Where is the post-Covid drift taking us?

Where is the post-Covid drift taking us?

Where is the post-Covid drift taking us?
James Guthrie (1612-1661) was one of the most prominent Covenanters. Nicknamed “Sicker Foot” (Sure Foot) for his steadfastness and he was vocal in criticising the future Charles II and Oliver Cromwell. He was the first of the Covenanters to be sentenced to public execution by hanging.
20 Apr, 2022

How should we respond to the massive upheavals that have taken place nationally and internationally over the last couple of years? If we think about it in the abstract, perhaps it seems obvious that after a time of turmoil and distress, we would re-dedicate ourselves to the Lord and more earnestly seek his grace to put more energy into serving him. Now that restrictions on social and church life have eased, we have many opportunities to do this. But instead of being re-energised as we emerge from the pandemic, many believers feel they are struggling to shake off a kind of spiritual lethargy. They feel they are doing little more than just drifting along. Could the Lord be leaving us to cope with the aftermath more or less by ourselves? How then can we possibly cope? Why does he not intervene mightily to invigorate his weary church?

In this updated extract, James Guthrie shows he was familiar with this same problem. He looks first at where God is going – is he coming towards us to bless us with more of his presence, or is he withdrawing? Then he looks at where we are going – turning inwards on ourselves or reaching upwards for God’s help? What progress are we making?

What direction is God going?

When the Lord is present with us in society, this is manifested in what we call the common operations of the Spirit. For example, he gives people the gifts of knowledge, wisdom, fortitude, temperance, justice, courage and so on.
When the Lord is present with us in the church, this can be seen in one of two ways. One way is in the ordinary gifts of the Spirit (ordinary as distinct from saving grace). These include the gift of ministry, or teaching, or exhortation, or church-ruling, which he uses to enable the saints to grow, and to edify the body of Christ (Romans 12:6,7; Ephesians 4:8,11,12). The other way is in the special operations of the Spirit, when he gives sanctifying and saving grace, and by his continued influences makes his people more and more renewed in the inward man day by day. To the extent that God gives or withdraws his presence in these things, so his people prosper or decay.

Whichever of these we think of, we have to admit that God has to some extent or another departed from amongst us. He has left us under a cloud of desertion.

In society, wisdom and understanding, courage, strength, and success have been taken from us. He has mingled a perverse spirit in the midst of us that causes us to err in every work.

Likewise in church and church administration, the Lord is not showing his presence. The unity and authority of pastors and church courts is gravely weakened. He has divided us in his anger, and though we have attempted to heal our wounds and recover our strength, yet our endeavours up to now have for most part been frustrated by the Lord. There is bruising instead of binding up, and much bitter contention and strife in many of our meetings. Instead of the sweet fruits of edifying unity and peace, whilst we should pull together in unison in the work of the Lord, some pull one way and others another, rendering our endeavours almost useless to the church, comfortless to ourselves, and despicable to others.

In the ordinances, the Lord is restraining and withholding the blessing which should come from them. Plenty is sown, yet little is harvested.

The word of salvation is only rarely blessed in the hand of ministers to the converting of souls. Faithful ministers across the land feel that they labour in vain and spend their strength for nothing. Many souls who claim to be converted and have a real union with Jesus Christ are suffering a dreadful withering and decay. Tenderness is gone. Influences of the Spirit are withheld. Prayer is restrained and shut out. Faith fails. Love has grown cold. Hearts are hardened like stones. There is little or no delight in God or in his Word or in the fellowship of his people. Corruptions are rife, and heart plagues abound. God hides his face and is like a stranger to his people, leaving them to wrestle alone in their duties and difficulties.

And yet while the Lord’s people would admit all this, they make so little fuss about his departings! Maybe we have some remembrance a better condition, when we enjoyed his fellowship, and some sense of our loss and its bad consequences. This brings some sort of desire to recover our former state – but how faint and feckless these desires are! We are effectively content to live without God, and to let him go without even attempting to take hold of the hem of his garments.

If the Lord’s gracious influences were strong on our hearts, we would not, we could not, easily contemplate his departing. We would not, and could not, hold our peace, night or day, until he returned and revived his work. The fact that we sit, almost satisfied, and silent under his withdrawings suggests that many of us, though we have a name that we are living, are actually dead, and that the spiritual life which remains in others is ready to die (Revelation 3:1-2.).

What direction are we going?

1. Going on without basic gospel truths

Multitudes of people go on in a profound lack of familiarity with the gospel and the necessary truths of God. Light has come amongst us, but many love darkness rather than light. Often too this ignorance is unforced and perverse.

2. Going on in routines

Formalism – that is, a form of godliness without the power of godliness – abounds and prevails among us.

3. Going on fruitlessly

Even when we know and obey the gospel, we are barren and unfruitful in our spiritual life. Our outstanding sin is that in spite of the fact that the Lord waters us plentifully with the dew of heaven and the sweet rain of the gospel day by day, yet most of us are still only an empty vine, which brings forth fruit to ourselves, but not to God.

4. Growing weary of the things of God

We have grown weary of the precious things of God, and the blessed opportunities they bring us. Instead we prefer our own worldly advantages. Many are tired of the ordinances. Many are tired of the Lord’s Day, and halve it between God and the world. Many value our blessed Lord Jesus and the inestimable treasure of the gospel at a very low rate, much less than thirty pieces of silver.

5. Going on without listening to God

We refuse to hearken to God. Are we not a rebellious and gainsaying people? We neither fear the threatenings of God to repent, nor embrace his promises to believe, nor listen to his commandments to obey.

