How to get a good conscience

How to get a good conscience

How to get a good conscience

Sooner or later, our conscience will do its work of passing a verdict on us, so as to produce either shame (when conscience blames us) or comfort (when conscience approves of us). Those who have been regenerated can legitimately take comfort from knowing that the blood of Christ cleanses them from all sin. But how is this comfort possible, when even the regenerate still keep sinning? Samuel Annesley published a sermon on the conscience, in which he describes the ‘good conscience’ and, as the following updated excerpt shows, gives a list of ten suggestions as to how to get a good conscience.

What kind of conscience should we desire?

Two kinds of conscience are desirable, and cannot be commended too highly.

A good honest conscience. Conscience is good in respect of its integrity when it gives a right judgement of everything according to the Word of God. I grant that the law of nature binds, ecclesiastical laws bind, and political laws bind, but the Word of God is the principal rule, which precisely binds the conscience, because of its author. “There is one law-giver, who is able to save and to destroy …” (James 4:12).

A good peaceable conscience. Conscience is good in respect of its peace when it excuses, absolves, and comforts as it should — that is, when it is pacified by the blood of Christ. There was once a dying man, and it is said that the devil appeared to him, and showed him a very long parchment, where his sins were written on both sides, and they were many. Three quarters of the words he had spoken in his life were idle words, and all his actions were classified according to the ten commandments. Satan said to the poor sick man, “Do you see this? Behold your virtues! See how you will be judged!” But the poor sinner answered, “It is true, Satan, but you have not included everything, for you should have added here below, The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all our sins, and you have also forgotten, Whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Why do we need a good conscience?

1. You cannot possibly get rid of your conscience, therefore be persuaded to get a good one. The unconverted do what they can to extinguish conscience. They flatter it with worldly reasoning, they bribe it with mock devotions, they wound it with heinous provocations, they scar it with habitual wickedness, they trample it underfoot by sinning in spite of it; they run away from it by diversions, and will not endure to hear it. Yet they can sooner turn their souls out of their bodies, than conscience out of their souls. Indeed, even amongst all these indignities, their conscience is as fresh and active as if it was not being abused in these ways. It is only waiting its opportunity to be heard, and then it will make what was done perhaps 40 years ago as if it had been but yesterday. A conscience you must have, and sooner or later it will do its job.

2. Your own conscience will be either your best friend or your greatest enemy (of all created things), to eternity. There’s no greater riches, no greater pleasure, no greater safety than a good conscience. However great may be the pressures of the body, the hurry of the world, or the intimidations of Satan, they can’t reach the conscience. A good conscience uniquely cheers the dying body, joyfully accompanies the departed soul to God, and triumphantly brings both soul and body to the tribunal to come. There’s no more profitable means, nor surer testimony, nor more eminent conveyer of eternal happiness than a good conscience. On the other hand, there is no greater torment than an evil conscience. Though its gentler checks may be disregarded, its louder clamours will make you tremble. What will you do, when conscience shall reproach you with your abuse of mercies, incorrigibleness under judgements, contempt of Christ, and hatred of holiness? If you can’t endure to hear what conscience has to say now, how will you endure it to eternity?

How can we get a good conscience?

But how shall we get such good consciences? Here are some suggestions.

Count no sin small

Screw up your obedience to every command to the highest. Ferret out every sin to the most secret corruption. When you have set your watch against the first risings of sin, beware of the borders of sin. Do not venture on temptations to sin, for you will find, like children on the ice, there’s always danger, never any good.

Repent immediately

There’s not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not, therefore, without delay, set about the healing duty of repentance, and on every slip into sin renew it, speedily renew it. If only I could snatch you out of your state of impenitency, and persuade you to daily actual repentance!

Compose yourself to live as under God’s eye

Live as in the (more than) tangible presence of the jealous God. Remember, all things are naked and bare before Him. You cannot deceive Him, for He is infinite wisdom; you cannot flee from Him, for He is every where; you cannot bribe Him, for He is righteousness itself. Keep therefore fresh realisations of God in your thoughts. Speak as knowing that God hears you. Walk as knowing that God is nearer to you than you are to yourself. Read through Psalm 139. Christians, do nothing but what you are willing that God should take notice of.

Be serious and frequent in the examination of your heart and life

This is so necessary to the getting and keeping of a right and peaceable conscience that it is impossible to have either without it. We have a thousand matters to think on all the day long, the night too, the week, the year — but who questions with his own heart, “What am I? what am I doing? how do I live? is the course I follow good and lawful? is that which I omit my duty, or not? Is God my friend? Am I His? What hope do have I of heaven? Say I die tomorrow, today, this very hour, where is my assurance I shall be saved? what reply can I make against the accusations of Satan and my conscience? will Christ be my advocate, when I shall stand in judgement? Have I grace, or have I none? do I grow in grace, or do I decay? Am I better this year than I was last year? what sins have I conquered now, that held me in combat then? what graces have I obtained now, that I did not have then?” Review each day whether your hearts have been intent upon religion, and indifferent to the world. Have special care of two portions, of your time, i.e., morning and evening — the morning to fore-think what ought to be done, and the evening to examine, whether you have done what you ought.

Pray

Be much in prayer — in all manner of prayer, but especially in secret prayer. Do not dismiss your own appeal by the love of sin, and you shall certainly be heard when you pray for grace. Believe it, Christian, it’s not your inevitable weakness, nor the spiritual dullness you feel, nor your lamented rovings, nor your distractions, nor your mistaken unbelief — not any of these, nor all of them together, can shut out your prayer. If you do “not regard iniquity in your heart,” then be encouraged. It is the voice of your beloved that says, “Verily, verily I say unto you, whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.”

Let every action have reference to your whole life, not only a part

The emphasis of the apostle’s exhortation is very great, “Exercise thyself unto godliness.” Let your whole life be a preparation for heaven, like an athlete’s preparation for victory. Strip yourself of all encumbrances, so that you may attend to piety. Pleasures may tickle you for a while, but they have a heart-aching farewell.

Live more on Christ then on the graces in you

Do not venture to sin because Christ has purchased a pardon — that is a most horrible and impious abuse of Christ. For this very reason there was no sacrifice under the Old Testament law for wilful wickedness, lest people might think they knew the price of sin. But so that no one will be overwhelmed with the sense of their unworthiness, know that we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and our salvation is better, safer, more for God’s glory, and our comfort, in His hand then in ours.

Be in every way nothing in your own eyes

It is the humble soul that thrives exceedingly, and alas! what do we have to be proud of? Whether you look at our constitution, or our conversation [lifestyle], our conception is sinful, our birth is penal, our life is toilsome, and our death we know not what. But all this is nothing to the state of our soul. A convert, when he comes to be conscious of sin at all, sees more cause to be weary of his life than proud of his graces. To rise and fall, to confess sin and commit it, to see others outrun us, when they set out after us, to recover the time for communion with God which we trifle away in unobserved trivialities — surely for such persons to be low and vile in their own eyes hardly deserves to be called humility! Use Agur’s words about himself (or some think they are Solomon’s), “Surely I am more brutish than any man. My knowledge of holy mysteries is very little, and in comparison with my ignorance, nothing.”

Think good thoughts of God

Think good thoughts of God, whatever He does with you, whatever He requires of you, whatever He lays on you. We never arrive to any holiness (or peace) worth mentioning, till we lose our selves in God. Once we can unriddle God’s methods of grace, and decode God’s methods of providence, getting a good spiritual use out of both, then we are not far from having a good conscience.

Yet there’s still one thing lacking, and it’s implied in thinking good thoughts of God, but it must be eminently expressed.

Do all you do out of love to God

Spiritual love-sickness is the soul’s healthiest state. When love to God is both cause, means, motive and end of all our activity in the business of religion, then the soul is on the wing towards its rest. Our love to other things is properly regulated when it is the goodness of God that moves us to love them. We ought to love God in such a way that with Him or under Him we love nothing else, but all things only in Him, because otherwise we do not love Him with our whole heart. When husbands love their wives, and wives their husbands — when parents love their children, and children their parents, it is a rare pitch to love all these in God, i.e., to advance our love to God by them, and so far as any of them draw away our love to God, to say to them, as Christ said to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan, thou art an offence unto me.”

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How (not) to discern God’s will

How (not) to discern God’s will

How (not) to discern God’s will

Where do we find God’s will for us? It could be His will for what doctrine we believe, or it could be His will for our life. Theoretically Christians will consult the Bible for this, but what place does this leave for getting guidance through dreams or impressions, or even God’s providence? William Bridge, a member of the Westminster Assembly, preached a set of three sermons on 2 Peter 1:19 titled “Scripture Light the Most Sure Light.” As the following abridged excerpt shows, he builds a case that Scripture is clearer and safer than all other sources, and all the light they can give us is only borrowed from Scripture.

Revelations or visions

Scripture light is a full light. Though God did sometimes speak by revelations and visions [in Old Testament times], now in these last [New Testament] days, He has spoken His full mind by His Son.

The stronger any Christian is, the more he walks by faith; and the more he lives by faith, the more he chooses to walk by the Scripture, the written Word of God, the object of faith. It’s in Scripture we have Christ pictured to the life before our eyes, not in revelations and visions.

Imagine that right now you had a vision. How would you know that this was the voice of God, and not a delusion of Satan? Obviously, by the truth that is communicated in the vision — but how do you know the truth, except by Scripture? Or maybe because the vision reveals some future thing which then comes to pass? Then read Deuteronomy 13:1–2: God may permit a revelation to come to pass, and yet it may not be from the Lord, but to test you, whether you love Him, and will cling to Him.

There is no danger in following Scripture light. But if people follow revelations and visions, they may easily be drawn to despise the Scripture. Indeed, what is the difference between an atheist, or an infidel, and a Christian, except that the Christian adheres to Scripture, and the other does not? Take away the Scripture from me, and there will be little difference between me and an infidel.

But, you will say, may God not speak by extraordinary visions and revelations? Yes, without all doubt He may. God is not limited. I’m not going to argue about what God may do. But though God may do this, yet it is a bad sign if I hanker for it, because such hankering implies that a person is not content with the Scripture.

Though God may sometimes work by extraordinary means, yet if that person’s heart is drawn off from the ordinary means by what is extraordinary, it is not right. It is possible for there to be visions consistent with the Word, but if you are more impressed by them than by the Word itself, then your faith is suspicious.

Dreams

Dreams often involve vanity, says the Preacher, “but fear thou God” (Eccles. 5:7). That is a check on paying too much attention to dreams. But the apostle says, “Let the word of God dwell in you richly,” and there is no check on that.

Dreams are also uncertain. It is hard to know whether a dream is natural or supernatural. Say it is supernatural. Then it is either from the devil or from God, and it is hard to know which. Say the dream is from God, yet it is hard to know its meaning and interpretation. Pharaoh had a dream, but all his magicians could not interpret it; that was a work for Joseph. The same with Nebuchadnezzar. Anyone may have a dream from God, but it requires no less than a prophet to interpret it. However, are we at such uncertainties in reading the Word? Can no one but a prophet understand the Scripture? No — the Word of the Lord is a lantern to the feet of all of us, plain in all things necessary to our salvation.

