How can we expect things to get better?

How can we expect things to get better?

How can we expect things to get better?

With election season ongoing in the UK and the USA, it provides opportunity to analyse the state of the nation and decide whose vision for the future we prefer. An honest evaluation from the perspective of God’s law can only conclude that over the past few decades, society and leaders have conspired together to encourage each other to abandon God’s ways. The result has not been greater human flourishing but more disregard for the vulnerable and the resurgence of various forms of oppression through for example the cost of living crisis, widening access to abortion, carelessness about predatory men gaining access to children and women, and failures in social care disadvantaging the elderly and those with disabilities. Can anything much be salvaged from the wreckage, though, if we are not on God’s side and while God withholds His approval? The prophet Micah brought urgent warnings from the Lord for rulers in particular. George Hutcheson discusses Micah’s words in the following updated extract from his commentary. Although God certainly holds each individual responsible for their own sins, Micah also insists that the ruling classes are themselves accountable to God for how they (mis)use their power in the nation. This holds equally true for those seeking to remain in power and those seeking to win the election. When rulers become oppressors and turn a blind eye to the miseries of the poor, there is something fitting about God refusing to help them in their own time of need.

In the opening two chapters of his prophecy, Micah has faithfully exposed the sins of the body of this people, and denounced God’s judgments because of sin. Now in chapter 3 he comes more particularly to reprove the rulers of both church and state, especially in Judah, and to threaten them with the consequences of their sins.

He does this firstly by distinct groupings, in relation to their own particular punishments. The princes, who ought to know right and wrong, and walk accordingly, were yet the most perverse and inhumane in oppression (Micah 3:1–3). Micah warns them that in their time of difficulty they shall not be acknowledged by God (v. 4). The false prophets, who deluded the people, and preached in whatever way would be most subservient to their base ends (v.5), are threatened with such confusion as would make them ashamed of their trade (v.6–7), whereas Micah, a faithful man, would faithfully persist in his duty (v.8).

He also deals with the rulers conjointly, in relation to the judgement which by their sin they had procured to come on the church of God. The rulers perverted justice (v.9), and built the holy city with goods taken by oppression (v.10). Generally, both rulers in the state and teachers in the church were corrupted with bribes, and love for gain, and yet would presumptuously rely on God (v.11). He therefore warns that for their sake Sion would be laid desolate (v.12).

The ruling class should know the law

“Hear, I pray you, O heads of Jacob, and ye princes of the house of Israel, is it not for you to know judgement?” (v.1) Micah challenges the rulers in peace and war, for affected ignorance of the law of God. He lays the basis for showing how aggravated their wickedness was, in that they should be concerned to be even better acquainted than others with the will of God in the matter of justice and equity. Although they ought to be exemplary in their knowledge and obedience, (knowledge including consequent affection and practice), in their practice they proved that they either were ignorant of the law, or else they despised it.

When a land in general is culpable of defecting from God’s ways, rulers in church and state have their own eminent guilt in it. This is implied in the general theme of what Micah says, as, having reproved the whole body of the people, he now comes to challenge the rulers in an especial manner. “Hear, O heads of Jacob.”

Micah’s practice shows us that faithful ministers ought not only to inveigh against sin in general, or the sin of the common people only, but they ought in particular to reprehend the sins of every rank, even of rulers. Those of greatest eminency are bound to hear God speaking by His messengers, and to receive what messages are sent to them, as being under the law just as others are.

As rulers especially are unwilling to be brought to an account for their ways by the ministry of the Word, so ministers are bound to omit no point of discretion, and tender persuasiveness, which would be consistent with their fidelity and zeal against sin, and which may be instrumental to make the word take, and not be stumbled at. We can see this from Micah’s way of entreaty, “Hear, I pray you,” which indicates both that the rulers were averse to hearing, and that Micah tenderly reached out in order that they would hear.

Beside the general obligation lying on all (especially within the visible church) to know and obey the will of God, it is especially incumbent on rulers and great ones among the Lord’s people to do so. By reason of their education, means, encouragements, leisure, offices, etc., they are enabled with advantages, and bound to know more than others, and to put their knowledge into practice, in order that they may be examples to others.

However opposed people may be to the challenges of ministers in the matter of affected ignorance, or wilful neglect of known duties, yet these excuses will not satisfy their own consciences, when they are seriously put to it. That’s why Micah confronts them with a question which they could not deny. “Is it not for you to know judgement?”

Their knowledge should be put into practice

The Lord does not reckon that people know anything, when the truth they know has no place in their heart, and they make no endeavours to put it into practice. That’s how Micah explains that they “do not know judgment” — it was that they “hated the good” (v.2), and oppressed the people (v.2–3).

The Lord notices chiefly the disposition and affection of people’s hearts towards good or evil. It is a desperate condition, when not only your practice is out of course, but your affections also are alienated from God and inclined to evil. “You hate the good, and love the evil.”

Whatever oppressors may claim to be the cause of their cruelty toward those they oppress (e.g., they stood in need, and needed to live of their own, etc.), yet the Lord sees it to flow from their perverse and corrupt affections. That’s why He says of oppressors, “Ye hate the good, and love the evil.”

God sees it when they oppress the people

In opposition to what the rulers ought to be, Micah sets forth their disposition and practice. They abhorred what was good, and loved what was evil. They oppressed and undid the Lord’s people so cruelly, by taking away the very means of their subsistence and livelihood, that it was as if they had flayed their skin from off them, eaten their flesh, and broken their bones to boil them for meat, the way butchers and cooks do with animals for food (v.2–3).

The greatest perversity is usually found in those who ought, and may, and will not, or neglect to make use of such means as might promote piety and justice. All this perversity is in “the heads of Jacob,” who had means and opportunity to set them doing otherwise.

Oppression is, in God’s account, inhumane butchery, and murder, in a degree far above simple slaughter, while the oppressed pine away for want, and the oppressors (like barbarians, or wild beasts) eat that which is the very life and flesh of the poor.

However, although magistrates and great ones think themselves to be above all law, yet they have no right to oppress a people (especially if they are God’s people) and deal with them simply as they wish. Rather, they are accountable for how they have treated them. Here they are challenged by God for how they are oppressing His people. The oppressed — or others — perhaps do not dare to challenge them for their injurious dealings, yet there is a God who will lay it to their charge.

God will disown them in their time of crisis

The sentence which will be particularly passed on them is by way of retaliation. As they had oppressed the poor and turned a deaf ear to their cries, so they will meet with judgment without mercy or compassion. God will not pay attention to them, even if (out of a sense of their trouble) they seek Him.

For it says, “Then shall they cry unto the Lord” (v.4). They will be forced to seek God, whom they otherwise disregarded. Even the greatest, and those who most wickedly forget God, shall at one time or other be conscious of God’s reverence, and will send their errand His way. Natural (unspiritual) people may make some show of seeking God in trouble — not in faith, or out of love, but out of sense of trouble. The general calamities which were previously threatened, or their own particular corrections for their sin, press down on them, and “then shall they cry.”However, it is righteous with God not to heed this crying of the wicked in their trouble, because of their previous wickedness and ongoing unsoundness, and in particularly, so that He may recompense them for not hearkening to the cry of the poor who they had oppressed. “They shall cry unto the Lord, but he will not hear them.”

“He will hide his face from them at that time” of trouble. It is extreme misery to be deserted totally by God in trouble, and to lack His favour and sense of reconciliation, which would support them in any extremity.

“He will even hide his face from them at that time, as they have behaved themselves ill in their doings.” Although God sometimes in a sense hides His face from His own children, in order to test their faith, His intention, when He disregards the wicked in trouble, is so that wickedness would be seen and lamented as the cause of it.