6. Going on with unfaithful ministers

Although there are many precious ministers who study to divide the Word of God aright, warning the wicked to turn from the evil of their ways, and encouraging the godly in godliness, yet not all ministers are like this. There are others who heal the hurt of the daughter of the Lord’s people slightly, and speak peace to these to whom the Lord does not speak peace. They bite with the teeth those who ought to be encouraged and comforted (Micah 3:5).
The goal of some ministers is not to commend themselves to every man’s conscience as in the sight of God. Instead they handle the Word of God deceitfully, so as to make the hearts of the righteous sad (by turning the edge of their doctrine against them, referring to them as hypocrites and narrow-minded), and on the other side to strengthen the hands of the wicked to persist in his wicked way.

7. Going against our commitments

We keep dealing treacherously with God in the matter of his covenant. We have all made covenants with God (at least the covenant of our baptism). The terms and intentions of these covenants include walking close with God, zeal for the kingdom of Jesus Christ and against his open enemies, and reforming ourselves in our various roles and capacities. Yet surely we must acknowledge that most of us have not only come exceedingly far short in these, but we have palpably transgressed. The sinfulness of this is greatly heightened by the greatness of the Lord’s mercies and his wonderful works on our behalf.

8. Going away from our first love

We have forsaken our first love (Revelation 2:4). Even if we compare ourselves with ourselves – what we are now with what we were, perhaps even a very few years ago – we will see this. But what is worse, we seem to have fallen further from our first love than the church of Ephesus. Jesus Christ acknowledged some good points about Ephesus. ‘I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil, and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars; and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted’ (Revelation 2:2-3). Do we deserve a testimony like this? More likely, we come far short in all these things. Where are our works, and where is our labour and patience, and where is our zeal against those that are evil? The reality is that we are a barren and fruitless people. Our way is full of murmuring and fretting. We allow many who say they are pastors, and are not, to go on without investigation. We decline to take up the cross of Jesus Christ, and refuse to endure and labour for his name. We either faint or turn aside to crooked ways. And shall we fall so far short of Ephesus in all these things, and yet not fear the removal of our candlestick?

Conclusion

Are we and our God drifting apart? Of course the Lord never leaves any of his people completely, or lets any of them leave him completely. But relatively speaking, there can be times when we back away from God and turn our backs on his ways and his grace. Correspondingly God can hide his face from us instead of shining on us the light of his countenance. Then the last thing we should do is let things go on as they are. Instead we need to battle the inertia and shake off our lethargy. If we follow the advice to the church at Ephesus, we will remember our first love, repent, and do the first works.

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The Trinity is For Our Adoration Not Our Convenience

The Trinity is For Our Adoration Not Our Convenience

The Trinity is For Our Adoration Not Our Convenience
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.
16 Feb, 2022

The temptation to reshape the trinity is not just prevalent in liberal circles. Recently not a few evangelicals, have latched onto ideas of the trinity to support their agendas. They do this to argue for specific male-female relations. According to a book by Matthew Barrett, many evangelicals have drifted away from the orthodox trinity of the Bible. Instead, the truth of the trinity has been manipulated by being recreated in our own image to justify our social agendas. When we do this, we start to think of the trinity as a community of separate people united by love and agreed purpose rather than one eternal godhead sharing the same essence subsisting in three distinct persons. What is at stake when the trinity is used as a means to an end? Not just doctrine, but devotion also. Our understanding of God shapes our worship of Him.

Perhaps the reason we are tempted to distort the trinity is that we want to make it like us even though it is something entirely different. But if we make the trinity like ourselves the Godhead no longer has a uniquely divine glory that is worthy of worship. The trinity is altogether different and impossible to find orthodox everyday analogies for. It is challenging for us to grasp it fully and sometimes we want to avoid that, but the more we seek to appreciate the complexity, the more we will be drawn to worship. James Durham explains the nature of the trinity and how important it is in relation to our worship of God in the following updated extract.

1. We Believe in One God in Three Persons

(a) There is only one God although there are several persons mentioned, yet God is always spoken of as one. There cannot be more than one God for if the one God has in Him all perfections, there can be no perfection besides Him: and so, no God beside this one true God.
(b) Although there is only one God, yet there are three Persons, the Father, Son, and Spirit.
(c) These three, Father, Son, and Spirit, are really distinct one from another; and so are three persons. Now, if the Father is God, and the Son God, and the Spirit God also; and if there is but one God, and yet these three are really distinct, then they must be distinct persons in respect of their personal properties, seeing they are persons, and distinct.
(d) Although they are three distinct persons (when their personal properties are considered) yet they all three are one God, essentially considered. All have the same infinite indivisible essence, though we cannot conceive how. If there are three persons, and each of them are God, and yet there is only one God, then each of these persons must be the same one God, co-equal and co-essential.
(e) These three blessed persons, who are one most glorious being, have an inconceivable order in their subsisting and working, which is to be admired rather than to be searched out. We shall merely say this:

  • They have all the same one essence and being
  • They all have it eternally, equally and perfectly: none is more or less God, but each has all the same Godhead in perfection: and therefore, must have it equally and eternally. The Godhead is the same, and the Son is the first and the last, as the Father is. The Father and Son were never without the Spirit, who is the Spirit of God, and each of them is God.
  • The Father subsists of Himself and begets the Son by an inconceivable and eternal generation: the Son does not beget, but is begotten, and has His subsisting, as the second person, from the Father. The Spirit proceeds both from the Father (therefore He is the Spirit of the Father) and from the Son, therefore is He said also to have the seven Spirits of God. The Spirit neither begets, nor is begotten, but in an inexpressible manner proceeds from them both.

