church. It is a glorious work of God to make it so and keep it so. The Lord says, “I will turn to the people a pure language” or pure doctrine and profession instead of their idolatrous and blasphemous imaginations and ways.

3. The Lord Will Reform His Church in Africa Thoroughly

Purity of doctrine, worship and profession do not consist in a lawless liberty or a toleration to think or say whatever people want to. Rather it is conjoined with and carried on by a united uniformity. This is the rich fruit and recompense of much trouble, so it is to be expected in the Lord’s time and measure. After much trouble (v8) they shall have a pure language, they will serve Him with one consent (literally shoulder) even in that pure language (see Jeremiah 32:39; Zechariah 14:9).

Unanimity in the matters of God and the free access of Jew and Gentile to serve God is a great mercy of the kingdom of Christ. When those who seek God are of one heart and all put their hands to help one another without obstructing or lying idle it is a sign of thriving in serving God. This is also included in the promise as a great blessing and a means of much good, “they shall serve him with one consent.”

The true marks of a converted and spiritual people are being much in calling on God, making use of Him in all things, and giving up themselves entirely to be His servants. To testify their subjection and thankfulness they put their hands to His service as far as they are called to do so. They will do everything as service to Him and bring their worship, themselves, or others, as they are able to offer them up to Him. They described here in this way “they all call on the name of the Lord”, when they get the pure language, they are suppliants, they serve Him, and bring His offering.

4. The Lord Will Reform His Church in Africa in His Time

The Lord will not lose any of His elect, however far they are scattered throughout the world. He will recover His own, when their condition shows they are afar off and driven into exile, without hope or probability of return. The Lord will in due time seek after and recover His ancient people, now for a scattered long time. This will lead to a reviving of His service in the world. For “from beyond the rivers of Ethiopia, he will seek the daughter of his dispersed, and cause them to come”. At this time there will be suppliants and offerings brought and serving Him with one consent.

Conclusion

Reformation in Africa should be a key priority for our prayers and endeavours. There are many church and mission endeavours that can be prayerfully supported, among them Reforming Africa Ministries, The Liberia Project and The Gambia Partnership.

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How Christ Taught Us to Pray for Reformation

How Christ Taught Us to Pray for Reformation

How Christ Taught Us to Pray for Reformation
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
24 Jun, 2021

To reform is to be shaped by the Word of God into God’s own pattern and design. We need that individually and corporately. We need Christ to rule in our hearts and in His own kingdom. We also want to see Christ’s kingdom extended and grow in stability and purity. In a time of confusion, we need the clarity that comes from the Word. In a time of apostasy, it is far easier to decline and fragment than it is to reform. Ultimately reforming is the work of God’s grace and Spirit. But that only increases our responsibility to pray for it and to search God’s Word to see how we need to change personally and collectively.

Christ has given us a prayer for reformation which is as extensive as possible while also being as brief as possible (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2). Simply to pray that His kingdom would come, is to desire that it would come in as many places as possible and in as many ways as possible. The Larger Catechism Q191 indicates something of this fulness.

In the second petition, (which is, Thy kingdom come,) acknowledging ourselves and all mankind to be by nature under the dominion of sin and Satan, we pray, that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, the fullness of the Gentiles brought in; the church furnished with all gospel-officers and ordinances, purged from corruption, countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate: that the ordinances of Christ may be purely dispensed, and made effectual to the converting of those that are yet in their sins, and the confirming, comforting, and building up of those that are already converted: that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him for ever: and that he would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends.

When John Calvin wrote a defence and manifesto of church reformation, he focussed on four main topics which he called the soul and body of the church. The soul of the church is worship and salvation. The body is the sacraments and church government. Any errors had to be removed and a right understanding and practice, according to the Word of God, put in place (see The Necessity of Reforming the Church).

These four topics are at the heart of what it means to pray for reformation. The kingdom comes when the gospel is declared and the external means of establishing this kingdom are in place through mission. These are the ordinances Christ requires, including the Word, sacraments and government or discipline. But even when they are established there can be a temptation to diminish or corrupt them in many ways. And even if this is not the case we need the blessing of the Holy Spirit to make them effectual so that the church is inwardly and spiritually changed and not just outwardly. Indeed, it is a prayer we all need every day, personally as well as collectively.

Henry Scudder (a member of the Westminster Assembly) indicated the same perspective in expounding this part of the Lord’s Prayer. It is a prayer that “the Holy Spirit of God would effectually accompany the outward means of gathering, and building up the elect, to the enlightening and translating them from the power of darkness into the kingdom of his dear son. And that they may increase in knowledge and every good grace, according to the mighty working of his glorious power; that the Word, sacraments, and discipline, the weapons of this warfare, may be mighty through God to pull down strongholds, and cast down imaginations and high things which exalt themselves against the knowledge of God, and may bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ”.

