What to do when the Lord seems absent

What to do when the Lord seems absent

What to do when the Lord seems absent

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

Sometimes the Lord seems to hide His face

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

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

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

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

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

How we should respond when the Lord hides His face

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

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

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

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

Even when the Lord is hiding, He is still there

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our focus should remain on the Lord

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

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

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

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

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


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Seven ways to identify superstition

Seven ways to identify superstition

Seven ways to identify superstition

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

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

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

When it is excessive

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

When it is misdirected

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

When it is not edifying

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

When it displaces necessary duties

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

When it promotes external activities above spiritual activities

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

When it is regarded as holy itself

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

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

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

When there is no distinction between appointment and consecration

We have to distinguish three things.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

How is the Lord’s Supper uniquely solemn?

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

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

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

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

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

What more could Christ have given us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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How Paul preached about original sin

How Paul preached about original sin

How Paul preached about original sin

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

Preach misery as well as mercy

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

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

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

Preach personally and impartially

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

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

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

Preach to give both light and warmth

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

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

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

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

Preach the riches of God’s free grace and goodwill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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When knowledge misses the point

When knowledge misses the point

When knowledge misses the point

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

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

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

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

Seeking knowledge for its own sake

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

Avoiding knowledge of the most important things

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

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

Prioritising peripheral points

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

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

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

Correlating our zeal with spiritual value

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


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Feeding the sheep means loving the sheep

Feeding the sheep means loving the sheep

Feeding the sheep means loving the sheep

Pastors are commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ to care for the spiritual welfare of the flock. Yet pastors are themselves fallen and frail sinners, with many disappointing missteps in their past. When they have themselves slipped up so badly so many times, can Jesus really have any more use for them in His ministry? Looking at the case of Peter, George Hutcheson says that restoration after a terrible fall is difficult, yet certainly possible. In the following updated exposition of John 21, Hutcheson shows how Christ’s prime requirement in His ministers is that they love His flock, the little lambs and older sheep who He loves and wants fed. The love of a restored believer for Christ does not erase the memory of their painful falls, but the memory of what they have been rescued from gives shape and depth to their love for Christ and His people as they move forward in humble service.

In John 21:15–17, on profession of his love to Christ, Peter is restored to and confirmed in his apostolic office which he had forfeited by his foul and gross fall. Christ’s threefold question about Peter’s love is only intended to draw out a threefold answer from Peter, so that his professed repentance would be as frequent as his denial. Consequently, we are not to look on Christ’s threefold injunction to Peter as three distinct commands requiring diverse things, but only as one command three times repeated.

Restoration to ministry is difficult

In general, this teaches that apostacy and denial of Christ, though even out of weakness in a time of strait, is full of hazard. It brings disciples to a loss not easily recovered. Peter, by reason of his fall, needs a kind of restitution, and a confirmation anew in his office and dignity.

At the same time, when Christ puts His people on service, and calls for evidences of their love to him, He first goes before them with proofs of Himself – His power, love and care – in order to engage them to their duty. His enquiry about Peter’s love, and His engaging him to service, was not till after He had given proof of Himself by the miracle, “when they had dined,” and after their bodies were refreshed by Him.

Love is essential in the servants of Christ

Christ’s question to Peter, and the triple way of propounding it, teaches that love to Christ is the Christian’s badge. Anyone who deserts that standard is a runaway. This is what Christ tests Peter by: “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?”

Ministers who are called to take charge of Christ’s children and flock need much love to Him. No service they may offer can be approved, if instead of flowing from love to Christ, it is undertaken for some hidden agenda. Nor, without this love, is there any possibility of enduring the many blasts they will meet with in their calling, or the much toil they will have, even with and from the flock itself. The inquiry, “Lovest thou me?” is premised as a needful qualification for discharging the trust committed to the minister.

Yet whatever love for Christ people may warrantably claim to have, it does not allow them to swell in their own eyes because of it, or because of any dignity conferred on them as those who love Christ. Saints, in their repenting for their failings, should look back to the low estate from which Christ has raised them, so that they will see all the more clearly their ingratitude, in back-sliding or forsaking Him. That is why He guards all these questions with this designation, “Simon” (not “Peter,” the name He gave him; John 1:42), and “son of Jonas,” a poor fisherman. It is so that Peter, as he professes his repentance and renewed love, will let his heart be affected with thoughts of the low estate from where he was exalted, and to which Christ might justly debase him again, and leave him as He found him, “Simon, son of Jonas.” In professing his love, and embracing this charge, he should still remember his origins.