2. We are to Worship God Alone

God is the only object of divine worship and there is none other. This is because no one has these infinite attributes and excellencies which are requisite in the object of divine worship except God. These are things such as omniscience, omnipotence, infiniteness, supreme majesty, glory etc. Adorability [being worthy of worship] flows from these and is an essential attribute of the majesty of God just as immutability and eternity are. He is adorable because He is infinite, immense, omniscient etc. Adorability cannot therefore be given or communicated to any other any more than these other incommunicable qualities can be. Yet none can be worshipped who is not adorable, therefore we are to worship God alone.

3. There is only one kind of Divine Worship

There is only one kind of divine worship: that which is supreme and befits this infinite majesty of God. In a word, it is that worship which is required in the first table of the law [first four of the ten commandments], as that which is suitable for this glorious excellent God. This follows from what has been said already, since if there is only one object of worship, there can only be one manner of worship. Therefore, in Scripture, to worship God, is always opposed to worshipping any other, and allowing any worship to God, which is not authorised (see Revelation 19:9-10 and 22:9).

4. There are not three objects of worship

Although there are three persons in the glorious Godhead and all are to be worshipped, there are not three objects of worship, but one only. Nor are there three kinds of worship. There cannot be three objects, because these three persons are the same one infinite God, who is the object of worship. This is because:
(a) Although the three persons are really distinct from each other, none of them is really distinct from the essence of the Godhead. Therefore, the Father is that same object of worship with the Son, because He is that same God. And
(b) Although the Father is infinite and the Son is infinite etc. yet, there are not two infinitenesses, but the same infiniteness and immenseness, that which is the Father’s is the Son’s also. This is because these are essential properties, and so common to all the persons. Therefore, although their personal properties are distinct, because their essential attributes are in common, they are not distinct objects, but one and the same object. In worship respect must be had to their essential attributes and so to the Godhead, which is common to all. It is the deity (which is one) that is the formal object of worship. And although sometimes these three persons are named together, that is not to suggest they are distinct Objects, but to show who this one object God is, i.e. Father, Son and Spirit, three persons of the same one indivisible Godhead. The unity of the Godhead is taught for this purpose (Deuteronomy 6:4).

It follows:
(a) That the mind of the worshipper is not to be distracted in seeking to comprehend, or order, in their thoughts, three distinct persons, as distinct objects of worship; but, to conceive reverently of one infinite God, who is three persons.
(b) That whatever person is named we are not to think that the other is less worshipped. Rather in one act we worship that one God, and so the Father, Son and Spirit.
(c) That by naming one person after we have named another, (e.g., the Father first, and afterwards the Son) we do not vary the object of worship, as if we were praying to another than formerly. It is still the same one God.
(d) That because our imagination is ready to permit such divided conceptions, it is safest not to change the name of the persons in the same prayer. This is especially when we are praying in the hearing of others, who may possibly have such thoughts, though we have none. I suppose also that this is the way ordinarily taken in Scripture.

 

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Do We Know the Whole Truth about Evangelical Half Truth?

Do We Know the Whole Truth about Evangelical Half Truth?

Do We Know the Whole Truth about Evangelical Half Truth?
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
13 Jan, 2022

Questions of truth and integrity are rarely far from the headlines and public life. Misinformation and disinformation are alleged and advanced from many directions. In an age where truth is a common casualty it is easy for standards to be reduced almost without our realising. One way in which the truth frequently suffers is through a half truth. It can seem so innocent and correct on face value that it seems very far from being a species of lying. That is what soothes our conscience and makes it so dangerous and deceptive. It takes the truth and presents part of it while also concealing the rest of it to manipulate others to the conclusion we want them to reach. Or out of fear of their reaction to the whole truth. A straight lie can be discovered far more easily. Perhaps the worst form of lying is half-truth but is it possible that this could be done in religious things?

Satan knows how effective half-truth is, partly quoting a Bible verse while concealing its context to try to persuade. Transforming himself into an angel of light like false teachers if it will serve his purposes (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

The ninth commandment relates to promoting and preserving the truth in everything but it has a special reference to the court room. Witnesses in court cases are under oath to tell the “whole truth” because there are such things as half-truths. We need to avoid them in everything not just when under oath in court of law. Christians are not to be economical with the truth, however fashionable that may be.

The Westminster Larger Catechism gives a comprehensive, biblical treatment of all Ten Commandments. Questions 144 and 145 deal with the ninth commandment. It reveals the depth and spirituality of the law of God and there are bible references for all its statements.

The Catechism shows that the commandment requires “appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever.”

There is a great deal in the ninth commandment and we can only consider part of it, particularly in relation to half-truth. We need to reflect on the painful and difficult matter of what we might call evangelical half truth. Sadly in a crisis evangelicals can often spin their language much like politicians in order to save face. We all want truth and to be associated with it but sometimes we cannot handle the full truth or we think others cannot and so we only emphasise part of it. But as we have seen this is dangerous even when done with the best of intentions.

1. Half truth gospel

The Larger Catechism speaks of “concealing the truth” as a breach of the ninth commandment. It is possible to present a gospel which is true in so far as it goes but which is effectively a half truth because it does not tell people the whole truth or the whole of the gospel. If the gospel that is presented fails to tell people the bad news about sin and what it deserves then the good news we offer is only a half truth. It is possible to use the word brokenness as a euphemism for sin but this excludes the reality of rebellion against God and His law. It describes sin in terms of its consequences rather than its true character and is therefore a half truth.

If people are told only that God is a God of love without any mention of his holiness and justice (or vice versa), then are we telling them the whole truth about God? When the message “God loves you” is given as a substitute for the gospel with no real qualification or supplement it gives the impression that God accepts us and approves of all we do just as we are by nature. The real message is that we are all undeserving rebels and free grace can transform anyone no matter what they have done. J I Packer noted how it was possible through omissions “that part of the biblical gospel is now preached as if it were the whole of that gospel; and a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.”