Christ’s kingdom comes the more the means of establishing it increase, especially where the Word of the kingdom is proclaimed (Matthew 12:28; 13:19; Mark 4:15). The more that heart obedience is given and grace increases, the more this kingdom comes (Romans 6:17; Matthew 13:18). The following updated extract is drawn from James Ussher’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer which influenced the Larger Catechism.

1. How is this a Prayer for Reformation?

We pray that:

  • God may reign in our hearts, not sin;
  • the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ both by the inward working of his Spirit, and also by the outward means may be enlarged daily, until it is perfected at the coming of Christ to judgement;
  • the kingdom of sin and Satan being more and more abolished (Acts 26:18; Colossians 1:13) Christ may now reign in our hearts by grace (Colossians 3:15-16) and we with Him for ever in glory (2 Timothy 2:12);
  • Christ’s government in the Church may be here in this world enlarged;
  • it would please God to gather His elect out of every part of the world.

2. How is this a Prayer for Personal Reformation?

We pray that God would give His Holy Spirit, as the chief and principal means by which our Saviour Christ gathers and rules His Church, conveying His spirit of knowledge and good inclinations into His people. Consequently, we also pray against the influences and temptations of Satan, and of our own flesh.

We are like poor captives who are always creeping up to the prison door and labouring to loose their bolts. Out of a sorrowful felt sense of the spiritual bondage we are in to Satan and sin, we pray that the kingdom of Christ may come and be advanced in every one of our hearts in justice, righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). That the Lord by His Word and spirit would rule in the hearts and lives of His Saints (Colossians 3:15-16). Thus, as kings unto God, we may subdue within us all those opinions or affections that rise up and rebel against God.

That it would please God every day more and more to increase the holy gifts and graces of His Holy Spirit in the hearts of those whom He has already called effectually.

3. How is this a Prayer for Church Reformation?

We pray concerning the means by which the Spirit is conveyed; namely, the Word (and the ways it is declared), the sacraments and church discipline.

(a) Word. We pray that as it is the sceptre of Christ’s kingdom (Mark 1:13), the rod and standard of His power (Psalm 110:2; Isaiah 11: 4, 10; Isaiah 44:4, 10) and the Word of the kingdom (Mark 1:13; Matthew 13) it may have
free access everywhere (2 Thessalonians 3:1). That it may be gloriously lifted up and advanced and have sole pre-eminence so that everything that does not agree with it and all traditions and inventions of men may be rejected.

(b) Sacraments. We pray that, as they are the seals of God’s promises and the whole Covenant of grace, they may be both administered and received in the purity and sincerity which is according to His Word, and that all false sacraments rejected.

(c) Church discipline. Our desire is that not only private persons but the whole Church may be ruled by the line of God’s Word. Thus, well doers may be advanced and evil doers censured and corrected, according to the degree of their fault. Also that any tyranny of conscience would be taken away.

We also pray that God would supply His Church with all such office-bearers as He approves. That being endowed with special gifts, they may be both able and willing to carry out their responsibilities diligently and faithfully. That God would gather His elect by raising up faithful and diligent ministers in every part of the world. That all unfaithful and negligent ministers would be
removed (Isaiah 56:10-11) and that faithful and able watchmen may be set over the flock of Christ (Matthew 9:38).  That with sufficient help and protection etc. the Word of God may be freely preached everywhere (2 Thessalonians 3:1). That it would please God, with the blessing of his spirit, to accompany the word, so that it may be of power to convert those that belong unto him.

4. How is this a Prayer for Increasing Church Reformation?

We pray that where these things are only begun, they may be perfected.  That every Church may be polished and garnished, that Sion may appear in her perfect beauty. We pray that the Jews may be called and so many of the Gentiles as belong to Christ, and the enemies of the kingdom may be either converted or confounded.

We desire that the eyes of all, especially governments, would be opened to see the true beauty of pure religion, and of the spouse of Christ (Isaiah 60:3).
We pray that God would banish and root out of His Church all those things which may hinder the advance of His kingdom in the hearts of those that belong to Him.

Finally, we pray that God would finish the kingdom of grace, calling His elect (Romans 9:27), confirming those who stand (2 Thessalonians 2:17), raising the fallen (James 5:15-16), comforting the afflicted (Isaiah 61:3) and hastening the kingdom of glory.