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What to do in a minority

What to do in a minority

What to do in a minority

Today’s church finds itself not only exiled from places of prominent usefulness, but also under attack from multiple sources. At the same time, it is itself beset with many vulnerabilities. Low levels of commitment and spirituality within its members and leaders, coupled with inarticulateness in proclaiming the gospel message, mean that the church is ill equipped for the pressures and assaults of an increasingly aggressive secular society. Although unlike Covenanting times, when the threat of armed physical violence was real, there remain ways in which our situation today echoes David’s experience in Psalm 86, where he describes many strong enemies assembling against his small forces and poised to destroy him. “O God, the proud are risen against me, and the assemblies of violent men have sought after my soul …” (Psalm 86:14). In a sermon on this prayer of David’s, the blind Edinburgh preacher Archibald Skeldie brings God’s perspective to bear. In the following updated excerpt, Skeldie discusses the significance of the numerousness of David’s enemies in God’s sight, before offering suggestions as to how to respond as a threatened minority.

David says that his enemies “assemble themselves together.” He mentions their “assembling” for two reasons.

The numerousness of enemies is no match for God’s power

First, for the glory of God’s power. The weaker the defending side, and the stronger the assailing force, the more obvious is the power of one who defends the weaker against the stronger. The power of God Almighty is manifested, when His saints and servants are brought to such extremity that they can neither help themselves, nor find help from others, against their many and mighty persecutors. He who manifested His power in Paul’s weakness in the hour of temptation, declares His power by protecting His saints in time of persecution. As one commentator says, “The Lord will not deny His safeguard to His saints while they are straited with necessity.” Instead He graciously helps them.

Remarkable is the example of Hezekiah and his people. The army of the Assyrians was known to be great, Hezekiah was conscious of his weakness, and that weakness was not unknown to his enemy, who told him that he had neither riders for horses, nor counsel for war. The power of God who protected Hezekiah was manifested, not only in promising him security, but likewise in actually ensuring his safety in the destruction of his enemy. Hezekiah, so weak in the sight of Sennacherib, seemed foolish in holding out a walled city against him. He would have judged him mad, if he had ventured to come in open field against him. Yet the power of God was magnified, whose bridle was always in Sennacherib’s lips, so that he could not go beyond His permission, just like a horse can only go where his rider wishes. The church of God complains in the 83rd Psalm of the confederacy of many enemies, who not only sought the ruin of God’s people, saying, “Let us root out Israel from being a nation,” but broke out in pride against the Lord Himself, saying, “Let us take for our possession the mansions of God.” The church requests their destruction by humble prayer so that God would be magnified in His glorious power.

The numerousness of enemies is an opportunity to trust God more fully

The second reason for David to mention the “assembling” of his enemies is to declare his trust and confidence in God. The multitude of his enemies is so far from chasing him away from God, that it maketh him run all the more to God, by earnest prayer and settled confidence. As by His power He is able to protect him, so by His mercy He will compass him (Psalm 32:10).

David well knew how powerfully this argument would prevail with God, that the one who is pursued by many enemies, and trusts in God, should be protected by the power and mercy of God. Basic humanity will teach people not to betray but rather to protect to the utmost of their power those who commit their lives to their care. Much more will the tender mercy of our gracious Lord move Him graciously to protect all those who “put their trust under the shadow of his wings.”

How to respond to being outnumbered by enemies

Various things are set out in Scripture for us to take note of.

Every one of God’s people should well observe what unique experiences they have had of God’s favourable protection. What makes David unafraid of the multitude of his enemies is when he considers how he has previously been delivered from the fury and rage of his enemies. Basil summarises David’s position in a similar psalm (Psalm 27), “Because I have received so great experience and proof of divine help, then, albeit twice or thrice so many press to overwhelm me, yet being guarded by this hope, I will withstand all those evils with invincible courage.”

The Lord Himself exhorts His people to trust in Him, with a promise of security and safety. “Trust in the Lord, and ye shall be established; believe his prophets, and ye shall prosper” (2 Chronicles 20:20).

Don’t be deceived by appearances. If we look at the experience of His saints, it may justly be said, “None of them that trust in him, shall be desolate,” because those who trusted in Him were always delivered: “Our fathers that trusted in him were not ashamed.” We must not withdraw our confidence from God, when we see no appearance of help at the hands of men! Instead we should all the more rely on Him, with trust and confidence. He usually sends His relief when there is least appearance of it.

Mutual enemies can agree in opposition against God. Although the enemies of David were proud, and their pride and ambition caused them dissensions and strife amongst themselves, yet they can combine themselves to be David’s persecutors. It is the nature of proud men, so far as they are proud, to presume on their own worth, and think all others contemptible. They presume on their own wisdom, so they think nothing done well other than their own words and works, or else what somehow or other takes their fancy. They are so concerned about their own honour and wealth that they care nothing if others are brought to ruin and disgrace. It is a wonder then that they can assemble with others for one united purpose! Yet we see that though Pilate and Herod were mutual enemies, they can be friends when Christ is to be crucified. Though there is mutual hatred betwixt the Pharisees and Sadduces, they can conspire together when Christ is persecuted. The proud persecutors of the saints of God are set to work by Satan for one end, to destroy the kingdom of Christ, even though those who have a hand in the business all have their own worldly, devilish and other motivations, ambition, cruelty, and covetousness.

How to act in view of imminent threat

When the Covenanters of Britain and Ireland hear of the assembling of enemies from various quarters, there are three things which they should earnestly lay to heart.

Carefully strive to keep peace amongst yourselves

First, Covenanters should labour to be of one mind in the essentials of religion, and in the service and worship of God. They should mutually defend one another, according to thair Covenant. They should remove from themselves all excuses which may hinder them from advancing the cause of Christ — none who has power should claim to be weak, nor should those who have wealth claim poverty, but every zealous Christian should count it his honour and happines that God has furnished him with ability, and by His providence offered him opportunity, to honour Christ and advance His kingdom.

Christians are called to peace, in one body. They should let the peace of God rule in their hearts at all times, but especially when their peace is troubled by cruel persecutors. Abraham thought it not time to argue with Lot, when they were in the land of the Amorites. The Athenians and Thebanes had their mutual jealousies, yet they packed up all their dissensions when they were invaded by Philip, King of Macedonia, the enemy of the liberty of all Greece. This is especially important when you remember that usually distraction is a dolorous omen of destruction. Union makes strength, but division brings weakness. If we are true to ourselves, and keep that peace which we have sworn in our Covenant, and which is required of the disciples of Christ, we will have less need to worry about all the enemies of the cause of Christ.

Do what you can to hinder enemies assembling

Secondly, when the people of the Lord hear of their enemies assembling, they should labour as much as in them lies, to hinder them coming together. It was wise of the Romans to fight with the army of Hasdrubal before the army of Hannibal. It is a great deal safer to deal with the individual parts of an army than the complete body. In the time of Edward I of England, one of the Scottish noblemen, with 8,000 of our people, vanquished in one day 30,000 of the English, who were divided into three bands. It would have been more difficult, if they had all been joined together.

Humbly entreat the Lord to be here to help

Thirdly, when we hear of the assembling of various people from various quarters, our humble prayer should be to the Lord, “That he would be present in the assembly of his saints,” that so they would be protected and defended against the assemblies of their cruel enemies. “If God be one our side, who is against us?” Abijam was more encouraged that God was with his people than he was afraid of the huge number of Jeroboam’s army against his people.

But while we entreat the Lord by prayer, we must look well to two things.

For one thing, we should not be excessively afraid, or fainthearted, when we are fewer in number, seeing it makes no difference to the Lord to vanquish by few or by many. There are frequent passages to this effect in the Book of Judges, and in the Books of the Kings.

The other thing is, even if in God’s providence our numbers are greater, yet we must not lean on the strength of man, but to the help and assistance of God. Neither the greatness of number, nor the goodness of the cause for which they fight, will make people prevail aginst their enemies if they have greater confidence in their own strength than in the help of God. I actually think that when Jehosaphat was threatened by his enemies, he could have raised a greater army than all the kings who were his enemies, and yet he says, “Lord, we know not what to do, but our eyes are towards thee.” “Chariots and horses may run to the battle, but the Lord of hosts giveth victory.” If we find access to God by prayer, then any time we are threatened by our enemies, we may expect His protection and deliverance, according to David’s observation, “When I cry, then mine enemies shall be turned back; this I know, for God is for me.”