The Larger Catechism also speaks against “rewarding the wicked according to the work of the righteous.” But is this happening at funerals when the impression is given that those who give no unmistakable evidence of true faith are commended as though they were going to heaven? Perhaps some outwardly commendable aspects of their life are pointed to which are not signs of grace and so the impression is given that these things merit eternal life. In fact we are not obliged to pronounce or hint either way concerning someone’s eternal destiny. When funerals also become celebrations of life without a proper sense of the solemnity of death and eternity are we implicitly presenting a half truth about what death means?

2. Half truth gossip

It is easy for all of us to engage in gossiping half truths, indeed it is a rather respectable sin. The Larger Catechism says that this can involve “aggravating smaller faults” in others and “unnecessary discovering of infirmities.” It may even lead to “raising false rumours, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defence”. Sometimes the information is garbled or without substance but it gets passed on. Do you find yourself wanting to convey negative information that you hear to others? It may be true in part or whole but does it become a half truth by failing to assess what is positive or additional mitigating information? We need to be on our guard against something that can easily lead to and justify “backbiting, detracting, talebearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling, rash, harsh, and partial censuring.” We sin when we listen to malicious reports and do not give those who are affected by them opportunity to defend themselves (Leviticus 19:16). But also when we do not reprove those who engage in backbiting and talebearing.

3. Half truth doctrine

Surveys show the concerning level of confusion and error amongst professed evangelicals. Error and heresy generally begin by emphasising one verse or one truth above the rest and then to the exclusion and denial of other truths. Or perhaps they use perfectly biblical terms and phrases yet in an unbiblical sense. It is also easy to rely on slogans that only express part of the truth but do not communicate all that is necessary. We need to be careful with the truth in teaching and matters of doctrine that we do not end up “perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful or equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of truth or justice.” If this is necessary in relation to the words of others how much more when it is the words and truths of God?

Again simply through omission we can present misleading half-truth. If we only teach about free grace and neglect the holiness and obedience that flow from it, we are presenting half truths. If we avoid parts of biblical teaching that humble us and exalt God we are giving a misleading partial message. If there are parts of the Bible that we do not want to expound we are not presenting the whole counsel of God but at best half. It is vital for the good of souls that we take heed to our doctrine and teaching (1 Timothy 4:16).

Is it not both dangerous and wrong if you tell part of the truth and withhold another part of the truth to create a false impression? Perhaps we fear people will be offended by difficult truths and tell ourselves that they are not ready for it yet. But Paul’s epistles were all written to new Christians. The Larger Catechism also reproves “holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others.” It is wrong to do any of these things at any time but how much more so when speaking to people about their souls on God’s behalf?

The fear of others can be a significant influence (1 Samuel 15:24). Yet when it is attacked we are not to be slow in “appearing and standing for the truth” whatever the cost. We must avoid “undue silence in a just cause.” We should promote the truth, the whole truth “from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever.”

4. Half truth suspicion

It is against this commandment to engage in “misconstructing intentions, words, and actions” and it is also contrary to the wisdom that is from above (James 3:17-18). It is what the Larger Catechism calls “evil suspicion.” That surely is a kind of half truth where we take what we know about someone and make inferences that we believe to be true but cannot prove. How easy it is to take half truths from others and pass them on without investigating them. Part of it seems plausible and it fits with what we want to believe and so we pass it on to many as though it were the complete truth.

It is easy to dress up suspicion as orthodoxy and take the high ground. Someone we disagree with or of whom we are not sure then forfeits the benefit of the doubt in most of what they do and say. They are guilty until proven innocent. It can even lead us to put the worst construction on things that are in fact good. But are we correct or have we impugned the motives of others through suspicion? Are we inferring their motives or other suspicions without grounds? It is the Lord that assesses the heart (1 Corinthians 4:5). How much we need that true charitable esteem that is altogether contrary to this (1 Corinthians 13:7). We are required to have “a charitable esteem of our neighbours” rather than a default suspicion. This does not mean a gullible lack of discernment but rather a gracious respect as well as a concern for the truth (see How Can We Stop Discernment Turning into Sinful Suspicion?).

5. Half truth godliness

We are well aware of how it is possible to use certain aspects of Scripture to as it were deny other aspects. This is what liberals do with the parts of the Bible they do not like, particularly sins that are condemned that they want to justify and even celebrate. But it is subtly possible for all of us is easy to emphasise some things to the exclusion of others. Some assert certain aspects of our Christian behaviour but not others. Others emphasise personal piety but not activity, whereas others virtually reverse this. We must all beware of a form of godliness that denies the power of it (2 Timothy 3:5).

6. Half truth opinion

This is closely related to gossip and suspicion. It relates to the opinion we form and communicate concerning others. We are asked for our opinion of a preacher, writer, church, individual and immediately go to listing negative points. Perhaps this is the sum total of what we have to say. They are dismissed with a mere characterisation that may well have much truth but is surely not the whole truth about them. It is in effect “denying the gifts and graces of God.” We report something about them as evidence of the characterisation and so convey what is true but we may well be “speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end.” It is certainly “prejudicing the good name of our neighbour” and a kind of slander. But because of the context it is not considered in that light.

Of course, we can go to the other extreme of praising someone too much with some evidence and only giving part of the truth in that case. This is why the Catechism warns against “thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of ourselves or others.” The catechism also speaks of “fond admiration” i.e. flattery and extravagant praise that goes beyond the facts? Has this not infected evangelical culture when we hear sycophantic introductions for conference speakers or hyperbolic endorsements for books that are more average than world-transforming. Yet other times people can also be lauded as “faithful” in a way that commends their principles while implicitly hinting at the harsh way in which those are defended which gives the impression this too is praiseworthy though there is a reluctance to say so.