Conclusion

What is the best way to make it our own and not simply think about praying for reformation but actually engage in it? Do we care enough about these concerns to make them the subject of earnest and constant prayer? How can we summarise this expansive prayer for reformation so that we can do this? One way is simply to use the Larger Catechism Q191 as a guide. Another option is to use a slightly fuller summary, drawn from similar thoughts expressed by John Ball (a member of the Westminster Assembly).

(a) Mission. Pray that God would plant His Church inwardly and outwardly in places where it is not established. Pray also that God would send forth His word to those in darkness and powerfully accompany it by His Spirit. That He would give them pastors according to His own heart to feed them with knowledge and understanding. That He would establish His own ordinances, and establish a holy order amongst His people, linking them together in mutual love and holy profession of the faith.

(b) Church Reformation. Pray that God would supply existing Churches with what is lacking and mercifully continue and increase what good they enjoy. Pray also that He would preserve purity of doctrine, as well as the Word being preached purely and freely, with power and authority. We pray for faithful seminaries that train those who will preach the Word.

Our prayer is that the sacraments may be administered purely according to the institution of Christ, that the house of God may be governed according to the heavenly form for governing that kingdom. We pray that comely order may be observed among the saints, each with all diligence, patience, meekness and zeal, doing the duties of their sphere.

We pray that the censures of the Church may be rightly carried out so that the good may be encouraged, the evil shamed and brought to repentance or else cut off from the communion – all to the advancement of the kingdom of Christ Jesus.

Again, we ask that God would supply His Church with office-bearers who might both govern and assist according to His will. We ask for men supplied with wisdom and grace to discharge their duties. Those who have blameless lives and will be examples to their flocks in good works, whose hearts are set on the building of God’s kingdom.

(c) Spiritual Transformation. Pray that the Holy Spirit would work effectually by His outward ordinances, for the building up of those already called and the effectual calling of those who are not. The powerful work of the Spirit in everyone’s soul and conscience is the most evident demonstration of the glorious presence of God. The mighty and wonderful works of the Holy Spirit include: pricking some in the heart, humbling others at the sight of their vileness, converting, quickening, comforting, revealing the thoughts, inflaming with burning zeal, assuring the heart of the truth received. All this is an infallible witness of the most gracious presence of Christ amongst us.

(d) Personal Reformation. We pray also that the graces and fruit of the Spirit may plentifully grow and increase. Our prayer also is that God would bless His people with inward and outward peace and prosperity, that being freed from clashes, contentions, and external persecutions, they may walk in the comfort of the Holy Spirit and mutually edify each other in their most holy faith.
We pray that they may live together in love, being of one mind and one judgment, yielding free and willing subjection to the sovereignty of Christ Jesus, accepting the service and labour of His faithful messengers and walking in holiness without offence.

The image of the Reformation wall in Geneva depicts John Knox preaching reformation before the court of Mary Queen of Scots. It also displays the Geneva Bible rendering of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11. The photographer was Rokus Cornelis, more details here.

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The Church has a Debt Problem

The Church has a Debt Problem

The Church has a Debt Problem
The Covenanters were a group of faithful ministers and Christians in Scotland who worked to uphold the principles of the National Covenant of 1638 and Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 in order to establish and defend Presbyterianism against the imposition of Episcopacy by the state. They suffered severe persecution through imprisonment, fines and execution rather than abandon their principles.
8 Jun, 2021

Problem debt in society is only increasing in our culture. Future generations will also incur significant national debt as a consequence of current decisions. When we think of the church having a debt problem it is something other than financial. In spiritual terms, we owe a debt of glory and love to God. We owe a debt of truth to others in testifying to grace and the revealed will of God. This is something required of us as individuals as well as a body. We owe it to everyone now and in the future, indeed if we fail to do it properly now it will affect coming generations. We need to present this to them in the most faithful, winsome and compelling way we can. That is a debt of vast consequence, and have we even maintained the minimum payments on it? Ignoring this debt will not make it go away, in fact, it will only increase.

If you have a debt problem the advice is sound and clear. First, make a list of all you owe; second, list them in order of importance and third, start to work out how you can pay them off. Although it is different, the same advice is sound for the spiritual debt we are thinking of. Robert Fleming explains more in this updated extract about what this spiritual debt involves and how we are to pay it.

1. We Owe a Testimony to the Gospel

It is clear, that those who believe and receive the testimony of Jesus Christ, set their seal to it to certify that He is true. They subscribe (as it were) to the truth and doctrine of the gospel (John 3:33). There is a special debt on each Christian to bear witness that God is true. Those who have an assurance of grace confirmed to them owe a special debt to the truth and faithfulness of their God (often confirmed to them) to give Him the glory of His faithfulness (Psalm 89:1).