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Accurately valuing God’s ordinances

Accurately valuing God’s ordinances

Accurately valuing God’s ordinances

God has provided many ordinances as means for Him to show us His grace, including preaching, prayer, Christian fellowship, etc. The New Testament also has two special ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s supper, known to the Covenanters and others as sacraments to distinguish them among the other ordinances. These are the Lord’s gifts to His people to help us in our faith along the way, and the spiritual significance of participating in these particular ordinances is immense. The spiritualness of both baptism and the Lord’s supper can, however, mean that we distort their importance, either overlooking their value altogether, or investing far too much in them. While we do not want to ungratefully undervalue their significance, neither do we want to superstitiously exaggerate them. In the following brief updated excerpt, James Durham guides us between these extremes.

Giving excessive respect

We place too much weight on the sacraments if we think that they are absolutely necessary in order to salvation — or if we imagine that they confer grace by themselves (just when people partake of the outward elements of water, bread, wine, without faith) — or if we rest on simply the outward receiving of the elements, as if that made us in some way acceptable to God.

Sometimes, people superstitiously and blindly prefer the sacraments to all the other ordinances, so that they disparage the others. They will go for a long time neglecting preaching and praying, but they simply must have baptism and communion.

It is also excessive when we prefer the outward ordinance to Christ and the thing signified by the ordinance. For example, if we are more interested in the baptism of water then the baptism of the Spirit, or more interested in the external communion than the inward. Then, anything of heaven that is to be found in the ordinances is left neglected, and people are more upset about going without the sacrament once, than about missing Christ often and long.

We should also beware of coming and going from ordinances while neglecting Him who gives the blessing, yet thinking that all is well enough, seeing we were present at the ordinance.

Too much is made of the sacraments when people travel a great distance in order to partake of a sacrament when this means they are unable to fulfil necessary moral duties called for at that time. Likewise when people place more value on the sacraments than on works of mercy and charity, or dote on the sacraments to the neglect of such works.

It is also too much esteem when the sacraments are accounted so holy that they may not be administered where Christ permits, or as if they are somehow spoiled when they are not administered in some “consecrated” place.

Finally, also excessive is adding to Christ’s institution, in the way of administration, as if what He has appointed (because it is common and ordinary), is base, and too low for them.

Giving too little respect

On the other hand, the sacraments get too little esteem when people use them as bare and empty signs, without respect to their due ends.

They are disrespected when God is not reverenced in them as He ought to be according to His command, when we are going about such holy and solemn pieces of worship. Also when people can carnally, and without preparation and observation, treat them as common things.

Too little respect is shown in the failure to admire and bless God’s grace and goodness in stooping down in them to us, the failure to ponder and study them, failing to delight in them, and being careless as to whether we have them or go without them.

Likewise, corrupting the Lord’s institution in our manner of going about a sacrament, either adding to it, or diminishing from it, or changing it, as if this is something that humans had the right to do.

We do not value the sacraments highly enough when we have little zeal to keep them pure, as well as when we neglect them on those occasions where we needed to make more of an effort to get them.

It is disrespectful when we account them better when administered by one minister rather than another, or we think the less of them when they are administered by certain men (who are also lawful ministers) — as if men added any worth to the ordinance of God. Also when we assume that their efficacy depends on the one who administers them, or the grace of those who participate alongside them.

We give the sacraments too little respect when we never actually lay weight on any of them, or draw comfort from them. When we don’t wish and pray for others to get good from them. When we are unafraid that they are used wrongly by multitudes of those who partake of them, and rather than endeavouring to improve the situation, we are content for them to be made available to all indifferently. Also when we have little zeal against the errors that wrong them.

Finally, people show insufficient respect when they are not afraid that they might break the commitments and engagements they made in the sacraments.

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What makes the Christian ministry special?

What makes the Christian ministry special?

What makes the Christian ministry special?

All of Christ’s people are called to be His witnesses, and speak His truth into the situations and relationships they find themselves in. There is one body, and each member its own place and usefulness. Yet not all are called to be preachers or hold the office of minister in Christ’s church. John Brown of Wamphray explains the distinctiveness of the Christian ministry in the following updated extract. After showing that it is not unspiritual to value the forms and order of Christ’s church, he points to a large number of Scripture references which demonstrate that some but not all are called to be ministers. It is when people follow the Scripture pattern in preference to the promptings of their own spirits that God the Holy Spirit is genuinely honoured and will add His blessing.

Church order is more than empty formalism

[Our opponents in this controversy are prone to] accuse us of adhering to externals, devised by human wisdom, because we cleave to the rules and methods and orders prescribed by Christ to be followed in His house. On the other hand, they see themselves as the ones who follow the Spirit and are led by His direct help and influence.

The problem is that they end up accusing the Holy Spirit of leading them in a method and order that is not prescribed in the Word, but is only the invention of their own brains, blasphemously attributed to the leading of the Spirit of God. There is no basis to imagine that the Spirit of God will lead anyone in courses opposite to, and reflecting on, what Christ has instituted, because He is the Spirit of Christ, and sent by Him from the Father, with the work of testifying to Him, and not working at cross-purposes to Him, or trampling on what He has appointed.

Although there are differences of opinion about the order to be observed in the house of God, there is no warrant for our opponents to reject all order. They seem to want to bring in the confusion of Babel instead of the beautiful and edifying order which Christ, the supreme head and king of the Church, has appointed, and signally blessed, for His own glory and for promoting the good and edification of His subjects.

According to our opponents, it was not the mind of Christ “that Christians should establish the shadows and form of officers, without the power, efficacy and Spirit of Christ.” However, the power, efficacy and Spirit of Christ, is not in Christian’s power to establish (the Spirit bloweth where He listeth; John 3:8). I am not familiar with the Spirit which can be established by men — it is not the Spirit of God who is so under their power that He can be established by them as they please.

Also, although we are not trying to make a case for shadows and forms, yet we acknowledge (and desire to observe) the ordinances which Christ has appointed to continue in His Church, “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11–13), even to “the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20). We have no ground to think that all these offices and officers were appointed only for that time and age, seeing the work is of the same necessity now as it was then. It is true, there was a special piece of work called for then; i.e., the founding and settling of gospel churches, and of gospel order and ordinances, and special, extraordinary officers were called, qualified and empowered then, which are not now necessary.

Now that the foundation has been laid, no is more required but a continual building on that foundation, for which, ordinary officers, and a standing ordinary ministry, are sufficient and necessary, in order that the ordinances of perpetual use may be administered, according to Christ’s appointment, for the constant edification of the Church. When the Church is denuded of her officers and watchers, she becomes easier prey for these grievous wolves who now enter in, not sparing the flock, and speak perverse things to draw away disciples after them.

The Christian ministry is a distinct office

Our opponents argue that there were no distinct office-bearers, particular individual persons, separated and set apart for the work of the ministry in the days of the apostles. However, the opposite is true. There were apostles, there were evangelists, and there were the other ordinary officers ordained and settled in the churches. See Acts 6:1–6; Acts 14:23; 1 Cor. 12: 28–30; Eph. 4:11; Phil. 1:1; Phil 4:3; Phil 2: 25; Col. 4:7, 12, 17; 1 Thess. 5:12–14; 1 Tim. 3:1–15; 1 Tim. 4:14–16. 1 Tim 5: 17, 22; 2 Tim. 2:2; 2 Tim. 4:1–2; Tit. 1:5–9; Heb. 13:7, 17; Jam. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:4; Rev. 1:20; Rev. 2; Rev. 3.

Declaring that there is no such thing as office-bearers established in the house of God, distinct from other church members, destroys the whole order of the ministry. It contradicts what is taught in Rom. 12:6–8; 1 Cor. 12; Acts 15:4, 6; Acts 21:18; 2 Cor. 5:18–19. It contradicts what is evident in the titles, or particular designations which are given to individual persons set over others in the New Testament, such as “pastors” (Eph. 4:11; 1 Pet. 5:20; Acts 20:28), “doctors” (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11), “stewards” (1 Cor. 4:1; Tit. 1:7), “preachers” (Rom. 10:14), “overseers” (Acts 20:18; 1 Pet. 4:15; 1 Pet. 5:2), “angels” (Rev. 1:20, etc), “stars” (Rev. 1:18), “ambassadors” (2 Cor. 5:19–20), “such as are set over others” (Heb. 13:17); and “rulers” (1 Cor. 12:28; 1 Tim. 5:17).

