Where should we go for advice from Jesus?

Where should we go for advice from Jesus?

Where should we go for advice from Jesus?

Believers know that the Lord Jesus cares for His people, His little flock. So how does He answer a believer when she asks His advice on how best to benefit from His care? Although each believer has a personal relationship with Christ, in the following updated extract, James Durham highlights from the Song of Solomon how Christ does not deal with His people individualistically. Instead He expects us to see ourselves as one of His flock, walking together with the rest of His people, and benefiting together from the gifts He has given His church – the gospel ministry and gospel ordinances. The role for preaching and for church membership is much bigger in this view than we perhaps appreciate in the contemporary church. Certainly there is a clear responsibility for ministers to preach Christ’s will for how we should think and live, as this is the main way that Christ has provided for strengthening the flock. Close as the relationship is between Christ and a believer, not until they get to heaven will it be face to face. Here, for the duration of our time on earth, their relationship is always mediated through Christ’s ordinances – especially the preaching of the Word by the shepherds He has sent. This should help us set a higher value than ever before on being one of the flock and on having access to Christ’s ordinances.

What advice does the Bride want from her Beloved?

In the Song, the Bride appeals to her Beloved for advice, “Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon…” (Song 1:7).

She puts to Him two petitions. The first is, “Tell me where thou feedest,” i.e., “where thou feedest thy flock” (for “feeding” here is to be understood as Him feeding others, not where He feeds Himself). The second petition is, “Tell me where thou makest thy flocks to rest at noon,” i.e., “where and how thou comfortest and refreshest thy people under scorching persecutions and trials.”

These petitions rely on the relation between Christ and His people of shepherd and flock. Providing for the sheep, and refreshing them in time of trouble, are the two great duties of a shepherd, and they are well performed by Christ (Psalm 23). She is asking Him to tell her the right way of benefiting from His care of His flock. She knows that He is tender towards His people, whatever danger they are in, whether of sin or suffering, for He is the good shepherd (John 10:11); who carries the lambs in his bosom (Isaiah 40:11); and the one who stands and feeds His flock (Micah 5:4). She knows too that He has resting places and shady places for refreshing and sheltering His people.

How does Christ respond to her request?

Christ’s reply comes in verse 8 of chapter 1: “If thou know not, O thou fairest among women, go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feed thy kids beside the shepherds’ tents.”

The name He gives her is, “O thou fairest among women.” When believers are humble under the sense of their own infirmities, they are no less highly esteemed by Christ. His thoughts of believers are not always the same as their thoughts of themselves. When Christ calls them by this name, it shows that there is a real worth in a believer, beyond the most noble in the world. It shows too that Christ has a real esteem for them, which He has for nobody else. And it shows Christ’s wonderful tenderness, adapting Himself for her consolation, when He shares with her the fact that these are His thoughts of her, now, when she was in need and distress.

To answer her request, He gives her two directions – Look how the old worthies walked and follow their way; and, Stay close to the public ordinances.

Follow the flock

The first direction, “Go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock,” reminds us that all believers, in ancient times and today, are one flock, under the care of one chief Shepherd. Also, there is only one way to heaven. The substantials of faith and godliness, in which those who went before us have walked, are still the same, and those who follow after must walk in the same way, if ever they expect to reach heaven.

In all ages, God has helped His people in trying times to keep in His way, and has carried them well through all difficulties to heaven. Believers should observe these as especially worthy of imitation. They should and may follow the commendable practices of believers in former times, and not think they are unique.

In times when new opinions and doctrines hold sway, it is often safe to follow the way of those who we are sure went before us to heaven (Hebrews 13:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; Hebrews 6:14), although this is limited with the necessary caution that it is only insofar as their practice agrees with Christ, the ideal pattern (1 Cor. 11:1).

In a word, this direction shows that there is no other way than the good old way, to ask for, and to follow, even in the times of greatest spiritual decline (Jer. 6:16). We should keep the very print of their steps, those who were honourably carried through to heaven before us, studying to be followers of their faith.

Stay close to the shepherds’ tents

Christ’s second direction puts the believer to the right use of the ministry of the Word. This is something which He wants believers to respect. “Feed thy kids beside the shepherds’ tents.”

He is saying in effect, “Have respect to the public ordinances, and stay near to them. Then you will have direction from the Word through those to whom I have committed the trust of dispensing the Word.” It is as if He is saying, “I have no new light to give you, nor any new way to heaven to show you, nor any new means, ordinances, or church officers to send amongst you. Nor should you expect direct special revelations. Instead you must walk in the light that shines to you by the preaching of the Word by my ministers, the under-shepherds whom I have set over you. This is the way I guide by my counsel all those whom I afterward receive to glory.”

