Can you by searching find out God?

Can you by searching find out God?

Can you by searching find out God?

God is beyond us. However much we think we know about Him, He is an inexhaustible, unfathomable depth. He is not an object for us to scrutinise, or a challenge we can absorb, or something malleable which we can mould into a form of our own liking. Our basic starting point when we think of God is to realise that our minds simply cannot encompass Him. Yet He is knowable, when He makes Himself known. And when He makes Himself known, the knowledge of Him makes us not only realise our own littleness but also entrust ourselves to Him to be saved by Him and to live to His honour. These points are made by Hugh Binning in the following updated extract, where Binning reflects on God’s eternity and incomprehensibleness before insisting on the practical consequences for sinners like us coming to truly know God.

God is the unbeginning alpha and the unending omega

This is properly to be, and only this deserves the name of being – that which never was nothing, and never shall be nothing, which may always say, “I am.”

Man is, but look a little backward, and he was not, you shall find his beginning: and step a little forward, and he shall not be, you shall find his end. But God is alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.

But who can retire so far backward as to apprehend a beginning, or go such a leap forward as to conceive an end in a being who is the beginning and end of all things, but without all beginning and end? Whose understanding does it not confound? We cannot imagine a being, but we must first conceive it as nothing and in some instant receiving its being. Therefore, canst thou by searching find out God?

A man’s imagination may extend to suppose to itself as many thousands of years before the beginning of time as have been so far. Then let all the angels and people of all generations from the beginning be employed in nothing but calculating this. And then suppose a product to be made of all their individual sums of years. It would be vast and unspeakable, but yet your imagination could reach further. You could multiply that great sum as often into itself as there are units in it. Now, when you have done all this, you are never a whit nearer the days of the Ancient of Days. Suppose then this was the only activity of humans and angels throughout all eternity, all this marvellous arithmetic would not amount to the least shadow of the countenance of Him who is from everlasting. All that huge product of all the multiplications of humans and angels has no proportion to that never beginning and never ending duration.

Our lives are fleetingly brief

But O, where shall a soul find itself here? It is enclosed between infiniteness before and infiniteness behind, between two everlastings. Whichever way it turns, there is no outgoing, whichever way it looks, it must lose itself in an infiniteness round about it.

Though we vainly please ourselves in the number of our years, and the extent of our life, yet the truth is, we are still only losing as much of our being and time as passes. First we lose our childhood, then we lose our adulthood, and then we leave our old age behind us also, and there is no more before us.

But though days and years are in a continual flux about Him, and they carry us down with their force, yet He abides the same for ever. He is the beginning without any beginning, the end without an end, there is nothing past to him, and nothing to come. He is all, before all, after all, and in all. He beholds out of the exalted and supereminent tower of eternity all the successions and changes of the creatures, and there is no succession, no change in His knowledge, as in ours. He is never driven to any consultation on any emergent or incident. He is in one mind, and who can turn Him?

The being of God is beyond us

Now, canst thou by searching find out God? If mortal creatures cannot attain the measure of what is finite, O then, what can a creature do, what can a creature know, about Him who is infinite, and the maker of all these things? You cannot compass the sea and land, and how then can you comprehend Him who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand? (Isa. 40:10). You cannot measure the circumference of the heavens, and how then can you find out Him who metes out the heavens with His span and stretches them out as a curtain? (Isa. 40:12, 22).

Canst thou by searching find Him out? And yet you must search Him, not so much out of curiosity to know what He is (for He dwells in inaccessible light which no man hath seen, nor can see; 1 Tim. 6:16), or to find what we cannot know when we have found – not so much to find Him, as to be found of Him. But though you never find Him out, yet you shall not seek Him in vain, for you shall find blessedness in Him.

This all means that we must seek God

What shall we then do? Seek him, and search him indeed! If we cannot know Him [through and through], we must reverence, fear and adore what we do know. Enough of Him may be known as may teach us our duty and show us our blessedness.

Let then all our inquiries of Him have special reference to this purpose, that we may out of love and fear of such a glorious and good God, worship and serve Him, and compose ourselves according to His will, and wholly to His pleasure. Whatever you know of God, it is but a vain speculation, and a work of curiosity, if it does not lead to this end, to frame and fashion your soul to union and communion with Him in love. Whatever you know of God, it is but vain speculation if it does not reveal yourself to yourself in such a way that in the light of God’s glorious majesty you distinctly see your own darkness and deadness and utter impotency.

The angels that Isaiah saw attending God in the temple cannot behold His glory, but must cover their face with their wings from the radiant and shining brightness of His majesty. Yet they have two other wings to fly with. Being composed in reverence and fear to God, they are ready to execute His commands willingly and swiftly. What then does Isaiah make of this glorious sight? “We are all unclean, people and pastor.” The glory of God shining on Isaiah does not pull him up into arrogance and conceit of the knowledge of such profound mysteries, but he is more abased in himself by it.

So it was with Job. “I heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear,” he said (Job 42:5), “but as long as it was hearsay, I thought myself something; I often reflected upon myself and my actions with a kind of complacency. But now since I have seen Thee by the seeing of the eye, I abhor myself in dust and ashes. Self-love made me loathe other people’s sins more than my own, and self-love covered my own sins from me, presenting me to myself in a feigned likeness. But now I see myself in my true shape. Thy light has pierced into my soul, and I cannot endure to look at myself.”

Here is the true knowledge of God’s majesty: it exposes within you a mystery of iniquity. Here is real knowledge of God: it abases all things beside God, not only notionally, but in affection. This knowledge attracts and unites your soul to God, and draws it away from yourself and all created things. Knowledge falsely so called is what puffs us up, but true knowledge empties a soul of itself, and humbles the soul in itself, so that it may be full of God.

Finding God has concrete practical effects in our life

This then is the first property of saving knowledge of God: it removes all ground of vain confidence (so that a soul cannot trust to itself), and then its real, proper intent is to bring the soul to trust in God, and depend on Him in all things.

For this purpose the Lord has called Himself by so many names in Scripture, corresponding to our various needs and difficulties. It is so that He would make known to us how all-sufficient He is, so that we would turn our eyes and hearts towards Him. This was His intention behind revealing this name, “I am” – it was so that Moses would have a support for his faith. If Moses had looked at the outward appearances of things, was it not almost a ridiculous thing to go to the king with such a message, that he would dismiss so many subjects? Was it not the attempt of some madman to think of leading so many thousands into another nation? “Well,” says the Lord, “I am: I who give all things a being, will give a being to my promise; I will make Pharaoh hearken, and the people obey.”

What is there that this name of God does not match? If He is what He is, then He can make of us what He pleases. If our souls had this name “I AM” constantly engraved on our hearts, O what power the divine promises and threatenings would have with us! “I, even I, am he that comforteth thee,” He says. If we believed that it really was He, the Lord Jehovah, how we would be comforted! How we would praise Him by His name JAH! How we would stoop before Him, and submit to His blessed will!

If we believed this, would we not be as dependent on Him as if we had no being in ourselves? Would we not make Him our habitation and dwelling-place? Would we not be reassured about our own stability, and the stability of His church, from His unvariable eternity (like the psalmist in Psalm 90 and Psalm 102)? How can we think of such a fountain-being, without at the same time acknowledging ourselves to be shadows of His goodness, and acknowledging that we owe to Him what we are, and so consecrating ourselves to His glory? How can we consider such a self-being, independent, and creating goodness, without having some desire to cleave to Him, and some confidence to trust in Him?