The same thing is also evident from:

  • the special work given to them, not only included in the fore-mentioned titles, but expressly mentioned, such as preaching the gospel, administration of sacraments, care of the poor, exercise of discipline, etc. (see Matt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 9:16–17; 10:16; Rom. 12:6–8; 2 Cor. 12:15; 1 Tim. 4:13–16; 3:5; 2 Tim. 2:25; 4:2; Acts 6:2, 4).
  • the duties required of others, in reference to them (1 Thess. 5:12; Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17).
  •  the qualifications required in them (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:2–6; Tit. 1:5–9).
  •  the orders given about examining and ordaining them (Acts 6; 1 Tim. 3:10; 5:11–12).
  •  the special commands and injunctions laid upon them, to mind their work aright (1 Tim. 3:5. 1 Pet. 5:2, 3. 1 Tim. 4:14, 15, 16. Act. 6:2, 4. 2 Tim. 4:2. & 2:25. 1 Cor 9:16, 17 2 Cor. 12:15. Heb. 13:17).
  •  the promises of God’s presence and assistance in the discharge of this work (Matt. 28:20; Rev. 1:1).
  •  God’s approbation of them in it (Matt. 16:19; John 20:23; Matt. 10:40; Luke 10:16; John 13:20; 1 Thess. 4:8).
  • In this way, the work which God has committed specifically to these officers, is made common.

The Spirit is a God of order and uses ordinary means

Some even go as far as to say that everyone, according as his own spirit (falsely called the Spirit of God) moves him, may take on this work (although for the sake of order they may allow something like a call from the people). But the Lord has restricted this work, ordinarily, to specific officers. Any encroachment is expressly prohibited (e.g., Rom. 12:3, 6, 7, 8; 1 Cor. 12; 1 Cor. 7:20; 1 Thess. 4:11).

That God is free to call whom He will, we know; but He has told us by His servant Paul, that He will not call women to this public ministry. Seeing He has appointed an ordinary and settled way whereby persons are to enter into this work, we have no warrant to think that those who do not come in by the door that He has set open, but creep in at windows, or suchlike unlawful ways, are called of the Lord. Rather, they run unsent, in contempt of God and His established order.

Some argue that anyone who is moved by the Spirit may instruct, teach, and exhort, when the saints are gathered together. This does not refer to private admonishing and exhorting, but the teaching which is ministerial, and is to have ministerial authority, when given by persons clothed with the authority of the ministerial office. This work is unique to the office, and ought to be performed only by those who are clothed with the office.

Also, in ordinary cases, God moves no one to violate the order established in His own house. Because of this order which Christ has established, we judge that all those persons who suppose themselves moved by the Spirit to teach publicly in the assemblies of the saints, are moved by their own spirit, and not by the Spirit of God, who is a God of order, and not the author of confusion; or rather by the spirit of Satan, in contempt of Christ’s order.

It is small wonder that their brethren, who are under the power of the same delusion, receive them, hearken to them and honour them. Yet this is more a confirmation of their delusion, than an argument evincing the lawfulness of their way.

Some argue that it is wrong to exclude from the ministry those who are not educated for it. But why does it offend them, that men put effort into being instructed and qualified for this work? Why does it offend them that only those who are qualified should be admitted into the office? It seems that the work of the ministry is a light business with them, and may be carried out by those who have no learning or qualifications. But the Lord qualified His apostles by teaching them for several years, as well as by extraordinary infusion of knowledge. Are we supposed to wait for such miracles now? Experience tells us that the Lord does not work in this way now, so why are they offended when we use ordinary means to attain knowledge? The work of the ministry is something that will take up the whole man, and his whole time, if he is faithful and diligent.

 

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How preaching is necessary for conversion

How preaching is necessary for conversion

How preaching is necessary for conversion

Not even the Word of God will convert souls unless the Holy Spirit blesses it. Does this mean that preaching is pointless? Absolutely not, says Samuel Rutherford. Interacting with writers in his own time, Rutherford concludes emphatically that preaching the Word is necessary for people to be converted. As seen in the following updated and abridged excerpt, Rutherford is clear on the one hand that the Word is only an instrument, and also on the other hand that it is a real instrument. The Word — read and especially preached — is God’s chosen method of winning souls to Himself.

Preaching the Word is necessary as an instrument

The Word preached is the instrument of the Holy Spirit in our conversion, not the author of it, or its “efficient cause.”

The Word (written or preached) is a created thing, not the formal object of our faith. It is not the objectum quod [the object which] but the objectum quo [the object by which], the intervening means or medium of our faith. The Word, like all instruments, must be elevated above its nature, to bring about more than a “letter” impression of Christ believed in.

The writing, speaking, and conveying of Christ to the soul in the preached Word may be human and by the letter, but the thing signified by the Word, Christ, is divinely supernatural, and the way of it being conveyed to the soul, in regard of the higher operation of the Spirit (above the actings and motions of the letter), is divine, heavenly, supernatural.

The action of the Holy Ghost, in begetting faith, is “immediate.” The Word only prepares and informs the external man, but the Spirit cometh after, and, in another action, distinct from the Word, infuses faith. Then the Spirit of regeneration is not said to work with the Word, but there is a more common operation of God, which begets literal knowledge, or some higher illumination. Also, the Spirit works with the Word, so as in one and the same act, the Spirit opens the heart to hear and receive what is carried along in the letter of the Word, and so the Spirit works mediately, not immediately.

In the infusion of the new heart, and the habit of the grace of God, we are merely passively acted on, and put forth no cooperation with God, any more than a dead person cooperates to bring itself to life (Eph. 2:1–2), or the withered ground cooperates to receive the rain (Isa. 44:3–4). Though the Word goes before the Spirit’s work, and the Word may be preached during the time while the Spirit is working, yet the act of infusing the new heart is a real action by God, received by us by no subordinate activity of the mind, or act of the will. In this formal act of infusion, what the Word does, other than by way of disposing or preparing, I must profess my ignorance, although it is certainly true that “faith cometh by hearing,” and, in the very meantime whilst Peter was still speaking, “the Holy Ghost fell on them which heard the Word” (Acts 10:44).

Then if we take conversion in the sense of the humbling self-despairing of a sinner and all preparatory acts, going before the infused life of Christ, and in the first operations flowing from this infused life, the Word is an instrument of conversion. But I cannot see how it is an active or moral instrument when the soul is undergoing the Lord’s act of infusion of the life of Christ, unless you call it a passive instrument, because it does not persuade the soul to receive the new life, nor is the soul, being merely passive, an apprehending, knowing, choosing, or consenting faculty. This is an act of omnipotency, the Lord pouring in a new heart. The Word is the instrument as far as the Spirit works in us the same habit of new life, and the same Spirit of grace and supplication that is promised in the Word (Isa. 44:3–4; Zech. 12:10; Eze. 36:26–27), and the same Spirit that the Scripture says Christ purchased by His merits (John 1:16–18; John 12:32; Rev. 1:5; Heb. 10:19–22).

So we conclude that the Word preached is the means which instrumentally concurs with the Spirit for the begetting of faith. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:14–17). It is clear that he is speaking of the external Word because in v. 14–16 he is speaking of the word that a sent preacher carries, also called the glad tidings that messengers on the mountains bring (v.15), and a “report” which they all hear even if they do not all believe (v.16).

Preaching the Word is a powerful instrument

The Word preached, of itself, is not a dead letter, as some call it. Paul does call the law a “dead letter,” but that is because, while it teaches what we should do, it does not promise the Spirit of grace to obey, as the gospel does. As Augustine says, the law makes us know sin, but not eschew it. But the gospel is not a dead letter of itself (even though the letter of it is void of the Spirit), except incidentally, in the same sense that it is the savour of death unto death, and a rock of offence — i.e., to those that stumble at the Word.