Perhaps we are giving our opinion on a situation far removed from us about which we know only a little. Our limited knowledge means we do not have the whole truth and can therefore probably only offer half truth. Is it helpful and edifying to share our hastily informed opinion or would it be better to give someone principles by which they can come to a conclusion if they need to?

Conclusion

We are all implicated in this and tempted to it one way or another and it is not easy to read (or write) such home truths. How much this should teach us to be more careful and also value and love the truth (see Using Our Words to Love the Truth). As Thomas Boston says, “Truth is a sacred thing, which we are to cleave to as we would to God, who is true essentially, and therefore called truth itself…Truth is to the soul as light is to the body; and they that walk in the light, will walk in truth.” We must speak truth at all times when we speak, (Ephesians 4:25) let us therefore “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

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Should We Stop Turning Others from Sin?

Should We Stop Turning Others from Sin?

Should We Stop Turning Others from Sin?
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
16 Dec, 2021

Hopefully the answer we give is a resounding, “No!” Yet there is growing pressure on the church to stop turning others from sin in certain circumstances. The UK Government has extended its public consultation on banning conversion therapy in relation to LGBT people. This vague term lumps coercive and abusive practices already illegal alongside any kind of talking therapy with the intention of changing them from being LBGT. Some want to take this as far as possible in order to silence anyone from dissuading others from a harmful lifestyle through prayer, conversation or any kind of teaching. This simple call to Christ, conversion and biblical ethics could become criminalised. How does Scripture guide us on this matter?

Around 2000 ministers and others have recently written a letter and consultation response on this subject that gives more background.

In the context of prayer, James 5:19 tells us of the importance of seeking to turn others from sin. Those who do so save a soul from eternal death and hide a multitude of sins. Thomas Manton explains further what this means. He says that those who seek to turn others from sin are instrumental in their conversion and pardon. To convert a sinner is God’s work (Ephesians 2:10). Yet individuals are used in this (Acts 26:18; Daniel 12:3) and it is a great privilege and responsibility to seek to save others (Romans 11:14; 1 Timothy 4:16). “Shall we not contribute a few endeavours to win others from death?” Manton asks. This passage has much to tell us not only about our duty to turn others from sin but how and why we should do it. It does not merely single out one kind of sin but shows that we must lovingly seek to draw alongside others to turn them from all kinds of sin. It opens up the heart of the gospel and the free mercy and grace that is able to cover any and all sin. We cannot deny this to those who need it, whatever others may say. This should be clear from the following updated extract.

1. It is our duty to turn others from sin

We are not only to watch out for our salvation, but for that of others. The apostle says, “If any of you…” God has made us guardians of one another. It expressed godlessness when Cain said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” As God has set the conscience to watch over the inner person, so in regard to behaviour he has set Christians to watch over one another (Hebrews 3:12). There must be a constant watch kept not only over our own hearts but also over the congregations to which we belong (Hebrews 12:15).

Straying would have been greatly prevented if we had been watchful or if we reasoned together in a Christian manner. As no one is born for himself, so no one is born again for himself. We should “provoke one another” (Hebrews 10:24). It is dangerous to partake in other people’s sins, to draw that guilt on your own head. You need to be established in the way that you promote with zeal; you need to have a high assurance that it is true. But usually in those who promote errors you may see either a blind and rash zeal or a corrupt aim (2 Peter 2:3); they propagate their opinion with heat and earnestness, so that they promote their own gain.

2. It is vital to turn OTHERS from sin

“If any of you…”, if there is only one, there is none so contemptible in the church that the care of their safety does not to everyone. One root of bitterness defiles many by infecting and stumbling. One spark may cause a great burning. We are to “take the little foxes” (Song 2:15). It is good to watch with wise foresight against the first appearances of sin and error in a congregation.

Sin is described as both erring from the truth and the “error of his way.” Errors in doctrine usually end in sins of life and practice First men dream and then defile themselves (Jude 8). We often see that impurity of religion is joined with uncleanness of body, and spiritual fornication is punished with bodily (Hosea 4:12-13). Truth awes the soul and right belief guides the outward life.

3. It is necessary for everyone to turn others from sin

The words “and one convert him” are not limited to the office-bearers in the church, though it is chiefly their work. Besides the public exhortations of ministers, private Christians should mutually converse for comfort and edification. They not only may but must keep up a Christian fellowship among themselves (Hebrews 3:13). They are to stir one another up by speech that tends to expose sin and prevent hardness of heart and apostasy. God has dispensed his gifts in different ways, so that we might be indebted to each other (1 Peter 4:10).

4. It is loving to turn others from sin

To “convert him” means to bring him back from his error. Among other acts of Christian fellowship this is one of the chief to bring back those that are gone astray. We must not only exhort, but reclaim. It is a duty we owe to our neighbour’s animal (Deuteronomy 22:4; Exodus 23:4) much more if your neighbour himself has fallen in sin. It is a thankless task but must not be refused. We are usually loath to do that which is unpleasant. Well, then, if it is our duty to admonish, it is your duty to bear a reproof patiently, otherwise you oppose your own salvation. Error is touchy; sinful affections are loath to have the understanding properly informed; they take away the light of reason, and leave us only the pride of reason. None are so angry therefore as those that are seduced into an opinion by self-interest, their sore must not be touched.

It says “convert him” not destroy him. The work of Christians is not immediately to accuse and condemn, but to counsel and convert an erroneous person. To call down fire from heaven argues some hastiness and impatience of revenge; first burn them in the fire of love. Before any rigorous course is taken, we must use all due means to inform the conscience and understanding.