But may not God speak to us by a dream now, if He chooses? Without doubt He may; God is free. But Scripture does not indicate that dreams are an ordinance of God now.

Even if God did speak to me by a dream, yet if I made that a sign of my own godliness, or of God’s special love to me, then I am under a delusion. Even wicked men have had their dreams from God (Balaam, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, and others). If I dream a strange dream, and conclude that therefore I am in God’s love, because He speaks to me this way, then I am deceived.

Who in the world dares to venture his soul and salvation on a dream, or the interpretation of it? But we may and must venture our souls and salvation on the Scripture.

Impressions on the soul

Impressions (with or without a word of Scripture), even when they are good, are not our daily food. Our appointed daily food is the written Word of God (whether it comes with or without impression).

Good people are very prone to walk and live by impressions, but it is dangerous. It fosters ignorance, and keeps people unsettled in their spiritual state; for if a word comes, then they have comfort; but when none comes, then their comfort fails. Or, dwelling on the sweetness of the impression, they lose the sweetness of the very word which was impressed on them. But now take the written Word of God, and there is no danger in living and walking by it; indeed that is our duty.

Is there no use then of impressions? Yes, much, for they comfort in time of difficulty. When someone is in the dark, or does not know which of two ways to take to do God most service — or sees the way clear and yet many difficulties in the way — then God sets some word with power on his soul, it is much comfort to him.

But although God speaks by impressions sometimes, giving much light and comfort, yet if I make an impression the judge of doctrines, then I am greatly deceived. We are to judge doctrines by the written Word of God.

Although much comfort may be had from impressions, yet if the Word is not impressed on the heart according to its true sense, the impression is likely not of God, but an illusion of Satan. God only ever sets a word on the soul in its true sense. So, do I have an impression with a word? The impression may be God’s, yet the application may be my own. The Lord gave Abraham a word, that his seed should be as the stars; but Abraham made a false application of it when he went to Hagar for the fulfilment.

The safest, surest way is to keep close to the written Word of God, which is both the judge of all our doctrines, and the only rule of all our practices.

The light of grace in the saints

The light and law within us here is imperfect. “We see only in part, and know only in part” (1 Cor. 13:9). But the written Word of God, the Scripture and its light, is perfect.

The light of grace within us is not able to convince others. But the Scripture, by the breathing of the Spirit of God with it, is able. How are “gainsayers” to be convinced (Titus 1:9)? By the light within? No, but by sound doctrine fetched from the faithful Word.

Is there, then, no use of the light within us? Does God not direct people this way? Yes indeed. This inward light not only exposes evil in us, and inclines us to good, but also enables us to good.

But it is a principle of good, yet it is not the rule of our goodness, or our lives. If it was, why would we need the Scripture? But Scripture is settled in heaven, and endures for ever (Psalm 119:89). Timothy had the light, and law, and Spirit of God within him, yet he was to be ruled by the written Word of God (1 Tim. 6:14).

Someone might say, “The Spirit in me is the same Spirit who wrote the Scripture, so why do I need to be ruled by the external Word instead of the inward Spirit?” The reason is that the Spirit is sent to open the Scripture to you, not to take away the Scripture from you. He is not sent to be your rule, but to be your help to understand the rule.

Even assuming you have the same Spirit who wrote the Scriptures, yet you do not have the same inspiration of the Spirit. Because people do not understand this, they think that if they have the same Spirit, they may set aside the Scripture as to their rule. But if something in me is my rule, then I am effectively my own rule, and so I am God, and what is this but horrid blasphemy?

Though the law, and light, and Spirit within, may be a great help to us in our way to life, yet they must be tested by the written Word.

Christian experience

The written Word of God is more excellent than Christian experience. Whatever light there is in experience, it is borrowed from the Scripture, the Word of God written. Though experience is a great help to our faith, yet take it alone, abstracted from the Word, and it cannot heal our unbelief. The walking stick in someone’s hand is a good help, but it cannot heal their lameness. Experience likewise will be a good help in my way, yet it cannot heal the lameness of my unbelieving heart. But the written Word can, and does.

Is there then no use of our experiences? Is there no light in them? Yes indeed, for experience brings forth hope. “Experience worketh hope” (Rom. 5:4–5). But though experience is the parent of hope, yet it is not the ground of our faith. It is a help to faith, but not the first ground of our faith. The Scripture is, and the promise under Christ (Rom. 15:4).

Though we have much experience, yet if we do not trust in the Word, over and beyond all our experience, we do evil.

Divine providence

God sometimes tests us by His providence. He lays a providential dispensation before us, to test and see what we will do (Deut. 8:2). But the Scripture is the rule of our doing.

The providence of God extends to everything, including all our sins. When Jonah fled from God, there was a ship right there that heading for Tarshish: here was a providence! And when Joseph’s brothers wanted to get rid of him, who came by but some merchants who traded in Egypt: here was a providence! So we cannot make our decisions from a bare providence. You may, however, make your decisions from Scripture, the Word of God written.

Does God never speak by providence, or sometimes guide and direct by providence? Indeed He does. But though the Lord does sometimes guide us with His providence, yet if I make the providence of God the rule of lawfulness or unlawfulness, then I am in a great error, and I expose myself to all kinds of sin. When two lawful things are before me, then when providence opens a door to one, and shuts the door on the other, it is directing to that one, not the other. But the providence of God does not make lawful something which is in itself unlawful. Providence is not the rule of lawfulness or unlawfulness. But the Scripture is. The written Word of God is the only rule by which I may and must make up my judgment of lawfulness and unlawfulness.

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When idolaters are better at devotions than believers

When idolaters are better at devotions than believers

When idolaters are better at devotions than believers

When heathens were fervently praying to their false gods, who couldn’t possibly help them, Jonah, the servant of the living God, was fast asleep. The Covenanting minister Alexander Wedderburn draws on this historical event to reflect on how the Lord’s people can be put to shame by the diligence and commitment of idolaters to their false worship. The following updated and abridged sermon is on the words of the ship’s captain to Jonah. “The shipmaster came to him, and said, What meanest thou, O sleeper?” (Jonah 1:6).

Jonah prophesied in the days of Jeroboam II. He is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, where he is called a prophet and servant of the Lord. Though he prophesied of prosperity, yet it was with small success in such a corrupt time. So the Lord sends him to Nineveh, the chief city of the Assyrian empire. This he is loath to do, and resolves to flee by sea to Tarshish. But the Lord follows him with a storm. Then, when all in the ship are busy praying to their gods, he is asleep. For this the captain strongly rebukes him, saying, “What meanest thou, o sleeper?”

Although these are the words of a heathen, yet they contain a deserved rebuke of a prophet of Israel. “What meanest thou?” A short, emotive utterance, expressing anger in the speaker, and unreasonableness in the one he is addressing.

How do we treat our God?

The worshipers of the true God are sometimes outstripped in worship, and may justly be criticised for their neglectfulness, by idolaters.

How much reverence?

Their gods were no gods at all, but devils, falsehood and vanity. They had eyes and could not see, ears and could not hear, yet they highly esteemed them, and reverenced them. They “walked in the name of their God” (Micah 4:5), and they boasted and triumphed in their gods. The Ephesians all with one shout cried, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19). Idolatrous Micah, though he made his god himself, yet he called it “my god,” and said, “What have I more?” (Judges 18:24).

Now compare this with the worshipers of the true God. Who triumphs in God, or makes their boast of Him? Do we exalt Him as God? Do we confide in Him as God? Do we walk in the name of our God?

How much diligence?

As they revered their idols, so they were painstaking in worshipping them. Jeremiah notices their diligence. “Whom ye have loved, whom ye have served, whom ye have worshiped, and after whom ye have gone …” (Jeremiah 8:2). So many words to express their unwearying idolatry.

Compare this with the worshipers of the true God. Certainly our principles teach us the necessity of diligence in worship. But who runs, strives, fights, labours, according to their principles? Of whom can it be said in reference to God, “whom ye have loved, whom ye have served, whom ye have worshiped, and after whom ye have gone …”? It is just some feckless thing we do, and rarely we do that.

How fervent?

As they were diligent in their worship to their gods, so they were very zealous and intent on it. In Isaiah 57: 5, Israel is challenged for, among other things, inflaming themselves with idols. The ancient Greek religious leader Pythagoras forbade sacrifices to be offered when doing or thinking about any other thing.

Although we should be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, yet how often our heart in His worship goes staggering between that and something else! In worshipping Him, we are like someone looking at a star through a telescope with a shaking arm — sometimes he has a glance of it, and straightaway loses it again. Who prays as if they were making intercession for their life? or hears as the hungry man eats his food? Who sings, making a melody in their hearts to the Lord?

How self-sacrificial?

The idolaters prioritised the worship of their gods over their dearest and sweetest enjoyments. They made their children pass through the fire to Molech. This was a dreadful thing. Certainly, these parents were not lacking in natural affection to their young ones, yet they postponed that to the worship of their gods.

Compare this to the worshipers of the true God. A tiny speck appears an insuperable mountain in the way of His worship! Some will not come because they have a yoke of oxen to look after, etc (Luke 14:16-21). What would we risk for His honour or worship?

How much reliance?

The heathen depended heavily on their gods for everything. If they were at sea, they had a god to depend on for safety; in their harvests they had a god to depend on for fruitfulness. The Romans went never out to any war without multiplying sacrifices.

Do we acknowledge the true God in all our ways, that He would bring it to pass? Do we in everything make our requests known by prayer and supplication? What a sweet life we would lead, if every difficulty gave us an errand to Him with a petition, and every deliverance a song!

Why should we outdo the heathen?

If idolaters may justly reprehend the worshippers of the true God, it serves for lamentation and self-humbling. Especially if we consider things like these.

The excellency of our God

Our God is the Lord who made heaven and earth. Our God is in heaven, and does whatsoever He wills. Who is like the Lord among all the gods? Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands, but how excellent is our Lord’s name through all the earth! So excellent a God and yet worse served, how lamentable this is!

The infallible certainty of our principles

The basis on which we walk, and which obliges us to diligent, zealous worship of our God, is infallibly sure. Whatever human ingenuity could imagine, to demonstrate the certainty of our principles and obligations to worship, we have it. The Son coming down from the Father’s bosom and revealing our duty to us. A voice from heaven witnessing to the truth of His being His beloved Son. So many miracles, and such divine doctrine, proceeding from Him. It is ridiculous to hear of the origin of some of the heathen gods, to whom they offered sacrifices. Often they were the work of their own hands, or some of the creatures which God had made to serve them!

The sweetness of our duties

An idol signifies sorrow, but the duties we are called to create a bit of heaven on earth. “In keeping of thy commandments there is great reward” — not only for keeping them, but in keeping them. What ease to a burdened mind is prayer! What joy in praises! What refreshing consolations from meditating on God as reconciled through a mediator! Similarly in all other parts of worship. “I rejoiced when they said unto me, Let us go unto the house of the Lord.”