The gospel, in its letter and in its literal sense, offers a way or means of reconciliation to those who believe. But the law, as the law, in no sense can either offer or give life. Rather, seeing that all have sinned, the proper use of the law, to all under the law, is to give out a sentence of condemnation, in the literal sense of it. If the law leads anyone to Christ, that is done by a higher Spirit than that which speaks in the letter of the law. It’s true, it’s the same infinite Spirit, the Lord, who speaks in all Scripture, but in the law He says nothing but, “Either perfectly do all or die eternally.” But in the law He condemns and convinces, in order that we may flee to the Surety of a better covenant (Heb. 7:22).

In this sense, law and gospel called the Word of God, is not a dead letter in itself, for, “the law of the Lord converteth the soul, etc.” (Psa. 19:7); “the gospel is the power of God to salvation to every one that believeth” (Rom. 1:16). The Word externally preached has power in itself to destroy, and, when it is accompanied by the Spirit, it has power to convert, and so is an instrument of the Spirit both ways.

The Lord uses preachers of the Word

The Lord has made and sanctified a ministry, and ministers, to be fathers of the second birth and instruments to save themselves and others (1 Cor. 4:1; 1 Tim. 4:16). “Ye are our epistle, written in our hearts, and read of all men. Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not in tables of stone, but in the fleshy tables of the heart” (2 Cor. 3:2–3) (see also 1 Thess. 2:19–20).

Some have argued that the Word by which Christ saves us is not the Word outside us, but the Word within us. So, for them, the preaching of the gospel is not the Word by which souls are converted, and faith does not come from outward hearing as an instrument. Their argument runs like this. “The Word outwardly preached can never convert the soul, because it is only a mere sound, therefore it is not an instrument of conversion; it’s only the Word within us that matters.” But I utterly deny the consequence. Put a pen to paper a thousand times, and it will never write, unless the hand of a writer draws the characters. Will we then conclude that, ergo, the pen is not an instrument of writing? It doesn’t follow! It’s an unjust consequence, and destroys all ordinances, natural and spiritual. The only thing that follows is, “Ergo, the Word without us is not a principal cause of conversion, it can do nothing except the Spirit empowers and animates and co-works with the Word.”

Furthermore, whereas they argue that the preached word is merely a sound and a letter, I answer that it is not an ordinary sound, like you get from reading the odes of Horatius or the epistles of Seneca. In itself, it is a sound filled with majesty — power — heaven. Every word is pregnant with grace and life. Even if you separate the Word from the Spirit, in the style, conveyance, method of it there is still so much divinity, majesty, holiness, life, and gravity that it betrays its origin to be heaven and its author to be God. Some might call it a “dead letter,” referring to the paper and ink and printed characters, but that’s not how to think of it. The words connote and involve the things they signify, the precious promises, and what the Lord calls “the great things” of His law. In this sense they are not dead letters, but the instrument, chariot, and means of conveying Christ and the Spirit to the heart.

Of course the Word doesn’t work without the Spirit. No instrument, no tool, no hammer, no axe can build a house without the mason and carpenter moving them. But it doesn’t follow that they are not instruments at all! All that follows is, “God does not work faith by the preached Word alone, but by the omnipotency of grace going along with it.” Although the preached Word, in its sound, is physical, literal, bodily, yet in its power, majesty, and the things it signifies, it is spiritual, lively, heavenly.

The Word must be preached to everyone

Those who argue against the instrumentality of the preached Word end up also arguing that the gospel shouldn’t be preached to anyone except those who already have the Word and Spirit in their hearts (because, they say, these are the only ones who can receive it by faith). In effect, they take away the Word, ministry, ordinances, preaching, and dismiss them as mere delusions. They are arguing that there is no need of Scripture, preaching, sacraments, hearing of or doing any duties to each other.

But you see how false it is that the gospel is not to be preached to any but to those that are converted. It is contrary to Christ’s express commands to His apostles, “Go teach all nations” (Matt. 28:19–20). Likewise Paul preached to the obstinate Jews (Acts 13) and to the scoffing Athenians (Acts 17).

 

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Six features of an attentive minister

Six features of an attentive minister

Six features of an attentive minister

The work of the ministry requires constant care and attention. Yet there are plenty reasons why a pastor might lose heart in the work of the ministry, since discouragements are many, and personal corruptions are active. The Covenanting minister William Veitch (1640–1722) was aware of these burdens. He identified Archippus as a minister who seems to have flagged and even become lazy in the work. Paul sends Archippus a brief word of exhortation in his letter to the Colossians: “Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it” (Col. 4:17). Veitch, speaking as a minister to fellow ministers, deduces that great attentiveness is required in ministers if they are to carry out their ministerial responsibilities rightly. In the following updated extract, Veitch gives six features of the attentiveness which Paul urged Archippus to show in his work.

Wisdom

The first thing necessary to enable a minister take heed to his ministry is wisdom and knowledge, not only in the doctrinal but also the practical part of religion. I think both of these are needful to make a minister “apt to teach,” or else his ministry will be more art-work than heart-work. The ministers of Christ must be men of knowledge, for they are watchmen, and watchmen must have eyes in their head. They are to point out to the people their way, their danger, and their duty. If they are blind, what hurt comes to the church! “The leaders of this people cause them to err, and they that are led of them are destroyed” (Isaiah 9:16).

Ignorance causes error, and error destruction. That is why the apostle said to the elders of Ephesus, “Take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost made you overseers, to feed them,” i.e., with knowledge and understanding, so that they may be soundly principled and right in the faith. The reason is, “for grievous wolves will enter in among you, speaking perverse things to corrupt your people, and to draw disciples after them” (Acts 20:28–30).

Ministers should be like the creatures around Christ’s throne, full of eyes within and without, before and behind. Within, looking to the frame and constitution of their own hearts. Without, to the duties they ought to perform and the snares and dangers they must beware of in following their duty. Before them to God, for counsel and direction. Behind them, to the flocks which they lead. “The priest’s lips should keep knowledge,” says Malachi, and so every minister is (as it were) the treasurer of the place where he is. If ministers lack this treasury of spiritual knowledge and wisdom, they will not be able to distinguish rightly between truth and error, sin and duty. They cannot instruct the ignorant, resolve doubts, quiet the troubled conscience, feed the hungry, and comfort the discouraged. Let Antichrist have blind and ignorant watchmen: our Lord Jesus Christ should have ministers who are thoroughly furnished for every good work.

Diligence

For a minister to discharge his office rightly, he needs painstaking diligence. Knowledge must flow into action . Ministers are called “angels,” and angels are not only full of eyes, but also full of hands and wings (Eze. 1:5). Therefore, “they rest not day nor night” (Rev. 4:8). They know much, therefore they act much.

The heathen could tell us that unpractical knowledge signifies nothing. The Egyptians painted a tongue with a hand under it, to show that knowledge was good when practiced. The blessing is not promised to the bare knowledge of commanded duties, but to the practice of them. “If ye know these things, happy are ye if you do them” (John 13:17). “Blessed are they that do his commandments , that they may have right to the tree of life, and enter in through the gates unto the city” (Rev. 22:14). Ministers are spiritual harvesters, and the crop is very precious. If it is lost by our sloth, we will pay dear for it.

Faithfulness

How much we need to take heed that we do our ministerial work faithfully! Faithfulness is a proportioning of our obedience to the command, or being impartial in all the ministrations of the house of God. See what a charge the Apostle Paul gives Timothy. “I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing of partiality” (1 Tim. 5:21). We see that the one who is partial cannot be faithful. An unfaithful minister is perfidious both to God and man. It says in Zephaniah 3:4, “their prophets are light and treacherous persons,” and “treacherous persons” means prevaricating persons who violate the trust due to God and the people alike. It is the highest treachery that can be, to be false to God and rob Him of people’s souls. What is recorded in Ezekiel 3:20 is worthy of our attention. “Because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, but his blood shall I require at thine hand.” If a minister may perish for not warning sinners, much more for encouraging them to sin, by corrupt doctrine, and a lewd life, for if there is death in an omission, much more must it be things that are positively evil.