2. We Owe a Testimony in Our Lives

It is also clear that manifesting the power of godliness and the virtues of He who has called them is required through the whole course of a Christian’s life as a living and visible witness to these things.

3. We Owe a Testimony to Others

The converted person with their new discovery of the truth on first entering the Christian life is like someone who has come into another world. They have a special call and advantage for engaging in such a duty. They can commend by testimony to others what God has so marvellously commended to their own soul? They lack no opportunity to let the world know and wonder at such a change. Though once they were blind, now they see. They know assuredly that the truth is the power of God to salvation, not just through the report and testimony of others since now they see it with their own eyes. Their duty after being converted is to strengthen their brethren (Luke 22:32).

4. We Owe a Testimony from Experience

When a Christian has received a new seal of the faithfulness of God they have a new debt to give a good report and witness to the truth especially if they have harmed it in any way by fearful doubts and fainting from it. Their testimony will have the special benefit of confirming others in the way of the Lord because their formers fears were so obvious. Hezekiah after such a remarkable fall and fainting testifies in this way (Isaiah 38:15) as does David (Psalm 31:22).

5. We Owe a Testimony When the Truth is Attacked

There is a debt to the least truth of Scripture owed by those who profess it. This is especially so in a time of suffering when they have a special opportunity to witness to it and confess it by adhering closely to it. Some have a more special call and greater opportunity to do this than others. But sealing and confirming the truth is like a great public treasure store and the least Christian does not lack an opportunity to cast into it their mite. When we see atheism abounding public and the truth and faithfulness of God are challenged, this calls loudly to the godly person to attest it by some more obvious testimony than at other times. When it is the lot of a Christian to be amongst a generation of mockers, they will not lack opportunity and a special call to own the truth by a Christianly weighty and prudent witness. They are obliged to seal the truth even though no one else will. It is a call when the faithfulness of his God so often proved in their experience is brought into question by others. To David, this was like a sword that thrust him through, and he could not bear it when they said unto him, “Where is your God?”

6. We Owe a Testimony After Trials

After a time of remarkable trial, when the Christian comes safe to land after a storm, there is a new debt to bear witness to such a new manifestation of the truth and faithfulness of God. They make known the benefit received by the affliction and by their testimony may endear the way of the Lord to others. Job, after a long-continued storm of being afflicted, comes at the end to pay his debt to the truth by his seal and testimony (Job 42:5). Many after the storm can testify to the help of the Lord (Isaiah 48:21).

A Christian’s experience of the faithfulness of God is a special trust and debt owed to the truth, a talent put in their hand to manage (Psalm 66:16). This practice would greatly enrich Christian fellowship (Malachi 3:16) in mutual joy and establishment in the truth in a time when the benefit of serving the Lord is in question. We should not be hindered from it because others do it with an empty show and counterfeit.

When we have experience manifold trials and troubles we must let others who observe us know that we are satisfied with God and can rest securely on His Word when we have no resting place elsewhere. The apostle pays his debt in testifying that he is “persecuted, yet not forsaken; cast down, yet not destroyed” and saying “having nothing, I possess all things” (2 Corinthians 6:10).

7. We Owe a Testimony in Death

This Christian is specially called to this duty at the close of their days. Then they must pay this debt by commending the way of the Lord and confirming others in it. Would it not be an excellent appendix to the last will and testament of a dying Christian to seal with their last breath the faithfulness of God. Their words carry more weight then than at other times. They can witness that through the various steps of their life they know that God is true and has helped them until now. It is the last service of a dying Christian to their generation, to deliver to them the truth received and often proved. This is an excellent legacy to bequeath to others.

8. We Owe a Testimony to God’s Faithfulness

Christian wisdom can direct us on how to testify as we have an opportunity in our present circumstances. But is certain that each Christian is a witness on behalf of the faithfulness of God, to attest that God is true. There is an implicit seal by believing, but something more explicit is called for in times when the reality of godliness is so explicitly assailed as fanaticism. Throughout Scripture, believers are concerned to maintain a remembrance of the faithfulness of God and convey a lasting testimony to it (1 Samuel 7:12). No mercy is so small that God’s faithfulness is not engraved on it (Genesis 32:10).

9. We Owe a Testimony in Suffering

When the Christian is called to suffer for a particular truth they are also called to confess the faithfulness of God. They bear witness to the world that they are not ashamed of the cross of Christ because they know whom they have believed (even though others may choose sin, rather than affliction and so make God a liar).