In sum, whatever you hear or know of God, realise that it is vain and empty unless it descends down into your heart to fashion it to fear and love Him, and unless it extends to your outward behaviour to conform it to obedience. “You are but vain in your imaginations, and your foolish hearts are darkened, while when you know God you glorify him not as God.” If glorifying God is not the fruit and end of your knowledge, that knowledge shall be worse to you than ignorance, for it both brings on judicial hardening here, and will be your solemn accuser and witness against you hereafter (Rom. 1:21, 24). The knowledge of Jesus Christ, truly so called, is neither barren nor unfruitful, for out of its root and sap springs humility, confidence in God, patience in tribulations, meekness in provocations, and temperance and sobriety in lawful things (2 Pet. 1:5–8).


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Knowing the unknowable God

Knowing the unknowable God

Knowing the unknowable God

When we think of God, it is alarmingly easy to fall into the trap of thinking that God is just another kind of creature – of course the best and greatest and most impressive in whatever dimension you consider, but ultimately just another creature. This line of thinking is something we should resist, because God is altogether other. He is in reality completely beyond us and above us, a different order of being entirely. We can truly know Him, but in order for this to be possible He has to accommodate Himself to us and make Himself known to us in ways that we can grasp. Hugh Binning highlights and underlines God’s transcendence in the following updated extract. He uses God’s self-description, “I AM THAT I AM,” as the basis for emphasising from various points of view that we must at all points maintain in our minds the distinction between the Creator and the creature, between God and everything else in existence. Only once we sense the littleness of our understanding are we in a position to start to learn who and what God is.

The chief point of saving knowledge is to know God. And the starting point of the true knowledge of God is to discern how ignorant we are of Him, and to find Him beyond all knowledge.

In Exodus 3:14 the Lord gives a definition of Himself, but such a one as is no more clear than Himself to our capacities. It is indeed a short one, and you may think it does not say much. “I am.” What is there that may not say the same? The least and most insignificant creature has its own being! Yet there is more majesty in this simple style than in all others. Let creatures compare with creatures – let them take superlative styles – let some of them be called good, and some better, in the comparison among themselves. But God must not enter the comparison.

No comparisons are valid

Paul thinks it an odious comparison, to compare present crosses to eternal glory (Rom. 8). But how much more odious it is to compare God with creatures! Call Him highest, call Him most powerful, call Him most excellent, almighty, most glorious in respect of creatures – and all you do is abase His majesty, bringing it down to any terms of comparison with them, seeing He is beyond all the bounds of understanding. All these terms only express Him to be in some degree eminently above the creatures. As some creatures are above others, so all you do is to make him the chief of them all, as some creature may be the head of one line or kind under it. But what is that to His majesty? He speaks very differently of Himself. “All nations are before him as nothing, and they are accounted to him less than nothing” (Isa. 40:17).

Certainly you have not taken up the true notion of God, when you have conceived him the most eminent of all beings as long as any being appears as a being in his sight, before whom all beings conjoined are as nothing. While you conceive God to be the best, you still attribute something to the creature. You imagine only some different degrees between beings who differ so infinitely, so incomprehensibly. The distance betwixt heaven and earth is but a poor similitude to express the distance between God and creatures.

All created things are inconsequential

Now, if you could imagine something that is less than nothing, then could you begin to guess at the vast distance between it and a being. So is it here: “Thus saith the Lord, All nations, their glory, perfection and number, all of them, and all their excellencies united, do not amount to the value of an entity, in regard of my majesty. All of them are just like zeroes. Join never so many of them together, they can never make up a number, they are nothing, and less than nothing.”

So then we ought to conceive of God, and to attribute a being and life to him, in such a way that all created beings vanish out of our sight. The glorious light of the sun, although it does not annihilate the stars, yet it annihilates their appearance to our senses, and makes them disappear, as if they didn’t exist. There is a great difference between the stars in the night, some lighter, some darker, some of the first magnitude, and some of the second and third, some of greater glory, and some of less. But in the day time all are alike, all are darkened by the sun’s glory. Let the glorious brightness of God shine once on the soul, and in that light all these lights shall be obscured, and all the differences between them unobserved. An angel and a human, a human and a worm differ much in glory and perfection of being: but O, in God’s presence there is no such reckoning on this account. All things are alike, God infinitely distant from all, and so not more or less. Infiniteness is not capable of such terms of comparison.

This is the reason why Christ says, “There is none good but one, even God.” Why? because, in respect of His goodness, nothing deserves that name. Lesser light in view of the greater is a darkness, and lesser good in comparison of a greater good, appears evil. How much more then shall created light and created goodness lose that name in the presence of God’s uncreated light, and self-sufficient goodness!

God’s self-sufficient perfection is absolute

This is why the Lord names Himself in this way, “I AM,” as if nothing else was. “I will not say,” He says, “that I am the highest, the best and most glorious that is; that assumes that other things have some being and some glory that is worth taking account of. But I am, and there is none else. I am alone. I lift up my hand to heaven, and swear I live for ever.” There is nothing else that can say, “I am, I live, and there is none else;” for nothing has its life of itself. No one can boast of what they have borrowed, and is not their own. As if a bird that had stolen from other birds its beautiful feathers, was to come out and argue with them about beauty. Would they not straight away every one pluck out their own feathers, and leave her naked, to be an object of mockery to all?

Even so, our breath and being is in our nostrils, and that depends on His majesty’s breathing on us. If He was only to hold in his breath, as it were, we would vanish into nothing. “He looketh upon me and I am not” (Job 7:8). That is a strange look, that not only looks man out of countenance, but out of life and being. He looks him into the first nothing-like existence, and then can he say, “I live, I am”? No, he must always say of himself in respect of God, as Paul says of himself in respect of Christ, “I live, yet not I, but Christ in me.” “I am, yet not I; but God in me: I live, I am, yet not I but in God, in whom I live, and have my being.” There is no other thing beside God that can say, “I am,” because all things are borrowed drops of this self-sufficient fountain, and sparkles of this first light. Let anything intervene between the stream and the fountain, and the stream is cut off and dried up. Let anything interpose between the sun and the beam and the sunbeam vanishes. Therefore this fountain-being, this original light, this self-being is the only one who deserves the name of being. Other things to which we give those names are nearer nothing than God, and in regard of His majesty, may more fitly be called nothing than something,

You see then how profound a mystery of God’s absolute self-sufficient perfection is infolded in these three letters, “I AM,” or in these four, “JEHOVAH.” If you ask what God is, nothing occurs better than this, “I AM,” or “HE THAT IS.” If I should say He is the all-mighty, the only wise, the most perfect, the most glorious, it is all contained in that saying, “I AM THAT I AM.” For that is really to be: to be all those perfections simply, absolutely, and as it were solely. If I say all that, and reckon out all the Scripture epithets, I add nothing. If I say no more, I diminish nothing.


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Two ways we argue with God

Two ways we argue with God

Two ways we argue with God

The welcoming Saviour occasionally seemed to push people away. This was what appeared to happen to the woman who came to ask for His help in Matthew 15. He made a seemingly dismissive comment counting her as one of the dogs instead of one of the children belonging to the family. Amazingly the woman didn’t take His words at face value but perceived the welcome disguised behind them. In humility she actually turned His words to her own favour, pointing out that even the dogs would eat the crumbs that fell from the meal table. She perceived that a crumb of grace was as good as a whole loaf. In the following updated sermon, William Guthrie takes a closer look at humility. Unlike this woman whose faith and humility were genuine, we can sometimes say apparently humble things which in reality expose our lack of faith and indeed our pride.

True humility does not argue with Christ Jesus, but sweetly complies with Him. But let me show you what way false humility works. False humility is always at one of two extremes. It is either lower than God would have it, or it is higher than God can tolerate.

1. False humility goes lower than God wants

Leaving our responsibility to God

For example, there are many of you who will leave it to God whether to save or damn you. That is false humility, because He has declared His mind peremptorily to the contrary. People are to keep pressing to get into heaven, until they are actually cast into hell. They will get no thanks from God for that kind of humility.