The greatness of our debt

It never entered the mind of idolaters to worship their gods for the reason that we owe worship to ours. They thought they gave them corn and wine, and victory over their enemies, yet they never even claimed that any of them died for them, to prevent their eternal ruin. But this is the unspeakably great obligation we are under to worship. When our loss was desperate, He was broken for our iniquities, and in His stripes we are healed, and one of the goals He had in this was that we would be zealous worshipers of Him (Tit.2:14). “Ye are bought with a price, and are not your own, therefore glorify God in your bodies and souls” (1 Cor. 6:20).

The eternal weight of glory ahead of us

We have encouragements in our worship from the expectation of a far more excellent reward than idolaters could ever dream of or hope for. The philosopher Seneca comforted himself with the Elysian fields as he was dying. These were only imaginary, but supposing they were real, what a low reward they are when compared with the excellent, exceeding great, and eternal weight of glory that awaits the worshippers of God!

The assistance we are given

The heathen never dreamed that their gods would give them assisting influences to help them at their worship. All they did, they did in the strength of inherent virtue, either natural or acquired. Philosophy might make you patient and bear reproaches — or despise riches and delight in poverty. Aye, but we have the influences of assisting grace secured to us by the word of Him who cannot lie, to help us at our worship. If we do not know how to pray, or what to pray, the Spirit helps our infirmities. There is a spirit of faith, and a spirit of love, and a spirit of a sound mind. Idolaters get their water out of broken cisterns, that can hold no water, but the Rock follows us, and the Rock is Christ.

How can we outdo the heathen?

Some things about their worship, we should imitate.

Awe

They were kept in much fear and awe of their gods. They were constantly afraid that if they neglected their worship, their gods would avenge it. It is true, this is too servile a principle of gospel worship. Fear should not be the pace that should make our wheels go, it should be love (“If thou love me, keep my commandments”). Yet where fear is lacking, usually worship is lacking also.

Dependence

Also, they judged that they had need of their gods for everything they enjoyed — corn, wine, water, success in war, peace, childbirth, wisdom, or whatever else — and therefore had a god for each of them. This impression would contribute much to help us in worship. If we seriously believed that both our doing and our receiving depended on Him, our addresses to Him could not but be more frequent and fervent.

Receptivity

They were also much heartened in their worship by the responses they had from their oracles. These responses were often ambiguous, so that whatever way things fell out, the response could be made to hint at it. Certainly, if we took notice of the answers God gives to prayer, we would have more delight in it.

If we could imitate them in these things, we would readily outstrip them.

I shall only add two things they omitted, which make our worship, not only in its nature, but in its manner, far exceed theirs.

Grace

Though they were diligent and intent in their worship, yet they never dreamed of any gracious qualification in the person who presented the worship. Nature’s ladder was too low to scale the fort of a natural heart. But if you can be born of water and of the Spirit, it will give your worship a lustre theirs could never have.

The Mediator

Though their sacrifices were numerous, and sometimes costly and cruel, yet they never dreamed of a high priest who stands with incense in His hand, which is the prayers of the saints.

This is the great ground of a believer’s hope in Christ, that He sits a high priest, not only to make intercession for the iniquity of his holiness, and to cover the imperfections of his worship, but to present it, and to second it before the throne of God. He knows that broken words and groans and such-like sacrifices, performed with the incense of righteousness of such a Mediator, can have acceptation. Therefore to outdo them, put your sacrifice always in Christ’s hands, pray in His name, praise in His name, and do all through Him.

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When our words about each other attack God

When our words about each other attack God

When our words about each other attack God

When James wrote his letter to Christian believers, he included a section on our words. Our words have immense potential for either good or harm, but sometimes it’s not a case of either/or. Sometimes, out of the same mouth comes both blessing and cursing — and this is something which simply shouldn’t happen. Can a fig tree produce olives, or grape vine produce figs? The startling incongruity of these examples is nothing to the sheer wrongness of using our words both to praise God and to curse those who are made in God’s image. This point is developed by Thomas Manton as follows, in an updated extract from his commentary on the Epistle of James.

“Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God” (James 3:9). Here James shows the good and bad use of the tongue: the good, to bless God; and the bad, to curse men — as well as the absurdity of doing both with the same tongue, using the same part of your body for the best and worst purposes.

Our words should bless God

The correct use of the tongue is to bless God: “O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise” (Psalm 51:15). Since God gives the gift of speech, he must have the glory; we owe it to him. This is the advantage we have over the other creatures, that we can be explicit in praising God. “All thy works shall praise thee, O Lord; and thy saints shall bless thee” (Psalm 145:10). The whole creation is like a well-tuned instrument, but man makes the music. Speech, being the most excellent faculty, should be consecrated to divine uses. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving (Ephesians 5:4). So then, go away and say, “I will bless the Lord at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (Psalm 34:1). This brings heaven on earth. Some birds sing in winter as well as in spring. Stir up one another (Ephesians 5:19), just as one bird sets a whole flock singing.

We praise “our Lord and Father,” that is, Christ (see James 1:27). We bless God most cheerfully when we consider Him as a father. Thoughts of God as a judge do not bring comfort. Our meditations on Him are sweet when we look on Him as a father in Christ. But not everyone can learn the Lamb’s new song (Revelation 14:3). Wicked men can howl, though they cannot sing. Pharaoh in his misery could say, “The LORD is righteous” (Exodus 9:27).

Our words should not curse each other

“And with the tongue we curse men” (James 1:9). The same tongue should not bless God and curse men; this is hypocrisy. Acts of piety are empty when acts of charity are neglected. “God saith, ‘What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth? … Thou givest thy mouth to evil, and your tongue frameth deceit. Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother; thou slenderest thine own mother’s son’” (Psalm 50:16, 19-20).

Hypocrites are the most censorious, but true piety makes people meek and humble. Some people can curse and bless at the same time (Psalm 62:4); other people curse, pretending to be pious. The evils of the tongue, where they are not restrained, are inconsistent with true piety. With this tongue I have been speaking to God, and shall it presently be set on fire by hell.

Our words should reflect our high status as God’s image-bearers

Man is made after God’s own image. “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). We may catch glimpses of God in His works, but in man we see God’s very image and likeness.

God’s image in man consists in three things.

(1) In his nature, which was rational. God gave man a rational soul, simple, immortal, free in its choice; indeed, even in the body there were some rays of divine glory and majesty.

(2) In those qualities of “knowledge” (Colossians 3:10), “upright[ness]” (Ecclesiastes 7:29), and “true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).

(3) In his state — all inward and outward blessings combined, as he enjoys God, exercises power over creatures, etc.

But this image is defaced and can only be restored in Christ. This was the great privilege of our creation — to be made like God; the more we resemble Him, the more happy we are. Remember your original height. We have the custom of urging people to walk worthy of their origins. Plutarch says of Alexander that he used to strengthen his courage by remembering that he came from the gods. Remember that you were made in the image of God; do not deface it in yourselves, or make it open to contempt by giving others opportunity to revile you.

Our words should not attack God via His image-bearers

We are dissuaded from slandering and speaking evil of others when we consider that they are made in God’s image.

We might ask, How can this be a motive, since the image and likeness of God is defaced and lost by the fall?

The answer is, in part, that James is speaking about new creatures especially, in whom Adam’s loss is repaired and made up again in Christ. “[You] have put on the new man, which is [being] renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (Colossians 3:10). “Put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). God is sensitive about His new creatures; intemperance of tongue against saints is dangerous. Take care what you say: these are Christians, created in God’s image, choice pieces whom God has restored out of the common ruins.

The other part of the answer is that James may be speaking about all people, for there are a few relics of God’s image in everyone. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6). There would be no force in this reason if there were nothing of God left in man after sin, albeit much deformed. So this saying in James argues that there still remains in people some resemblance to God, such as the simplicity and immortality of the soul, some moral inclinations (instead of true holiness), ordinary evidences of the nature and will of God (instead of saving knowledge). Although these cannot make us happy, they serve to leave us without excuse. There is also some pre-eminence over other creatures, as we have a mind to know God, being capable of divine illumination and grace.

What is the force of the argument, that we ought not to curse people seeing they are made in God’s image?

For one thing, God has made human beings His deputies to receive love and common respect. Higher respect of trust and worship are to be reserved for God alone, but in other things Christians, even the poorest of them, are Christ’s receivers. “He that despiseth you despiseth me” (Luke 10:16). “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me” (Matthew 25:45).

For another thing, God Himself is wronged by the injury done to His image, just as, among us, contempt and spite for the king’s image or coin is taken as done to the king himself. In Matthew 23:18, to swear by the altar, which was the symbol of God’s presence, was to swear by God Himself.

Also, this is the fence God has placed against injury: “For in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6). This is referred not to the murderer, as if he had sinned against those common ideas of justice and right in his conscience, but to the victim, who is the image of God. God has honoured this lump of flesh by stamping His own image on him; and who would dare to violate the image of the great King? To speak evil against him is to wrong the image of God. All God’s works are to be looked on and spoken of with reverence, and much more His image.

So then, in your behaviour toward people, let this check any injury or impropriety of speech: this person is in God’s image. Though images are not to be worshipped, yet the image of God is not to be splattered with reproaches, especially if they are new creations: these are vessels of honour. Consider who the sin is against: it is spiting God Himself, because it is done to His work and image. Solomon says, “Whoso mocketh the poor reproacheth his Maker” (Proverbs 17:5).

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Making spiritual progress

Making spiritual progress

Making spiritual progress

The Christian walk is characterised by newness of life and closeness to the Lord. Yet as time goes by, those who are in the way can grow conscious of distance from the Lord as well as a degree of lifelessness and lack of energy for the journey. At significant milestones, it can help to refocus on our priorities and remind ourselves of the things that will assist our progress and reduce hindrances. Samuel Rutherford is a pilgrim who shared what he himself had learned on the way to help those coming behind to make better progress. The following updated excerpt comes from a recently published book called Daily Walking With God. It was originally titled “Some Helps for a More Exact and Close Walking with God.”

Set aside time for the Word and prayer

Give some hours of the day, maybe more, maybe less, to read God’s Word, and to pray. Prefer these activities to the greatest affairs and employments of your calling, even if you spend the shortest time in them. Let the firstfruits of your morning thoughts smell of such religious duties, excluding all else till they have taken possession.

Have occasional spiritual thoughts during work

In the midst of worldly employments let there be some thoughts of sin, judgment, death, eternity, and God’s free love, with a word or two of prayer to God.

Avoid discouragement in prayer

Do not grudge it even if you come away from prayer without sense, or downcast, or a sense of guiltiness. Instead let this sharpen your appetite for another hearing, and do not rest on what you have already done.