10. We Owe Future Generations Clear Truth

There is a public debt on the Church in every generation to seal the truth to the ages to come and witness to the faithfulness of God. Scripture is clear on this and explicitly prophecies that it will happen (Psalm 145:4-6). One generation after another should seal the truth to another and thus carry forward a witness to it. Each time has some special debt to pay to posterity arising from a new addition to the great and remarkable works of the Lord. The greater the things witnessed by His works for the Church in one age more than another, the greater the debt. The Church must record and transmit the works of the Lord and the memory of His goodness to future times.
This is even more so when we live in times in which many seek to shake and unsettle people as to this great foundation. It would be desirable if the records of every age as they concern the Church, were clearer in recording a history of the verification of the truth and the way in which Scripture has been notably confirmed. In this way, one age would declare its faithfulness to the next, an excellent service if it is done carefully and wisely.

11. We Owe Future Generations Pure Truth

The Church owes posterity a debt to transmit the truth purely without damaging it. The oracles of God are committed to the Church and she is responsible for this in every generation. The truth of God has been more sharply assaulted with the greatest opposition and this makes this debt the greater. In every age, there are some to testify to the truth and each Christian is bound to do so. But no private activity can make up for a public witness. The enemy is not private but public and so a more solemn, authoritative and united testimony is then called for by the Church. This witness will be of benefit to the generations to come to see how their fathers held out and wrestled to keep their ground in defence of the gospel. It is like setting up another barrier to guard against a further breach when the enemy comes in like a flood. The confessions of the Church in every age in giving public testimony to the truth, although followed by clear danger and suffering have been more effectual in conserving the truth than all disputes. They overcome by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony (Revelation 12:7).

12. We Owe Future Generations the Whole Truth

The Church also has a special debt to posterity to contend for the truth once delivered to the saints (which cannot be altered during this period before the second coming). This is not only true concerning more fundamental matters, we cannot profess such a zeal to these as makes us indifferent to other concerns of the truth. Can a piece of truth held forth in the Scripture be of such low value, to warrant abandoning or surrendering it if brought in question? One line of the truth is of more inestimable worth than the crowns and sceptres of all the monarchs of the earth. God who declares heaven and earth should fall before one tittle of his word perish gives it a different value. Can those be faithful in greater things who are not in those which are little? It is all too clearly seen, how a small surrender makes a great breach. Truths which are comparatively small may be great in their own time when they are the word of Christ’s patience. The lesser its value is with many, the greater testimony required by a Christian’s adherence to it. The truths of God declared in Scripture are so closely connected together that one part cannot be attacked without special harm to the whole. Every corruption of the truth aims at the very soul of religion.

13. We Owe Future Generations True Godliness

The Church has a debt to transmit truth and godliness to posterity not in a bare form only, but in with its life and power. Throughout a large part of the reformed Church the truth once shone brightly with much glory and warmth in many places. The truth and worship of God may still indeed be professed there, but the power and spirituality of it is a strange and unknown thing. We might ask whether the influences of the Holy Spirit are experienced there. Is there such a thing as real fellowship and converse with God in public and private worship?
There is great cause to fear that the shadow and form will soon be gone when the power of it is so great a mystery. The tide seems to have gone back so far with little expectation of its return. Only the faithfulness of God gives us hope for the Church of Christ. Fervent prayer in the most dark and dismal times of the Church’s condition has brought marvellous help in extremity. The least of the saints have an opportunity in this way to do great service to the whole Church and to seek to recover the power of godliness now so far gone.

Conclusion

Prayer is essential to seek wisdom to identify the opportunity and manner in which we ought to testify to God’s truth. We also need wisdom to see any ways in which we are passing by the opportunity to give clear witness on the Lord’s behalf. Although we may never meet them, we owe future generations in Christ’s Church a debt to convey to them as much as we possibly can of the truth and reality of the faith. That is a very large debt but there is sufficient grace in God to meet its demands. 

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What We Give and Receive in Gathering Together

What We Give and Receive in Gathering Together

What We Give and Receive in Gathering Together
John Brown of Wamphray (1610-1679) was the Church of Scotland minister of Wamphray near Dumfries. One of the great theological writers in the later period of the Second Reformation, he wrote a large number of books and also pastored the Scots Church at Rotterdam.
1 Jun, 2021

What are some of the unique blessings of gathering together for worship? What have we missed when it was not available? It is not simply a matter of what we have not received personally. Our responsibility is to give just as much as receive. Primarily we give worship to God and also receive spiritual blessings. The Lord’s people are also meant to strengthen one another as one body, we are not meant to “go it alone”. One coal taken out of the fire cannot preserve its heat like those that are together in the fire. We need each other and there are many mutual duties we owe to one another as we gather for worship more publicly and fellowship more privately.