Gospel ministers are Christ’s shepherds

“Shepherds” here, in the plural, are the servants of Christ, the one Shepherd, whose own the sheep are.

Ministers are often called shepherds or pastors, both in the Old and New Testament. They have this name for various reasons. For one thing, it is because of their relation to Christ, who has entrusted them with feeding His sheep. He is the owner, and they are only shepherds (Ezekiel 34).

It is also because of their relation to the flock. A flock is committed to their care, and they must give account for it (Hebrews 13:17).

Another reason is because of the nature of their work – it is laborious, difficult, and something to undertake with tenderness and sensitivity.

It is also because of the respect which people ought to have to those who are over them in the Lord. No flock needs a shepherd more than a congregation needs a minister. Without one, they are like sheep without a shepherd, sadly doomed to wandering and being lost.

Gospel ministers should have a special care for the little ones

The mention of “shepherds’ tents” is an allusion to the custom of the shepherds who carried their tents around with them in the wilderness. So to be near the tent was to be near the shepherd. Probably also the shepherds kept the lambs and kids nearest to their tents, because these needed more oversight than the rest of the flock, for clearly it is dangerous for a lamb to roam freely in a large place (Hosea 4:16).

By “kids” we understand young, unexperienced believers. Christ’s flock does include lambs and young ones. At the same time, even the strongest believers have their own infirmities and weaknesses. This direction to stay close to the shepherd’s tent is given to the Bride, an experienced believer.

The office of the ministry is a perpetual and necessary office in the Christian church. The strongest believers have need of the ministry. It is a major part of the minister’s responsibility to keep believers right, especially in ensnaring and seducing times.

Believers should therefore make use of the public ordinances, and Christ’s ministers, especially when there are snares and errors to beware of. They should take direction from them. In their difficulties they should consult with them, and lay weight on their advice. The appropriate kind of dependence on the ministry is an important means of keeping our souls from error, and when no value is attached to a ministry, unstable souls are hurried away into danger.

However, ministers should have a special eye on the weakest of the flock. They must take care that the kids would be closest to them. This is just what our blessed Lord does, when He carries the lambs in His own bosom (Isaiah 40:11). Weak believers have most need of Christ’s oversight, so if they begin to slight the ministry and ordinances, they become easy prey. The devil has achieved most of his objectives if he can just achieve this. If only people would verify whose voice it is that says, “Come away back from the shepherd’s tent,” when Christ says, “Stay near by!” It is just like a wolf wanting the lambs to come out from under the shepherd’s eye.

Gospel ordinances are enough for every believer

In the Bride’s difficulties, Christ does not send her to seek any extraordinary way of getting help, or any direct special revelations. What He wants her to use is the ministry He has sent. We can therefore expect help from this source, but not others. No wonder the devil, when he is aiming to drown out the truth and spread error, seeks to draw the Lord’s people away from the shepherds’ tents! No wonder too, that souls who stop respecting their ministers are hurried away with the temptations of the times.

When Christ gives this direction to His own Bride, we can see that He does not regard anyone as being above the ordinances in the Church Militant, the church on earth. It will be soon enough when they are brought to heaven – when they are out of reach of the wolves.

What should the Bride know?

Christ’s words in verse 8, “If thou know not,” etc., does not make this a reproachful, upbraiding answer. Instead it only reinforces the directions He gives her. “I have given you means” (He says), and so He sends her back to making a serious use of these means.

This reminds us that a believer may be ignorant in many things. Yet Christ pities the ignorant, and has compassion on them who are out of the way, or are at risk of going out of the way (Hebrews 5).

When believers pray to Christ, they should neither neglect the ordinary means in seeking knowledge, nor, in using the means, neglect Christ. The Bride prays to Christ, and Christ directs her in the means.

Indeed, directions for a believer’s walk, given by Christ’s ministers from His Word, are His own directions, and He counts them as if He had spoken them directly Himself.

Christ wants His ministry and His ordinances to be kept in esteem and respect amongst His people. He does not give a detailed answer even to His own Bride, but sends her to the ordinances, so that she would both see the needfulness of them, and learn to know His mind from them.

Anyone who neglects the ministry cannot expect to make great progress in religion, seeing it is the ministry that Christ recommends to His own Bride. Imagine that in our time, when temptations to error and defection abound, people inquired from Christ what they should do, just like the Bride did. What answer could be expected? No other answer than what He gives the Bride here. Nothing else will help, if the ordinances don’t.