Giving a latitude to God where He takes none

False humility leaves it up to God to save you whether you believe or not. “We know,” say some, “that people should believe; but He may save us in any way. He may bring folk to heaven equally well without faith as with it.” Do you imagine that God will bring people to heaven if they do not believe? You are making a great mistake. “He that believeth not shall not see life. Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.”

Putting you lower than the reach of free grace

When a man takes such a look of his guilt that he thinks himself below the free grace of God, it is false humility. Though he does not want to say that he has sinned the sin against the Holy Ghost, yet he thinks God cannot pardon him. But it is a sin to think like this, when God has said, “All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven.” In this way false humility justles out the whole of God’s arrangements in the covenant of free grace.

Taking more care of the glory of God than He does Himself

It is a strange sort of humility when someone stands up and says, “I think it would be an encroachment on the holiness of God to show mercy to me. He may show mercy to whoever He pleases, but He cannot pardon me.” That is a strange thing. You do not need to worry about encroachments on His holiness, when He has declared that He has found a ransom. Will you be wiser than God? He will never regard that as humility! It is enough to us that He has made a declaration through the world, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear you Him.” As if to say, “I shall satisfy myself in myself. Don’t trouble your heads about that. I am satisfied.”

Thinking it is a mistake to take little problems to God

False humility goes lower than God allows when it treats it as a faux pas to put little things into God’s hand. Many think it would be injudicious for them at such a time as this to ask God to heal their sore head which incapacitates them from hearing the preaching, or to help their faint heart that hinders them from profiting by the Word. But this is the devil’s humility, for the Lord counts all the hairs of your head. Some think it would be some sort of gaffe to ask for a bag of meal from God, and a coat to put on their back at such a time as this – but He has commanded you to put all your needs onto Him, from your salvation to your shoe-latchet.

Thinking it a mistake to come to God often about the same thing

This humility justles with the majesty of God. This is the case with many of us. You have told God often what you are. You have frequented many communions, and yet you are not the better. You have come often with one and the same thing, and now you blush to come to Him again.

But in this you are humble overmuch. Really you should be ashamed that you have not come again and again about one and the same thing! Never account it a mistake to come to Him repeatedly (though the world would think it was), while He has told the brother to forgive the brother seventy times seven in a day. How much more will the great God of heaven forgive us in one day!

2. False humility rises higher than ever God allowed it

“I’m not good enough to be saved by Christ”

False humility goes higher than can be tolerated, in refusing to go into debt to God. This is when people are still seeking for some qualification before they dare approach Christ in believing. They say they would not hesitate to go to Him if they could only get their hearts so and so broken—that is, if they could endure some penance for their sins. But this is to justle with God, for He sings this one note, “Come without money, and without price.” Many are playing upon this string, “If only I had such and such a measure of sorrow for my transgressions”—i.e., “I’m not willing to venture on Him absolutely.” But you won’t get anything but God’s curse or displeasure if you don’t change your tune. If you stick out over any qualification, you spoil the market of free grace wholly.

“I’m too much of a sinner for Christ to save me”

A false humility is unwilling to be absolutely in Christ’s debt. Those who have it resolve to be only a very little in His debt, even though they realise they must be in His debt to some extent. “For,” they say, “He may show mercy to any other sinner, but not to such a sinner as I am. I know He can pardon sinners, but I don’t want to assume that He will pardon the kind of sinner I am.”

But remember what distance is between you, the creature, and God; and between sin and free grace. The difficulty here is, to make God stoop to man, when there is such an infinite distance between God and the creature. But there is no comparable disproportion between your sin, and the sin of anyone else. Has free grace stooped to pardon the sin of any? Then the hazard is past. So your humility is proud humility, because you don’t want to be absolutely in His debt. You would dare to venture the pardon of one sin on Him, as long as it was only a bad thought, or suchlike, but you dare not venture the pardon of a great sin. That is strange ignorance! Since free grace has stooped to pardon any sin, then if you have the heart to venture the pardon of one idle word on Him, then you may also venture on Him the pardon of drunkenness, covenant-breaking, and indeed, every sin. No sin can stand in the way, because the disproportion is between sin and grace, and not between grace and a particular sin.

“I can’t go to God until I’ve got a broken heart”

False humility also justles with God about sin after conversion. Many, when they come first to close with Christ, realise they must resolve to take Him on His own terms, and to be absolutely in His debt. But afterwards they think they cannot come if they don’t have such and such a stock of grace. “Am I supposed to go to God,” they say, “in such a frame as this, before I get my heart humbled?”

But don’t you agree that all your exercises of faith, repentance, etc., are from God, and absolutely from God? Then you have to be in His debt for repentance and a broken heart, as well as for the pardon of sin. This is not the time to be haggling with Him. You must be absolutely in His debt now after conversion, just as much as when you first closed with Him. It is true you ought to be in a better frame, yet you must be always in His debt. Since you lack a better frame, and cannot get it, you must always be in His debt – for new debt, as well as for the old. I grant it is your duty to seek for a good frame of spirit, but if you cannot get it, you are to cast all on Himself together, for He cares for you.

“All my experiences are worthless”

False humility will not acknowledge crumbs to be real and true bread. Because people don’t have the special experiences that others report – because there is something they’ve never had, because they never knew a remarkable answer to prayer or a wonderful sense of God’s presence – therefore they despise everything they have experienced. Truly that is very proud. You think nothing of heart conviction – but someone may have something worse than that. You think it nothing that you see Christ to be a precious jewel; you think it nothing that your desire runs towards Him. But indeed I think very much of it. You think nothing of it that you account all His commands to be right, and that you have a respect to both small and great of them. But that is a miserable humility, since the Scripture has said, “They shall never be ashamed who have respect to all his commandments.” The crumbs are really bread just as much as big loaves. The woman in Matthew 15 was prudent; she could make do with little crumbs until she got more.

“I’ll make do without the things that God can give me”

This high-handed humility says it won’t hold God to some promise, on condition that He will perform other promises. Some would not ask God for bodily health, or the life of their wives or children, provided He would save their souls and keep them from the troubles of this time.

But is it fair, do you think, to set such limits to the free bounty and holy majesty of God, so that you do not deal liberally with Him according to His own Word? Does He hold back anything from you? He is of a liberal heart, and allows His people to devise liberal things at His hand. Is He going to be in your debt, so to speak, if you let Him off from performing one promise as long as He makes good another one? Absolutely not, and in fact He allows you to seek your salvation and your health, and the health of your children, with food and raiment to you and them, and every other thing that may be for your good. I grant that if the Lord calls you to give up these things, you are to submit them all to Him, but when He is not expressly calling you to that, then you are not to do it, but to hold Him to His promise.

Has He not promised, “Thou shalt have bread, and thy water shall be sure”? Then you may seek it from Him, for He can well spare it. He will never thank you for not asking a temporal benefit, even if it was just the cure of a sore head, or sickly body. I say, Seek health, food, and raiment, and as much means as may carry you through the world without being burdensome to others. He hates the manner of a churl. “The liberal man deviseth liberal things, and by liberal things he shall stand.”



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The cold comfort of a changeable God

The cold comfort of a changeable God

The cold comfort of a changeable God

Unlike us, there is nothing precarious about God’s existence. He has life in Himself and He is altogether perfect. He never changes, either for better or worse or to adapt to changing circumstances. So when a recent survey has shown that almost half of evangelicals in the US say ‘yes’ to the question, ‘Does God change?’ it raises questions about how solid someone’s faith is if they are not relying on the unchangeable God – and how lively their hope for the future can be. With our circumstances continually in flux and fears often threatening to overwhelm us, the comfort and hope that comes from the constancy of God cannot be underestimated. Faith in the unchanging and unchangeable God was what sustained one overwhelmed and fearful believer in Psalm 102. In the following updated extract, David Dickson points out the various weighty reasons for the believer’s distress yet balances them against the eternity, omnipotence, and immutability of the Lord.