Keep the whole Lord’s day holy

Spend the Lord’s day from morning till night always in private or public worship, even taking account of the smallest thoughts, as this day is set apart from the rest of the days of the week for the Lord’s worship only, as not being lawful to have our own thoughts

Avoid idle thoughts

Observe and avoid wandering and idle thoughts, as they are the harbingers of unsavoury speech, and ushers to profane actions.

Avoid wandering thoughts in prayer

Beware of wandering of heart in private and public prayer to God. In private, make your heart go along with your tongue, and in public have hearty joining, as if you felt the present necessity pressing you to it. Also join in praises with a feeling heart, proceeding from a principle of love, to exalt His glory.

Avoid all known sin

Eschew all revealed sins and whatever things are against the conscience, as most dangerous preparatives to hardness of heart. Always be governed by your conscience, rather than conscience being governed by you.

Have integrity in dealings with others

In dealing with others, whether in agreements or business, have a regard for sincerity, and make conscience of idle words and lying. Let us behave in such a way that they shall speak honourably of our sweet Master, and not in any way that would damage our profession. The life we live should correspond to the outward show, so that not only in appearance but in reality we may be true Christians.

Spend time in spiritual company

Frequent most the company of those with whom the soul may be most benefited. Develop all conversations in a way that contributes to spiritual usefulness, striving to edify one another in mutual confidences, cherishing heavenly thoughts, and sympathizing with the sufferings of our mother the church. In all your prayers hold up her (the church’s) condition to the Lord, and the condition of one another.

Avoid godless company

Eschew the company of the profane and “those who are without,” unless it is for the purpose of bringing them into the knowledge of Christ, by convincing their judgments. In no wise abstain from challenging their erroneous vices, as choosing rather to incur their wrath than to let God’s glory suffer in the least measure. Better to suffer in vindicating His cause than to be guilty by participating in sin that dishonours Him, for what you suffer in that, you suffer as a member of Christ.

Meditate frequently on the Word

Do not content yourself with morning and evening reading of God’s Word and sacrifices of prayer. Rather, whatever you read or hear, digest it by meditation, and turn it over in praises oft-times a day, as occasion offers, not sparing your most important activities.

Keep daily accounts

Every night call your thoughts, words and actions to a strict account. See where you have omitted, gone back, stood still, or come short. With sorrow, promise and purpose to amend what has been amiss. Let this possess your night dreams, and then awaken with a desire to pray and praise.

Submit to God in affliction

In afflictions or crosses, whether on body or mind or friends, often practice submission by acknowledging that nothing happens by accident, but by an overruling providence. Gather sweetness out of the bitterest portions, as things that serve to make you more heavenward, and do not drag Christ’s cross, but bear it cheerfully.

Avoid hatred even towards enemies

Keep well clear of vehemence, envy, hatred, desire of revenge, even against those who persecute the truth; for we often mix our zeal with our wildfire. Maintain charitable thoughts of those that are without, not being a slave of your passions, but commanding them, and let them express themselves most against your own corruption.

Daily examine your growth in grace

Daily assess your growth in grace. If you do not see it grow daily perceptibly, yet by testing you must find imperceptible growth [over time], otherwise doubt yourself. For as standing water goes bad, so grace not growing must decay, and then you would come short of your mark.

Suppress idle thoughts

When idle thoughts enter your heart, suppress them quickly, for they are like the thief that will open the door to the rest to break in till they become the strong man, and then act in a way which cannot be so easily resisted. It is best to smother them in the birth before they come to infancy, and far more before they come to such full strength that they can hardly be rooted up.

Be consistent in resolutions

Do not content yourself with flashes of good resolutions, before or after the sacrament, or in the heat of public or private ordinances, which are suddenly choked. These are like the seed among the corn, which spend their life in their birth. On the other hand, do not be discouraged with the clouds of God’s absence. Rather judge for yourself what occasions it, still waiting patiently, not idly, under the cloud, till He break forth with the beams of His countenance to enlighten your deserted (but not rejected) condition.

Daily examine every thought

What if, if it were possible, you were to write every thought of the day, both good and bad, and, in order to make more conscience of them, you were to summon them before thee at night to be censured according to their demerits, persuading yourself to be so strictly examined before God’s tribunal in the day of the Lord?

Deny self in order to be Christ’s

Do not let idol-self have such a reigning power in you, but rather dismiss it in disgrace, so that Christ may take possession. To be less your own is to be more His. This will oblige you to be more painstaking about mortifying your sin and putting on the new man.

Resist doubts and unbelief

Strive against doubting. If you lack feeling of faith, complain bitterly for the lack of it, and seek out where the sin that hinders it is lurking. Use all means by which you can get the Lord’s countenance, and no less to entertain it.

This updated excerpt is taken from the book titled Daily Walking With God, by Samuel Rutherford, published by Reformation Press (2022).

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Living our fleeting lives

Living our fleeting lives

Living our fleeting lives

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we persist in assuming that our lives here on earth will continue indefinitely, and that we are free to plan whatever we like. Everyone knows that life is short and uncertain, but we tend to treat it as a truism and we don’t let it impact us personally. James wrote in his epistle about the folly of this approach — it comes from misplaced pride and it must end in dreadful disappointment. It’s not me who’s in control, but God. Instead of rebelling against this, it would bring us contentment and safety to believingly and thankfully embrace it. In the following extract from his commentary on James, Thomas Manton shows that the wise response is to recognise God’s right to direct all things in His providence, and to use the short time we have to prepare for endless eternity.

Many passages in Scripture show how brief our life is. It is compared to “the flowers of the field” (Isaiah 40:6–7), the “wind” (Job 7:7), a leaf before the wind (Job 13:25), and a “shadow” (Job 14:2).

There is a heap of similes in Job 9:25–26 — “Now my days are swifter than a post: they flee away, they see no good. They are passed away as the swift ships: as the eagle that hasteth to the prey.”

The Word uses all these similes so that every fleeting and decaying object would remind us of our own mortality, as well as to check those proud human desires for an eternal abode here, and lasting happiness in this life. In that passage in Job human frailty is displayed in all the elements: on land, a runner; on water, a swift boat; in the air, an eagle.

The figure of speech used here by James is that of a vapour. “What is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” This is simply to show how quickly life passes, and because human life is just a little warm breath coming in and out by the nostrils — a narrow passage, and soon stopped up (Isaiah 2:22).

Our lives are undependable and brief

We have no assurance of our lives and comforts, or the events of the next day. This is a common observation. Well then, let every day’s care be enough for itself; live every day as the last day. Ludovicus Capellus tells us of Rabbi Eleazer, who advised people to repent only the day before their death — that is, right now (for it may be the last day before we die). It is a sad thing to promise ourselves many years and to have our souls taken away that night — to measure out our time and years by our worldly projects, then all of a sudden our whole thoughts perish.

Human life is very short. It is a vapour that soon appears and just as soon disappears — dispersed as soon as it is produced. “Surely every man walketh in a vain show” (Psalm 39:6). Though they toss to and fro, yet the whole course of their lives is just a fleeting shadow, a little spot of time between two eternities. Augustine is not sure whether to call it a dying life or a living death.

We should adjust our behaviours accordingly

This checks those who pass away their time, rather than redeem it. They waste their precious time, as if they had too much of it. Our moment is short, and we make it shorter. It is time for all of us to say, “The time past of our life is more than enough to have wrought the will of the flesh” (see 1 Peter 4:3); or, as Romans 13:11 puts it, “It is high time to awake out of sleep” (this was the verse that converted Augustine).

Seeing how short life is, moderate your worldly care and projects. Do not encumber yourselves with too much provisions for a short voyage. A ship goes more swiftly the less burdened it is; people take in too much cargo for a mere passage.

Devote yourselves more to spiritual projects, so that you may lay up a foundation for a longer life than you have to live here. Do a lot of work in your little time. Shall we lose any part of what is so short? Will our short life only make way for a long misery? The apostle says, “I will put you in remembrance, knowing that shortly I must put off this tabernacle” (2 Peter 1:13). We will all shortly put off the outer garment of the body, so let us do all the good that we can. Christ lived only thirty-two years, or thereabouts, so He “went about doing good, and healing every sickness, and every disease.” You only have a short time, so be all the more diligent.

God’s providence should be in both our heart and our words

Now that James has exposed the false confidence of the worldly, he proceeds to rectify their attitude by urging them to a holy and reverent remembrance of God’s providence and their own frailty. “For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (James 4:15).

Here the question arises, Must we always and necessarily use this form of speech, or some similar explicit reference to providence, “If the Lord will …”?

It is good to accustom the tongue to holy forms of speech, including such explicit and clear references to providence, e.g., “If the Lord please,” “If the Lord will,” “If it please the Lord that I live,” etc. Pure lips are appropriate for a Christian, and it is useful for stirring up reverence in ourselves and for the instruction of others. Such forms are confessions of divine providence and the uncertainty of human life.

The children of God use phrases like these frequently. “I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will” (1 Corinthians 4:19); “I must tarry a while with you, if the Lord permit” (1 Corinthians 16:7); see also Romans 1:10 and Philippians 2:19. The children of God know that all their goings are ordered by the Lord; therefore they often make references like these to His will and power.

However, when we use these forms, the heart must go along with the tongue. Using God’s name in common sayings is only profanity if the heart is not reverent. The words are common, but it is the meaning that matters.

It is not always necessary use these terms explicitly, but there must always be either implicitly or explicitly a submission to the will of God. Holy men of God have often expressed the intention to do things and yet not formally expressed such conditions — for example, in 3 John, “When I come, I will remember his deeds,” and Romans 15:24, “Whensoever I take my journey to Spain, I will come to you,” etc.

All our actions should be referred to the will of God

All our undertakings must be referred to the will of God — not only religious ones, but secular actions too. For example, our journeys: “O Lord God of Abraham thy servant, send me good speed this day” (Genesis 24:12; see also Genesis 28:20). If this is neglected, no wonder you meet with so many frustrating things — they do not come from your hard luck, but your profane neglect.

But what does is it mean to submit all our actions to the will of God?

Measuring all our actions by His revealed will. That is the rule of duty. We can look for no blessing on anything except for what is consistent with God’s revealed will. We must submit to His secret will, but first we must conform to His revealed will. Worldly desire has its own will (see Ephesians 2:2), but we are to serve the will of God until we fall asleep (Acts 13:36).

Acting with confidence when we see God leading us. We must have all the greater comfort and confidence in undertaking any action when we see God in it (e.g., like Paul when he gathered that God had called him to Macedonia; Acts 16:10). When we see God guiding and leading us, whether in the sweet means and course of His providence, or by inward instinct, we may walk in the way He has opened to us with all the more encouragement.

Not restricting God’s plans. In our desires and requests we must not bind the counsels of God. “Not my will, but thine be done” (Matthew 26:39). In temporal things we must submit to God’s will, both for the mercy itself, for the means of getting it, and for time of obtaining it. Creatures must not prescribe to God, and give laws to providence, but must be content to have or go without as the Lord pleases. If anything does not have good success, the Lord did not will it, and that is enough to silence all discontents.