Much has been written recently about the importance of gathering together physically, there are many aspects to consider. One of these is our mutual duty, giving and receiving from one another. There is a lot more involved in coming together than simply occupying the same location as individuals. We are able to consider one another and edify one another in provoking each other to love and good works as we obey the command to gather (Hebrews 10:24-25). We are required to be helpful and a support to each other (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12). 

Gathering together also strengthens us in a time of difficulty, darkness and discouragement. We read of this in Malachi 3:16-17 and of God’s special approval, reward and promise. As John Brown of Wamphray asks, “would not this encourage Christians to meet together? What will do it, if this will not do it?”

As John Brown also observes gathering together for worship has often brought rich spiritual blessings in the experience of believers. When the Holy Spirit blesses such gatherings in this way they receive “life and quickening grace” and have often “found their souls revived and their hearts enlarged, their eyes enlightened, their drooping spirits encouraged, their feeble knees lifted up, their doubts answered and cleared, and their souls lifted up in the ways of the Lord, and strengthened to turn the battle to the gate and to stand against corruption”.

John Brown goes on to speak of some general comprehensive “one another” duties required of Christians, which will necessarily require their meeting together or show it to be necessary.

  • They are commanded frequently to love one another (John 13:34 and 15:12 & 17; Romans 13:8;1 Thessalonians 4:9; 1 John 3:11 and 4:7 & 12; John 13:35; 1 Thessalonians 3:12). Just as love in other communities necessarily effects frequent assembling together, Christian love draws Christians together for the ends and purposes which love spurs them to do to each to other.
  • They must be kindly affectioned one toward another (Romans 12:10) as parents to their children. Is it not an ordinary thing to see parents and children together?
  • They must be of one mind and of one mouth (Romans 15:5-6; 2 Corinthians 13:11; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Philippians 1:27 and 2:2, 10; 1 Peter 3:8). And how is this possible unless they meet together to communicate their minds to each other and to pray to God for light in any point of difference?

Gathering together therefore helps to nourish union, standing fast in one Spirit, striving together for the faith of the Gospel (Philippians 1:27). No doubt we can encourage one another by engaging together in the same worship but these duties also require an individual interest in each other. In the following updated extract John Brown of Wamphray focuses on twelve “one another” duties emphasised in the New Testament need us to come together and interact with each other.

1. Giving and Receiving Encouragement to Love and Good Works

They must consider one another so provoke unto love and to good works (Hebrews 10:24). And this will necessarily imply their familiarity with other and assembling together frequently to provoke to love and good works.

2. Giving and Receiving Exhortations

They must exhort one another (Hebrews 10:25 and Hebrews 3:13). Can this be done if they cannot confer together and assemble for this purpose?

3. Giving and Receiving Comfort

They must comfort one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18 and 5:11). They must meet together and speak together for this purpose and pray that God would bless the means and press home the words of comfort.

4. Giving and Receiving Edification

They must edify one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11). And is it possible for them to do this duty and live as strangers to one another? This duty of edifying one another is a very comprehensive thing. It necessarily implies the saints assembling frequently together so that one may be helpful, strengthening and encouraging to another.

5. Giving and Receiving Instruction

They must admonish one another (Romans 15:13). This means to press or urge a thing on the mind of another and so instruct them aright as children are instructed. This requires that they must often be together for this purpose.

6. Giving and Receiving in Singing Praise

They must teach and admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Colossians 3:16) and can this be done unless they assemble together?

7. Giving and Receiving Practically

They must be kind (literally useful or profitable) one to another (Ephesians 4:32) and this requires that they must not be strangers to each other.

8. Giving and Receiving in Serving One Another

They must serve one another in love (Galatians 5:13). That is, they should in love spend themselves for one another for their spiritual advantage and does this not require assembling together?

9. Giving and Receiving in Accepting One Another

They must receive one another (Romans 15:7). that is, receive with affection and embrace, one another: And must they then be frightened of the company of one another? And not rather receive other into their intimate fellowship?

10. Giving and Receiving in Submission

They must be subject to one another (Ephesians 5:21; 1 Peter 5:5). Everyone should be ready to give, and to take reproofs to and from one another as well as to do service to each other as we are called to. This requires that they must not live as strangers to each other.

11. Giving and Receiving in Prayer for Each Other

They must confess their sins to one another and pray for another (James 5:16).

12. Giving and Receiving in Spiritual Gifts

They must minister their gifts to one another (1 Peter 4:10).

Further Help

To explore these reflections further, you may find it helpful to read the article How Can Your Church Have More Loving Fellowship? It summarises a brief book that presents updated guidance from John Owen. It helps us answer the question: what are some practical biblical steps we can all take to increase loving fellowship in our congregations?