Therefore people should conscientiously and thriftily use the means and the light they have. This is how the Lord advises His own Bride. Yes, He will admit her to His chamber, but she has this familiarity in the use of His ordinances. He will not allow any believer to be above the ordinances or beyond the need of ministers, for as long as He keeps them in this ensnaring world.

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How to bring more Bible truths into focus

How to bring more Bible truths into focus

How to bring more Bible truths into focus

Once we have got to grips with the basics of biblical teaching, it sometimes happens that further truths snap into focus when previously they were unknown or unclear to us. Even when, compared to the foundational truths, these truths are less significant and less necessary, yet once the Lord has shown them to us, there is a moral responsibility to keep hold of them and confess them and teach them. But not everyone sees the same things with the same degree of clarity. How then should we interact with people whose views of these truths are more blurry and misty than they could be? In the following updated extract, James Fergusson explains that, rather than allowing these truths to remain fuzzy around the edges, there is an appropriate way to bring others along on their journey to where they too can have the benefits of seeing these truths with the same clear focus.

In Philippians 3:15-16, Paul exhorts believers to follow his example – even believers who had made (or seemed to themselves to have made) the furthest progress – and to be of the same mind with him in the details he has just mentioned in the previous part of the chapter. Some of them had been seduced by the false apostles, and were of a contrary mind in some things, but he gives them ground of hope that God, who had brought them to the knowledge of the gospel, would reclaim them from their error, and show them the danger of it (v. 15). At the same time, he exhorts them to unity and orderly walking, according to the rule of Scripture, in the things in which they remained harmonious, keeping mutual love, and holding off from making any further divisions than there were already.

What kind of perfection can we reach?

Although no one can attain to absolute perfection in holiness, yet as there are different degrees in grace, so there is diversity of growth among Christians. Some are but weak, infirm, and babes in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1-2). Others have come to greater ripeness, are endued with a larger measure of grace, and are confirmed by much experience. These, in comparison with the former, are here called “perfect.”

The greatest perfection attainable in this life is to renounce all confidence in ourselves, to rely wholly on Christ, and, from the sense of our own imperfection in grace, to be constantly aspiring to a greater measure of grace. This is what Paul prescribes to the choicest Christians to be exercised in when he says, “Let those that are perfect be thus minded.”

What was Paul’s example?

As examples are of more force than bare precepts, Paul draws an argument from his own practice. “Let us…” That is, being conscious of small progress, and of a great distance yet before us, let us press forward. That’s how he was minded, as he showed in verse 14 (“I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus”), and that’s the mind he wants the Philippian believers to have too.

How should we treat people who only have a shaky grasp of the truth?

There are usually some within the visible church who, because their understanding is misted over with error, do not come up to give thorough assent to all divine truths.

We are to deal more tenderly with some of those who are be-misted with error than with others. For example, we are to keep charity towards them, and express our charity for them in the expectation that God who has begun to enlighten them in other things would also show them the truths that are yet unknown to them. Also, we are to wait for them patiently. The severe exercise of church discipline is not something to resort to, at least until some appropriate period of time has elapsed – enough time for them, with God’s blessing on their own endeavours and other people’s work with them, to attain the knowledge of these truths (or, enough time for their lack of knowledge to be otherwise inexcusable).

Yet this tenderness is not the way we are to treat every individual who errs from the truth. For one thing, tenderness is not for those who seduce others into error, but for those who are seduced.

Secondly, tenderness is only for those who are seduced in less necessary truths, not fundamental truths, which are absolutely necessary. Their error lies only in some circumstantial truths, relative to the greater ones which the apostle assumes they have already grasped.

Thirdly, assuming their error is only in what we might call inferior truths, they also must not be so devoted to their own opinions that their desire to propagate them leads them to split the church and make schisms. Rather, they are to walk in a joint and orderly practice with others in the things on which they agree, not creating strife and division (whether in affections or practice) about those things in which they differ. This may be taken as a condition of the tenderness and forbearance they are to be shown, and a condition of God revealing things to them further. It is only “if we walk by the same rule, and mind the same thing.”

So on one hand there is no ground here for a boundless toleration of all heretics, sects, or seducers of others. On the other hand, there is no basis for tolerating even all who are seduced into error, but only those whose behaviour evidences them to be concerned for both truth and peace.

How can we expect God to act?

