Nine ways to protect yourself from false teaching

Nine ways to protect yourself from false teaching

Nine ways to protect yourself from false teaching

Souls are saved, settled and sanctified through the truth. When there is so much false teaching around, it brings spiritual damage and it is dishonouring to God. Those who are susceptible to false ideas need to be established in the truth. False teachings can be very enticing, but we need to resist them. Stability in the truth and opposition to false teaching are clear and recurring priorities in the writings of the Apostles. Indeed, the purpose of Scripture is to give us certainty in the truth (see, e.g., John 20:31). The theologian George Gillespie had a great concern to protect souls from error. In the following updated excerpt from one of his treatises, Gillespie gives nine positive ways in which we can protect ourselves against false teaching. He calls them “preservatives against wavering, and helps to steadfastness in the faith.”

Grow in knowledge and discernment

Do not be simple, as “children in understanding”. There is such a thing as the sleight of men and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive. That is how the apostle describes those who spread diverse and strange doctrines (Eph. 4:14). In Romans 16:18 he warns us that “by good words and fair speeches they deceive the hearts of the simple.” You therefore have need of the wisdom of the serpent so that you will not be deceived, as well as the simplicity of the dove, so that you yourself would not be a deceiver (Phil 1:9-10). Do not rashly commit yourself to any new opinion, much less get involved in spreading it. With the well-advised is wisdom. Pythagoras wanted scholars only to hear, and not to speak, for five years. Be swift to hear but not to speak or commit yourself. Prove all things, and when you have proved, then be sure to hold fast that which is good (1 Thess. 5:2; Matt. 7:15-17). There was never a heresy yet broached, but under some attractive, plausible pretence, “beguiling unstable souls,” as Peter puts it (2 Pet. 2:14). “The simple believeth every word” (Prov. 14:15). Do not be like the two hundred who went in the simplicity of their hearts after Absolom in his rebellion (2 Sam. 15:11).

Grow in grace and holiness, and the love of the truth

The stability of the mind in the truth, and the stability of the heart in grace, go hand in hand together (Heb. 13:9). David’s rule is good, “What man is he that feareth the Lord? Him shall he teach in the way that he shall choose” (Psa. 24:12; see also Jn. 7:17; Deut. 11:13, 16). Similar to how Elisha healed the unwholesome waters of Jericho by throwing salt into the fountain (2 Kings 2:21), so must the bitter streams of pernicious errors be healed by the salt of mortification, and true sanctifying grace in the fountain.

Cling to your teachers who are faithful and sound

The sheep that follow the shepherd are best kept from the wolf. I find that the exhortation to stability in the faith is joined with the fruitful labours of faithful teachers (Phil. 3:16-17; Heb. 13:7-9). Likewise, in Ephesians 4, the apostle moves from the work of the ministry (v. 11-13) to draw the consequence “that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (v. 14). The Galatians were easily seduced, as soon as they were made to take against Paul.

Watch against the first beginnings of declining

Be vigilant against the first seeds of error. It was while they slept that the enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and when he had done, went his way (Matt. 13:25). Therefore, “watch ye” and “stand fast in the faith” go hand in hand together (1 Cor. 16:13).

Avoid and withdraw from those who start and spread heresies and dangerous errors

This is clear from Romans 16:17; 1 Timothy 6:5; 2 John 10-11; Philippians 3:2. Those who want to be godly should not usually be in ungodly company, and those who want to be orthodox should not usually be in heretical company. Chrysostom in various places warns his hearers how much they endangered their souls by going into the Jewish synagogues, and there was a great zeal in the early church to keep Christians who were orthodox away from the assemblies and company of heretics.

Get church discipline established and duly exercised

Church discipline is ordained to purge the church from false doctrine (Rev 2:14-20).

Do not depend on your own reason

“Lean not to thy own understanding, and be not wise in thine own eyes” (Prov. 3:5-7). Let reason be brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). What made the Anti-Trinitarians and Socinians fall away from believing in the Trinity of persons in the Godhead, and the union of the two natures of God and man in the person of Christ, was because their reason could not comprehend these articles of the faith. Their own reason is the basis of their opinions they profess. When I say reason must be captive, I mean that the eyes of my understanding must be opened by the Holy Spirit so that I may know that this doctrine is presented in Scripture to be believed, and therefore I do believe that it is true, even if my reason cannot comprehend how it is.

Count the cost of discipleship

Count the cost to yourself, and be well resolved beforehand what it will cost you to be a disciple of Christ, and to be consistent in professing the truth (Lk. 14:26-34). “Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). This is safer than to confirm ourselves in the hopes of a golden age of prosperity in which we shall feel no affliction.

Search the Scriptures

This advice is given in John 5:39 (see also Acts 17:11). Do not take new light on trust from anyone, be they never so eminent for gifts or for grace, but go to the law and the testimony.


The upshot of all this is that we ought to hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering, and be steadfast and even unmoveable in the truth, and not give place to the adversaries, no, not for an hour (Gal. 2:4-5). I do not mean perverse obstinacy in the least error, nor a vain, presumptuous, overweening conceit of our knowledge, to make us despise any light which others may give us from Scripture. Obstinacy is an evil on the one hand, and holding too tenaciously to our own opinions. But fickleness, inconstancy, or wavering is an evil on the other hand. “Be not soon shaken in mind, etc” (2 Thess. 2:2). Fickleness is an epidemic among the sectarians of this time. Their word is “yea and nay,” not unlike what Sallust accused Cicero of, “He says one thing sitting, and another thing standing!”

Yet it may be sometimes observed that those who are the greatest sceptics in reference to the common and received tenets, are the most obstinate and tenacious in tenets invented by themselves. Socinus set at nought the church fathers, church councils, and the whole current of ancient and modern interpreters of Scripture, yet vainglory made him stiffly and tenaciously maintain any opinion or invention of his own, as if he had been infallible.