Rules for Walking in Fellowship gives you 22 guidelines for biblical church life. This book will help you identify and understand key biblical passages about fellowship. Its concise counsel will also motivate you to want to live out these principles. You will learn how to: foster true gospel fellowship; better support your pastor and have better relationships with fellow church members.

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What Authority Do Civil Rulers Have in Church Matters?

What Authority Do Civil Rulers Have in Church Matters?

What Authority Do Civil Rulers Have in Church Matters?
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
20 May, 2021

Church and state are clearly distinct, but their roles and relationship have not been without controversy down through the years. It is easier to state the distinction sometimes than to apply it. It has often proved to be a thorny and complicated issue. Understandably many people like to avoid dealing with that but failing to think clearly about it has often produced practical problems when situations arise. Ultimately, it is about the glory and the authority of Christ. As Head of the Church, He has provided clear principles to apply so that it can advance His glory in the world.

In this updated extract, some of the members of the Westminster Assembly explain from Scripture how Christ preserves His own authority in His Church. As Mediator, He has given spiritual authority those who exercise government within the church. But He had given no spiritual power at all to civil government or secular institutions in their civil function. It is still necessary to apply these principles in specific contexts but it is vitally important that we establish the core truths from Scripture as to what authority civil rulers have in the spiritual matters of the church, whether preaching and teaching, what we believe, how we worship or decisions about church matters.

1. Christ Never Gave Civil Rulers Any Authority in Church Matters

Whatever proper power of church government Christ gives to any is somewhere to be found in the Old or New Testament. This is because (a) The Scriptures are a perfect rule for all church affairs (2 Timothy 3:16-17). (b) There are places in Scripture where Christ commits authority to His own church officers (Matthew 16:19; 18:18; 2 Corinthians 10:8; 13:10 etc). But nowhere in all the Old or New Testament does Christ give such power of church government to civil rulers.

2. Christ Only Gave Authority in Church Matters to Church Rulers

Civil rulers as such do not have any office within the church and therefore cannot have authority within the church. It is to church rulers that Christ gave the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” with the actions that belong to that (Matthew 16:19; 18:18; John 20:21-23) well as authority for edification of the church (2 Corinthians 10:8; 13:10). But no civil ruler as a civil ruler is any of those whom Christ has given office within the church. Civil rulers are never counted in the catalogue, list, or roll of Christ’s church officers in Scripture (Ephesians 4:10-12; 1 Corinthians 12:28, etc.; Romans 12:6–8).

When Christ gave the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” He makes no mention at all of civil government directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly, as the recipient of them (se Matthew 16:19 and 18:18; John 20:21–23 with Matthew 18:18–20).

In Christ’s giving the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” He makes explicit mention of officers belonging to the church, which are really and essentially different from the civil ruler, i.e. Peter in the name of all the rest (Matthew 16:18–19), and of the rest of the apostles receiving the keys with him (Matthew 18:18). All the disciples except Thomas were together when He gave them the same commission in other words (John 20:20–24; Matthew 28:18–20). Now, if Christ had given the keys or any power in relation to them to civil government in so far as it is civil government He must have given them solely to civil government for how could His apostles being officers in the church be really distinct from the civil ruler in that case?

Jesus Christ in giving the “keys of the kingdom,” did not give one sort, act, part or piece of the keys, but the whole power of the keys, all the sorts and acts belonging to them together. Therefore, it is said, “I give the keys of the kingdom” (Matthew 16:19; John 20:23). It is not merely a “key” that is given here but all the “keys” given at once, i.e.., key of doctrine and the key of discipline; or the key of order, and the key of jurisdiction—not only binding or retaining, but loosing or absolving of sins, i.e.., all acts together conferred with the “keys.” Now, if Christ gave the keys to the civil ruler, then He gave them all the sorts of keys and all acts. If so, civil government may as well preach the Word and dispense the sacraments, as exercise government. (Christ joined them all together in the same commission, and by what authority are they disjoined?). And if that were so, what need would there be of pastors, teachers, etc., in the church? Let the civil ruler do it all.

If we take church government more broadly as containing doctrine, worship, and discipline, it is the whole power of the “keys.” It is not simply discipline otherwise, it would have been said “key,” not “keys”; church government, therefore, is at least part of the power of the “keys.” The word “key,” denotes a stewardly authority (Isaiah 22:22) which includes governing, ordering, and ruling the household, as well as feeding it (see Luke 12:41–49).

3. Civil Government and Church Government are Essentially Different

Church and State are distinct societies.