It is only God who can reveal truth to those who are overtaken with error. He does this by giving His blessing on the ordinary means of grace, when they are made use of for that purpose. So there are promising grounds of hope that He will indeed do this to some, namely, those to whom He has already revealed many soul-saving truths, and who are endeavouring, by their orderly walking according to those truths, to edify both themselves and others. Paul’s hope is that God will reveal even this to them – not by any direct revelation, or any other way without the Word, but by His blessing on the Word preached and their own endeavours (Isa. 8:20). He has revealed much to them already, and at the same time He subjoins the condition, “whereunto we have attained, let us walk,” i.e., unitedly and orderly, as soldiers keeping rank, without disturbing one another.

How can we expect the church to act?

The church of Christ ought not to be, on every difference of opinion, rent into schisms and factions, setting up one church against another, or counteracting each other’s work so as to undervalue and suppress one another. Rather, unity and orderly practice according to an uncontroverted rule, so far as is possible, is to be kept, notwithstanding differences in opinion. This is what the apostle exhorts us to, “Let us walk by the same rule.”

When divided opinions in a church lead to divided practices, further division and tearing apart necessarily follows, both in opinion and affections. When Paul exhorts us to joint practice, he adds that we are to “mind the same thing.” That is, “Let us keep unity, both of affections and opinions, in those things on which we still agree,” implying this is not possible without joint practice.

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Hoping against hope

Hoping against hope

Hoping against hope

We can become so familiar with the truth that God is merciful to sinners that we become numb to its significance. Then perhaps we are taken by surprise when something lifts the lid on the shocking wickedness in our own hearts – or the awfulness of what lies in store in eternity as a punishment for sin. This happened in one sinful city, where God announced that they were going to be destroyed in a matter of weeks. The warning struck a chord – the people recognised the validity of the punishment looming ahead of them. But what could they do? Despair? Could God possibly do anything different from what He had said? In this updated extract from his commentary on the Prophecy of Jonah, George Hutcheson takes us through the different aspects of the response from Nineveh to the prophet’s warning message.

The people of Nineveh were confronted with a very blunt message from God. ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ The Lord sometimes sees it fit in His great wisdom to conceal any thoughts of love toward us, and hold out only threatenings and severity – to induce them more seriously to repent. The statement is put in absolute terms – simply that they will be overthrown – without any mention of anything conditional, for example, that on their repentance they would be spared. Only the fact that He granted them 40 days implies that there is an invitation to repentance, hidden inside the very starkly threatening message.

The response from Nineveh included fasting and prayer and cessation of their evil doings. As a way of reinforcing their determination to amend their ways they said, ‘Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?’

In their words there is some hope, although very beleaguered, that if they did instantly seek to the Lord, He would be reconciled with them, and in His mercy avert His judgment.

Can you catch a sight of the mercy hidden in the warning?

Even when God is issuing such an abrupt and imperative warning, some glimpse of His mercy may be caught by those who are conscious of their sin, and acknowledge the justice of His correction. Notwithstanding Jonah’s declaration of destruction, the people see a possibility that God may turn and repent – even these very people who apprehend his fierce anger. The mere fact that He has gone to the lengths of giving them 40 days notice gives a basis for the hope that there was some purpose of love kept up, till he saw their repentance.

Can you look at God as your source of hope?

Awakened sinners under fears of judgments, think that the fountain of their happiness would be that God was reconciled with them. Only from reconciliation can they expect any comfortable outcome from their calamities. This is why their eye is chiefly on God turning, repenting, and turning away from his fierce anger. Only this will allow them to gather hope that they shall not perish.

Can you recognise His grace behind anything good you get?

Those who are most earnest with God, under the sense of sin and judgments, will be ready to see most of his grace and free love in showing favour toward them. Therefore all their hope, when they cry mightily, is built on God turning and repenting, and God quitting the controversy. They realise that God’s grace and compassion must be eminently active, if peace be made between them at all.

Faint hope is still real hope

This way of speaking, ‘Who can tell if God will turn …?’ is also used by His believing people in similar extremities (e.g., Joel 2:14). It shows various things.

Those who are conscious of their sin may be sadly tossed to and fro between the expectation of God’s mercy, and the sense of what they really deserve. They can neither speak the pure language of faith, nor yet wholly the language of unbelief, but what they say is mixed and made up of both. Therefore although it is beyond all controversy that God will be reconciled with a penitent (and no doubt Jonah had at least preached this fact about God), yet they can attain no further than, ‘Who can tell if …?’