Let me add one word more on this point. A faithful minister must be a fearless minister. He must not be afraid of the faces of men, when he is to deliver the truths of God. Four times in one verse, the Lord forbids the prophet to fear: “Son of man, be not afraid of them, neither be afraid of their words, though briars and thorns be with thee , and thou dost dwell among scorpions: be not afraid of their words, nor dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house” (Eze. 2:6).

Prudence

If we are to “take heed to our ministry,” we also need prudence. This is necessary to direct us in the dexterous management of all the parts of our work, and especially as to the methods by which, and the times in which our work may be done to the best advantage. Of all the parts of our ministerial work, none requires more prudence in order to handle it rightly than reproof, i.e., to do it so as it may be accepted as a kindness by the person reproved, and as an excellent oil that will not break the head, as the Psalmist expresses it (Ps. 141:5). For while faithfulness and wisdom ponder the necessity of the duty, prudence considers the fittest time, and the best manner of application with respect to the person. See in 2 Samuel 12 the prudence and dexterity with which Nathan prepared David in the parable, from verse 1 to verse 6, before he comes to touch him in the quick with “Thou art the man!” in verse 7.

Earnestness

We must be sincere and serious (Eccles. 9:10). It is not likely that we will seriously press gospel truths and holiness home on others, until we know the sweetness and good of them ourselves. The apostle tells us that sincerity in our work and walk will be no small ground of our rejoicing, when our consciences within, and observers without, can testify that we endeavoured sincerely and carefully to manage this trust committed to us (2 Cor. 1:12).

Ministers need to take heed to this, since their work has to do with spiritual things, and so they are more apt to be deceived by hypocrisies creeping in both to their hearts and their duties. Many a time the frequency of these duties almost takes away the fervency of them. Ministers should therefore often think of what Paul said, to keep themselves diligent at their work, “Lest when I preach the gospel to others, I myself be a castaway” (1 Cor. 9:27).

Perseverance

This “take heed” includes constancy and perseverance. We must not imagine we can do this work by fits and starts, nor be like these foolish Galatians, who began in the spirit, and ended in the flesh. We must not put our hand to the plough and look back, for you know what Christ says of those who do so, “They are not fit for the kingdom of God.” They are not fit for managing His kingdom aright in this world, and if they don’t do that, they may have reason to fear being shut out of His kingdom in the next world.

 

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When pastors become predators

When pastors become predators

When pastors become predators

Shepherds are God’s gift to the church, given because He wants His dear flock to be well looked after. But sometimes the shepherds turn rogue and instead of caring for God’s flock, they put their own interests first. Pastoral ministry becomes all about their own position and prestige and what they can get out of it. The needs of the flock are left unmet and instead they suffer spiritually at the hands of those supposed to nurture them. As the Westminster Assembly member William Greenhill noted, this may be endemic in a church culture, and daring to speak out against it may be penalised. While we are familiar with high-profile scandals in evangelicalism in recent years, this is not a new problem. Nor do things have to reach extremes of financial, emotional or sexual abuse in order for pastors to be guilty of flouting their responsibility to feed the Lord’s flock. Harshness, neglect and a multitude of little ways of lording it over the Lord’s heritage belong to the same category of un-shepherdlike behaviour. Yet as Greenhill points out in his remarks on Ezekiel 34, when the sheep suffer, God notices, and He will ultimately intervene to rescue His maltreated people.

Ezekiel has already reproved the people and threatened the judgments of God against them for their sins. Now he comes chapter 34 to deal with their ‘shepherds,’ whose fault it was that the people had become so wicked. The first ten verses are God’s reproof of the shepherds, and the judgment He will bring on them.

The behaviour of the shepherds

The ‘shepherds of Israel’ (v.2) were the chief rulers, whether in church or state. A ‘woe’ or general judgment is threatened against them — a variety of evils, not just one but several sad judgments will come on them.

The shepherds should have been ‘feeding’ the people, leading and teaching them. But here was their sin — they ‘fed themselves, not the flock.’ Those who are shepherds in the church, are set up for the good of the people, to benefit and advantage them, not to seek themselves, to draw from the people what they can to make themselves great. They should be content with their allowance, and give themselves fully and wholly for the good of those who are committed to their trust. This interrogative, ‘Should not the shepherds feed the flock?’ highlights the heinousness of their sin, and the indignation of God against it. ‘What? You are shepherds, and you don’t feed the flock? You are perverting the course of nature, and violating the order which God has set!’ That is intolerable, and God will treat them severely for it.

Office-bearers should care like shepherds

Those who are set over the people in the church are shepherds, and ought to act like shepherds do towards their flocks. They should govern them gently, protect them constantly, provide for them carefully, feed them faithfully, and seek their good diligently.

God who is the great Shepherd does this. ‘He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young’ (Isaiah 40:11). ‘The Lord is my Shepherd,’ meaning He provided green pastures and still waters for him, and for all his (Psalm 23). He gave them David for a shepherd, ‘to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance;’ and he ‘fed them according to the integrity of his heart’ (Jeremiah 5:7).

Ministers should be like to God in all these ways. Yet few of those who are over God’s flock in the church prove to be what they ought to be. The political rulers were wicked, and so were the ecclesiastical rulers. They are called shepherds, but they did not do the work of shepherds. The shepherds of Israel did not feed the flock! From Ezekiel 22:25–28 you may see what the prophets, priests, and princes were like — not a true shepherd amongst them.

The three defining characteristics of wicked shepherds in the church are given here.

They feed themselves. They are covetous, self-seekers. They eat the fat, clothe themselves with the wool. They kill them that were fed, full of fat and flesh, they made a prey of the rich and wealthy. See how butchers deal with oxen and sheep, killing, flaying, chopping in pieces, breaking their bones, selling some parts, and eating others, and whatever they do is for their own interest. The shepherds in the church were selfish and covetous. ‘They are greedy dogs which can never have enough, and they are shepherds that cannot understand; they all look to their own way, every one for his gain, from his quarter’ (Isaiah 56:11). One’s gain comes from one quarter, a second’s from another quarter, a third’s from a third, and their eyes were upon their gain and nothing else. ‘The heads of Jerusalem judge for reward, the priests teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money’ (Micah 3:11). They all sought themselves, and so declared what they were.

They do not feed the flock. A good shepherd’s care and delight is to feed his flock. He shows his care by strengthening the weak, by healing the sick, by binding up the broken, by bringing back those that have gone astray, and seeking out those who are lost. These shepherds did none of these things.

They treat the flock harshly and cruelly. ‘With force and cruelty have ye ruled them’ (v.4). These shepherds did not distinguish between the weak and strong, the healthy and sick, so as to rule them wisely, gently, compassionately. Instead they were rough, rigid, bitter, and cruel to them. As the political shepherds were out for dishonest gain (Ezekiel 22:27), so the ecclesiastical shepherds also ruled after their own wills. The prophets were roaring lions ravening the prey — they devoured souls, they took the treasure and precious things, they made many widows in the midst of Jerusalem. The priests violated the law of God, and so wronged the people (v.25–26). The prophets and priests conspired together to tyrannize over the people, who were so accustomed to it, that they were content to have it so (Jeremiah 5:31). ‘My people hath been lost sheep; their shepherds have caused them to go astray’ (Jeremiah 50:6).

God notices the behaviour of bad shepherds

God’s flock here needs shepherds to look after it. Some in God’s flock are diseased or infirm, some sick, some broken, some driven away, some straggling and in danger of getting lost. God’s sheep are vulnerable to many evils, diseases, and dangers. These could be ‘vain customs’ (Jeremiah 10:3); being bruised and broken (Jeremiah 6:14); being hunted by wild animals (Ezekiel 13:18); being beaten and ground to pieces (Isaiah 3:15); being devoured (Psalm 14:4); errors, heresies, corrupt opinions and practices (Matthew 24:5; 2 Peter 2:2); backsliding (Jeremiah 8:5); mistakes and all sorts of evils (Isaiah 5:20).