Constantly asking His leave in prayer.

Always remembering that God reserves the right to do His will. We must continue to reserve the power of God’s providence. “If the Lord will,” “If the Lord permit.” God does not want us to be too confident in a worldly way; it is good to get the soul used to things changing.

We should remember God’s sovereignty and our frailty

There are two things we should often consider in this connection.

The sovereignty and dominion of providence

However much wisdom and skill you use in your enterprise, the Lord can bring it to nothing. He can nip it in the bud or stop it in the very moment you try to put it into effect. I have observed that God is usually very sensitive about His honour on this point, and usually frustrates those proud people who boast of what they will do, and think up unlimited plans, without any thought of how providence may stop them. “A man’s heart deviseth his way, but the Lord directeth his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). We make plans, but carrying them out depends wholly on God’s will and providence. When we make resolutions on our own authority, there is a contest between us and heaven about will and power; therefore, in such cases the answer of providence is more clearly and decisively to our loss, so that God would be acknowledged as Lord of success, and the first mover in all means and causes, without whom they have no force or efficacy.

The frailty and uncertainty of your own lives

Our being is as uncertain as the events of providence. “If we live,” and “If the Lord will,” are the caveats in the text, and together they imply that we must have a conscious awareness of our own frailty, as well as of the sovereignty of providence, so that our hearts will submit to God the better. “His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4). Frail as we are, we are full of thoughts and projects. We will do this, and we will do that, and we will go to that city, and we will promote our interests by this alliance, and we will gain so much by this purchase, and then we will raise up some stately building which will continue our name and reputation to the generations to come — and all because we do not think of the earth we carry about with us, and how soon the hand of providence is able to crumble it into dust. Certainly we will never be wise until we are able to number our days, and have sufficiently grasped in our souls the uncertainty of our stay in the world (Psalm 90:12).

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Why are we still waiting for the second coming?

Why are we still waiting for the second coming?

Why are we still waiting for the second coming?

The first coming of the Lord Jesus was unobtrusively in Bethlehem, some two thousand years ago. He then died at Calvary and ascended up to heaven, promising to come again. There are plenty people who entirely miss the point of His first coming and entirely ignore what He achieved on the cross. If the thought of Him coming back again ever crosses their minds, they only scoffingly dismiss it. But even the Lord’s people sometimes flag as they wait for Him to come again. We know He will “come again, without sin, unto salvation,” but it seems to be taking such a long time. In his commentary on 2 Peter, Alexander Nisbet reaches the point where Peter has countered the foolish opinions of those who mocked at the idea of Christ’s second coming. In the following updated extract, he explains Peter’s three reasons why the godly do not need to worry about the apparent long wait. Instead, the certainty that it will eventually happen should inspire us to persevere in Christian living in preparation for it.

The Lord’s eternity should mould our perception of time

The first reason, which is in verse 8, is that the delay ought not to be judged of according to our sense or apprehension, but according to the duration of God. “But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (v.8).

The godly to whom Peter is writing either had taken, or were at risk of taking, some bad impression of God from the bold assertions and apparent logic of the mockers. There is so great affinity between the hearts of the godly, who are but in part renewed, and the vilest temptations to the greatest blasphemies or errors, that when these errors are expressed boldly with pretence of reason, there is great risk that there be some impression left on the hearts of even the godly, inclining them to these errors.

It has pleased the Lord to condescend so far to our shallow capacity as to set forth His duration to us in Scripture in our own terms, and to give us leave to describe it in our own terms, while He calls Himself, “Yesterday, and today and for ever” (Heb. 13:8), “He which was and is and is to come” (Rev. 1:4), “the Ancient of Days” (Dan. 7:9), “He whose years have no end” (Psa. 102:27). Yet all these differences of time, which to us are longer or shorter, are all alike to Him, whose duration admits of no beginning, succession, or ending. Instead it consists in a constant presentness of all that seems to us past, or future. “For one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

Ministers of Christ ought to have a far different view of those who mock at the truth of God and scoffingly vent their errors contrary to it, and of those who through infirmity may have some inclination toward error and therefore stand in need to be guarded against it. Accordingly they will behave differently toward the one and the other. Of the one the apostle spoke with indignation and contempt (as they deserved), calling them “scoffers, walking after their ungodly lusts” (v.3). But to the other he speaks with love and tenderness, calling them “Beloved,” and advising them, “Be not ignorant of this one thing…”

Some things revealed in Scripture concerning the Lord must be understood by faith, even though they cannot be comprehended by us to the satisfaction of our shallow reason. We should not be ignorant of this one thing, “that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” yet this is a truth that no one within time can well comprehend. Only faith can assent to it and make use of it, in judging as He judges, that many years’ delay to us of the performance of a promise is but a very little time compared with eternity. It may though foster a holy longing to be with Him, when we shall partake of His duration as well as of His glory, when there shall not be such a thing as any sad reflections on past sweetness, or any painful langour for sweetness to come, but a constant present possession of it.

The Lord’s patience takes time to accomplish His purposes

The second reason to reassure the godly concerning the delay to Christ’s second coming is that this delay does not proceed from any such thing in God (whatever may be thought) as usually makes people slow in performing their promises, but only from His patience toward His elect, whose temperament requires time and effort for working grace in them, that they may be fitted for glory. “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness, but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (v.9).

We ought not to frame our thoughts of God as we do one of another, especially when we think of how long it takes for Him to perform His promises, as if that delay flowed from lack of foresight for possible difficulties, weakness, forgetfulness or fickleness — the reasons why there are ordinarily delays among us. All such thoughts of Him, though our hearts are very apt to entertain them (Psa. 50:21), we ought to remove far from us, and to persuade ourselves of the opposite — that He is most mindful of His promises (Psa. 111:5), and so swift in performing them, that He will not wait a moment after He has wrought what is necessary before the performance (Mal. 4:2). Constructions like this, “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise,” which deny something about God, in Scripture convey both that we are wrongly apt to imagine this about Him, and also that the contrary of what is denied is superlatively true. The Lord is the opposite of slow about His promise.

The true and satisfying explanation for the delay to Christ’s second coming is the Lord’s longsuffering toward His own elect. In order for them to be converted they must be dealt with in a way suitable to their temperament. It requires time and pains to work on each elect soul who comes into the world, and to the years of discretion, by commands, threatenings, promises, and alluring motives, every one of these being multiplied after another. By these same means, every elect person is brought to that measure of grace which God has determined to work in the converted, in order that they may be fitted for glory. The Lord does not soon or easily win His point even with His own elect, but after many refusals of His renewed offers and slighting of His pains. His love is patient and powerful and overcomes all opposition in them eventually.

The Lord’s day will come when least expected

“But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, and the earth also and the works that are therein shall he burnt up.”

The day of judgment will be very unexpected and terrible to complacent sinners, just as the coming of a thief in the night brings sudden terror to a sleeping family. On that day there will be a great change and the dissolution of the whole frame of nature, and of all the things in which most people place their happiness. The inference from this is not stated explicitly but we can gather it — that it is the wisdom of the Lord’s people to prepare for that day, rather than to complain of the delay, or to be anxious concerning it.

Christ’s coming at the last day will be a great surprise to the majority of people, who refuse to be wakened out of their complacency by the Word in order to make preparation for it. Scripture does speak of prior signs that this day is coming, such as the destruction of Antichrist, the conversion of the Jews, etc. But some of them may be done in so little time, and so immediately before the judgment day, and others of them may be so little noticed, or recognised as signs of that day, that, notwithstanding them all, the majority shall be surprised at it

That day of judgment will be a most terrible day to all who do not expect and prepare for it. There will be a strange sight, and a dreadful noise, when the great workmanship of all creation, being on fire, shall all rush down, and all the delights of wicked men shall be burnt up before their eyes. By this the Lord testifies His displeasure against people placing their happiness in these things, and defiling them by making them subservient to their lusts, while at the same time signifying His purpose to give a more cleanly and glorious mansion to His own to dwell in. “In that day the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat; the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burnt up.” Rather than raising questions about this, it is much safer for us to direct our time and energies towards being found of Him in peace at that day.

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Problems, laments and warnings

Problems, laments and warnings

Problems, laments and warnings

For Jeremiah the tragedy of Jerusalem being destroyed was that nobody had listened to the warnings God had given. He cannot escape the sense that this devastation was something his people had brought on themselves, and that God was right to be angry. In his commentary on Lamentations, David Dickson reminds us that we too need to share God’s view of our sins as churches and communities. In the following updated extract from his commentary on Lamentations 3, Dickson draws attention to the fittingness of God’s responses to our behaviours. If we have not listened to Him, and treated His message with contempt, it is not at all incongruous if He does not listen to us, and lets us be treated with contempt. Will we register the warning in time and honour Him as He deserves?

In the first few chapters of Lamentations, we have heard a pitiful lamentation from the prophet, a man exercised with troubles all his days. He preached in grief of heart to this people for the space of fifty years. When they were in a good condition, he requested them to be reconciled to God. They scorned and mocked him, and set light by his words, yet he fought on with them year by year, telling them that the Lord’s judgments were at hand.

And now when the judgment which he foretold was come, it breaks his heart to see so many thousands of them cut off by famine, sword, and pestilence, and to the pitiful state of those who were left alive, carried captive, and made slaves to pagans.

So all his days were spent in sorrow, and he wrote this book of Lamentations to stir up those who would come after, to mourn with him, and to make it known to the church in subsequent ages that sorrow would be at their heart, and that similar judgment would overtake them, unless by laying to heart they would prevent it.

God does not hear their prayers

‘Thou hast covered thyself with a cloud, that our prayer should not pass through’ (Lam. 3:44). Jeremiah laments that God would not hear their prayer, but had drawn a curtain over heaven, and hid His gracious face. They prayed for God’s help and assistance, deliverance from trouble, and especially from the hand of their enemy, yet God did not hear them, and permitted them to be in the hand of their enemies. Although they were the people God had chosen for Himself, and had a house among them for the God of heaven, and were populous, large, strong, wealthy, yet the Lord lets it all be sacked, burnt, demolished, by profane soldiers, the majority killed and the rest taken captive.

But in our times, we don’t think of this. It’s as if God’s judgments are dead and He does not send any trouble for sin. Therefore, just as God carried out all hat the prophet warned the people about, so we may certainly expect similar judgments to overtake us, for we are guilty of following the same way as they did, and despising mercy as much as they did.

God will not hear every prayer, especially not prayers for judgments to be removed, when they are made too late, after people have refused the offer of mercy and refused to turn.

If God is not able to avenge contempt of the gospel, then don’t turn to Him now. But if He is a righteous God, He will not fail to reckon with you, for your abuse of mercy as much as for your faults.

But although God did not hear their prayers, yet the prophet prayed on in the name of the church. Although God rejects prayers, yet we should pray on! Although He will not hear belated prayers to stop temporal judgments, yet He will not refuse prayer for the removal of sin or for graces to the soul. Supposing Noah, Job and Daniel would pray for removing temporal trouble, they would not be heard (Ezekiel 14:14). But you could be the most unworthy and wretched person there has ever been, and if you pray for removing sin, you cannot fail to be heard. God grants relief for the soul when there is none for the body.