Faint hope has very basic priorities

It is no small difficulty to get free from trouble when your provocations have been great, and when God has begun to take steps against you, and issued severe warnings. Even when there is repentance, God does not always keep off temporal afflictions, when iniquity has come to a height. Therefore, the penitent can only expect these troubles to be lifted with very great submission, considering his guilt. Our happiness is not to be placed in liberation from trouble, if God is otherwise reconciled. The suspended hope of the people of Nineveh is focused chiefly (not so much on remission, as) temporal preservation, ‘if God may turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not.’

Faint hope still makes earnest appeals to God

When our minds are kept in suspense between hope and discouragement, the Lord intends for us to be stirred up to more diligence. Even this very doubtful hope is given as a reason why they should ‘cry mightily to God,’ and reform their ways.

Faint hope acts more in hope than in despair

Those who are convinced of sin should not be deterred from duty, though it seems never so hopeless. Rather they should resolve to follow their duty, whatever they get from it. This is why they will cry to God, even though they are not certain that He will deliver them.

God’s grace is behind His threatenings

What happened when God saw the response from Nineveh? ‘God repented of the evil that he had said that he would do unto them, and he did it not.’ (verse 10)

God was graciously pleased to accept their repentance, and recalled the sentence of destruction (expressed in terms familiar from human interactions, ‘repenting of what he said he would do’).

So, however peremptory and absolute the Lord’s threatenings are, we must always understand them as meaning that anyone who repents may look for God to accept them. He had threatened flatly that they would be destroyed, yet notwithstanding, he saw their works, and repented.

God notices the reality of our hearts

God chiefly takes notice of and rewards how people behave, and their real endeavours towards reformation, and not their external performances of religious exercises. He ‘saw their works, that they turned from their evil way,’ rather than their fasting and sackcloth.

God rewards weak attempts

Although the Lord will not be a debtor to anyone, and although no one can merit anything from Him, yet free grace will reward weak endeavours in such a way that as everyone may be encouraged to seek Him. Supposing this was only a temporary repentance, yet He will even reward that with temporal favours, as a picture of true repentance, to show how He loves. Of grace He will reward true repentance. ‘He saw their works,’ both the works of those who were truly converted, and of those who did not come to that length, ‘and repented of the evil he said he would do.’

God remains the same

When God is said in Scripture to ‘repent,’ we are not to conceptualise any change in God, or any change of His eternal purposes, but only the fact that He did not carry out the threatening He had announced. The threatening includes the condition or exception of repentance, which God decrees to give those whom He spares. When it says ‘God repented of the evil,’ it explains itself as, ‘He did not do it.’ It is not a changing of His purpose, but a not executing of what He had said (i.e., conditionally).

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What is so spiritual about church government?

What is so spiritual about church government?

What is so spiritual about church government?

There is no shortage of books and conferences and blogs and even movements on the church. But how often do we hear talk of church polity? If anything, many avoid the topic. After all, church government is said to divide Christians, not unite them. Why pay any heed to it at all? Is it that important for the average Christian and for Christian discipleship? If so, how? Does the Bible speak decisively in this area? And if we think it does, how firmly should we hold our convictions when other Christians disagree? But if the gospel is about being governed by Jesus, maybe church government matters more than we like to tell ourselves. Far from being a luxury, or a fundamental threat, or even a boring technicality, the running of the local church in my life is the very place where I get to experience the good news of Christ Jesus’s shepherding care over me. In this updated extract, some of the members of the Westminster Assembly show how every aspect of church government is spiritual – and therefore deserves our thankful respect.

The power or authority of church government is a spiritual power. It is not so perfectly and completely spiritual as Christ’s supreme government, for He alone has absolute and immediate power and authority over our very spirits and consciences, ruling us by the invisible influence of His Spirit and grace as He pleases (John 3:8; Rom. 8:14; Gal. 2:20). But church government is purely, properly, and merely spiritual enough that it really, essentially and specifically differs from civil government, and is contradistinguished from the civil, secular, and political power in the hand of the civil magistrate. The power of church government is properly, purely, merely spiritual, in its rule, fountain, matter, form, subject, object, end, and all.