It is mercy, indeed, great mercy, that God has appointed shepherds for His flock, to make provision for the weaknesses, maladies, and dangers of the soul. Where the shepherds are wicked, it is bad for the flock. If they are selfish, negligent, or harsh, the flock will suffer.

O pray to God earnestly, that He would give us good shepherds! There is a wonderful promise or two in Jeremiah. ‘I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them; and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking’ (Jeremiah 23:4). And, ‘I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you according to knowledge and understanding’ (Jeremiah 3:15) These promises speak of good shepherds for the church. Let us put these promises to a good use, and urge God to fulfil them.

In fact, wicked ministers, in God’s account, are effectively not ministers at all. He says His flock were scattered, ‘because there is no shepherd’ (v.5). There were many shepherds in the church, yet as good as none, because they were wicked, self-seeking, did not feed the flock, but ruled with cruelty. When shepherds degenerate so far as to be contrary to what they should be, then they are as non-shepherds before God. In Zephaniah 11:17, they are called ‘idol shepherds,’ and idols are nothing. When things are like this, then the sheep are scattered.

Yet God eyes the ones in positions in the church, and He deals impartially with them. He observed what the ministers did in their places, and, seeing them selfish, negligent, and cruel, he threatens them all: ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel.’ He saw they were all guilty of grievous sins, and they did not amend after His had shown them long forbearance, and therefore without respect He denounces judgment against them. God is greater than the greatest. He has no fear of the faces of princes or prophets. Let them cover their ways with whatever pretence they wish, the Lord discerns them. However terrifying they are to the people, the Lord will be a terror to them. However long they continue in their wickedness, God will eventually be avenged on them.

The Lord is against bad shepherds

‘Therefore, ye shepherds, hear the word of the Lord’ (v.7, v.9). Great indignation was in the breast of God against these shepherds. ‘Hear the word of the Lord, shepherds: He is vehemently displeased with you, and can hold back no longer.’ As surely as He is the living God, He will punish the shepherds who treat His flock like this (v.8), making laws, imposing burdens, finding out ways to enrich themselves and impoverish the people.

Verse 10 enumerates the punishments of these shepherds. The first is God’s enmity against them. They were so great that they kept all in such awe that no one dared to say or do anything against them. If any did, they were soon crushed. So the Lord says, ‘ Behold, I am against the shepherds’ — ‘I, that am the Governor of nations, the Lord of heaven and earth, the dread Sovereign of princes, priests, and prophets, I am against them.’ The Hebrew means, ‘I come to set myself against them;’ the Vulgate puts it, ‘I am above them;’ others translate it, ‘I am against them.’

Secondly, ‘I will require my flock at their hand.’ ‘Not only will I demand an account from them, what is become of My flock, but I will have recompence for every one that is wounded, weak, lost, or slain. I will require at your hand limb for limb, blood for blood, and life for life.’

Thirdly, He will displace them. ‘I will cause them to cease from feeding the flock.’ Some were cut off by the hand of justice (e.g., Jeremiah 52:10–11, 24–27; Lamentations 5:12). Others were carried away captive, and held in chains and bonds.

Fourthly, ‘Neither shall the shepherds feed themselves any more.’ They will be deprived of the opportunities they had to enrich themselves. They made a prey of the flock, using it to their own advantage, but they would not do so any longer.

The sins of ministers in seeking themselves, and neglecting and wronging the flock, greatly provoke God, and bring certain and severe judgments upon themselves.

God will eventually put things right

God promises, ‘I will deliver my flock from their mouth’ (v.10). Like a shepherd rescuing a lamb out of a lion or bear’s mouth, so God will pull His flock out of these predators’ mouths, so that they will no more be violated and devoured by these tyrants.

Instead God will relieve them, make them safe and set them at liberty. Many years His flock had been molested by wicked princes, priests, and prophets. They had eaten up many of His flock, and the rest were in danger of being devoured. The poor sheep could not withstand their violence; these shepherds were like young lions among the flocks, going through, treading them down, and tearing them in pieces, and none can deliver (Micah 5:8). But though the sheep had no one able to deliver them from these lion-like shepherds, yet God was able to do it, and did it. He was a lion to these lions, and tore them in pieces, rescuing his flock. He will do it eventually.

 

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The danger of wavering on gospel basics

The danger of wavering on gospel basics

The danger of wavering on gospel basics

New ideas and teachings are constantly cropping up in and around the church. Although believers, and the church as a whole, are meant to grow in knowledge, it has to be knowledge of the truth. The truth of the gospel is what we stake our souls on for eternity, and we cannot afford to be enticed into wavering on the gospel basics and swallowing false teachings. George Gillespie was particularly earnest in emphasising the duty of remaining loyal to the truths which God has plainly revealed in Scripture. In the following updated excerpt, he provides several reasons why instability is so dangerous.

Fluctuating and wavering over those things which God has revealed for us either to believe or do, is a sin, while to be firm, fixed and established in the truth (to “hold fast the profession of it,” to “stand fast in the faith”) is a duty commanded. It is good theology to maintain this.

The value of being committed to the truth

We see the value of steadfastness from the very light of nature. “Hath a nation changed their gods, which are yet no gods?” (Jer. 2:11). The heathen Greeks used to say that he who goes wrong in his religion is drinking out of a cup that is full of holes. How firm and constant the heathen philosophers were in maintaining their opinions! They could not only displease their friends, but suffer the heaviest things for their opinions.

But set aside the light of nature. Every one of the earliest churches, to which the apostles wrote epistles, was expressly warned, either to stand fast in the faith, and to hold fast their profession, or to beware of and to avoid false teachers, and not to be carried about with diverse and strange doctrines.

It must be not only a truth, but a most special and necessary truth, when the apostles thought fit to impress it on the churches in all their epistles (see Rom. 16:17-18; 1 Cor. 16:13; 2 Cor. 11:3-4; Gal. 1:6-8; Eph. 4:14; Phil. 3:2, 18; Col. 2:6-8; 2 Thess. 2:2-3; Heb. 10:23; 13:9; Jam. 5:19-20; 2 Pet. 2:1-3; 3:16-18; 1 Jn. 4:1; Jud. 3-4). All these verses are full and plain on this point, and most worthy of our frequent thoughts and observations, especially at a time when this corner of the world is so full of new and strange doctrines.

The dangers of wavering on the truth

Thwarting Scripture

If we are not steadfast and unmoveable in the profession of our faith, we frustrate (as far as we are concerned) the reason why the Scriptures were written. Luke gives this reason to Theophilus, why he wrote the story of Christ’s birth, life and death, “That thou mightest know the certainty of those things wherein thou hast been instructed” (Luke 1:4). When Peter hath mentioned the voice which came from heaven concerning Christ, he adds the certainty of the Scripture as a greater certainty. “We have also a more sure word of prophecy, whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place” (2 Pet. 1:19). A voice from heaven is more likely to deceive us, than the written word of God.

Looking like a false church

Maintaining and professing the true faith is one — indeed, the principal — mark of a true visible church. Christ Himself gives us this mark of His sheep (John 10:4-5).

Embarking on worse errors

If once we forsake the way of truth, and go into an erroneous way, we shall not know where to find our paths. We shall wander from mountain to hill, and forget our resting place. As one wave comes after another, so one error comes after another. Error spreads like a canker (2 Tim. 2:17). “Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13). This has already made some (and I hope will make more), who were at first too susceptible to the new doctrines and practices of false teachers, now move away from them, seeing they increase to more ungodliness and more error, endlessly. One error breeds a hundred, and a hundred will breed ten thousand.

Missing out on gospel promises

If we waver, and are led about with diverse and strange doctrine, then the prophesies which have gone before of the true church shall not be made good in us. It was promised of the church and kingdom of Christ, “The heart also of the rash shall understand knowledge …” (Isa. 32:4-5). Those who were simply and rashly led about with every wind of doctrine shall (according to the promise) be so wise and knowing as to distinguish between truth and error, and between virtue and vice (see also Isa. 33:6).