People are drawn from truth sooner than they are drawn from error. Yet some are unstable in the truth, and unstable in error too. They are of a new faith, and a new religion, every year, if not every month. Remember Reuben’s reproach, “Unstable as water, thou shall not excel” (Gen. 49:4). Indeed, there are even some who do not commit themselves to believing any thing, but are known by believing nothing. These pass now under the name of “seekers,” but we might as well call them atheists.



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What do we need elders for?

What do we need elders for?

What do we need elders for?

The elders in a congregation are primarily there to watch over the flock, and their work includes both engaging with people one-to-one and collaboratively working with fellow elders. In his helpful treatise on elders and deacons, James Guthrie sets out what responsibilities elders have. As shown in the following excerpt from a recent edition of his treatise, Guthrie makes no attempt to play down the weightiness of the work, but highlights for us the importance of having the right people in office.

The duties of a ruling elder are watching over and ruling the flock, and they are of two sorts. Some duties they are to perform by themselves alone, and so may be regarded as more ‘private’ duties. Other duties they are to perform jointly with the rest of the overseers of the household of God, which may be called more ‘public.’

Elders acting individually

The duties of their calling which they should perform by themselves individually are all the duties which all Christians, office-bearers or not, are required to perform to each other by the law of charity and love.

  • To instruct one another (John 4:29; Acts 18:26).
  • To exhort and stir up one another, to provoke each other to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24-25).
  • To admonish and rebuke one another (Leviticus 19:17). We should first speak to an offending brother or sister privately, and if they will not listen, then before witnesses. If they still will not listen, then we are to tell the church; and if they will not hear the church, then let them be to us as heathens and publicans (Matthew 18:15-17).
  • To comfort the afflicted, and to support the weak (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
  • To restore those who have fallen (Galatians 6:1).
  • To reconcile those who are at variance (Matthew 5:9).
  • To pray one for another (Jude 20).
  • To visit the sick, and those who are in bonds and distress (Matthew 25:36).

All these duties elders are to perform towards the various individual members of the congregation, by virtue of their calling. The Scriptures expressly mention some of them as incumbent on elders, namely, admonishing those whom God has set them over (1 Thessalonians 5:12), visiting and praying over the sick (James 5:14), and feeding the flock by instruction, exhortation, rebuke, and comfort in such a way as is competent to their station (Acts 20:28).

The rest we may warrantably gather by analogy and proportion from these. If individual Christians who are not office-bearers are obliged to do certain duties, much more are Christian elders in a special way obliged to do them, considering they have the responsibility of caring for souls. These things are expressed well in the sixth chapter of the Second Book of Discipline.

From what has been said concerning the duties of ruling elders acting individually, these three things follow.

1. Firstly, elders ought to be men who are in some measure able to instruct, exhort, admonish, rebuke, comfort, pray, and do these duties we have mentioned.

2. Secondly, elders need not only to have some measure of ability for these things, but also to have some measure of dexterity, wisdom, experience and tenderness in carrying them out.

3. Thirdly, elders ought to be well acquainted with the condition of the congregation and its members. They should therefore be careful to observe how they live their lives, and frequently visit and evaluate what progress families are making, so that they may instruct the ignorant, exhort the negligent, admonish the slothful, rebuke those who walk disorderly, comfort the afflicted, establish those who waver, visit the sick, encourage these who do well, promote piety and godliness in families, and see every one edifying each other in love, walking in the fear of the Lord, and the comfort of the Holy Ghost.

In order that elders may more conveniently discharge their duty it is convenient that the congregation should be divided into so many parts and that some competent part be assigned to the more peculiar care and inspection of every elder — yet in such a way as he would not neglect to take heed to all the flock of God, over which the Holy Ghost has made him an overseer.

Elders acting jointly

Elders also have duties which they are to perform jointly with other elders. These duties lie on them in the assemblies or courts of the church which are made up of preaching elders, teaching elders, and ruling elders.

These assemblies are of four sorts in our church.

  • Assemblies of the elders of particular congregations. These are known as the church session or the kirk session.
  • Assemblies of the elders of more than one congregation from the same geographical area. This is known as the presbytery.
  • Assemblies of the elders of more than one presbytery. These are known as the provincial synod.
  • Assemblies of the elders commissioners from all the presbyteries in the land. This is known as the general or national assembly.

To these we may add a fifth sort, namely, the assemblies which are made up of elders from all or many different nations professing the faith of Jesus Christ. This is known as a council.

When we speak of the elders of which the assemblies of the church are made up, we mean all sorts of elders: ministers, doctors and ruling elders. However, it is true that, in the congregations of our church, there are few or no doctors or teaching elders distinct from pastors or ministers (who perform the duties both of the preaching elder, and of the teaching elder). Doctors or teaching elders tend to hold office only in seminaries or theological colleges.

In all assemblies of the church, ruling elders have power to sit, write, debate, vote, and conclude in all the matters that are handled.

The things which are handled in the assemblies of the church are either matters of faith, matters of order, matters of discipline, or that which concerns the sending of church office-bearers. Accordingly, church assemblies have a fourfold power.

  • Dogmatic. By this power an assembly judges truth and error in points of doctrine, according to the Word of God only.
  • Diatactic (relating to external order and policy). By this power an assembly discerns and judges the circumstances of things that belong to the worship of God, like times, places, persons, and all the details in ecclesiastical affairs which are not explicitly determined in the Word. The assembly judges in these matters according to the general rules of the Word, i.e., its rules concerning order and decency, not causing stumbling, and doing all to the glory of God and the edifying of the church.
  • Corrective (or critical). By this power, an assembly gives out censures on those who cause stumbling and who obstinately refuse the admonition of the church, and the assembly readmits those who are penitent back into to the ordinances, fellowship and society of the church.
  • Exousiastic (wielding authority). By virtue of this power an assembly sends, authorises and gives power to church office-bearers to serve in the household of God.