The church needs comfort

Psalm 102 is consistent with the time when the Jews were in captivity in Babylon. About the end of the captivity, when the seventy years were now nearly expired, the weight of the misery of God’s people, and the mockery of the heathen, and the people’s longings for delivery, greatly afflicted the prophet and so he pours out this prayer.

It is no strange thing for the dear children of God to be under heavy affliction. They may be afflicted, and even overwhelmed. Yet the way for an afflicted and overwhelmed Christian to have relief, comfort and deliverance is, “to pour out his soul before the Lord.”

From the opening of the prayer we learn that a soul who is seeking relief and comfort in God, may both confidently pray for, and certainly expect a hearing and acceptance of their prayer. “Hear my prayer, O God. Let my cry come unto thee” (verse 1). Indeed the Lord permits His children to speak to Him in their own babbling forms of speech, even though the terms they use are not really fitting for His spiritual, invisible, and incomprehensible majesty (such as, “Hear me,” “hide not thy face,” “incline thine ear to me,” etc.) (verse 2).

The causes of the prophet’s grief are three. First, the church was experiencing the reproach and cruelty of the enemy (verse 8). Second, he had the sense that God’s anger was apparent in his situation (verse 9–10). Third, his comparison between the prosperity of the church in the past, and the adversity of the church in the present, made the present situation all the heavier (verse 9–10).

He sadly reflects that the consequence of this is likely to be that he and the church would be cut off without comfort or hope of deliverance. The church as a whole, or the scattered parts of it, may be almost disappearing, and utterly decaying under long-continued trouble: “My days are like a shadow that declineth; and I am withered like grass” (verse 11).

The Lord remains constant till the end of time

But from verse 12, the prophet strives to comfort himself in the hope of grace to be shown to the church. “But thou, O Lord, shalt endure for ever …”

His first source of comfort is that God has purposed to perpetuate the remembrance of Himself to all generations, and He endures for ever to see it done.

There is therefore ground of hope to believers, even in the saddest condition of the church; for although believers are mortal, yet God (in whom their life is hid), is eternal. “Thou, O Lord, shalt endure for ever.”

God wants His name to be known in all generations, and wants to have people making use of His word and ordinances in order to preserve the memory of His attributes, works and will. This is why the church must continue from age to age.

The Lord’s constancy will bring changes for the better

In verse 13 the prophet reasons from God’s unchangeableness to conclude that the condition of the church will change from worse to better. This is good reasoning. “Thou shalt endure for ever,” he says, and therefore, “thou shalt arise, and have mercy upon Zion” (verse 13).

We can even aim for and be encouraged by the expectation that there will be an enlargement of the knowledge and fear of God among those who do not yet know Him. The psalmist is looking forward in verse 15 to the heathen coming to fear the Lord. The Lord has a time when He is pleased to arise, to restore His afflicted people to comfort, and to restore religion to its own beauty, even in a way that makes kings fear and tremble when they see how God cares for His own despised people.

God will have glory in in restoring His church: “When the Lord shall build up Zion, he shall appear in his glory” (verse 16). Whatever instruments the Lord uses for this, He wants Himself to be seen to be the builder. As the glory of the Lord is obscured when His church is scattered, so when He sets up His own ordinances again, His glory is displayed. The connection between God’s glory and the salvation of His church is a reason for comfort and hope. However badly the church may be demolished, yet it shall be restored and repaired again.

The Lord’s constancy guarantees that the church will never be consumed

The prophet sorrowed on the personal level because he looked likely to die of grief for the church, and on another level because the church looked likely to perish in their captivity, and not go on to the hoped-for coming of the Messiah, and the conversion of the heathen, which was necessary for the perpetuation of Christ’s church to the end of the world.

In the history of Israel, it did sometimes seem that they were being stopped from going on in their journey to the coming of Christ. The tribe of Judah got so weak that it appeared there was no possibility it would last, or make any progress. There was the fear that if Judah was cut off, and Israel was abolished, then the Messiah who was supposed to be coming from them would never appear. This was the terrible fear with which the prophet is wrestling here (verse 24).

Against this fear and temptation the prophet (in the name of the church) is wrestling in prayer. He strengthens his faith by various arguments taken from God’s (which is to say, Christ’s) eternity, omnipotence, and immutability (see Hebrews 1:11–12).

Whatever difficulty faith is brought into, faith goes and deals directly with God. “God is the doer of what is done,” the believer says, and so he deals with God by prayer for relief. When it appears that we are going to perish, this should not hinder us from praying, but rather it should sharpen us in our duty. When God’s promises and God’s providences seem to disagree, we may appeal to and argue from the covenant, and not displease God by so doing.

The Lord’s constancy is the believer’s consolation

The eternity of Christ is the consolation of the believer in his mortality; and the eternity of Christ as God is the pledge that the believer will be preserved, and that all God’s promises will be performed.

The immutability of God is a notable comfort to His afflicted people because, since He is not changed, therefore they shall not be consumed. “Heaven and earth shall perish, but thou shalt endure” (verse 26); “thou art the same” (verse 27).

The prayer concludes with the prophet’s victory over the fear and temptation, expressed in a solid assurance of the perpetuity of the church from one generation to another, founded on those attributes of Christ (eternity, omnipotence, and immutability). So those who are sorry for the affliction of the church shall have consolation from God, and a gracious answer to their prayer, as the experience of the prophet teaches us.

The perpetuity of the church may be solidly concluded from the unchangeableness and eternity of God. Whatsoever change may befall the visible church before the world, yet before God she is fixed and stable, like a house built on a rock.


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Breaking the cycle of intergenerational perversity

Breaking the cycle of intergenerational perversity

Breaking the cycle of intergenerational perversity

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

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

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

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

By William Guthrie

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

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

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

What kind of generation is this?

By Thomas Boston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can we save ourselves from this generation?

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

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

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

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

More particularly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The wrong kind of fear

The wrong kind of fear

The wrong kind of fear

​Anxieties are rising as people are struggling to respond to a complex combination of problems. The cost of living crisis, fuel costs, the war in Ukraine, the discontent that has led to so much strike action, the weaknesses of the NHS and the social care system – there are plenty reasons for concern.

Fear is an instinct which can sometimes helpfully prompt us to avoid danger, yet other times damagingly paralyses us. In spiritual terms, fear can get the better of us when we forget both how great and how good God is. According to Matthew 14, the disciples in the boat in the storm cried out for fear. In the following updated extract, William Guthrie discusses the debilitating effects of fear in the Lord’s people, before suggesting ways to avoid being wrongly fearful.

The people of God are very prone to the wrong kind of fear, when new difficulties appear to them.

What is the wrong kind of fear?

God’s people are troubled with a fear that is sometimes called “slavish fear.” It arises from various sources, including the misbelief of what God has said, and forgetting what He has said concerning them. It flows also from fixing on His providence [instead of His Word], and putting the worst possible construction on it.

Another source it flows from is despondency of spirit and heartlessness. That weakens their hands in the use of lawful means for bearing their own trial and working for their own deliverance. Their faith and hope and all goes to wrack and ruin. Then there often arises an inclination to follow some unlawful means for deliverance, and even if they do not actually follow it, still the heart is naturally laid open for such a temptation. Ordinarily, complaints are the fruits of slavish fear.

To summarise, slavish fear consists in an atheistical putting of created things in a channel of independency on God, as if the creature could come and go of its own accord without commission from Him. “It is God who comforteth: who art thou that art afraid of a man that shall die, &c.?” (Isaiah 51:12). The truth is, the Lord’s people had forgotten the omnipotent power and sovereignty of God, and thought that mere humans could do with them what they pleased without God. When you are so minded, it is a hundred to one if you don’t attempt to get out from under the trial in some unlawful way.

Why do God’s people have this fear?