Our love should not exclude but be enhanced by the memory of what we have done

The sense of the Lord’s people’s backslidings should be a whet-stone to sharpen their love to Christ, and to make them not content to return to a formal way of profession after their foul slips, but to move forward with a new edge on them, to recover their losses, and prevent falling again in a similar way in the future. This is why Christ enquires particularly at Peter, “Lovest thou me?” because if he has been truly recovered, he ought to be eminent in love, and have it more deeply rooted in his heart, partly so that he will not slide again, and partly in testimony of his sense of Christ’s kindness, who looked on him after his fall.

True repentance should, and will, not only be sincere and real, but just as eminent in its effects as the sinner’s fall was. Peter’s threefold profession of love to Christ corresponds to his threefold denial of Christ.

Those who have fallen grossly in the time of temptation, and have through mercy been recovered again, should still be suspicious of themselves, as having grossly given the lie to their former professions. Christ wants for Peter not to easily trust himself, considering what big claims he had made before, when he gone and fallen so badly.

Christ initially puts the question in comparative terms. “Lovest thou me more than these?” That is, “more than any of the rest love me?” He is not so much saying that someone who has fallen and been restored should strive to out-strip the next one in the grace of love. Rather He wants Peter to reflect on his former conceit of himself, and his unique undertaking (Matt. 26:33), and maybe also his recent forwardness in coming out of the ship (John 21:7) and testing whether, because of that, he would boast of any unique love to Him. And so, with the offer of accepting his sincere love, and calling for it, He rips up Peter’s former conceit of himself.

This teaches us, partly, that the evil of a saint’s apostasies and defections will never be thoroughly cured by any returning out of one particular evil course, unless the fountain, cause and root of their evils is cured, and continually abhorred and watched over. Christ presents Peter with what had occasioned his former fall, to see what he thinks of it, and if it continued with him. Partly too it teaches us that Christ allows His people to season their bitter thoughts of their own evils with the offer of His love and acceptance of what is good and sincere in them. He propounds this indirect challenge in such a way that He also guards it with an offer of His present acceptance of Peter’s love.

Peter modestly declines in his answer to make any comparisons. So in the second and third questions, Christ omits the comparison, and puts the question simply, “Lovest thou me?” He covers and passes by infirmities when He sees us convinced of them.

The connection between restoration, humility and love

We need not curiously distinguish between the different Greek words that Peter uses in his answers to Christ’s questions, signifying greater and lesser degrees of love. If any distinction should be made between these expressions, the fact that Christ uses both shows us that He takes notice of, and is willing to accept of, lesser degrees of sincere love as well as greater. He interrogates concerning both, implying (a) that He will accept either, and also (b) that those who are sober and dare not profess an eminent measure of love to Christ still need to examine if they are sincere and real even in the weaker degree they profess.

Whatever the exact signification of these words, yet there are several things we may learn from Peter’s answers.

  1. It is very possible for fallen saints to recover their feet, and attain to love again.
  2. Someone who truly loves Christ may humbly avow his love before Him as often as He enquires about it. “Yea, Lord, I love thee.”
  3. If we sincerely love Christ, our falls will teach us sobriety, and not to boast of ourselves above others. Peter makes no comparisons in answer to Christ’s first question, but simply ranks himself among those who do love Him.
  4. Those who want to prove themselves to truly love Christ must not only satisfy themselves in the matter, but should appeal to His knowledge, and be sure that He knows and approves of them as such. “Lord, thou knowest that I love thee.”
  5. Those who want to approve themselves to Christ should think of Him as knowing all things, and remember that therefore He will not be deceived with performances. “Thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee.”
  6. Our sight of the grace of God in us, after our back-slidings, should be joined with the sense of our falling. When Peter was grieved, Christ puts him in mind of how his former sliding had justly rendered him suspect, so that the awareness of this would accompany his profession of love.

Service includes the memory of what we have done

Christ commissions Peter, repeating it three times. Christ is able to make good use of saints who fell foully in a time of temptation, and can raise them up again, to do Him eminent service in their generation. Fallen Peter is again entrusted with the charge of Christ’s sheep and lambs.

The moment a saint loves Christ, Christ extends that love to all His people, so that anyone who truly loves Him will show kindness to them. As soon as Peter professes love to Christ, He directs him, “Feed my lambs.” A great evidence of reality of love to Christ is to have a care of Christ’s lambs.

Ministers ought to think of Christ’s people as very seriously recommended to them, and therefore they should very seriously mind their work for them. The threefold charge signalled this for Peter.