Not all these assemblies are to exercise all these powers, but they are to keep themselves within their due bounds, with lower courts leaving things that are of wider concernment to the higher courts. But in all these powers ruling elders have a share, and they exercise these powers according to the measure that belongs to the assembly of which they are members. However, some decrees of church assemblies, such as the imposition of hands, pronouncing the sentence of excommunication, readmitting penitents, deposing ministers, and such like, belong to ministers alone.

If these are the duties and powers of ruling elders in the assemblies of the church, it is requisite that elders should be endued with the abilities and qualifications which are needful in order to exercise them.

Nevertheless, in particular congregations it may happen that men may be chosen as elders even though they do not have a large measure of all these qualifications. This is because all ruling elders are not always called to sit in all these assemblies. Instead it is sufficient to have one elder from every session for the presbytery and provincial synods, and a few from every presbytery and from larger congregations or burghs in that place for the general assembly, as also a few from the whole church throughout a nation would be sufficient for a more universal council.

Therefore, although it is to be wished and endeavoured that all elders would have the due qualifications for all these things, and although special care is to be taken everywhere to choose the most qualified, yet in particular congregations men may be chosen as elders even when they lack a large measure of all the requisite qualifications, as they are otherwise men of blameless and Christian walk, and they have a measure of knowledge and prudence which is fit for governing that congregation, and judging the things that are handled in its session (which for the most part will be disciplinary cases, and examining and admitting penitents).

But if there are any who are not of a blameless and Christian conversation, and do not have some measure of the qualifications required by the Word of God in a ruling elder, no congregation ought to choose someone like that to be their elder. Nor should any session or presbytery admit them to the charge of elder, for it is not seemly that the servants of corruption should have authority to judge in the church of God. And if any men like this have been admitted to the office of elder, the session or presbytery should endeavour to remove them from office, knowing that they do not want to partake of their sin, and be found guilty before the Lord of the blood of souls, for souls cannot but be disadvantaged through the negligence or bad guiding of such men.

This updated excerpt is taken from the book titled Ruling Elders and Deacons, by James Guthrie, published by Reformation Press (2017).



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Five reasons God gave us the sacraments

Five reasons God gave us the sacraments

Five reasons God gave us the sacraments

God has added signs to all the covenants He has made throughout history. In the New Testament, the covenantal signs are the two ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper, also known as sacraments. As well as being signs (like the rainbow was a sign of the covenant He made with Noah), sacraments are seals — things which confirm the truthfulness of what God has promised in the covenant. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are therefore not so much statements that we make as believers, as confirmations that God gives to reinforce His word. In the following updated extract, James Durham identifies five reasons why God gave us the sacraments. Keeping the focus on Christ and His benefits, Durham explains that the sacraments confirm to us the same things as we have in God’s Word, but more clearly and tangibly, and in a way that is even more suited to our weakness and need as believers.

The sacraments of the New Testament, in God’s appointment and our use, have three main ends and two further ends.

To give a clear picture of the covenant

The first end of the sacraments is to represent clearly the nature of the covenant and the things promised in it. These include the washing away of sin, Christ himself in his death and benefits, and the way we come to the application of all these, i.e., by faith, freely, putting on Jesus Christ for taking away guilt, and strengthening us to a holy walk.

In all these, the sacraments (that is, the signs, and word of institution added) fully and clearly hold forth — firstly to the ears, secondly to the eyes, and thirdly to our other senses of feeling, etc. —not only hold what is offered, but also our way of closing with and accepting of that offer. It’s as if God, who by preaching lets us hear Him speak (inviting us to be reconciled to Him) is in the sacraments letting us see Him tryst and close that bargain with us by His ambassadors.

In this respect, the sacrament may be called the symbol and token of the covenant, as in Genesis 17.

This way too, the sacraments have a teaching use. They bring to our remembrance Christ, and His sufferings and benefits, as well as our state, what it was without Him, and before our closing with Him.

All this is represented to us by the word and elements, with the actions concurring, as if it was being acted out before our eyes, so as to make the way of the gospel as clear as can be to the minds and memories of people like us, who either take up these spiritual things senselessly or sluggishly forget them. The Lord, who sometimes makes use of parables and figurative expressions, or similitudes, to set forth spiritual things, to make them resonate with us the more, has chosen this way to make use of external signs and actions for the same ends also.

To seal and confirm what God has said

The second main end of the sacraments is to seal and confirm God’s mind and revealed will to us, and to put us out of question of the truth of His promises, so that we may have a further prop to our faith, and on this basis may draw all the stronger consolation from the promises of the covenant.

In this respect the sacraments are called “seals” (Rom. 4:11) of the righteousness by faith; that is, not the righteousness of Abraham’s faith, but of his obtaining righteousness by it, and not by works. They are seals of the covenant which offers and promises righteousness to those who believe. In the same way the tree of life [in the garden of Eden] was a confirmation to Adam of the promise of life. So was circumcision a seal and confirmation to Abraham of the promises of the gospel, as God’s oath was (Heb. 6:18).

This confirmation may be looked at three ways. It confirms (a) the proposition, (b) the minor premise, and (c) the conclusion of a practical syllogism, by which the believer concludes from the gospel that he shall be saved.

(a) The proposition (or major premise) is, Those who believe shall be saved. By the sacrament this is simply confirmed as a truth that one may lean on. The believer’s conscience in the faith of that subsumes, “I will then take me by faith to Christ.” “Seeing that is a sure truth, I will rest on Him and hold me there.” Or more clearly, “I do believe in him.”