First, there is the great ignorance of God’s care for His people.

That is the cause of all their slavish fear, and it is what He challenges His people for. “Thou hast feared every day, and hast forgotten me: who art thou that art afraid of a man that shall die?” (Isaiah 51:12–13) We imagine ourselves as standing alone without God. “There feared they, where no fear was.”

The second reason is unbelief.

Thirdly, there is atheism, a growing sin, i.e., when His people think of God as like some creature, and created things like God, as if created things can work what they wish without Him. They put God above the creature in some things, and the creature above Him in some other things.

The fourth reason is, because his people yield to this fear too soon. You think that you never have a fear without reason. Yes, but you are obliged to shut out those things that look like reasons, when they come in on you. When slavish fear begins to mutter in our bosom for us to harbour it, it makes it prevail.

Why is this fear so damaging?

This fear weakens the hands of God’s people in all duties. When they begin to fear out of measure, they lose all, and grow indifferent whether they do duty or not. No one will bide by their duty when their faith fails them; or if they do go about any duty, it will be just as if they are doing it by rote.

This fear also brings discouragement of soul. Nothing can comfort the people of God, where this fear prevails.

Also it brings discomposure of their countenance, which damages the reputation of their religion. Whenever slavish fear gets the upper hand, it makes people look as if they served a hard master, who makes his people undergo things that he will not allow them expenses for.

This fear also disobliges God to work for their deliverance from whatever it is they are afraid of. As it says, “He could do no mighty works, because of their unbelief.”

This fear makes them incapable of understanding their own mercy, when it begins to appear. This is what left the Israelites in Egypt unable to understand what Moses said about their deliverance. When people succumb to this fear, all duty is a burden to them.

Although God may do anything for His people in His sovereignty and mercy, there is no promise we can look to in the Bible that God will help someone who has yielded to slavish fear. James 1:6-7, “Let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord, because he asketh not in faith.”

How can this fear be cured?

The thing that cures the disciples’ fear in Matthew 14 is Christ approaching to them in favour. Behold, he is coming, but they mistake him. Only bring Christ and the believer together, and whoever they are, He will heal them of all their disputes and diseases. Christ approaches the disciples, and speaks friendly to them, until they heard the words, “It is I, be not afraid,” together with His approaching. What completely allays all their fear is Christ coming in to them, and nothing else does it.

What can we do to avoid this fear?

All the people of the Lord should be aware that they have this kind of infirmity. Then, when difficulties are renewed against you, and slavish fear labours to take possession of you even though you have fled to Christ, guard against it, and know why it is so damaging, and encourage yourselves against it.

In a cloudy and dark day, when your fear grows, remember what a care God takes for His people. They are set as a seal upon His heart, and written upon the palms of His hands. He has said, “He that toucheth you, toucheth the apple of mine eye.” Would we be afraid, if we believed that any who trouble the people of God, it is as bad as if they took on God?

Believe this also, that whatever the Lord does, or allows others to do, it shall work together for the good of His people. It is a common truth in everybody’s mouth, certainly, but I may say the least believed truth in all the Bible! You may not question the truth of the promise, but yet you stop short of applying it to yourselves. I offer you that promise, and you put it to yourselves, and solidly acquiesce with it in your heart, that all the distresses and afflictions His people are under in Britain and Ireland shall work together for their good. If it is so, why then do you not believe it, and find peace from fear?

Believe also that nothing befalls His people, except what comes by His providence. You say, “That’s true, but there are many things that we meet with, that God does not allow.” I say there is nothing you meet with, but it comes either by His active or permissive providence. There is no evil done in the city but what the Lord knows. That the ministers in Britain and Ireland are put out of their houses, kirks, and lands, and banished out of the country, is all His providence, and shall work together for their good. If so, then your fears can be quieted.

Know that there is nothing to be feared, except God and an evil conscience. As a man in Ireland said to a bishop, when he threatened to imprison him, he answered, “I know no prison worse than an evil conscience.” If you resolve to fear nothing but the God of heaven and an evil conscience, you need not fear people, for the fear of these will quiet all your other fears.



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The heavenly wisdom of a soft answer

The heavenly wisdom of a soft answer

The heavenly wisdom of a soft answer

In Prince Harry’s recent memoir we can see the effect of the insatiable voyeuristic appetite for celebrity gossip. We no doubt feel sympathy for those whose lives are picked over endlessly by commentators who seem to say what they like with little fear of contradiction. Perhaps we have all felt the impulse sometimes to tell our own side of the story, take control of the narrative, speak our own truth. There are more wise and less wise ways of doing this. Laying bare your heart does not necessarily lead to acceptance and respect, it can sometimes give more fodder for ridicule. Worse, telling your story may involve you in making accusations against other people. Now you have also shredded other people’s reputations. So the drama rolls on and the prospects of reconciliation fade further away. And it’s all words! The consequences of our words can sometimes be enormous, as the apostle James pointed out long ago. In the following updated extract, David Dickson explains James’s insistence on the need to bridle our tongues. It is impossible without God’s grace, yet the counterintuitive act of responding with meekness when we are provoked is the way of heavenly wisdom and it leads to peace and righteousness. Christians should strive by God’s grace to be people of integrity – like a fountain which sends out one consistent stream of water, not alternating between the pure and the defiled – and so show who really is in control in their hearts.

James chapter 3 contains two pieces of advice. The first is for governing the tongue (verses 1–13), and the second is to do with the meek wisdom which assuages the evils of the tongue, and avoids strifes and contentions (verses 14–18).

Control your tongue and you control your whole self

James tells us to bridle the tongue, that is, to hold back from invective, and rigid rehearsals of other people’s vices or infirmities. “Be not many masters,” he says (verse 1), i.e., do not arrogate to yourselves the authority of a master over others, and too much liberty to carp at things (as many do), but instead bridle your tongues.

One reason for this is because those who unjustly censure others will suffer heavier judgement from the God who avenges injuries (verse 1). Also, seeing we all have many failings (“in many things we offend all,” verse 2), it is better for us to deal more diligently with the infirmities of others, not to arrogate the authority of judging without a calling, or to be unjust in judging.

Anyone who knows how to govern their tongue shows the sign of being “perfect,” someone who can moderate all their actions (verse 2). Anyone who cannot moderately rule their tongue, but in all things carps at other people’s behaviour, has the sign of being a hypocrite.

If you are guiding the horse’s bridle, you have control of the horse; and if you have your hand on the rudder, you are steering the ship. Even so, if you have your tongue under control, you rein in your whole body, and keep your outward actions in check (verse 3–5).

Great care is needed in governing the tongue, because of how gloriously it can boast. It can on both sides perform much good – in speaking the truth, in constancy, in letting things slide, in courtesy, and so on – and it can do much evil, in lies, reproaches, calumnies and so on (verse 5).

Let fly with words and you stir up a world of evil

As a small fire can kindle and devour may things, so the tongue, unless it is appeased and bridled, can stir up a world of evils, and create infinite sins (verse 5–6). Although it is a small part, it is nevertheless a part of the body, which means it can involve all the other members of the body in what it does. It can defile the whole body with wickednesses, and with its wickedness set on fire the wheel of all our natural faculties.

When the tongue is ready to serve the devil in this way, there is some affinity between the evil tongue and hell (verse 6). From the devil the tongue can send out enough flames of lies, slanders and quarrellings to burn the whole world.

There is no kind of animals, but may be tamed by human reason or skill, and experience teaches that some of all kinds have been tamed (verse 7). But the tongue can be tamed by no human reason or art. It is an unquiet and an unruly evil, full of deadly poison, by which it is ready to bring, and does bring, deadly mischiefs to others (verse 8). Therefore you must by God’s supernatural grace diligently endeavour to bridle the tongue.