Those who want to be faithful in a ministerial charge ought to look on the people of their charge as really Christ’s people, and people who Christ is in a close relationship with. Christ calls them “My lambs, my sheep.” These people are loved by Christ, committed to the minister’s charge by Christ, and Christ wants the minister to win them to Christ.

Ministers ought to keep in mind the variety of personalities, and degrees of strength, which are in the people committed to their charge, so they may interact with them and care for them accordingly. There are both weaker lambs, and stronger sheep. Remember Isaiah 40:10–11, “Behold, the Lord God will come with strong hand …. he shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”

Feeding is a major part of the minister’s work. Ministers are to feed Christ’s people with sound and wholesome doctrine, and to dispense it in such a way that reaches the capacity of the weakest. Christ’s first command is to give food, and specifically to the lambs.

Yet it is not sufficient that ministers be able to feed the people in their charge unless they also govern and rule them, and do every other duty of a good shepherd unto them. And even the strongest ought to subject themselves to this government. In Christ’s second repetition of the charge the word is different from the previous one, “Feed, or govern, and play the shepherd, and that even for the sheep.”

Not even the strongest believers will ever come to a time when they have reached such a height of perfection and sanctity that they have out-grown Christ’s ordinances, which include the ministry. Ministers are obliged to deal with them accordingly. In the third repetition of the charge, Christ goes back to the word He first used, “Feed, or provide food,” and that even to “my sheep,” as well as to lambs.




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Discerning a call to secular service

Discerning a call to secular service

Discerning a call to secular service

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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How the Word of God gives us words for God

How the Word of God gives us words for God

How the Word of God gives us words for God

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

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

We need to know accurately who God is

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

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

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

We cannot worship God without knowing accurately who He is

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

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

God is beyond the reach of our senses

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

God is beyond the capacity of our language

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

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

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

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

God is most powerful

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

God is immense

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

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

God’s understanding is unsearchable

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

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


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Blessings, boundaries and the church

Blessings, boundaries and the church

Blessings, boundaries and the church

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

Indifference to sexual purity is a pagan attitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual impurity has no place in the church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impurity is a contagion

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

The church should be a place where holiness flourishes

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

The church should not judge the world, but itself

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

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

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



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Breaking the cycle of intergenerational perversity

Breaking the cycle of intergenerational perversity

Breaking the cycle of intergenerational perversity

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

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

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

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

By William Guthrie

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

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

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

What kind of generation is this?

By Thomas Boston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can we save ourselves from this generation?

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

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

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

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

More particularly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Why love is one of God’s commandments

Why love is one of God’s commandments

Why love is one of God’s commandments

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

The relationship between love, lifestyle and faith

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

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

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

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

How far-reaching love is

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

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

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

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

How helpful love is

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

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

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

How significant love is

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

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

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

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

How pleasing love is to God

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

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

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

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

How harmonious love is with God’s love

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


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What should a minister pray for?

What should a minister pray for?

What should a minister pray for?

The apostle Paul prayed a beautiful prayer for the church at Ephesus. As well as showing all believers what we can aspire to and what we should pray for on our own account, some additional further advice can be gleaned specifically for ministers. Preachers and pastors have the responsibility of caring for the souls of those who are to feed from the Word they preach, and this includes praying with them and for them. But how should ministers approach God when they pray? What features of the flock should shape the requests they make in prayer for them? Why does it even matter that ministers should pray for their people? In this updated extract from his commentary on Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3, James Fergusson picks out some pointers for ministers. In turn, believers who observe this advice should remember that as we are all members of God’s family, there should be no desire to exclude any of the family from the blessings of salvation, and there should be willingness to help rather than hinder our minister’s prayers for us.

Praying with purpose

In this part of the chapter Paul gives a summary of his fervent prayers to God for the believers at Ephesus, that they would persevere and grow in the faith and experiential knowledge of the doctrine of salvation (Eph. 3 from v14 onwards). In doing so he not only gives an evident testimony of his sincere affection and endeavours for their salvation, but he also strives to stir up a similar ardency of affection in them. Indirectly at least, though most effectively, the example of his prayers prompts them to persevere and make progress in the experiential knowledge of and communion with Jesus Christ.

Paul states what has occasioned his prayer (i.e., that these people were already built by faith on Christ). He also expresses the humble, reverent frame of his heart in prayer (“I bow my knee,” Eph. 3:14). He also shows that he is directing his prayer to God the Father.

God the Father is described first from His relation to Jesus Christ (“the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”) and secondly, from His relation to His church (“God … of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named”) (Eph3:14). He is the Father by adoption of the whole church of those who are regenerate, whether triumphant in heaven or militant on earth, whether Jew or Gentile. The church is here called a “family,” and it is said to have its name from God. They are His family, His children, those who are at home in His household.