(b) The minor premise of the syllogism, I have faith, is not confirmed simply by the seal, for the sacrament is to be externally applied by church officebearers who can say no more than that they charitably judge this or that person to have faith. Yet we may say that it is confirmed in the case of someone whose faith doubts, who may by this be encouraged to rest on Christ, and quiet himself on Him. So faith is confirmed while it is helped towards this assertion, though the man may be not clear that he has does have faith. Likewise, if someone has, according to God’s command, cast himself on Christ, and according to His institution, taken the seal, then that person may conclude from the seal, as well as from the promise, that he is accepted (just as someone having prayed may conclude that they have been heard, as they have done it according to God’s will in the name of Christ).

(c) The conclusion of the syllogism is, Therefore I shall be saved. Again the sacrament does not confirm that simply to us, any more than it did to Adam (who afterwards broke the covenant of works, and so did not attain the thing promised). Yet it seals it conditionally. If you believe, you shall be saved. The minor premise ‘I have faith’ must be made out by searching the conscience before the conclusion can receive any confirmation by the sacrament. Yet, by strengthening the major proposition, ‘Those who believe shall be saved,’ it strengthens the conclusion also, for if the proposition was not true, then my having faith, or flying to Christ, would be no great comfort. So consequently it has influence on the believer’s comfort in the conclusion, as God’s oath and seal confirmed the promise made to Abraham, and also strengthened his faith in believing that it would be fulfilled to him (Rom. 4:11).

Again, it is to be considered that the sacrament seals particularly. It seals not only as it says, “All who believe shall be saved,” but also as it says, “You, in particular, if you will believe, shall be saved.” The seal is appended to that offer in such a way that the covenant stands sure not only in general to all believers, but to me, particularly, when I close with it, as if God were particularly singling me out to make the offer to me, and to take my engagement, and to put the seal in my hand. Faith is more particularly helped and strengthened by this than by the Word alone. There is great use therefore of the sacraments, in that by them we get faith quieted in believing that God will lay by His controversy, and keep His covenant, and make forthcoming His promises to those who flee for refuge to Jesus Christ, according to His oath and seal.

Thus He seals the major proposition simply, the minor conditionally (‘if you believe’) but particularly. We may imagine God speaking to us from the covenant like this. “He to whom I offer Christ may receive Him; and all that believe, and receive the offer, shall obtain the blessing offered. I offer Christ to you in particular, therefore you may and should receive Him; and if you accept the offer, you shall obtain the blessing offered, and be saved. In this way the major and the minor premises are sealed simply, but the conclusion is sealed conditionally. Or to put it this way, the sacrament seals the offer simply, but the promise as it is applied to such and such a particular person conditionally (if he receives the offer), so that no one needs to question God’s offer, nor Christ’s performance, on our acceptation.

This is how the sacraments may be called testimonies of God’s grace to us, because particularly they seal that offer of His grace unto us, namely Christ, and salvation by Him, and His being content to give Him on condition of our believing.

To exhibit and apply Christ and His benefits to believers

The third main end and use of the sacraments is to exhibit and apply Christ or His benefits to believers. In the sacraments we put on Christ, and eat Christ. This is not done by any physical union of Christ or His benefits with the signs. Rather, it is just as happens in the Word — Christ communicates Himself when the Spirit goes along with the promises, and the hearers bring not only their ears but also their hearts and faith to that ordinance. So by the sacraments Christ is communicated to us, when we come not only with ears, eyes, taste, etc., but with faith exercised on Christ in the sacrament with respect to His institution of it, and He comes by His Spirit with the elements and Word. On this account the union with Christ is so much the more near and perceptible, as it has on the one side so many and great external helps in the means appointed by God, and on the other side, a proportional blessing promised to go along with His ordinance by the operation of His Spirit.

Hence it is that all this communion is spiritual, conferred by the Spirit, and received by faith, yet it is most real. It has a real ground and cause, and real effects following, not by virtue of the sacraments in themselves (any more than by the Word or prayer considered in themselves), but by virtue of the promises being laid hold on by faith. When Word and sacraments are joined together, they concur the more effectually for bringing forth the ends intended in the covenant.

To give consolation to believers

There is a fourth end which results from these, and that is the believer’s consolation (Heb. 1:6, 8). By the strengthening of faith, and the beholding of Christ in that ordinance, and being confirmed in the hope of His coming again, &c. this consolation proves very sweet, and corroborates the soul so much the more, because it is there that He trysts often with the believer, and by it communicates Himself to the believer’s sense and spiritual feeling.

To display the mutual commitment between God and His people

Finally, the sacraments hold forth a mutual engaging between God and His people. God holds out the contract, the covenant and offer. We by our partaking declare our acceptance of that offer on those terms, and commit accordingly to make use of the righteousness held forth there for our justification, and of the wisdom and strength offered there for our direction and sanctification. In this respect our taking of the seal is called our covenanting. Anyone who lacked the seal of God’s covenant was to be punished (Gen. 17).

Thus our accepting and receiving refers to the Word which holds forth the terms, and God seals and confirms on these terms the particular promises of righteousness and strength to these ends, so that our faith may be strengthened in making use of them.


These are the main and principal ends of the sacraments, though they also serve to make an outward distinction between God’s people and all other societies and persons.

In sum, the Word offers Christ and His benefits, the hearer accepts Him on the terms on which He is offered, and consents. Both of these things are assumed to precede the sacraments, though (as we may see in the jailor, Acts 16, and others) it may be but by a very short time. In the order of nature at least, they are prior. Then come the sacraments, which have in them, 1. a clear view of the bargain, so that we may accept it distinctly, and know what we are getting in it; 2. a solemn confirmation on God’s side of the covenant and the particular offer He makes in it; 3. a furthering of us in part, and helping us to believe, and conferring of something offered; 4. a comforting of those on whom the blessings are conferred; 5. the solemn and public engagement to God of those who receive the sacraments, that they shall observe and make use of all these.



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Can arguing about theology ever be helpful?

Can arguing about theology ever be helpful?

Can arguing about theology ever be helpful?