Be honest in your words and you show you have supernatural grace

The tongue is mutable, deceitful, crafty. One minute it makes itself out to be very good, blessing God, the next minute it openly shows its real nature, by cursing other people (and indirectly God, according to whose likeness people are made). This it does from the same mouth, sometimes sending forth blessing, sometimes cursing (verse 9). But this is absurd and monstrous, and must in no wise be tolerated by those who belong to Christ (verse 10).

James then uses four similes – a fountain, a fig-tree, a vine, and the sea (verse 11–12) – arguing from these natural impossibilities to expose this irrational incoherence in our practice. It is simply not natural that sweet and bitter water should flow from the same channel of the fountain, or that a fig-tree should bring forth grapes, and a vine figs, or that the same sea should yield both salt water and sweet. So reason will not allow us to think that it is the tongue of someone who is regenerated, which, although sometimes it blesses, yet being unbridled, it otherwise curses – for a bad tree does not bear good fruits.

This is why it is so important for the regenerate to follow the simplicity of holiness in speech, and to endeavour to bridle their tongues.

Wisdom consists in avoiding contention

In the second part of the chapter, James gives another piece of advice. He exhorts us to wisdom joined with meekness, which is the remedy for the evils and jealousies of the tongue. If anyone is going to show themselves a prudent Christian, they ought to show it in innocence and meekness.

Laying aside meekness, and instead cherishing contradictory vices in the heart, such as jealousy and contention, is no matter of glorying, but rather of shame (verse 14). Indeed, it is effectively lying against the truth – falsely boasting yourself to be spiritually wise (or, Christians) but in fact showing yourself to be wicked. This is why we must make an effort to strive after the wisdom of meekness.

Wisdom does not lead to vengefulness

The wisdom of contention, envying, revenging of personal attacks, is not the wisdom which descends from heaven, from God. Instead it is earthly, sensual and devilish (verse 15). Its origins are in fallen nature and the devil. Where there is not wisdom with meekness, but envy and contention, there tumults, seditions, and every wickedness reigns (verse 16). These are more reasons to pursue the wisdom of meekness.

Wisdom makes peace and is peaceable

In verse 17, James gives eight characteristics of heavenly wisdom, the wisdom which is joined with meekness. (1) It is pure and chaste, i.e., it holds fast truth and holiness, lest it be in any way polluted. (2) It is peaceable, avoiding contentions. (3) It endeavours after equity. (4) It easily gives place to right reason. (5) It is full of mercy towards those who err and sin. (6) It is full of good fruits, omitting nothing of those things which are fitting in those who are good and pious. (7) It does not enquire suspiciously into the blemishes of others. (8) It is without hypocrisy, with which chiefly carnal wisdom is delighted. All these are reasons why we ought to endeavour after wisdom joined with meekness.

Those who endeavour after this wisdom joined with meekness, simultaneously endeavour to make peace, or to be peaceable themselves (verse 18). They are in peace. They work righteousness, or increase their holiness. They sow to themselves for time to come, and for life eternal, so that they may reap the fruit of righteousness in due time.


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How to defy discouragements

How to defy discouragements

How to defy discouragements

Much as we would like to start a new year with a sense of optimism, sometimes the outlook only seems forbidding. January blues may conspire with nagging feelings of being spiritually in a low place to make Christians discouraged. The Covenanting minister John Welwood (1649–1679) was aware of many reasons for pessimism, yet in the following updated letter he wrote of ways to turn every possible discouragement into a reason to take comfort.

8 July 1675

Dear sister,

We have to live by faith

If I had things according to my own wishes, I would have the light of the Lord’s countenance shining over on me, and the upper hand over all my enemies. But when I was restless in this way and unsatisfied, I was taught to live by faith – a very profitable thing for us, and pleasing to God, but we are so backward to it, because we do not want to believe until we can see.

Yet the Lord is much displeased when we doubt His love, especially since we have so many evidences of it, since He has often manifested Himself to us, and worked in our souls. Unless He is actually smiling, we will not believe that He loves us! If He dandled us in His lap for twenty years, and then hide Himself from us, we would instantly be suspicious whether He had ever loved us at all. But it is much more pleasing to Him, and profitable and comforting to ourselves, to venture to believe that He does love us. He does not play tricks on His people. We may build on His Word and His work in our souls, for Christ is no dissembler.

I know nothing that should discourage a Christian. There is not one discouragement in all the Word of God, but many are His encouragements. But through our folly and unbelief we lose the comfort of them.

We don’t need to be discouraged by guilt

Should guilt discourage us? God “hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God through him.” Christ says to the Father, “If the Christian owes thee anything, put that on my account.”

Or by God’s wrath

Should wrath discourage us? “He hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us,” and, “There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.”

Or by our ignorance

Should our darkness and ignorance discourage us? He is continually with us, and leads us like a flock. Our safety lies not in our wisdom and leading, but His. Even if we are foolish, or pilot is skilful and careful.

Or by our sinfulness

Should a body of sin and death discourage us? We certainly have good reason to cry, “O wretched ones that we are!” It deadens and deceives us, and holds us back from duty. Yet His grace is sufficient for us. Not grace within us, but grace outside us is where our safety lies. He is the one that keeps us from temptations and delivers us from evil.

Or by our small progress

Should our little growth in grace and in the knowledge of Christ discourage us? Indeed it is our great complaint, “Our leanness, our leanness!” It’s fitting that folk grow downwards in low thoughts of themselves, for He dwells with the humble. The more folk have of grace, the more they see of corruption, and the more they have of faith, the more they see of unbelief.

But perhaps we make an idol of grace, and prize it more than its author, the Lord Jesus. He may well say to us, “Am I not worth more to you than never so much grace?” The God of all grace is ours – the fountain is ours – we are complete in Him, and He is fit to hold the purse-strings for us. It is better that He should hold our treasure than we ourselves. We would want to have as much as would serve us for all our journey right now. This is always the aim of our hearts. We want to have a stock of grace inside us, so that we would not need to rely on Christ, or be beholden to Him, for continual supply. We think it a poor life to live like beggars, but that’s because we think that what’s in our hand is surer, and will more easily be effective, than what is in Christ’s hand! But Adam had his stock in his own hand, and see how quickly he went bankrupt.

If we had never so much grace, we would ruin ourselves if Christ’s grace were not daily and moment-by-moment keeping us. It is not our grace and worthiness that commends us to God, but the righteousness of Christ. We are obliged to God for the grace we get, not He to us. If He chooses to keep us with little in hand, we ought to be content, and not fall out with Him because He will not fill our purses with money – after all, we have access to the treasure house!

Or by a sense of distance from the Lord

Does a sense of desertion discourage us? Sometimes there are many fogs and clouds in the air, but it is all bright above. Though to our senses His love changes, yet with Him there is no variableness, nor shadow of turning. He loves us just as much when He hides His face as when He smiles, and He has many wise and holy purposes in all the afflictions we meet with. They are to ballast us. Also they purge out our sins and make us partakers of His holiness. They keep us waking and watching.

Our Lord will not leave us nor forsake us. We may be sure of victory. And what an inheritance we are predestined to! It sits all wrong to be unthankful and discontent when the Lord has showed us that mercy, to teach and instruct us that we should not walk in the way of the world. He could have left us to run to the same excess of riot with them, to forget God and our own soul altogether. Is not God our Father? Is not Christ our husband? Is not the Spirit our constant companion? Are not angels our attendants? Are not the devil, the wicked, sin, death, and hell all under our feet? Is not the creation all working together for our good? And heaven our home?

Satan and our folly combine together to make us pore over the things that will sadden us and keep us from seeing our privileges. Here is our duty: to rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, and continue instant in prayer.


Now as for your situation, cast all your care upon him, for He careth for you. To trust Him honours Him greatly. Acknowledge Him in all your ways, and do nothing to offend Him. He is a shield to them that trust in Him. Remember also that afflictions are the gateway to heaven. Consider Him that endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself, lest ye be weary and faint in your mind.