5. It is a privilege to turn others from sin

To spur ourselves on to a good work, we should consider its dignity and benefits—to consider what a high honour it is to have a hand in such work. The apostle urges us to have patience for this reason (Romans 5:3; Colossians 3:23-24). So then, learn this wisdom when you feel disinclined to do something, direct your thoughts to the worth and success of your duties. There is no such relief to the soul as that which comes from thoughts at the right moment: whom do I serve? The Lord? Can any labour undertaken for his sake be in vain?
Man under God has this honour, to be “workers together with God” (2 Corinthians 6:1). He is pleased to take us into fellow labouring in His own work and to give our efforts the glory of His grace. It is a high honour that the Lord gives us. We should learn to give the honour back to God again, to whom alone it is due (1 Corinthians 15:10). When God puts the glory of His own work on the head of the creatures, they certainly have great cause to lay the crown of their excellence at the feet of the Lord. Such is the grace of God, that when you have used the means, he will count it as part of your spiritual success (Matthew 18:15).We lose nothing by being employed in God’s service. Let us strive and be painstaking in His work. Paul would be anything that he might win some (1 Corinthians 9:19-22). Christians must not neglect the means (Job 33:24). It is remarkable that though the work of conversion is strictly speaking the Lord’s, it is sometimes ascribed to ourselves, to show that we must not be negligent. Sometimes it is ascribed to ministers and others who are instrumental, to show that we must not hold their help in contempt; and sometimes to God, so that we may not be self-confident or unthankful.

6. It is dangerous not to turn others from sin

To turn others from sin is to turn them from death. Errors are deadly to the spirit. The wages of every sin is death, especially of sin countenanced by error, for then there is a conspiracy of the whole soul against God. The apostle Peter calls heresies “damnable heresies.” Some heresies are more destructive than others, but all of them have a destructive tendency. Only the way of truth is the way of life.

7. It is possible to turn others from many sins

It says, “cover a multitude of sins.” Justification consists in the covering of our sins. Sin is removed out of God’s sight and the sight of our own consciences—chiefly out of God’s sight. God cannot choose but see it in His omniscience and hate it in His holiness, but he will not punish it in His justice because he has received satisfaction in Christ. Sins are so hidden that they will not be brought to judgment; nor will they hurt us when they do not please us (Psalm 32:1).

Suitable expressions are those of “remembering our sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25) and casting them behind his back (Isaiah 38:17). God will remove them out of the sight of his justice. God will cast them into the depths of the sea (see Micah 7:18). That which is in the depths of the sea is lost and forgotten forever; the ocean is never likely to be drained or dried up. All these words the Lord uses to persuade us that once sins are pardoned it is as if they were never committed. Men forgive but do not easily forget; if the wound is cured, the scar remains. But God accepts us as if there were no breach.

It also says, “a multitude of sins.” Many sins do not hinder our pardon or conversion. God’s “free gift is of many offences unto justification” (Romans 5:16). “He will multiply to pardon” (Isaiah 55:7). For these six thousand years God has been multiplying pardons, and yet free grace is not tired or grown weary. Mercy is a treasure that cannot easily be spent. We have many sins, but God has many mercies, a multitude of compassions (Psalm 51:1). Mercy is an ocean that is always full and always flowing. Free grace can show you large accounts and a long bill, cancelled by the blood of Christ

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Is There Encouragement in Times of Decline?

Is There Encouragement in Times of Decline?

Is There Encouragement in Times of Decline?
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.
9 Dec, 2021

We all know that things are not as they used to be in society and the church. We have witnessed a moral and spiritual decline. Pews have emptied and a basic understanding of Christian truth and values has ebbed away. And in all honesty, the lives and spiritual temperature of believers are not as they should be either. How should we respond? Do we chase and follow the culture whatever that means? Some are in denial partial or otherwise, they point to exceptions that prove the rule. True, people may still be religious and curious, and it is also fair to say that the decline is not universal within the church. Perhaps nominal, cultural Christianity is a liability as much as a benefit and it is better if profession has a cost attached to it. Yet we all know things are not what they should be. Others feel unable to do much more than lament in paralysis what we have lost while awaiting the inevitable. Another response is paranoia where the threat of further decline lurks behind everything no matter how promising. Clearly the response we need is one of faith. But could there be one of encouragement too that is not wishful thinking or denial but takes full account of evident decline?

Robert Fleming wrestled with this question in seeking to discern the times with wisdom. He puts it in the following terms. What can the righteous do when there is growing darkness coming upon the Church and the very foundation is likely to be shaken? In such a time the hearts of many get so far down that they are likely to loose their hands from their duty too and give up. It is no small thing to manage matters well in such a time of trial for the Church. In such a sharp storm we need much ballast. But we know that Scripture is near, and this remains a good and safe guide for our conduct. It shows us how to steer our course in the darkest night. Scripture makes it clear that one thing is our great duty in such a time. We must hold fast to our ways and seek to grow stronger and stronger in the way of righteousness despite all the difficulties we encounter (Job 17:9). In the following updated extract Fleming shows how to use Scripture for our encouragement in times of decline.

1. Encouragement from God’s Eternal Counsel

All is well and nothing can go wrong whilst the foundation of God (His eternal counsel) abides sure (see 2 Timothy 2:19). Though other foundations may be shaken, the godly man has a safe anchor here in a stormy day. His great eternal concern is beyond being endangered even though more than an immortal soul were at stake. His heaven is sure even though things on the earth seem most uncertain. Must it not therefore be well with the Church too? Even if it was sinking into the grave the Mediator will bring it up again. The evil eye and cursing of mere man cannot damage or destroy that possession which God has blessed (Numbers 23:23).