Assuming that there is such a thing as truth versus error, how can we ever distinguish them? Some are afraid of discussing theology because it’s so easy to be taken in by subtle arguments, or because they believe it’s too difficult to explain sacred things to ordinary people. Others at the opposite extreme will argue about everything, even things as pointless as how many angels can dance on a pinhead. The Westminster divine John Ley of Solihull, Warwickshire went into print on multiple controversial issues as well as contributing to the discussions at the Westminster Assembly. He also wrote a discourse ‘On Disputations’ where he conceded that there is wisdom in avoiding religious disputes and highlighted the risk of being addicted to arguing for its own sake. Yet, as shown in the following updated and abridged excerpt from this discourse, he insisted that out of concern for people’s spiritual welfare, it is unloving to leave them to be choked with the chaff of error instead of ensuring that they get the finest wheat to feed on spiritually.

Some are too averse to disputes

There is a danger that disputations in religion will be inconsiderately undertaken, or indiscreetly managed. As [the scholar] Ludovicus Vives put it, “The truth by too much scratching and alteration may be lost; and error by artificial arguments and ornaments may have such a glorious flourish and varnish set upon it, as to make it to be taken for the truth.”

This is not unlikely, for copper (he says) can sometimes have a more glorious lustre than true gold. Nothing, as Cicero observes, is so incredible, but by eloquence it may be made to appear probable; nothing is so horrid, but by a garnish of words it may be made to shine. This imposture is easily put on simple, ordinary people; for it is very easy with volubility of tongue to deceive. What people do not perceive with understanding, they receive with admiration; nor can they put a due difference betwixt garrulity and authority.

Ordinarily too, people are more affected by what is said by those who contradict solid and long-believed truth under pretence of new discoveries of truth, and more taken with error than with what has warrant from the Word of God and the consent of all the Christian churches of the world of both ancient and later times. Sometimes the fallacy is all the more attractive because these promoters of novel doctrines make an impressive profession of self-denial, refusing the advantages of a comfortable living, which their opponents enjoy, and they position themselves boldly against authority.

It is therefore wiser to be unwilling to give too much leeway to religious disputations (or rather, disputations of religion), partly because of the subtilty of some of unsound principles and partly because of the naivety of others of a better belief. They suspect no deceit, and they have confidence in the strength of truth, and so they are easily entangled with invitations to dispute. This brings the greatest disadvantage to their cause, for they do not forethink how their adversaries may be equipped for assault, and what liberties they will take when they report the outcome, either to make show of victory, or to shadow a foil.

There are also two great groups, which are opposites to each other, and which are too opposed to all disputations, namely the Muslims and the Pope.

Mohammed (that famous impostor and false prophet, the founder of that impious and impure sect of the Muslims) not only forbids all disputes about the religion of the Koran, but if any are disposed to dispute, he instructs his deluded disciples to answer them like this. “Say unto them,” says he, “‘God alone knows all thy acts, and at the last day will discuss all controversies.’ Again, to incredulous men say, ‘I follow not your law, nor you mine; therefore let me alone with that which is mine, and I will let you alone with yours.’”

Meanwhile, Pope Gelasius decreed against disputing with those who are of another communion, and Azorius the Jesuit in his Moral Institutes says that it is not lawful for laymen to dispute publicly about the faith. If there are any disputes of matters of faith between Catholics and heretics published in any mother tongue, they are forbidden in their Index of prohibited books.

Some are too addicted to disputes

Others are diverse from and contrary to these, in that they are too much addicted to disputation. They are too forward to make or accept offers to debate, and too ready to multiply needless and presumptuous questions in matters of religion.

Some have such a high opinion of their own giftings for knowledge and communication that they think their eminence cannot be sufficiently known, nor they enough admired and honoured, without public ostentation in a polemical debate. Perhaps by the imitation of heathen philosophers, or perhaps by natural corruption, various Christians been puffed up to high degrees of vain glory. They are proud of those preeminences for which (according to the apostle’s caution) they should rather be humble and thankful (1. Cor. 4:6). Paul expostulates with pathos with those who think too well of themselves, and disdain others: “Who maketh thee to differ from another, and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why boastest thou as if thou hadst not received it?” (v. 7), that is, as if it were your own of yourself, without being beholden to another — especially to God, who could just have easily made the one you despise glorious, and you contemptible.

Felix, the Manichean heretic, was so forward as to provoke Augustine to public dispute. But he was so unqualified for it that the one who published the report of the debate wondered which was more astonishing, the impudence of Felix braying rather than disputing, or the patience of the people, hearing his absurd arguings without tumult, or the stomach of Augustine, who so patiently continued to long to address his unlearned follies!

Said a wise and learned statesman, “The itch of dispute is the scab of the church.” Ludovicus Vives uses a similar expression: “When you scratch an itch too much, you draw blood, and the momentary relief is succeeded by raw soreness. So, those who scratch the truth too much by disputation, wound it, and only put it in need of further curing and healing.”

As some have itching ears (in the apostle’s words, 2 Tim. 4:3), so some have itching tongues, and some itching fingers and pens. The Scholastics, for example, multiplied the number of needless questions far beyond the limits of sober, reasonable and respectful inquiries in religion. The early church father Gregory Nazianzen accused some of being so wretchedly affected that they make it their delight to make trifling disputes over divine matters, and are just as presumptuous in resolving their curious questions as they are rash in putting them forward for debate. Such precipitateness and temerity Gregory thought needed to be bridled and restrained.

They are “men of corrupt minds,” too prone to perverse disputings, and the apostle reproves them for this (1 Tim. 6:5). By their disputings, questioning and resolving, they aim to be wise above what is written (1 Cor. 4:6), and so betray their egregious folly to all the world. They are neither as wise nor as holy as they should be. Not so holy, because they are so bold as to put up for debate undoubted principles of divinity, lacking the humility which is essential to true holiness. And not so wise, because the extent of your pride is the extent of your folly.