They are treated with contempt

‘Thou hast made us as the offscouring and refuse in the midst of the people’ (Lam. 3:45). Here Jeremiah laments that God had made them contemptible, like what is swept out of a house and thrown on the dunghill. Although these were the most honourable people under heaven, yet a nice looking Jew, man or woman, would not have fetched the price of a horse or a cow. Nobody would even buy them as slaves except for the most servile work.

But Jeremiah says it is God who has done this. ‘Thou hast made us …’ This is how the Lord gives a rejoinder to people for the contempt and disparagement they gave to His prophet, His Word, and His ordinances. He makes His own saints to be disparagingly thought of. As people regard God’s ordinances, let them expect to be regarded themselves.

You who let the Bible lie mouldering on the window ledge, you who content yourself with turning up to church without caring how much you profit by coming, but go home jesting at the Word and the preacher, be sure that God will despise you as you despised Him. If a temporal despising does not humble people in this life, they will be sure of a great despising in the day when God shall say, ‘Depart from me …’ The Lord shall say, ‘I rose early and late and sent my servants to pray and to preach to you and to offer reconciliation to you, but you rejected my offer and my word. I came and taught you from house to house, but you would not be taught. Therefore, go your way from me to the pit prepared for you. You and I shall never meet again.’ These people drew as near to God as any, but you see how for despising the offer of grace they are made as contemptible as any.

God is also just now, as He was then, and can do no less now in justice to us than He did to them, seeing we have given His Word and His messengers as great contempt as they did.

The Lord’s people are more honourable than any when the Lord is for them, but of all people they are the most contemptible when they defile their own glory by their sins, and procure at God’s hand exposure to shame. When someone makes a sincere profession they are most honourable, but when that same person belies their profession and defiles it by a lewd life, then they are most contemptible of anyone. Nothing is clearer among us than a torch or a candle, but nothing smells worse when it is put out. A professing Christian is beautiful when his holy life shines before the world, but he is the most stinking creature when he brings his profession to an end.

You who are professing Christians, be careful to keep your garments clean. Enjoy your place, your dignity, your honour, for you are called to be the sons of God, heirs and co-heirs with Christ, citizens of the new Jerusalem and of the congregation of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. But if you dishonour God by an evil life, you will be made more vile than the basest servant. If the spouse of Christ defiles His bed in following her own desires and affections, what wonder if she is made more contemptible than anyone else under heaven?

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How effectively do we tell the difference between right and wrong?

How effectively do we tell the difference between right and wrong?

How effectively do we tell the difference between right and wrong?

Conscience is our ability to decide whether something is morally right or wrong according to some standard. Conscience needs information in order to judge accurately, but we are not always good at evaluating the information available to us, or indeed assessing whether we have done right or wrong ourselves, so as to take legitimate peace and comfort for well-doing and appropriate shame and trouble for evil-doing. Samuel Annesley published a sermon on the conscience with the aim of helping people come to the peace which comes from a good conscience. Conscience is basically either ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ but Annesley provides a further breakdown of different kinds of conscience. The four kinds discussed in the following extract from his sermon can belong to either the converted or the unconverted. Helpfully, Annesley provides an analysis of what causes each of these problems and how the troubling conscience can be remedied.

The erring conscience

An erring conscience is one which judges otherwise than the thing is. Conscience is sometimes deceived through ignorance of what is right, by taking a false rule for a true, or an error for the will of God, and sometimes through ignorance of the fact, by misapplying a right rule to a wrong action.

A wrongly informed conscience takes human traditions and false doctrines, put forward under the guise of divine authority, to be the will of God. A famous instance of this is the case of Jeroboam, who was afraid that if the people went up to sacrifice at Jerusalem, he would lose his kingdom. So a council is called, flattering prophets come, and they have dreams and visions suitable to their purpose. A decree is made: “You have in the past gone up to Jerusalem, but now, behold your gods! These calves are just like the cherubim of the sanctuary!” This seems to the people to be a satisfactory warrant for them to readily follow the king’s commandment.

Much discussion has been had over whether we are bound to follow our erring conscience. The plain truth is that error cannot bind us to follow it. An erring conscience may bind us in such a way that it may be a sin to go against it, but it can never bind in such a way that it is a virtue to follow it. The violation of conscience is always evil, and the following of an erring conscience is evil, but there is a middle way that’s safe and good, and that is, to have conscience better informed by God’s Word, and to follow it accordingly.

What causes an erring conscience?

Of course there is original sin, which blinds the understanding, and there is also the just judgement of God on persons who do not receive, obey, and love the truth as it is in Jesus. But here are three causes besides these.

Negligence about learning the will of God, through slothfulness, and love of ease, and low esteem of the ways of God (Ecclesiastes 4:5–6).

Being too proud to consult others and to be taught by them. Even the sincerely conscientious are not free from a kind of ‘proud modesty,’ in being too shy to make inquiry into practical cases. The ungodly arrogate so much to their own judgment, that they know as much as anyone can teach them.

Having inordinate affection about things of which we are ignorant. This warps our consideration, for anyone who seeks truth with a bias will run counter to it when he comes near it, and not find it though he comes within striking distance of it.

What is the remedy for an erring conscience?

You may gather the remedies from the opposites to these causes of error. Be industriously diligent to know your duty — be humbly willing to receive instruction — and do not let your affections outrun your judgment.

There is one further rule I shall commend. Do what you know to be your present duty, and God will acquaint you with your future duty when it comes to be present. Make it your business to avoid known omissions, and God will keep you from feared commissions. See the psalmist’s prayer in Psalm 25:4–5 ‘Show me thy ways, O Lord …’ and the answer in verse 9, ‘The meek will he guide in judgment …’

The doubting conscience

A doubting conscience is one which with trouble and anxiety suspends its judgment, not knowing which way to determine. It is an ambiguity of mind which consists in a standing (or rather, a wavering) balance, neither assenting nor dissenting.

In fact, strictly speaking, a doubting conscience is not really a functioning conscience at all, because by definition conscience actually judges what has been done, or what is to be done, but where there is no assent, there is no judging.

When the apostle says, ‘whatsoever is not of faith is sin,’ by ‘faith’ there we must understand that persuasion and security of mind by which we believe and judge that this thing either pleases or displeases God (it does not refer to justifying faith). In all duties we must be unweariedly diligent to perceive the truth, so as to drive away doubtfulness, for the more certain our knowledge of the things we do, the more confident we may be in doing them, and the more joyful afterwards.

What causes doubting?

Lack of reasons, or equally weighted reasons, so that when we weigh things most impartially, yet we are not able to come to a determination, but the mind is still in suspense.

Specific reasons. General reasons are not sufficient to make a conscientious doubt; the mind must be fixating on some particular reasons that need to be duly weighed. A doubting conscience is bad anyway, but people make it worse when their doubts lurk in generals — they only have some cloudy notions from without, or foggy mists from within, and they take no due course to clear any of them.

How can you answer a doubting conscience?

About lesser matters, take the safest course. In doubtful things, ordinarily one way is clear, so take that. But this rule will not reach all cases.

So, secondly, establish where your doubt lies. Be sure that it really is a case of conscience — not of self-interest, or of prejudice, but of conscience, such that you are unreservedly willing for it to be resolved, and you can in prayer bring God a blank cheque to write whatever He pleases. Pare off all those quibbling demurs and worldly reasonings which may puzzle you, but can never satisfy you.

Then, write down your case as plainly as you can, with the reasons for your hesitation. Make two columns. On the one side write those reasons you judge cogent in favour; on the other side, put the reasons you judge weighty against. Weigh these impartially. You will find that your perplexed thoughts look different when written down than when floating, and that your own ink will ordinarily kill this fetter.

If this does not resolve your doubts, it will at least make you ready for advice. When you consult others, ask with sincerity what was said to Jeremiah, ‘Pray for us, that the Lord thy God may show us the way wherein we may walk …’ (Jer. 42:2–6), and request of them especially scriptures and reasons. One case thoroughly resolved like this will be singularly useful for scattering all future doubts in all other cases.

The scrupulous conscience

A scrupulous conscience determines that a thing is lawful, yet scarcely to be done, lest it should be unlawful. There is anxiety, reluctancy and fear in the determination. A scruple in the mind is like gravel in your shoe, vexing and hurting the conscience, and disturbing the soul in performance of duties.

What causes scrupulousness?

I shall name only two causes (forbearing to mention our ignorance and pride).

Natural disposition. Some people are naturally timorous or fearful and their imagination takes a sad view of things, making the person timid.

Temptations. This is the chief cause. If Satan cannot keep the heart a secure prisoner, he will do his utmost to overwhelm it with fears and suspicions, and he suits his temptations according to our natural temperament. He does not tempt the riotous with rewards, nor the glutton to the glory of abstinence.

How can we help a scrupulous conscience?

Firstly, while you should not be discouraged with your scruples, yet I plead with you, do not indulge them. Scruples naturally tend to do much spiritual damage. They are occasions of sin; they make the ways of God seem too restrictive; they hinder the work of grace; they hinder cheerfulness in the service of God; they quench the Spirit; and they unfit us for duty. These are all reasons to strive against them.

But yet, do not be discouraged, for God through His over-powering grace can make good use of them — to further the mortification of sin in us; to restrain us from worldly vanities; to abate pride; to make us more watchful; to make us strive to be more spiritual; and to almost force us to live more on Christ.

But, secondly, if you want to have these benefits, you must use this other remedy. Do what you possibly can to get rid of your scruples. If you cannot get rid of them, act against them. It is not only lawful but necessary to go against a scrupulous conscience, otherwise you will never have neither grace nor peace. Should you avoid praying, or receiving the sacrament, every time your scrupulous conscience tells you that it’s better to omit the duty than perform it in such a manner? You would soon find to your sorrow the mischief of your scruples. Be resolute therefore, and tell the devil that as you do not perform your duty at his command, so neither will you omit it at his bidding. By performing your duties, your scrupulous fears will vanish. Meanwhile act against them by disputing them down, and opposing their reasons, and not hearkening to them.

The trembling conscience

The trembling conscience is disquieted and distressed with the (perceived) hazard of the soul’s condition, and does nothing but accuse and condemn and frighten the soul.

What causes a trembling conscience?

The twin cause of a trembling conscience is sense of sin and fear of wrath. ‘Never was there sin like mine! Never a heart like mine! Never a case like mine!’ Such are the constant complaints of a troubled spirit.

What is the cure for a trembling conscience?

It goes without saying, never take the devil’s advice. Break through all carnal reasonings to acquaint yourselves with some faithful spiritual physician, or experienced Christian, who may show you the methods of divine grace, and what has been successfully done by others who have been just in your condition.