2. Encouragement from God’s Self-Attesting Word

Does the Christian not have such a clear knowledge of the truth and the great benefit of godliness that it needs no testimony from others or motivation from their example? It witnesses its reality to those to whom it commends itself. It does this even though it should be opposed by the whole generation amongst whom they live. A true Christian must know the truth and be so established that they can be supported despite the greatest possible falling away of others. This is possible even though no one else in the whole world were to walk in that way and they were left alone. There is such a great and certain revelation of the truth to be known by the soul that they can say with Joshua, “as for me I will serve the Lord.” O to see a generation of men with this mettle. Those who with resolution would forsake all others to follow and serve the Lord without company if necessary.

3. Encouragement from God’s Providence

We have grounds for being established in the darkest time when we can strengthen ourselves by making best use of the things that happen. Even matters that shake everything most can strengthen their hand in the way of the Lord when many stumble at such providential dealings. It is strange, to observe what questions and accusations some have concerning the truth on the basis of things which in their conscience they must admit are a convincing witness to it.

4. Encouragement Even if the Number of Godly People Declines

We should not question the truth because the number of those who follow it and are seriously pursuing godliness seems so small. We must either abandon Scripture or admit that the way to life is indeed narrow and few enter it. The small convoy the truth has in the world is an explicit verification of it. Is there the least warrant to make the choice of the multitude a test of the way of the Lord? We can certainly show to the contrary that the Lord’s followers are a select number, chosen out of the world. Otherwise, the Scripture would not be fulfilled. The falling away from the truth of many guarantees it no less than that of others coming to embrace it. The excellent way of holiness is better and more clearly known by the fact that it is everywhere spoken against.

5. Encouragement Even Though Godliness is Despised

The fact that such great contempt and reproach accompanies the truth and practice of godliness in our day should not prejudice against it. Rather it should be a further reason to strengthening the Christian in holding on in their way. This is because this has been foretold, it is only what the most excellent of the earth have had to deal with in their time. They were esteemed as the filth and offscouring of the world. The truth has not lacked such an assault in any generation nor has it lacked a triumph over such attacks. The greatest reproacher has sometime been forced to make a retraction concerning what he scoffed at. When God comes near in judgment the proud change the way they speak especially when faced with the dreadful appearance of death. But this also witnesses what a marvellous thing true religion is. It loses no weight with those who know it when it comes under the greatest cloud of detraction and contempt: For Christ is still precious then and His way desirable to those who believe.

6. Encouragement Even Though Wickedness Prospers

The fact that the sentence is not speedily executed against an evil course of action makes the world more desperately wicked. But is not this also a seal and confirmation of the truth? It is grounds for being established in the way of the Lord since it verifies what Scripture says (Ecclesiastes 8:11). We may see that a short reprieve from punishment is no pardon nor acquittal whilst sin to a later reckoning. Judgment deferred, when it is accompanied by hardening threatens greater judgment than a quick and immediate response. This shows that the judgment will be the greater when it comes. In fact, if this did not happen, that the world takes such advantage in abusing delayed judgment, it might make us question the truth, since not one syllable of it can fall to the ground but all must be fulfilled.

7. Encouragement Despite Ungodliness Within the Church

The great abounding of ungodliness within the Church is an undeniable seal to the verity of the Scriptures and should help the godly man hold on in his way. This is because it is unanswerably clear that there could be no darkness if there were not such a thing as light. Folly cannot exist if there were no wisdom. In the same way, excellent holiness is evidently made known by its opposite, which it could not have if it were not most real itself.

8. Encouragement Even Though Error Prevails

The truth is greatly entangled in a confusion of contrary doctrines and unceasingly pursued by error. It is attacked by those adversaries who in every age seek to darken it. But this can be no grounds for prejudice against the truth or wavering. It should strengthen the godly in their way and help them to grow stronger when they have Scripture fulfilled so explicitly before their eyes. The Lord has made His way plain, nor does that blessed record of truth give anyone grounds to turn aside to crooked paths. Men themselves created the clouds that tend to darken the truth. The truth is in all ages surrounded by error, which (when there is any brighter revelation of it) breaks out like a thick fog though they can never unite any more than gold and clay can. It is clear that it is inconceivable that error could exist if the truth did not have a certainty and real being. It serves to aid its further triumph. People should pursue earnestly a solid persuasion of the truth of Scripture so that their souls come under the power and authority of the truth as the word and testimony of the living God. This would prove to be a more effectual cure to the dreadful disease of error in the Church than all the debates of the time though they also have a special use.

Here are some further ways in which this serves to confirm the truth.
(a) No error or false doctrine assaults the Church which is not opposed and predicted in Scripture. The Word is written and directed in a special way to every period of the Church and especially suited also to all later trials and assaults. It was written in such a way by He who knew and foresaw what opposition His truth would encounter in later times. There is no poison or corruption in doctrine which infests the Church which does not have its proper antidote provided in Scripture.
(b) Even the astonishing depth and power of error and delusion exactly confirms the testimony of Scripture thence most exactly confirmed (2 Peter 2:17). It is astonished to see how people are turned mad by to embrace the most absurd notions. We see how tenacious and violent they are in it even when silenced with the clearest manifestations of the truth. It is strong delusion and deception (2 Thessalonians 2:12).

Conclusion

Encouragement despite decline is not fantasy, it considers the reality of the situation. But when we see things in stark relief, we are able to see the glory of God and His truth in a clearer way. Our trust is not in our own resources or of those around us but in the one who never fails. It is not a way to pretend all is fine when it is not, rather it is to focus on our only hope. He has placed in these circumstances for a reason. This gives strength and motivation to do all we can while we can for His glory.