Disputes may still be profitable

Disputations on matters of religion are however warrantable by Scripture and reason, and not only lawful, but sometimes also expedient and profitable.

For the undoubted duties of morality, the apostle prescribes present and prompt obedience, “without murmurings or disputings” (Phil. 2:14). Yet for matters of faith and conscience he requires no such thing either in affection, or in fact. Instead he gives leave, and advice, to Christians to bring both people’s spirits and their speeches to the test (1 John 4:1; 1 Thess. 5:21). He requires of Christian believers that they be “ready always to give an answer to every one that asketh a reason of the hope that is in them” (1 Pet. 3:15). If this is required of a Christian, much more of a minister, who should be “able by sound doctrine both to exhort and convince the gainsayers” (Tit. 9:11), just as Apollos “mightily convinced the Jews, and that publicly, showing by the Scripture that Jesus was Christ.” This may stop the mouths of some adversaries, in the same way that if a light is hung over the lake where there are frogs, the frogs will stop croaking.

Nevertheless some are so contumacious against the truth, and so malicious against those who powerfully plead for the truth, that they prefer to use violence to stop the mouths of those who have overcome them by the power of truth (like they did with Stephen; Acts 7:54, 57, 59), rather than confess themselves convinced or satisfied with the clearest evidence produced in the plainest cause that can be debated. This is not the fault of disputation itself, but the perverseness of the disputants, who persist in disputing though they do not have one wise word to say in favour of their foolish and false opinions. We must, said the ancient great theologian Hilary of Poitiers, “not flee from erroneous doctrines, as afraid to encounter them, but must repel and conquer them by disputations.”

As the philosopher Picus de Mirandula said, “Dispute is the sieve to separate the fine flour of truth from the coarse bran of error.” This is for the honour of the truth and, at least equally, for the benefit of those who embrace it, for when truth and error are clearly distinguished, it is not only more beautiful to the eye, and more pleasant to the taste, but more nutritious, because it provides better and purer nourishment to the soul. As it is a duty of love that those who have the responsibility of caring for souls are to feed them with the finest of the wheat and to satisfy them with honey out of the rock (Psalm 81:16), so is it also an act of love not to allow these souls to be choked with the bran of error and heresy, which many are too forward to force down the throats of poor people who don’t know any better.

Indeed, being seduced into heresy is even more dangerous than that, for the apostle said of heretics such as Hymeneus and Philetus that “their speech will eat like a canker, or gangrene” (2 Tim. 2:17), which is easy to catch, and hard to cure. We know that canker and gangrene are very dangerous diseases, and those who are spiritual physicians ought out of love to do their best to keep their flocks from such infective and destructive mischiefs. If debate is a means of doing so (as it can be, when done wisely), it may be expedient that way to curb and discourage heretics from corrupting the flocks, and may serve also for an antidote to preserve them from the venom and poison of heretical tongues, which, if they are left without opposition, will go on to subvert “whole houses” (Tit. 1:11).


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What makes an ideal elder

What makes an ideal elder

What makes an ideal elder

If it is dangerous to any church to have ministers who are not called and qualified for their office, we must be equally concerned to have qualified elders. Zeal for the Lord’s honour and the gospel, love to souls and fear of the Lord’s judgment will make this a priority. One of the key elements contributing to discipline, peace and orderliness in congregations (and the wider community) is an effective eldership. Yet many elders are either unaware of the responsibilities of their office or not conscientious about fulfilling them. To address this, James Guthrie wrote a treatise on elders and deacons. The following excerpt from a recent edition of his treatise presents his explanation of the qualifications of a ruling elder.

The qualifications of a ruling elder

The qualifications of a ruling elder are of two sorts. Some are personal and relate to his way of life as a Christian. Others are official and relate to how he rules as an office-bearer in the household of God.

His personal qualifications, or the duties of his way of life are the same as the apostle requires in a minister (1 Timothy 3:2–7; 1 Timothy 6:11; Titus 1:6–8). In these passages, under the name of episkopos ‘overseer,’ Paul includes all the office-bearers who have the oversight and charge of souls, and sets down what manner of persons they should be in regard to their walk and lifestyle.

It is beyond question that the ruling elder ought to have a blameless and Christian way of life. However, to make it clear what the Holy Spirit requires of ruling elders, I shall show from these passages, first, what Paul says they should not be, and secondly, what he says they should be.

What a ruling elder should not be

A ruling elder must not be given to wine. He must not be a lover nor a follower of strong drink, nor go to excess in reckless debauchery, nor tipple away time in ale-houses and taverns.

He must not be a striker nor a brawler, nor given to quarrelling and contentions.

He must not be covetous, nor greedy of filthy lucre. The love of money is the root of all evil: which while some covet after, they err from the faith, and pierce themselves through with many sorrows (1 Timothy 6:10).

He must not be a novice, or one newly come to the faith, lest he be puffed up with pride, and fall into the condemnation of the devil. The spirits of novices are not yet well ballasted, nor have they been brought low enough by frequent exercises of the cross, and so they come to be more easily puffed up. The ruling elder needs to be an exercised soldier of Jesus Christ, someone who has been taught by experience to know the wiles of the devil, and who is able to endure hardship.

He must not be self-willed. He must not adhere obstinately and unreasonably to his own opinion, refusing to listen to the views of his brethren, even when their views are sound and wholesome.

He must not be soon angry, either for real or perceived causes of provocation.

What a ruling elder should be

The elder must be blameless. He must be someone who walks without offence towards God and others.

If married, he must be the husband of one wife. He must be the kind of person who shuns all immoral lusts, satisfying himself with, and keeping himself within the bounds of the remedy provided by God.

He must be vigilant. He must be watchful over his own soul, so that no temptation will prevail on him, and he must be watchful for every good duty, to take hold of every opportunity of well doing.