In the midst of your saddest complaints, bless God that your conscience has been awakened while there is still hope of a cure. We should not be too quick in administering comforts, but we cannot be too quick in provoking ourselves to thankfulness. If you can at present be thankful that you are out of hell, you shall before long be thankful for assurance of heaven. This rule may seem strange, but (by experience) practicing it will show the excellency of it.

Observe that it is God’s usual method to bring the soul through these perplexities to the most solid spiritual peace. Augustine excellently expressed his spiritual conflict, how God followed him with severe mercy, till He made him insistent on thorough holiness. Believe it, Christian, God is now storing you with experiences which will be a useful treasury throughout your life. Only hold on in the vigorous use of all the means of grace.

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Six ways that sin disguises its power

Six ways that sin disguises its power

Six ways that sin disguises its power

Am I under grace or under sin? In one of the epistles, sin is personified as a tyrant that keeps us under its cruel dominion. This tyrant is cunning enough to disguise the shackles that bind the sinner, so that we may imagine we have escaped when in reality we have never been set free to serve righteousness instead. In the following updated extract, Obadiah Sedgwick (who contributed to the Westminster Assembly) exposes six of the lies that we tell ourselves about our sin, which lull us into a false sense of freedom. It should make us highly value the divine work of making us free from sin to serve God, resulting in sanctification and eternal life.

People may delude their own hearts, and deceive themselves about the dominion of sin. Therefore it is convenient to test ourselves whether or not sin really has dominion. There are many things we may erroneously think are good signs, and so deceive ourselves that sin does not have dominion over us. Here are six.

I don’t feel my sin is very powerful

One is being unconscious of the power of sin. A man may feel no violent sinful inclination, no stirrings, no opposition, no commands, but there is a calm and quietness in his spirit and in his way, and he thinks this would not be possible if sin had dominion over him.

But this is a deceit. For one thing, it is most probable that sin has the strongest dominion, where the heart is least aware of the rule and demands of sin. When the strong man keeps the house, all is quiet, said our Saviour. Where subjection is peaceable, there the dominion is (in all likelihood) most absolute and complete. What is certain, is that where Christ sets up His sceptre (which casts down the dominion of sin) is the greatest stir. The law of the mind will war against the law of the members (Rom. 7:23), and the spirit will lust against the flesh (Gal. 5:17).

For another thing, this unawareness and quietness may arise, partly from the uniqueness of sin, and partly from our ignorance of our sinful condition, and partly from the habitual custom of sin. Whether the sun is shining or not, there is still the same number of motes flying in the room. There they are really, though we are not aware of them till the light comes in to make them manifest. So someone may be utterly unaware of sin for lack of saving light and the holy experience which arises from a new nature.

The hand which is used to iron, and nettles, does not feel them. So the frequent actings of sin may suppress the inward sense of sinning. Much sinning adds to the strength of sin, and disables the sense of the sinner, sears their conscience, and makes their mind reprobate, and as it were without feeling.

I don’t do many very sinful things

Another thing that may deceive us may be that we are free from many kinds of sinful behaviours. Someone may not live in all sorts of wickedness, and indeed, their ways may seem to keep clear of various iniquities.

Yet, though you do not do all evil, and your ways or patterns of behaviour are not universally spreading in all the kinds of sinning, still sin may rule in you, and have dominion.

Being subject in one detail is sufficient to establish that you are under dominion. A servant has only one master, and is not the servant of everyone in the parish, yet he is a true servant in respect of that one master. A subject does not obey every prince in the world, yet if he obeys any one, it is enough to prove that he is a subject. So, though the sinner is not at the command of every lust, yet if he is the servant of any one lust, sin has the dominion over him. It is not the multitude of sins which absolutely and necessarily concur to dominion, but subjection to the power of any one.

One person may do all the service to one sin which others do to many sins. That person may devise ways to fulfil it, cheerfully and greedily receive its commands, heartily love it, and go on in it, and for its sake oppose the sceptre and dominion of Christ, and consecrate all their strength to the obedience of it.

As in politics, there are several forms of government, such as democracy, and aristocracy, and monarchy. Sometimes the dominion is exercised by many, sometimes by one alone, yet subjection to any of them is true subjection, and sets up dominion. So though in some people, many sins rule, and in other people, one sin only, yet whether the heart obeys many, or few, or one, it is enough to say that sin has dominion. Subjection to no sin, indeed, denies dominion, but if the dispute is over many sins versus few sins, then either way, subjection to any shows that sin has dominion.

There are plenty sins I’m opposed to

Someone may also think, ‘I’m actually opposed to many sins — this cannot possibly be consistent with being under the dominion of sin.’

Yet there may be notable deceit in this also, for it is not so much the greatness of the sins as the power of sin which means it is reigning. The least sin granted house room, loved, served, is sufficient to mean that you are under sin’s dominion.

Also, there are different kinds of opposition to sin.

In your professional life you may be opposed to certain kinds of sin, but indulge them in private life. A justice of the peace may oppose many sins on the bench, yet lie in those same sins at home in his own house and dealings.

Or, it is one thing to be opposed to sin simply because it is sin, and another thing to be opposed to sin because it is shame. This latter may well befall someone who is under the dominion of sin.

Once more, it is possible to be opposed to sin because it is against God’s will, rather than because it is against another sinful way and inclination. All sin has a contrariety to the law of God, yet some sins have a contrariety among themselves; prodigality is contrary to covetousness, for example. It is possible for someone to oppose a sin, not on account of its natural vileness, but on account of his own personal inclination, because it is a way of sinning that would overthrow that other sin which he loves, and in which he is resolved to walk.

In a word, it is not opposition to particular sins, but universal opposition to all known sin, which shows that you are not under the dominion of sin.

I have grievous heart-trouble after I commit a sin

Something else that may deceive us depends on the troubles which we may feel after some sinful actings. A person’s soul may be grievously heavy and perplexed, and on this basis he may conclude that sin does not have dominion over him, because he thinks that the dominion of sin excludes all trouble for sin.

Nevertheless, although hardness of heart after sin is just as bad a symptom of wickedness as impudence before sin, yet trouble for committing sin is not an infallible argument of sin’s dominion.

Even the worst of men may have after-troubles for former sinnings, and partake of great anguishes and troubles of conscience. I refer you to Ahab and to Judas, and to those of whom he speaks in Job, that “the terrors of God did drive them to their feet.”

Trouble for sin in respect of the conscience only, is only a judicial act, part of the wages of sin. Trouble in the affections (which theologians call ‘godly sorrow’) is indeed an effect of grace, but not mere trouble in the conscience, which consists in the sense and accusation that God brings on the sinner for his transgressions. God awakens the conscience after sin to accuse for sinning, even though the directions and checks of conscience could not avail to prevent that person from sinning. This is how a person whose heart is in no measure changed by grace (and is therefore of necessity under sin’s dominion) may be filled with extreme bitterness; the very terrors of hell may shake and confound his soul. Although grace is required to raise godly sorrow, yet conscience, awakened and actuated only by light and divine command, is abundantly sufficient to accuse, condemn, vex and trouble the sinner.

I only sin occasionally

There may be spaces, or interim periods, between sinning. People do not every moment, or every day, indulge in their sin, but there are often some pauses and distances of time between sinning and sinning. They may therefore conjecture that sin does not have dominion over them, thinking that where sin has dominion, then the person sells himself to sin, and wallows in sinning, and makes it his trade, at which he spends his life and strength.

But sin may yet have dominion, though there are some respites between sinning and sinning. Some respites do not arise from a nature which refuses to subject itself to sin, but only from lack of opportunities to sin. A thief may not steal because he is sick, and there is nothing convenient to take.

So we cannot identify the dominion of sin by an uninterrupted propagation of sinful acts — the drunkard is under the power of drunkenness, although he is sober from time to time — but by the disposition of the heart. If sin is the main thing you intend, and what you yield up your heart to, then it is immaterial whether you are always or only sometimes committing it.

In fact, to give no respite to your sinful actings would go against the wisdom of the flesh. Though the propensity to sin is constant, and the love of sin is great, yet the actings of sin may often vary, and depend on private reasons and considerations (such as safety, or quiet, or profit, or pleasure, etc).

I do plenty things which are good

Finally, someone may practice some actions which are contrary to all outwards sinnings. Let’s say a man is perhaps a constant church attender, and has a course of duties (such as they are) in his family, and makes many vows, and can condemn sin effectively. Surely sin has lost its dominion in that man?

Not necessarily, because the dominion of sin is inward. It may coexist with many visible acts of piety. A hypocrite may step out into all outward conformities, yet there is no visible act of impiety which a hypocrite either does not, or may not, perform.

Although acts which are materially good are formally opposite to sinful acts, yet we identify a Christian and a sinner alike more from the affections than from the actions. Indeed, it is the disposition of the heart which defines and decides what has dominion — the heart may be really rotten and false, and the true harbour of a sin, though the person manages to perform some visible duties of piety. There must be more than external performances in duty to show that sin does not have dominion over you.

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Is there any hope of peace in the Middle East?

Is there any hope of peace in the Middle East?

Is there any hope of peace in the Middle East?

Songs written thousands of years ago take on renewed relevance as we respond to the recent outbreak of vicious hatred in the Middle East. Psalm 87 was written in a time of despondency as the sheer scale of the necessary rebuilding effort sank in, complicated by the hostility of the surrounding enemies and the weakened condition of the people. However, in his commentary on this psalm, David Dickson identifies reasons to take comfort and be encouraged even in the midst of this grim situation. People from Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon as well as Israel will be spiritually reborn into the family of the covenant Lord, bringing them into a position of the highest honour as well as eternal safety, and displaying the Lord’s wonderful love and power. The promise that He will do this in His own time gives us hope for solid peace eventually.

When God loosed the captivity of the Jews by Cyrus, few of them returned from Babylon. The work of repairing church and state, temple and city had few to assist it. Their enemies were many, they were straitened with poverty and famine, and the hearts and hands of the godly were weakened. They were on the point of fainting, and despairing of church or state ever flourishing any more amongst them.

Psalm 87 was fitted to bring comfort in such a time. It leads the Lord’s people to live by faith, and to keep on going in the work of building the Lord’s house and repairing the city, looking to God the builder of His church and the maintainer of His people. Here are six comforts to the Lord’s people from Psalm 87.

The solid foundation God has already laid

The first comfort of the afflicted Jews, troubled over how the building of God’s temple was being hindered, was that God had by His decree and promise already made the mountains of Sion and Moriah the place of His rest amongst His people. “His foundation is in the holy mountains” (v.1). They would remain till the Messiah would come, for He would fulfil these types, and they would be preserved for His sake until He would come. It is the Messiah who is the only solid rock on which the church is built.

When the builders of the Lord’s church are few and weak, His people need to be comforted against their fears and doubts, and the way to get comfort in such a situation is to look by faith to God as the builder of His own house. God has laid the foundations on a solid basis, so that every believer who trusts in Him will be like Mount Sion, which cannot be moved.