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Six things to pray for in the new year

Six things to pray for in the new year

Six things to pray for in the new year

As a new year opens, what will the future hold? What are we justified to hope for, and what is realistic to work towards? In the prayer of Moses the man of God, we get an insight into what a bright and desirable prospect would look like for a believer and the church collectively, and what we can legitimately throw our energies into striving for with the Lord’s help and blessing. Time seems to be passing so quickly and there are so many things that cause grief even at times when we are conditioned to take an optimistic view. In this light David Dickson comments on the six things Moses prays for in Psalm 90 in the following updated extract.

1. Wisdom for eternity

In the concluding part of Psalm 90, Moses prays for six things in response to the short and sorrowful life of the Lord’s people. The first petition is for wisdom to provide in time for the remedy of sin and everlasting misery, before this short and uncertain life ends. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (verse 12).

Although our life is both short and uncertain as to how soon it may end, yet our tendency is to look on its indefiniteness as if this meant its duration will be infinite and our years innumerable. When Moses prays, “Teach us to number our days,” it implies some acknowledgement of this.

It is easy for us to calculate how many of our days are already past, and easy to consider how few there are to come by the course of nature (or God’s ordinary providence), yet this lesson must be taught by God before we can make any profitable use of it. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”

The only remedy for sin, and the wrath of God, and the misery of mortal humans for sin, is the wisdom which is taught by God in the Scripture, i.e., that sinners should seek reconciliation with God through the sacrifice and obedience of Christ, and keep friendship with God by the power of His spirit.

The right use of the things we see manifested in our lives of sin and wrath and judgments is to deal with God by prayer, not only that He would inform us of our danger and duty, not only that He would reveal to our minds the mystery of grace and reconciliation, but also that He would effectually move our will, heart and affections by faith which worketh by love, so that we would make application of the remedy for ourselves. “So that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

2. Comfort from God

The second petition is that God would not only remove the evidences of His displeasure against His people, but that He would also now at length show Himself to be reconciled by changing His dealings with them in a course of comfort. “Return (O Lord), how long? And let it repent thee concerning thy servants” (verse 13).

Although the Lord does not go away from His people (He always remains with the in one or another gracious working) yet in terms of His comforting presence He may turn away until His people request Him to return.

When the Lord does withdraw His comforting presence from His people, however short a time it may be, it sems a long time to us in this short life. “Return, O Lord, how long?”

Although the Lord does not change His affections or repent like a man, yet He can change His dealings, like a father who commiserates his child’s affliction, and tries to cherish and comfort him after disciplining him.

“Let it repent thee concerning thy servants.” Although we are very slight servants, and sorely smitten for our disobedience, yet we should not cast away our calling, nor act as if our relationship with God has been dissolved. Instead we should cling to Him in any way we can. Here they still call themselves His servants.

3. Spiritual refreshment

The third petition is for some spiritual comfort and refreshment to their souls, which would keep them in good heart and in hope of eternal salvation. “O satisfy us early with thy mercy, that we may rejoice and be glad in our days” (verse 14).

When a soul is conscious of God’s wrath, he or she has as great a hunger for spiritual comfort as a famished man has for food. “O satisfy us!” The renewed confirmation of God’s mercy, pardoning sin and giving us a clear sight of our reconciliation, is able to comfort us in our greatest sorrow. “O satisfy us with thy mercy!”

As physical hunger cannot tolerate delay, so neither can a sense of God’s wrath, or the desire for favourable acceptance long endure the absence of consolation. After a night of trouble they earnestly expect a morning of comfort. “Satisfy us early!”

A poor hungry soul, lying under a sense of wrath, knows it will be happy for ever if only it can find again what it felt before – one sweet fill of God’s mercy made known to it. “Then we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”

However great our trouble, and however long it lasts, the renewed sense of God’s reconciliation to us seasons and sweetens all our trouble, recompenses all our losses, and makes our situation in this short and miserable life very comfortable. “Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil” (verse 15).

4. God’s work to grow

The fourth petition is that God would continue the work of building and enlarging His own church, and of glorifying Himself in their sight, and in the sight of their posterity from generation to generation. “Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children” (verse 16).

The building, purging, enlarging and propagating of the church, and the manifesting of God’s care for it, is the Lord’s own proper work. He will not give it up. Although He may hide His activity for a time, yet He is still at work, and His people should pray for and may expect the manifestation of it.

As it is the glory of the Lord to manifest His grace and mercy to His people, or the visible church, so correspondingly it is the desire of the Lord’s people to have Him glorified, no less than to have themselves preserved or comforted.

The church in every age should have a care that their posterity would participate in the same merciful work of God which they have themselves experienced, and that their children would profit by how their predecessors were corrected.

5. The beauty of the Lord

The fifth petition is that God would beautify His people. He beautifies them with His holy ordinances, with order and unity and peace, with a holy lifestyle, and with the evidences that He is dwelling among them as His own covenanted people, proper subjects of His kingdom, and those who belong to His own family.

God is the glory of His people – their beauty and ornamentation is in Him. This is how they are made honourable in the sight of all nations, as the bride is made beautiful by her clothing and ornaments. This is how His people should think of Him, and value Him, and love Him. They should remember Him and seek their beauty in Him.

The time when the beauty of the Lord is on His people, and seen to be on them, is when they are behaving like His covenanted people – when they are walking in faith and obedience before Him, and is showing Himself to be their covenanted God, protecting and blessing them.

6. A blessing on what we do for God

The sixth petition is that God would bless the endeavours of His people for promoting God’s work among them, and for transmitting His ordinances and truth to their posterity. “Establish thou the work of our hands” (verse 17).

If we pray for the Lord’s work to progress in His church, we must resolve not to be idle, but to commit ourselves to endeavour, in our places and callings, according to our ability, to promote His work, just as His servants and instruments should be doing.

When we do go about building the Lord’s church and promoting Christianity, we must acknowledge that the success of our labours depends only on God, who must be entreated for the blessing.

Our work is so mixed and defiled with imperfections and sins that God would only be just if He withdrew Himself from it. We must therefore all the more earnestly deal with Him to keep His own hand on His work, and keep our hands in it.


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Four comforts as time passes

Four comforts as time passes

Four comforts as time passes

As humans we are constrained by time. The passing of one year to the next is something entirely out of our control – all we can do is mark dates and recognise milestones. The only constant from one generation to the next is God. He is outside of time, because time is something that He created. The amazing thing is that as He stands outside of time and remains entirely unaffected by the passing of moments and millennia, He has chosen to make Himself a safe haven for sinful creatures vulnerable to change and decay. This thought was a tremendous comfort to Moses, the man of God, in his prayer to God in Psalm 90. David Dickson in this updated extract identifies the four sources of comfort that Moses draws from God’s unchangingness and unchangeableness for sinners who are reconciled to Him, especially when they may be wrestling with the swift passage of time and difficulties and sorrows in life.

It is sin that has procured the shortness and the miseries of this life, as Moses lamentably sets out before the Lord, who is full of pity. But his prayer opens with a fourfold comfort for the church against temporal troubles and this world’s miseries.

1. The Lord’s kindness to His people in all ages

The first comfort is drawn from the Lord’s kindness to His people in all ages. “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations” (Psalm 90:1)

When we pray therefore, we must lay hold on the offer of God’s kindness according to the covenant of grace, and look on God as gracious to us in Christ. Moses here, and others elsewhere, when they come as supplicants in prayer they begin with renewed acts and expressions of faith.

God’s people in any given place and age are one body with God’s people in all ages preceding and following. They may lay claim to all the privileges of God’s people before them. Here the church in Moses’ time joins itself with all the Lord’s people in former times, for the use of succeeding ages which were yet to come. “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.”