He must be sober, and temperate, of a sound and humble mind. He must moderate his own appetite and affections, and satisfy himself with a moderate use of created things and the things of this world.

He must be of good behaviour, or modest. He must act in a dignified and respectable, yet friendly and considerate manner, neither light or vain so that he loses his authority and makes himself contemptible, nor sullen and self-important so that the flock are discouraged and scared away by his needless distance and severity.

He must be given to hospitality. He must be ready to receive strangers to his house, especially the poor, and those who are of the household of faith.

He must be apt to teach. He must be a man of knowledge, able to instruct others, someone who has a ready and willing mind to teach others. This does not mean that it is requisite for the ruling elder to have the gift of exhortation and instruction which is competent to the pastor and teacher, or that he may or ought to employ himself in that work. It means rather the fitness and ability to teach that is competent to his calling, which he must be ready and willing to exercise to the extent that teaching is part of his work.

He must take a balanced approach to things. He must not be rigorous or determined to exact the full penalty of the law in his dealings, but be flexible and willing to meet people half way, especially when it comes to his own personal interests, and willing to waive things instead of demanding strict justice.

He must be patient, one who without wearying perseveres in his duty, notwithstanding difficulties, and bears the delays, intractableness, and injuries of others.

He must be someone who rules well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity. The apostle adds this reason for this requirement, ‘If a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?’ The church of God has a larger extent than one family, and the duties to be performed in it are of greater eminence and difficulty, and require more skill, wisdom and courage than the duties to be performed in a family. To rule his own house well means not only that he has the ability to do it, but also that he makes conscience of it, and actually performs the duties which are required in order for a Christian family to be rightly and well ordered. For example, he must teach and instruct his children and all who belong to the household in the knowledge of God. He must take care about how they sanctify the Lord’s day, and make progress in godliness, and seek God, and regulate their behaviour and lifestyle. He must read the Scriptures, and sing psalms, and pray in the family. With his whole household, he must exhort, admonish, rebuke, and comfort, as each one’s condition requires. For if these duties lie on all heads of families who profess the gospel, then in a special way they lie on elders, who are appointed to stir up others and go before them in performing them.

He must have a love for good men. He must be someone whose soul cleaves to those who fear God, esteeming them above all others, cherishing them, and conversing ordinarily and familiarly with them.

He must be just. He must be someone who is straight and upright in all his dealings with others, deceiving no one, defrauding no one, withholding nothing from any one that is due to him, but giving to every one their due.

He must be holy, careful to express the life of religion and power of godliness in all his conversation.

He must be someone who holds fast the faithful Word that he has been taught. He must be stable in the faith, holding fast the truth of God, without wavering or turning aside to error.

Lastly, he must be someone who has a good report from those who are outside the church, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. He must be the kind of person whose blameless manner of living, and sober and Christian walking extorts a favourable testimony even from those who do not know God — someone who by well-doing puts to silence the ignorance of the foolish, so that if any speak evil of him as of an evil doer, they may be ashamed for speaking falsely against his good way of living in Christ. The apostle summarises all this in two sentences: ‘Be thou an example of the believers in word, in conversation behaviour, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity’ (1 Timothy 4:12), and, ‘follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness’ (1 Timothy 6:11).


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When public prayer becomes sinful

When public prayer becomes sinful

When public prayer becomes sinful

Prayer is central to the life of the church. Although typically only one person will pray aloud at a time, everyone present should be able to hear their own desires expressed, and be able to add their own ‘amen’ to what is said. Yet even the holy ordinance of public prayer is liable to be spoiled, perhaps because we neglect some aspects of the duty, and/or we go about it in a wrong manner. In the following updated extract from his commentary on the ten commandments, James Durham goes into great detail on the many specific ways in which the second commandment can be broken in public prayer. This makes for uncomfortable reading as it confronts us with the many ways we are sinfully careless about this ordinance. We can turn every accusation of breaking the commandment into an exhortation to take the opposite way in order to keep the commandment. Later in the commentary, Durham will remind his readers of the need for humility, always, before God. Meanwhile, he ends this list of sins with the implicit recognition that the blood of sprinkling is sufficient to pardon these sinful defects in public prayer.

The second commandment can be broken in public prayer. Public prayer is a part of worship, and it very directly concerns the glory of God. Certainly, when the glory of God is wronged through the unsuitable discharging of this duty, the second commandment is in a special way broken.

I shall not look at everything to do with prayer, but especially to what concerns public prayer. Indeed, we also fail in personal prayer, and in giving thanks, both alone and in our families. Slighting personal and family prayer is a clear breach of the second commandment, as well as neglecting public prayer. So is sneering at prayer to others, reproaching it, calling it hypocrisy, and referring to those who pray as hypocrites. So too is mocking the Spirit’s work in prayer.

Failures before praying

Before we come to prayer, we can sin in several ways.

  • By not watching to keep our heart in a frame for praying always.
  • By not watching over every opportunity that we may have for prayer, hence letting many occasions slip.
  • By not longing for opportunities for prayer.
  • By not stirring ourselves up to seriousness when we are about to pray.
  • By letting the heart run loose when we are busy with other things, in a way which indisposes us for prayer.
  • By having a self-centred goal in view in our prayers.
  • By how little we appeal to God for strength and fitness, and how little we look to Him for His Spirit to help us in prayer, or those who are to speak before us.
  • By how little we examine ourselves so that we would know what to pray for, and what distinctly to confess.
  • By not meditating on what we are to say, so that we may as to the matter of our prayers speak in Faith.
  • By aiming more to find and exercise our gifts, then to have grace acting in us.
  • By rushing rashly into such a weighty and spiritual duty.

Failure on the speaker’s part

On the speaker’s part there are diverse ways by which the second commandment is broken.