God’s love and goodwill

God had chosen Sion above all other places to be His rest, and loved to dwell there rather than anywhere else. The dignity of any place, person or society does not come from anything in them, but from the Lord’s choice and free love. “The Lord loveth the gates of Sion more than all the dwellings of Jacob” (v.2). The love of the Lord to His chosen church is a solid ground of assurance that she will continue.

The prophesies about the church

Comfort also comes from the prophecies which have been made about the church, and the promises God has given her in figurative terms. The church is the place where the Lord reigns, rules, and resides. It is “the city of God” (v.3). And the privileges of the church are very “glorious” (v.3). The glory of kings, crowns and diadems is nothing to them, but at most physical and temporal shadows of what is spiritually and everlastingly bestowed on the church.

Although glorious things are bestowed on the church, it’s not so much the things that have already been done, as the things that are yet to come, which make the church blessed. It’s not having them now, but hope — not sight, but faith — which makes the church blessed. And the Scriptures are a sufficient right to us for all the blessings which are to come. “Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God” (v.3).

The multitude of friends and converts

The Lord’s people should look less at the multitude of their enemies at the present time, and more at the multitude of friends and converts they will have in the future.

It is a great comfort that the church’s chief enemies will be converted to the faith and will count it their greatest honour to be so.

It is among the troubles of the church that she has so many enemies, and enemies as powerful as the Egyptians and Babylonians. In verse 4 the psalmist mentions Egypt (under the poetic name ‘Rahab’), Babylon, Palestine, Tyre and Ethiopia as the most eminent oppressors of the church of all the nations.

Yet God is able to turn her chiefest enemies into converts. He has done this various times already, and He will yet do it more. The enemies which are not converted, the Lord can handle. He showed this with Rahab (Egypt) and Babylon. When the psalmist mentions them, it is to the edification of the church, both in terms of what God had done to those nations in justice, and what He would do to them in mercy, or other enemies like them.

For the church to have her enemies made converts, is equally for the church’s glory and comfort and for the honour of the erstwhile enemies. Supposing they were as powerful as could be in the world, now they are citizens of the city of God. “I will make mention of them, that this man was born there,” that is, in the city of God (v.4–5).

Whatever honour people have in the world, it is not to be compared with the honour of regeneration, and being born citizens of the church. Whatever contempt the members of the church suffer from the world, is made up by the honour of being born in the church. “Of Sion it shall be said, This and that man were born in her” (v.5).

There is no reason to fear that the church will be ruined, or that from age to age she will not be a mother to and a receiver of converts. “For the Highest Himself shall establish her.”

The interest which God takes in each of His people

God takes notice of all the regenerate, no less particularly than if their names were all written up in a book one by one. “The Lord shall count when he writeth up the people …” (v.6). Accordingly, a time will come when He will manifest the fact that He has enrolled them. He will manifest it partly to themselves, by witnessing to them that they are His children. Partly to the world, by sustaining them in their trials and troubles. And partly by a full display of them, confessing their names before men and angels at the great day. “When he writeth up the people,” that is, in His own time, when He sees it fit to manifest His respect for His own.

Converts from among the nations will be reckoned up among the converts from the Lord’s people the Jews. “The Lord shall count that this man was born there,” that is, whatsoever kind of person it may be, who is converted out of any country, tongue or language, shall be counted a member of the church of Israel.

The spiritual joys which are ahead for the Lord’s people

The Lord’s people should not be troubled with the contempt under which they lie at present, but look to the glory and estimation which God shall put on the church and her children in His own time. They should not be troubled with their current grief, but look to the spiritual joy, and its causes, which the Lord provides to His people.

God furnishes (and will furnish) to His church spiritual joy, and the everlasting springs, fountains and causes of joy. As the church is subject to her own griefs in the world, so also is she sure of abundant consolations to be had and laid up in store for her. These are expressed here in the terms of types appointed in Israel’s festivals. “As well the singers as the players on instruments shall be there” (v.7).

The causes of the joy of the saints are everlasting, comparable to wells and springs of living water. “All my springs shall be in thee” (v.7). The saints, having had their senses exercised, are able to confirm the truth of the promises by their own experience. Especially, they will confess that there is no joy or comfort, no gift nor grace, no refreshment or happiness, worthy of the name, expect what they have by church privileges and the communion of the saints. “All my springs are in thee,” says the psalmist, speaking either to the church or to God dwelling in His church.

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How violence brings down God’s vengeance

How violence brings down God’s vengeance

How violence brings down God’s vengeance

With careful planning, preparation and funding, Hamas suddenly stormed into Israel on 7th October. Local defences were overwhelmed and civilians were attacked and murdered with appalling savagery. Virulent anti-Jewish hatred has motivated Hamas from its inception and its name is a byword for violence. In many of the Psalms the writer wrestles with the threat and sometimes the experience of violent attacks. In Psalm 7, the psalmist David is both a fore-runner of his greater son and Lord, Jesus the Messiah, and an example of the Lord’s people suffering oppression. The number of believers in Jesus in Israel has increased from about 24 believers in 1948, to about a thousand more now. David’s response to harsh oppression remains exemplary for the Lord’s people in Israel and elsewhere. In the following extract from his commentary on Psalm 7, the commentator David Dickson explains the psalmist’s appeal to God. Faced with devious and blood-thirsty oppressors, the psalmist knows to turn to God for help. Because he is in a reconciled relationship with the Lord he can rely on the Saviour to step in and set things to rights.

God’s people are sometimes falsely accused

In the opening verses of Psalm 7, David flees to God to be delivered from the blood-thirsty tongues of those who maliciously spoke falsehoods against him. He was slandered (by Cush, a flattering courtier) as a traitor and rebel against the lawful authorities. “O Lord my God, in thee do I put my trust. Save me from all them that persecute me, and deliver me, lest he tear my soul like a lion, rending it in pieces, while there is none to deliver” (v.1–2). If God does not interpose Himself to defend His servants, there is nothing to be expected from enraged wicked enemies but merciless and beastly cruelty.

Although being innocent of such accusations does not exempt you from being unjustly slandered, yet it equips you with a good conscience, and much more boldness with God in the specific situation. If you are conscious of having injured your neighbour, your own conscience will be against you in the very time when you encounter a greater injustice done against you. Then you will be forced to acknowledge the righteousness of God against yourself. “O Lord my God, if there be iniquity in my hands, if I have rewarded evil unto him that was at peace with me, let the enemy persecute my soul and take it …” (v.3–5).

God’s people sometimes have violent enemies

David prays that God would judge between him and his enemies. The Lord may, for the trial and exercise of His children, seem to sit still for a time, when people are about to oppress them. Yet in due time He will manifest Himself to be no idle spectator of wrong, but a just defender of the oppressed and avenger of the injured. He will arise in anger and lift up Himself (v.6).

When our enemies are desperately malicious, and nothing can mitigate their fury, let the consideration of God’s justice mitigate our passions. For He will arise in anger against them. There is no less just zeal in God to defend His own oppressed people, than there is malice in the wicked to wrong them. God’s rising in anger is here put in contrast to “the rage of the enemies.”

Although judgment against the oppressor may not be carried out at the first opportunity, yet God in His Word has passed sentence against them, and in His providence He has prepared means and instruments for it to be carried out in due time. He shall awake to execute the judgment which He has commanded, or given order for (v.6).

When the Lord arises to judge His enemies, then the Lord’s people will draw near to Him warmly, and “compass Him about” (v.7). Of course, in calling for justice on the wicked enemies of God’s people, we should not be motivated by personal interest, or desire of revenge, but by desire for God’s glory and the edification of His people. It is “for their sakes” that David prays (v.7) that the Lord would “return on high” to His judgment seat.

Being a child of God allows you to appeal to God’s justice

The principles of religion are things we should have solidly digested, for we may make use of them in our spiritual exercises, and then we may readily put them to use as need requires, so as to strengthen our faith and prayer to God. When David had settled his faith on the doctrine that God does in general judge and execute justice in favour of His people (v.8), he then applies it to his own particular circumstances, saying, “Judge me, O Lord” (v.8).

Once you have made peace with God about all your sins on the terms of grace and mercy, through the sacrifice of the Mediator, then you may, looking at oppressing enemies, in a particular situation of conflict, appeal to God’s justice to resolve the controversy. That is what David does here when he says, “Judge me according to my righteousness, O Lord, and my integrity that is in me” (v.8).

When a situation has been lying before God for a long time, and the controversy between the godly and their persecutors remains unresolved, the godly may put in a plea for God to pass the decree and execute the sentence. “O let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end, but establish the just, for the righteous God trieth the hearts and reins” (v.9).

Violence brings down God’s vengeance

From verse 10 we have the answer to David’s prayer, or at least the assurance that he will be delivered and that judgments will meet his enemies. On the back of this David give thanks to God. From this we see that the fruit of faith joined with a good conscience is access to God in prayer, confidence, peace and tranquillity of mind, mitigation of trouble, and protection and deliverance.

When victory is granted to faith, after wrestling with darkness, it is as satisfactory to the soul of the godly as if all that the believer hopes for has already been perfected. David is now ready to say, “My defence is of God, who saves the upright in heart” (v.10).

Whatever we think in the time of temptation, neither justice against the wicked nor mercy towards the godly is idle. God’s Word and works speak mercy to the one and wrath to the other, every day. All things are working for good the one, and for damage to the other, continually. For “God judgeth the righteous, and is angry with the wicked, every day” (v.11).

One reason why God delays the execution of His judgments on the wicked is to lead them to repentance. Here, God has whetted his sword to strike, if the wicked do not turn (v.12). If repentance does not intervene, the destruction of the wicked is inevitable. “If he turn not, the instruments of death are prepared, and the arrows directed against the persecutors” (v.13).

God’s enemies cannot ultimately prosper

The sinner is put to hard work when he tries to serve the devil and his own corrupt affections. “He travails” as if with child, he “digs a pit,” one of the hardest pieces of work for slaves. But once the wicked has conceived mischief, he cannot rest till he puts his purpose into action, and puts into effect his sinful thoughts (v.14).

The adversaries of God’s people shall have no profit of all their labour, but shall be met with disappointment. “He bringeth forth falsehood” (v.14), and the evil which is most contrary to his hope and intention shall befall him. “He is fallen in the ditch which he made, and his mischief shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down upon his own pate” (v15–16), just like a stone thrown up towards the sky falling back down on the head of the one who threw it.

We can praise God in the hardest experiences

In verse 17, the final verse of the psalm, David promises praise, and indeed praise is how he closes his song. So the outcome of even the hardest experiences of the godly brings comfort to their souls and praise to God.

When faith is consciously satisfied and settled in assurance of what God has promised, it will be glad and give thanks for what is still to come, just as if it was already in possession.

Whoever is opposed to the godly, be they never so powerful and never so violent, and their position in the world as high as can be, yet faith may set to its seal that God shall show Himself to be a righteous judge in power and authority above the highest oppressing powers on earth. “I will sing praise to the name of the Lord most high,” says David (v.17).

 

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