The rule-book of church government is spiritual

What reveals and regulates church government is not any principles of state-policy, parliamentary rolls, nor any human statutes, laws, ordinances, edicts, decrees, traditions, or precepts whatsoever. By human policies, cities, provinces, kingdoms, empires may be happily governed, but not Christ’s church. It is in the Holy Scriptures—that perfect divine canon—that the Lord Christ has revealed sufficiently how His own house, His church, shall be ruled (1 Tim. 3:14–15) and how all His ordinances (Word, sacraments, censures, etc.), shall be dispensed (2 Tim. 3:16–17). This Scripture is “divinely breathed,” or “inspired” by God—holy men writing not according to the fallible will of man, but the infallible acting of the Holy Ghost (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20–21).

The fountain of church government is spiritual

The fountain or derivation of this power, from whence it originally flows, is not from any magistrate, prince or potentate in the world, and not from any man on earth, or the will of man. Instead it comes only from Jesus Christ our Mediator, Himself being the sole first receptacle of all power from the Father (Matt. 28:18; John 5:22), and consequently, the very fountain of all power and authority to His church (Matt. 28:18–20; John 20:21–23; Matt. 16:19 and 18:18–20; 2 Cor. 10:8).

The matter of church government is spiritual

Church government is called the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” not the keys of the kingdoms of earth (Matt. 16:19). As Christ professed, His kingdom was “not of this world” (John 18:36). When someone requested that Christ would speak to his brother to divide the inheritance with him, Christ utterly disclaimed all such worldly, earthly power, saying, “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” (Luke 12:13–14).

The kinds of these heavenly spiritual keys are doctrine and discipline. The acts of them are binding or loosing. So whether you consider them in their kinds or their acts, the keys are wholly spiritual.

  • The doctrine which is preached is not human, but divine. It is revealed in the Scriptures by the Spirit of God, and covering the most sublime spiritual mysteries of religion (2 Pet. 1; 2 Tim. 3:16–17).
  • The seals administered [i.e., by the sacraments] are not worldly seals confirming and testifying any earthly privileges, liberties, interests, or authority. Rather they are spiritual, sealing (for example) the righteousness of faith (Rom. 4:11), and the death and blood of Jesus Christ, with all its spiritual virtue and efficacy unto His members (Rom. 5:6; Gal. 3:1; 1 Cor. 10:16–17; 11:23– 24).
  • The censures dispensed are not pecuniary, corporal or capital, such as taxes, fines, confiscations, imprisonments, whippings, flogging, stigmatizing, or taking away of limb or life. Church government takes nothing to do with anything like that, but leaves it all to those who wield the civil sword. Instead the censures are spiritual—they only concern the soul and conscience. For example, they include admonishing the unruly and disorderly (Matt. 18:18–19), excluding the incorrigible and obstinate from the spiritual fellowship of the saints (Matt. 18:18–19; 1 Cor. 5), and receiving the penitent back again into the spiritual communion of the faithful (2 Cor. 2). The binding and loosing, which are the chief acts of the keys, are interpreted spiritually by our Saviour to be the remitting and retaining of sins (Matt. 18:18–19; John 20:21–23).

The manner of church government is spiritual

Not only the matter but also the manner and the form of church government is spiritual This power is to be exercised, not in a natural manner, or in the name of any earthly magistrate, court, parliament, prince, or potentate whatever (like all secular civil power is). Nor is it even done in the name of saints, ministers or the churches. Rather church power is exercised in a spiritual manner in the name of the Lord Jesus, from whom alone all His officers receive their commissions. The Word is to be preached in His name (Acts 17:18), the sacraments are to be dispensed in His name (Matt. 28:19; Acts 19:5), and censures are to be applied in His name (1 Cor. 5:4, etc.).

The ones who exercise church government are spiritual

Those who are entrusted with the power of church government are not any civil, political, or secular magistrate. Rather they are spiritual officers, in offices which Christ has Himself instituted and bestowed upon His church, such as apostles, pastors, teachers, elders (Eph. 4:7–11). These are the only ones to whom He has given the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:19; Matt 18:18–19; Matt 28:18–19; John 20:21– 23; 2 Cor. 10:8). These are the ones whom He has made governments in His church (1 Cor. 12:28). These are the ones to whom He wishes us to give obedience and subjection (Heb. 13:17) and double honour (1 Tim. 5:17).

The objects of church government are spiritual

The objects about which this power is to be put forth and exercised are not about things, actions, or civil persons, as such, but things and actions which are spiritual and ecclesiastical, as such. Church power will deal with injurious actions, not as they are considered as trespasses against any statute or political law, but to the extent that they are scandalous to our brothers or to the church of God. For example, the incestuous person was cast out of the church because he was a wicked person himself, and because he was likely to leaven others by his bad example (1 Cor. 5:13, 16). Thus, the persons whom the church may judge are not the people of the world, outside the church, but those who are within the church (1 Cor. 5:12).