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Isn’t It Time to Pray Earnestly for Your Minister?

Isn’t It Time to Pray Earnestly for Your Minister?

Isn’t It Time to Pray Earnestly for Your Minister?
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.
29 Nov, 2021

As people speculate about a new period of turmoil it is a reminder that it has been a challenging couple of years for everyone. But it has been an especially difficult time to minister. It is never easy, but unique challenges and pressures have presented themselves in the spiritual as well as physical consequences of a period of turmoil. Seeking to pastor during a lockdown situation, constant changes in public health guidance as well as dealing with falling participation, discontent, increased criticism, conflict and polarised opinions has certainly meant increased stress and isolation. It is easy for people to focus their frustrations and struggles on an individual and make it personal. And there is no real getting away from it to try and forget about it all. Then there is the fact that crisis hasn’t gone away while they are trying to rebuild. No one would be surprised if many have felt on the brink of laying down their charge at times. It has forced everyone to look at themselves in a different way. It ought to be obvious then, that your own minister and other ministers need your prayer and encouragement more than ever.

The Covenanter Alexander Pitcairn wrote of how there is a mutual bond between pastor and people that obliges us to pray for them. Praying for their ministry helps to hear sermons in the right way. “What are Ministers, weak, frail men, subject to like passions as others are?”, he asks. They have their frailties and shortcomings but that is all the more reason to pray for them. Ministers are in greater danger than others, “the devil and the world are mad and enraged at a godly and faithful ministry”. “Principalities and powers stand in battle-array against us, and shall we have no help from our friends?” He points out that we are closely bound up with our minister’s trials, temptations and concerns. They have a direct impact on us too. Prayer is important for sending forth ministers where there are none, strengthening ministers to remain where they are and seeking that their ministry would be made powerful and effectual. He challenges those who complain about their minister how much they have prayed for him and his weaknesses.

Pitcairn says that “as you love your own souls, make conscience to pray for your ministers; pray that they may be faithful, and may stand in the hour of temptation, that they may be zealous for their master, and may diligently discharge their trust, that they do not become proud because of their gifts, that they do not become careless, secure, carnal, and worldly-minded”.

There are many places in Paul’s epistles where he seeks the prayers of others for him and his ministry. In your role in preventing ministry failure, we considered many of them. Here we can consider Paul’s urgent plea in Romans 15:30 for the Roman believers to join him as he agonises and strives in prayer. He uses the strongest motives: that they are brethren, the love of the Spirit and the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ. John Brown of Wamphray helps us delve further into the meaning of this in the following updated extract.

1. If We Value Prayer We Should Pray for Ministers

The more of God’s grace there is in a soul, the more they will value the enriching trade of prayer. They will also be the more earnest to have the help of even the weakest Christians in prayer. We see how serious and earnest Paul is here, charging them for their help in prayer. The strongest Christian is not beyond the help of the prayers of the weaker. God has disposed things in His amazing providence that each may be useful to another. Thus, here the apostle is calling for the prayers of the Romans.

It is a most necessary and excellent thing to see Christians joining together in wrestling with God for any mercy: This is clear from Paul’s urging this earnestly with such a solemn charge. Whoever desires to have others wrestling with God for them must be careful not to neglect it themselves. Whoever sees any worth or usefulness in prayer will set about it themselves and set others to do it also: “strive together with me.”

In our prayers with and for others, we should strive to be serious and earnest not superficial. We should not do it simply for discharging our duty. Whoever bears another’s condition in prayer in a kind and heartfelt way will find it no easy talk, but rather a battle. There are many things Satan makes use of to hinder and mar us in this duty, all of which must continually be wrestled against with a resolute fervency of spirit.

2. If We Value them as Brethren We Should Pray for Ministers

Believers are all the children of the same Father and family. They should therefore heartily sympathize with one another in their troubles and difficulties and should be moved by them as if they were their own. When Paul would have them lending him support and help in his difficulty, he reminds them of their relation and of the brotherhood.

The best way that a believer can testify his sympathy and brotherly affection to his Christian brethren in their troubles and difficulties is to send up supplications to God for them. They should be laying out their case before God and wrestling with Him as though for themselves.

3. If We Love Christ We Should Pray for Ministers

All true Christians have a strong affection towards Christ as the only delight of their souls and the chiefest among ten thousand to them. There is nothing with more power to prevail with them to set about any duty than that the interests of Jesus Christ are concerned in the matter. This is especially when they know that the faithful and conscionable discharge of the duty will be advantageous to Him. The apostle makes use of this argument to stir them up to pray for him; “For the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake.”

4. If We Long for the Success of the Gospel We Should Pray for Ministers

The thriving and ongoing of the work of the gospel and kingdom of Christ is not a little concerned in the welfare and prosperous attempts of his most faithful and eminent servants. This should make their case and condition lie nearer the heart of believers. Paul is very earnest to have them praying for him and he uses this argument, “for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake.”

5. If We Have a Spiritual Affection We Should Pray for Ministers

Any true love and tender affection or compassion is in any true hearted Christian only comes from the work and operation of the Spirit of God. Whatever a good nature, education, or similar things may do with some, yet this true, spiritual, and tender love is only produced by the Holy Spirit. This true and heavenly love is produced in some measure in all true believers. He says, “by the love of the Spirit.”

6. If We Love Christ’s Body We Should Pray for Ministers

This true and tender love, wherever it is found will prompt the soul to a tender sympathy with other members of the same body. It will be like the natural heat keeping the blood warm through all the body. Thus, whoever are endowed with this blessing and gift of God, cannot but sympathize with any saint of God in their distress. This is his other argument, “by the love of the Spirit” (see Philippians 2:1).

 

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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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