Losing what we have gained

Instability and forsaking the way of truth makes us lose much that we had gained (2 John 8). All the comfort we enjoyed, all the good our souls ever received of such a truth, such a cause, such a ministry, and all that ever we did or spoke or suffered for the truth, we lose when we turn aside into an erroneous way.

Reducing gospel comfort

Wavering greatly hinders our spiritual comfort and contentment. To be “knit together in love” is one means, and to “have all riches of the full assurance of understanding to the acknowledgement of gospel truths,” is another means, by which the apostle wishes the hearts of Christians to be comforted. It adds much to Paul’s comfort that he could say, “I have kept the faith…” (2 Tim. 4:7-8).

Risking our souls

We put our souls and our salvation greatly in jeopardy when we turn aside from truth to error. It is said of the unstable that they wrest the Scriptures “unto their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16), like a man who has fallen into quicksand, and the more he wrestles to get out, the more he sinks. When the apostle has spoken of Christ purchasing our reconciliation, justification and sanctification, he adds an “if” (Col. 1:23): “If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel which ye have heard.” Not that our persevering in the faith is a condition in Christ purchasing these blessings, but it is a condition without which we cannot possess and enjoy what Christ has purchased. He who falls away from the true doctrine of the gospel proves himself to have no part in the benefits of Christ.

Some errors are in their own nature damnable, and inconsistent with the state of grace, or fellowship with God (2 Pet. 2:1). “Whosoever transgresseth and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God” (2 John 9). Surely it may be said of Arians, Socinians, Romanists, Libertines, “they have not God,” because they do not abide in the doctrine of Christ (Gal 5:4).

There are also other errors, which may comparatively be lesser, yet impenitency, and continuing in them, condemns those who hold them. This is why the Apostle James reckons the one who errs from the truth to be in a way of death and danger of damnation (James 5:19-20).

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Five things which do not necessarily indicate a call to preach

Five things which do not necessarily indicate a call to preach

Five things which do not necessarily indicate a call to preach

The work of preaching, and the office of preacher, are exceptionally important in the church. But sometimes, when people grasp the importance of preaching, they may make mistakes about what qualifies someone to become a preacher. John Brown of Wamphray wrote against various misconceptions that were becoming popular in his time, views which may well sound familiar to us today. In the following adapted excerpt, Brown tackles the issue of what we can rely on and promote as sure indicators of a call to the ministry.

Grace in the heart is non-essential

I dare not say that a necessary qualification for the ministry is to be able to demonstrate the existence of real grace in the heart. Grace, and the saving workings of the Spirit, are latent, hidden in the heart, and there is no outward sign and evidence by which others can certainly or infallibly discern and judge these in others. They are hidden in such a way that even a person who has grace, will not always be in a position to discern it in his own heart, even though one is more acquainted with his own spirit and heart than others can be. So I dare not say that having the reality of grace is such a qualification that the lack of it renders a man no minister, and all his performances null before God, or man; though the person, being a real stranger to grace, can expect no acceptance of God through Jesus Christ for what he does. This is verified by Christ’s employing of Judas in the ministry.

The wish to teach others is non-essential

I deny that all who understand the truth of the gospel, and are able to instruct others, may or have a right to teach. Qualifications are no call. And, not every inclination to tell others what we know of the things of God, is a call to the work and office of the ministry. Private persons, in their private capacities, may and ought to seek to promote the edification of others (Psalm 66:16; 1 Pet. 4:10-11). Telling what you have found in your own experience, moreover, is not the whole work of the ministry. That also includes the preaching of the gospel, and the dividing of the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15), speaking, exhorting and rebuking with all authority (Tit. 2:15), beseeching, as ambassadors, in the name of God, and in Christ’s stead (2 Cor. 5:19-20).

The inward work of the Spirit is non-essential

The inward work of the Spirit is necessary to make a man a real, upright and sincere Christian, or true member of the invisible church, and it is also necessary to make a man a sincere and upright minister before God, and approved by Him in what he doth. But it is not simply and absolutely necessary, in order to make one a minister before others, for others cannot certainly know this, nor do they walk by an infallible rule in judging this. What is necessary to make a man a member of the visible church, a professing Christian, I grant is also necessary to make one a minister, both before God and others; for others can judge of this, and have a certain and fixed rule to use to judge whether the profession is true or not, although not to judge whether it is sincere or not.

The call of the Spirit is non-essential

We can identify someone who has been called by the Spirit by the fact that they are gifted with the gifts of the Spirit, fitting for preaching of the gospel. These include the word of wisdom and the word of knowledge (1 Cor. 12:4, 7, 8, 11), whereby they are apt to teach (1 Tim. 3:2) and fit to take care of the church (v.5). These gifts, considered in themselves, are different from true and saving grace, and yet come from the Spirit, and are given to profit with; and so must be used to edification, according to the way prescribed in the gospel.

But some, speaking of being “called by the Spirit,” mean something like a personal word of inspiration saying to the man that he must go and preach. We reject all such fancies, even though some depend on them; we account them plain delusions (Matt. 24:24; 2 Thess. 2:9; Deut. 13:1; Gal. 1:8-9). No one can show any good basis warranting us to look for such immediate calls — there is no promise for this, or any command to expect it.

For what is this testimony of the Spirit, by which everyone may know who is truly called of God, and who not? Does the Spirit, when He calls one to this work, speak to the senses of all beholders, and witness also to them that this one is indeed called? This is not necessary even to make a Christian, never mind a minister. I would only say that if no one can know by the Scriptures that he, in particular, is called to be a minister, and must therefore fall back on an inward and immediate testimony of the Spirit, then we must also say that no one can know that someone else is a minister, without the inward and immediate testimony of the Spirit. Therefore they cannot be offended at us for not believing that they are sent by God, because we have no inward and immediate testimony of the Spirit about it. Although the Scriptures do not particularly and expressly tell us that “Mr So-And-So” is a false teacher and ought to be avoided, it says enough to warn us. The whole Scripture, which points out and declares the truth, and condemns errors, is as good to us as an immediate testimony saying, “Those ones are deceivers” — indeed, better, and more sure.

Appreciative hearers are non-essential

Some say that a preacher’s inward call from the Spirit is made manifest in the minds of their brethren, who sense the life and virtue in them and are edified by their words. But I cannot accept this. Is this manifestation always at every sermon, or only sometimes? Is it on the hearts of all who hear, or only some? Perhaps “their brethren” are disposed to recognise them, but the signs of Paul’s apostleship were among strangers, whom he converted, and brought in to the faith. If this manifestation is always and on all present, we would have to question Christ’s apostleship and calling, for everyone knows that His preaching did not always have this effect. Nor did Paul’s and Barnabas’. We would have to say that Ezekiel, who was sent to a rebellious people, who refused to hear, had no true and substantial call, nor Moses, when he was sent to Pharaoh. Yet those who are a “savour of death unto death” to some, may yet for all that be successors to the apostles.

Holiness is essential

Holiness is required of gospel ministers. The apostle tells us that the minister must be “a lover of good men (or “of good things,” as it is in the margin) sober, just, holy, temperate” (Tit. 1:8). He must be blameless (Tit. 1:7), “vigilant, sober, and of good behaviour” (1 Tim. 3:2). Therefore, all who are employed in the examination and trial of ministers should be careful in searching after this, as well as examining their gifts and other qualifications. When clear and manifest evidences appear of their hatred of good things, and of the godly, of their insobriety, injustice, unholiness, intemperance, lack of vigilance, and of their evil behaviour, they ought to be laid aside from that holy function, just as well as when their lack of gifts and of other requisite qualifications is clearly apparent. Indeed, if there are no positive evidences of this love, and of seriousness in the matters of God, giving fair and reasonable grounds for concluding that they are faithful men, they ought not to commit the Word to them.

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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.

Conclusion

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.

Summary

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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