The purpose of church government is spiritual

This power is spiritual in its target, aim, and purpose. The Scripture frequently inculcates this. A brother is to be admonished either privately or publicly, not so that we may achieve our private interests, advantages, etc., but so as to gain our brother—so that his soul and conscience would be won round to God and to his duty, and so that he would be reformed (Matt. 18:15). The incestuous person is to be delivered to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved on the day of our Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). Indeed, the whole authority given to church guides from the Lord was given to this end—for the edification of the church, not for destruction (2 Cor. 10:8 and 13:10). All these, and the like, are spiritual ends.

Conclusion

Thus, the power of church government is wholly and entirely a spiritual power, whether we consider its rule, root, matter, form, subject, object, or end. So that in this regard it is really and specifically distinct from all civil power, and in no regard encroaches upon, or can be prejudicial unto the magistrate’s authority, as that is properly and only political.

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

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A prayer for renewal

A prayer for renewal

A prayer for renewal

Although there are plenty reasons to be thankful when we look at the church, it is also easy to identify difficulties and problems. The church seems to be to sinking increasingly into irrelevance and embarrassment. When we analyse carefully, we have to recognise much sin and failure in the church too. It is not just a question of credibility and acceptance in wider society, it sometimes seems that the Lord is holding back from sending his own believing people the blessings we might normally expect. Yet this is not unique to our generation. The prophet Jeremiah mourned a similar situation in the church in his times. In this updated extract from David Dickson’s commentary on Lamentations, we can borrow Jeremiah’s words of prayer to the Lord for help, and turn others of Jeremiah’s words into material for prayer. Repentance and renewal are things we can ask the Lord to gift the church in our own context.

Pray that the church would live up to its spiritual status as victors in Christ over sin

Jeremiah refers to the Lord’s people’s “crown” (Lamentations 5:16). The crown was their exclusive privileges in church and state, which they had beyond other people on the earth. God’s people are a royal people beyond all nations. All others are drudges to their own lusts, but God’s people are kings and conquerors, triumphing over principalities and powers, the world, and their own lusts and passions.

Use your spiritual privileges then, and be a crowned king over all that opposes you. Otherwise the royal crown will be taken off your head and you will be made an outcast. “The crown is fallen from our head” (verse 16). Of all men the most contemptible are you whom God would lift up and yet you are determined to make yourself base. Therefore, enjoy your kingship over sin, Satan, the world and your own lusts, in order that one day a crown of perfect gold may be set on your head.

Pray for a true sense of sin

The Lord’s people in Jeremiah’s time said, “Woe unto us, for we have sinned” (verse 16). Here they acknowledge that sin was the cause of all their misery and disgrace. Sin is the cause of all the trouble that comes on us. It defaces all our privileges and makes a people the tail and not the head (Deut. 28:44). If it was not for sin, God’s people would not need to lose their blessedness with anything.

The church cries, “Woe to us that we have sinned,” and not, “Woe unto us that we are miserable.” Sin is a greater evil than any misery, if only we were conscious of it, for we may blame ourselves and our sins for all our misery and for the feeling of our misery. Misery should turn all our grief against sin. If you tend to cry, “Woe is me because of my affliction,” learn to say instead, “Woe is me because of my sin.” Be more sorry for sin than for the judgment it has drawn down on you.

Pray for an appropriate dread of the consequences of our personal and collective sin

“For this our heart is faint,” they say (verse 17). The reason for their grief and faintness of heart is both that God’s temple, which was the place of their comfort, is laid low and desolate and waste, and also that they were the ones who had moved God to cast it down. Now it has become a den for foxes and other wild animals. It shows that people’s sins not only draw wrath on themselves but also on the church and commonwealth of which they are members. So, in order not to bring a plague on church and state, put away sin.

Pray for a sympathetic attitude for the troubled church

Their grief is “because of Zion” (verse 18). We should be more grieved for the church drawn on by sin than for any other cause. The church’s grief should go nearer our heart than our own. If we lay God’s glory to heart, we will be more grieved for the evils that have come upon the church than anything that can happen to ourselves.

Pray that in our sympathy we would take God’s side against our own sin

“Zion is desolate, the foxes walk upon it” (verse 18). This is not to be understood of crafty, wily men, but of wild animals who are now haunting it. It is righteous with God to make his abused temple a den for wild animals.