  • The society of the church is only Christ’s, and not the civil ruler’s. It is His “house,” His “spouse,” His “body,” etc.; and Christ has no vicar under Him.
  • The officers of the church are Christ’s officers, not the civil ruler’s (1 Corinthians 4:1). Christ gave them (Ephesians 4:8–11); God set them in the church (1 Corinthians 12:28).
  • These officers in the church are both elected and ordained by the church, without authority from the civil ruler, by virtue of Christ’s ordinance, and in His name. Thus, the apostles appointed officers: “Whom we may appoint” (Acts 6:3–4). The power of ordination and mission is in the hands of Christ’s officers (cf. Acts 14:23; 1 Timothy 4:14 with Acts 13:1–4).
  • The church and the various governing bodies within it do not meet as civil courts for civil acts of government (as making civil statutes, inflicting civil punishments, etc.), but as spiritual assemblies for spiritual acts of government and discipline: such as preaching, baptizing, receiving the Lord’s Supper, prayer, admonition of the disorderly, etc.

4. Civil Government and Church Government are Mutually coordinate not subordinate

Subordinate powers are of the same kind; coordinate powers are of distinct kinds. Now, the fact that the power of the church is coordinate with, and not directly and properly subordinate to the civil power, may be evidenced as follows:

(a) The officers of Christ, as officers, are not subject to the civil power. The apostles and pastors may preach and cast out against the will of the civil ruler, and yet not truly offend civil government; thus, in doing the duty they have directly received from God, they must “obey God rather than men” (Acts 4:19–20). And the apostles and pastors must exercise their office (having received a command from Christ) without attending the command or consent of the civil ruler for the same; as in casting out the incestuous person (1 Corinthians 5:5), telling the church (Matthew 18:17), rejecting a heretic (Titus 3:10).

(b) Any acts of power that civil government cannot do or do not belong within their God given authority rare are not subordinate to it. Thus, the kings of Israel could not burn incense (2 Chronicles 26:18–19). Likewise, none have the power of the “keys,” except those whom Christ has commissioned to go “into all the world and preach the gospel (Matthew 28:19). But Christ did not speak this to civil rulers, only those that are “sent” (Romans 10:14). So those that are church governors are placed by Christ in the church (1 Corinthians 12:28).

(c) The officers of the church can pass church censure on the officers of the state (as individuals not in their office). Officers of the state can inflict civil punishment on the officers of the church, (as individuals not as officers in the church). The church rulers may admonish, excommunicate, etc., the officers of the state, as members of the church, and the officers of the state may punish the officers of the church, as the members of the state.

(d) Those that are not sent by civil government as their deputies are not subordinate in their mission to civil power. But the ministers are not sent as the deputies of civil government but are “set over the flock” by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). They are likewise the “ministry of Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:1–2); they are “over you in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 5:12); and exercise their jurisdiction in His name (1 Corinthians 5:4-5).

(e) If the last appeal in purely ecclesiastical matters is not to civil power, then there is no subordination; but the last appeal properly so taken is not to civil authority. It appears from these considerations:

  • Nothing is appealable to the magistrate, but what is under the power of the sword; but admonition, excommunication, etc., are not under the power of the sword. They are neither matters of dominion nor coercion.
  • If it were so, then it follows that having the sword gives a ruler power to the keys.
  • Then it follows that the officers of the kingdom of heaven are to be judged as such by the officers of the kingdom of this world as such, and then there is no difference between the things of Caesar and the things of God.

(f) The church of Antioch sent to Jerusalem (Acts 15:2). And the synod there, without the authority of civil government, came together (v6) and resolved the controversy with their authority (vv28-29). And we read, the “spirits of the prophets, are subject to the prophets” (1 Corinthians 14:32)—not to the civil government as prophets. So we must “seek knowledge at the priest’s lips,” not at the civil ruler’s (Malachi 2:7). And we read that the people came to the priests in hard controversies, but never that the priests went to the civil power (Deuteronomy 17:8–10).

(g) It makes civil government Christ’s vicar, and so Christ to have a visible head on earth, and the civil ruler is an ecclesiastico-civil pope, and so there would be as many visible heads of Christ’s church as there are civil rulers.
h) Civil and church powers are both directly received from divine authority: one from God the Father, as Creator, the other from Jesus Christ, as Mediator.

CONCLUSION

It is clear from this brief biblical survey that Christ has given His Church distinct and exclusive authority in its own matters. We need wisdom, grace and courage to apply these matters and maintain Christ’s glory and authority.

This has been extracted from a pastoral book on church government called Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici: The Divine Right of Church Government which has recently been republished.

Further Help

To explore these principles further, you may find it helpful to read the article Church Government is All About Christ. Many people neglect or treat church government with contempt. But that is a great mistake because (according to Scripture) it is essentially all about Jesus Christ.

 

 

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