In the context, there is a particular relevance why Paul describes God in this way. The Jews wanted the whole church to be named after (and contained within) the Jewish nation, excluding the Gentiles. But at all points Paul makes the Gentiles equal sharers of participation in God along with the Jews. So Paul by using the term “God … of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” he is breaking down this arrogance, and at the same time showing his warrant to pray for perseverance and growth in grace from God even to the Gentiles.

Ministers must pray for their flock

As we know, it is the duty of Christ’s ministers to teach and instruct the people of God committed to their charge (2 Tim. 4:2). But we learn from Ephesians 3:14 that it is every bit as much the minister’s duty to pray to God for their people.

Ministers must pray for their people, not only in public with them, when they are as it were the mouth of the people to God (Joel 2:17), but also in private. All their efforts cannot profit without the Lord’s blessing (1 Cor. 3:6). Ministers ought therefore fervently to seek the Lord’s blessing from God by prayer, otherwise they have no ground to expect it (Ezek. 36:37).

Why people need their minister to pray with and for them

It is of no small advantage to the Lord’s people to have a minister who is able to pray, and who accordingly does pray pertinently, spiritually, and fervently with them and for them.

  • By him, as by their mouth, they may have their various cases made known to God more distinctly than many of them can express by themselves.
  • Additionally they themselves are edified and instructed how to pray with similar affection and fervency (1 Cor. 14:19).
  • By their minister’s affectionate prayers to God for them, a blessing is drawn down from heaven to make the Word preached effectual in them (James 5:16), and they themselves are roused up to seek after those good things that their minister prayed for them to have.
  • They can also be comforted and encouraged to know that their minister is speaking to God for them, including when he is absent from them, and cannot speak to them (Phil. 1:4), and when they through some reason or another cannot deal with God for themselves, at least in any measure satisfactory to themselves (James 5:14–15).

People should be able to take their lead from their ministers

Why did the apostle tell them what and how he prayed for them? Not to win their applause (because that is condemned, Matt. 6:5), but to stir them up to pray for themselves and to endeavour to obtain the good things he sought for them. The more earnest and laborious others are for bringing about our spiritual good (whether they are our ministers, parents, friends, neighbours), all the more we should be provoked into diligence about the same thing ourselves.

Ministers should pray for more grace for their people

If you pray to God for others, especially if you are a minister praying for your flock, your prayers should be prompted not only by their needs, afflictions and sinful infirmities (James 5:14–15), but also by the grace and good things of God they have already received. Pray that they would persevere and grow in these graces and good things, and be preserved from abusing them, seeing the graces of the best are only imperfect (1 Cor. 13:9), subject to decay (Rev. 3:2), and may be abused (2 Cor. 12:7). Paul prays for these Ephesians because of the good they have already received, i.e., that they are built on Christ already (v22).

Ministers should pray with reverence and confidence

We ought, especially in prayer, to draw near to God with deep reverence and high esteem or His majesty of God, joining this with low and mean thoughts of ourselves, because of our baseness and unworthiness, seeing God honours them who honour Him (1 Sam. 2:30) and gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). Paul evidenced such a frame of heart by bowing his knees when he prayed.

Deep reverence of heart towards the sacred majesty of God in prayer is fully consistent with faith and confidence in approaching to God as a reconciled father. These both ought to be joined together in prayer, and indeed, when they are sincere and not counterfeit, they both strengthen one another. The more we put our trust in Him, the more our hearts will fear and adore Him (Psalm 130:4). The apostle exercised not only reverence in his prayer, as is already shown, but also confidence, while he takes up God as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the whole family of believers through Him.

The warrant for praying for the church is God’s fatherly care

As there is but one church universal, comprehending all the elect in all times and places, whether in heaven or earth, so all within the church are of one kindred and linage, descending from one common father. Paul designates the church “one whole family in heaven and earth.”

The near relations, under which God stands towards His church, are founded on Jesus Christ: and all the benefits flowing from these relations are conveyed to the church through Him. Outside of Jesus Christ, God is a consuming fire to sinners, and in Jesus Christ, He is a reconciled father to believers.

The near relation which God has to His church, and His church to Him, is sufficient ground and warrant for faith to rest on Him, and plead with Him for the supply of all grace, and of every needful thing. Shall He not provide for His own children, when He has said that human fathers who do not provide for their children are worse than infidels? (1 Tim. 5:8). This is why the apostle makes this a ground of his confidence that he will be answered by God in what he sought on behalf of these Ephesian believers, i.e., God’s fatherly interest in them.


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