Pray to be able to find hope in who God is

Then the prophet takes heart, and refreshes himself a little in the midst of his grief with the consideration that the Lord remains forever. “Thou, O Lord, remainest forever” (verse 19). Although Zion, the temple and all are gone, and the commonwealth is decayed, yet he says, “the Lord remains forever,” to right all wrongs and to take amends of all oppressors. The Lord can yet set in order all things that are currently in disarray.

From the fact that after a long time’s lamentation he takes a view of God’s goodness, mercy and unchangeableness, lest he should be swallowed up of too much despair and sorrow, we see that even if the church provokes God to change her state from prosperity to adversity, yet the Lord remains still unchangeable, and as kind and loving to those who seek unto Him as ever He was. Change in the church does not mean any change in God. He remains the same, both when He plagues sinners and when he pities them. “For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore you sons of Jacob are not consumed” (Mal. 3:6).

The fact that the prophet takes comfort from God’s unchangeableness and hopes for deliverance, shows that God’s unchangeableness is a basis of hope for the restoration of the church, and a basis of hope that the church shall be changed from this bad condition to a better one. If you feel a change in yourself between better and worse, let it send you to God who is unchangeable, and you shall find help.

The unchangeableness of God is also a reason to believe that the church shall remain stable. Although He may correct the church, yet He will still raise up a new generation to serve Him. He may fleece His sheep, but He will not flay them. From age to age He shall have a kirk as Himself, enduring forever.

Pray for sensitivity to the presence or absence of the Lord

They ask the Lord, “Wherefore dost thou forget us forever?” (verse 20) How could they say this seeing the captivity was newly begun, or only getting started? Because the Lord’s wrath began twelve years before the city was taken, and before there was a great decay in the kingdom of Israel. Many heavy plagues were looking likely to come on them. Their sun was going down and the Lord was looking likely to flit from them. So in regard of the long continuance of the Lord’s wrath, and the apparent likelihood that he would depart, they ask why God forsakes them. God has taken a long goodnight of them, and this makes them think that He has forsaken them forever.

When a people have long provoked God and He has withdrawn, they are in danger of being left even further. When people do not return to God, either by benefits or by rods, it is righteous that He goes further away. We see also that when He departs a little, we have reason to fear that He will depart further. Therefore let us turn unto God in time.

Another reason why they said that God had forsaken them is because when you are in trouble, even a short time seems long. When God forsakes, a short time feels like a lifetime. Supposing the times of trouble were never so short, yet we cannot help feeling it long if God withdraws. Therefore, when you think the time long, draw near to God, so that under the trouble He may give peace and joy. If your affliction is wearisome to you, strive against this feeling and resolve to bear it patiently.

When the prophet pours out the matter to God, and tells Him that he thinks He has forsaken them, it shows that when we think that God has forsaken us we may tell Him and pray Him to help us. If we lament the ill which has made Him withdraw, He may return again.

Pray to God to return and show His lovingkindness as before

When God’s people are driven away from God, they may pray to be brought back from their exile, and they may pray that God would return and show His former loving kindness. “Turn us unto thee, and we shall be turned” (verse 21).

They pray, “Renew our days as of old,” as if to say, “We were thy people of old, but now we are shut out from thee. In great mercy turn us, O Lord, out of this misery, and let us enjoy and rejoice in the joy, peace, favour and prosperity which we used to have.”

Our turning from God is the cause of God’s turning from us. The first to leave is always the sinner, not God. So do not leave God, lest He leave you next. “While ye are with me,” says the Lord, “I am with you, but when ye forsake me, I will forsake you” (cf. 2 Chron. 15:2).

Although we can turn ourselves away from God, we cannot turn ourselves home again. Both our first conversion and our subsequent conversions are from God – our first coming out of nature to God is from God, and when our affection cools, it is God who brings us back again. Therefore, let God have the praise of all.

If they had been turned in their person and affections to God, it would have been easy to turn their prosperity. So, if anyone wants the tokens of God’s anger to be taken away, and themselves turned to God, and His loving countenance shown, let them turn from their sin. “Renew our days as of old.” Their prayer was not lacking in a basis for being restored to their former estate, for the fact that they had previously been in a good state gave good grounds to look to be restored after repentance. When God gives repentance to an afflicted church or person, He can make things as good as ever they were before. God can repair all the church’s ruins and wash the dirt off her face and rub away her shame. So if we have had good days in the past, let us pray for them to be restored.

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Where is the post-Covid drift taking us?

Where is the post-Covid drift taking us?

Where is the post-Covid drift taking us?

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

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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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