  • Rashness and senselessness, not exercising the spirit but the mouth, reciting our prayers as a tale without life.
  • Praying in our own strength, without looking after the influence of the Spirit.
  • Not drawing near to God by faith in Christ, but leaning too much on our prayers, from a secret false opinion that we will prevailing more with many words well put together, than by exercising faith on Christ, and resting on Him, as if God were persuaded with words.
  • Uttering ill-advised petitions and expressions without understanding.
  • Not praying humbly and with soul-abasement.


  • Not praying solely to please God, but having others in view, seeking expressions that are pleasant rather than heartfelt.
  • Saying many things we don’t really think, not being touched with the weight of sin when we confess it, nor with the desire of holiness when we mention it. Sometimes we counterfeit liberty and boldness in prayer, sometimes restraints and complaints, more than the reality.
  • Limiting God in particular requests.
  • Coldness in what is of greatest concernment.
  • Lack of reverence and holy fear.
  • Lack of a right impression of a present God.
  • Not praying for others, and having little thought for the condition of those we pray with. Or if we do pray for others, either we do it coldly, and so as to keep up appearances, or else, if we show more apparent zeal and seriousness for others, we are not careful to ensure that we are not aiming to flatter and please them rather than to obtain spiritual blessings for them.
  • Desiring things for satisfying ourselves more than for God’s honour.


  • Finishing our prayer before we come to liveliness and liberty, having begun lazily and without life.
  • Not insisting on wrestling with God when we are under difficulties.
  • Allowing our words to tumble out before our heart ponders them, or our affections are warmed.
  • Rushing through it, as duty, only for the fashion, without respect to God, or love for the exercise, or driving at any spiritual profit by it.
  • Wearying in prayer and not delighting in it.
  • Not aiming at God’s presence, or conscious manifestations in it, or at getting a hearing from God in what we pray for.
  • Being more desirous of liberty in public than in private.
  • Fretting when we are put or kept under restraints.
  • Growing vain and light when it goes well with us, and turning carnal and unwatchful when we get liberty.


  • Making use of Scripture words impertinently, either ignorantly or vainly.
  • Secretly expecting something for the sake of our prayer, and so resting on doing the work, as if there were merit in it.
  • Using expressions not easily understood.
  • Using extravagant gestures, and scurrilous expressions.
  • Not observing God’s dispensation to us, nor His dealing with our souls in the time of prayer, so that we may conform our petitions accordingly (as we find many of the saints have done, when they end in songs after they had begun sadly).
  • Not praying with fervency for Christ’s kingdom, and for Jews and Gentiles.
  • Exercising gifts rather than grace, when we pray.

Failure on the hearer’s part

Next, consider the sins of those who join [who do not pray out loud but concur with what is being said by the person praying out loud]. Beside what is general and common in the duty of praying, we fail often in the specific responsibility of joining.


  • When we think that when someone else prays we need not pray, but let the speaker be doing it all alone.
  • When we pay no attention to what is spoken, so that we may go along with what is being prayed for, and fail to be on our watch so that we may join in with the prayer in judgment.
  • When our mind wavers, and we hear, but don’t pray.
  • When we censure the words or gestures of the speaker.


  • When we fix our eyes or minds on some other thing, and give way to other thoughts that are likely to divert us from joining.
  • When we sleep in the time of prayer.
  • When we are confused, and do not distinctly join with what refers to ourselves and our own case, nor with what refers to others so as to join with it for them.
  • When we are more cold and indifferent in what concerns others, than in what concerns ourselves.
  • When we are more careless of the prayer being heard and answered when we are not speaking, as if we were less concerned in that case, thinking it enough to be present without participating in heart. Then, being unaffected with the prayer of others, nor acting faith in it, we soon grow weary when others pray.
  • When we are not edified by the praying of another, neither taking up our sins in his confessions, nor our duty in his petitions.


  • When we have much hypocrisy, seeming to be joining, but doing nothing.
  • When we do not endeavour to have affections suitable to what is spoken stirred up in us.
  • When we do not pray that the speaker would be suitably guided and helped in bringing forth petitions that would correspond to our needs.
  • When we are indifferent that the one who is speaking as mouthpiece for the rest lacks liberty, compared to when we are put to speak ourselves, even though it is God’s ordinance.


  • When we are not rightly touched with any expression we cannot join with, but rather stumble at it.
  • When we remain ignorant of the meaning of many expressions through our own fault, so that we cannot join in with them.
  • When we mutter words of our own, not joining in with what is said.
  • When we are indistinct in consenting or saying “Amen” at the close.
  • Failures after praying

After prayer, both speaker and hearers fail.

  • They do not watch over their hearts, but soon return to other things, as if now that the prayer is ended they might take liberty.
  • They do not wait for an answer, nor observe whether prayers are answered or not.
  • They are not thankful for answers when they come.
  • They do not plead and press for an answer if it be delayed.
  • They do not reflect on their failings, whether in speaking or joining.

Need for prayerfulness

  • We do not remember what we have uttered in prayer, but straight away return to behaviour that is very unlike those things we have been saying before the Lord.
  • We do not keep up a frame for new opportunities of prayer.
  • We do not press after a constant walk with God in between times of prayer.
  • We rest on our prayers after we have finished, thinking something of it if we seem to have been helped to pray.
  • We are carnally heartless and displeased, if we didn’t seem to have had help from the Lord to pray.

Need for a gospel spirit

  • We are not humbled for the sinfulness and defects of our prayers.
  • We do not have recourse by faith to the blood of sprinkling for pardon of these sinful defects.


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How church discipline can lead to better spiritual health

How church discipline can lead to better spiritual health

How church discipline can lead to better spiritual health

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

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

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

The Goals of Church Discipline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoiding Misinterpretation When Church Courts Use Different Methods in Different Cases

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

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

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

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

Ministers and Elders Carrying Out Church Discipline Should Aim for Restoration

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

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

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


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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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