The Lord’s people are strangers in the earth, partly because they have no certain residence in this world, and partly because they have such a poor reception among the people of the world, but especially because at heart, in their affections, they are pilgrims in this world. However, this does not mean they lack a resting place. They have a dwelling in heaven, that is, God Himself, in whom they dwell by faith. They find in Him rest, and food, and protection, and comfort. In fact, in His heart they have had a lodging “in all generations.”

The troubles and miseries of this life make the godly to search out what participation they have in God, and another life. What pinches them on earth makes them seek their abundance in heaven.

2. The decree of the eternal covenant

The second comfort of the believer against the miseries of this short life is taken by Moses from the decree of their election and the eternal covenant of their redemption, settled in the purpose and counsel of the blessed Trinity for their advantage. In this covenant it was agreed before the world existed that the Word to be incarnate would be the Saviour of the elect. Moses says, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God” (verse 2).

Here the asserting of the eternity of God is with reference to His own chosen people. To say, “Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations, and Thou art God from everlasting to everlasting,” is effectively to say, “Thou art from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God in purpose and affection toward us Thy people, and so Thou art our God from everlasting in regard of Thy eternal purpose of love electing us, and in regard of appointing redemption for us by the Redeemer.”

When we discern God’s goodwill to us in time, we may arise to God’s goodwill to us before time. From the grace showed to us in time, we may conclude that grace and goodwill were purposed toward us and ordained for us before time. This is what the psalmist is teaching us. When he has said, “From generation to generation, thou hast been our dwelling place,” that is, “in all time past Thou hast been our God,” he subjoins, “Before the mountains were brought forth … Thou art God,” that is, “the same God unchangeably in Thy purpose and love toward us before time, from everlasting.”

Also, from special love shown to us in time, we may conclude not only that His love has been toward us not only before time from everlasting, but also that it shall continue towards us in time to come for ever. “Even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God,” he says, that is, “the same strong God, immutable in Thy purpose and love toward us first and last.” Indeed faith cannot fix itself till by the warrant of God’s Word and feeling of His gracious working in us in time, it joins God’s work of grace and His purpose of grace together.

This is why the apostle Paul leads the believer in Christ to election in Christ before the world was, and to predestination to adoption by Jesus Christ according to His good pleasure before the world was (Ephesians 1:1, 3, 4, 5). Similarly in 2 Timothy he leads us to a completed covenant before the world was made, between God the Father and God the Son, according to which all conditions required of the Redeemer are settled, and all the elect, all the redeemed, are delivered over to the Son, the Word to be incarnate, the intended Redeemer, and all saving grace is given over into Christ’s hand, for the sake of the elect, to be let out to them in due time: “Grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (2 Timothy 1:9).

The nature of God which is to be one and the same, unchangeable from everlasting to everlasting, is the solid ground for faith to reason things out in this manner.

The knowledge of God’s eternal goodwill to us is a sufficient cordial to soften and sweeten all our grief and affliction in this life. The very reason why this doctrine is prefixed to what follows in the psalm about temporal miseries, is to comfort the Lord’s people against all the troubles of this life.

3. The resurrection of the dead

A third comfort Moses mentions is from the resurrection of the dead. “Thou turnest man to destruction, and sayest, Return, ye children of men” (verse 3).

Although God puts into effect the decree which has appointed all men once to die, yet He has also appointed a resurrection, by which He will powerfully recall and make to return from death all Adam’s posterity. “Thou turnest man to destruction,” and so all must die, “and sayest, Return, ye children of men,” and so all must rise again.

It costs the Lord but a word to make the dead rise again, or to make those that are destroyed to return again. “Thou sayest.” His word has already gone out about the resurrection, and it is altogether operative. It will prove fully effectual at length.

4. The shortness of time until the resurrection

The fourth comfort is drawn from the shortness of the time between anyone’s death and their return from the dead in the resurrection. Perhaps someone might object that it is a long time since the resurrection was promise, till the time that it will be really accomplished.

But although it may seem a long time between a person’s death and their resurrection, yet before God it is only a short time. For that matter it is nothing in comparison with eternity. “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night” (verse 4).

Unless we reckon time as God reckons it, we cannot but be weary and think it long, and wonder at the delay in the performing of His promises, and so fall into temptation and unbelief.



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Reasons why believers love Jesus more than anyone else

Reasons why believers love Jesus more than anyone else

Reasons why believers love Jesus more than anyone else

The deeper we reflect on who our Lord Jesus Christ is and where He has come from, the more it serves to highlight the adorable beauty of what He has done for His sinful people. If by faith we accept His gifts of salvation – what He has done and what He gives – the only appropriate response is to love Him. The following updated extract gives Richard Cameron’s reflections on this theme as he expounds the love for Christ that animates the soul of a believer.

Love is misplaced if is not bestowed on Jesus Christ Himself. David bestowed his love well when he said, “Whom have I in the heavens but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee” (Psalm 73). In Song 3:3 the spouse says, “Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?” It is not a mouth or lip love, it is a soul’s love.

Think of where Christ came from

What is His birth? You know if a man comes to make suit to a woman, she will be sure to enquire what parents he is descended from. And is there any like our Lord? He is descended of honourable parentage. He is the Son of the Father. He is the Son of God, and as He is man He is the Son of David.

This is a wonderful thing, that the Son of God should offer marriage to the most insignificant man or woman in all the land. You would be very impressed if the king, having one lawfully begotten son, was to send him to you, and desire marriage with a low-ranking girl. But oh wonderful! God has sent His only begotten Son, who is God equal with Himself—He has sent Him down from heaven to earth, to discuss terms for marriage with the poorest believer there.

Think of the possessions He has

Jesus Christ is heir of all things. All power in heaven and earth is given unto Him. Such is the believer’s Beloved! It is He that has power, ruling over heaven, earth, and hell, and the absolute disposal of all things. He has grace and glory, and every good thing to give unto them that wait on Him. Is it any wonder then that the spouse says, “Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?” She could not endure the loss when He absented Himself. But many, because they cannot get the present things, think little of Christ. Some even say, “If you are faithful and honest, you get nothing! So much misery comes of following Christ; follow Christ and lose everything!” You think Christ is not a good husband, since His followers are so badly treated on earth.

But I will tell you—nay, I assure you—that the believer has as good a right to the world as anyone else, and the one who is cast out of house and hold for Christ has as good a right to it as anyone. Oh then, saw ye Him whom my soul loveth in this night of persecution on the Church—when the Lord’s people are meeting with such bitter things? They will however have much more than their persecutors have. Supposing you did not have twopence to rub together, you have more than all the persecutors have—you have Himself, and that is more than all other things.

Think of His precious person

Let us consider what Jesus is, as to His person. You know when a young man makes suit to a young woman, she not only asks what is his birth and what he has, but has some desire to know what he is in himself. Is he a well-favoured man? So the spouse goes to the watchmen, and to the daughters of Jerusalem, that is, to professing Christians in general, and says, “I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, that if ye find my well beloved, ye tell him, that I am sick of love.” She cannot go without Him any longer.

But they reply, “What is thy beloved more than another beloved? that thou makest so much noise about him.” There are many who say, “What do you mean, making so much ado about Christ?”

“Indeed,” says she, “my beloved is white and ruddy; fairer than the sons of men, and the chiefest of ten thousand.” And indeed so He is, and always will be to any who know the power of religion. He will be to them the pearl of great price. He is refreshing to them every way; He fills the desires of the hungry and longing soul. “His mouth is most sweet: yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.”

Love Christ for taking our nature

Now let us consider what Christ has done for the church and for believers. Our Lord has been at much pains, and cost too, for believers. Will this not give us reason to love him?

I tell you one thing He has done for us: He has taken on Him our nature.

This is a very familiar thing that you have heard of very often, but it is soon forgotten, and little thought of. He took upon Him our nature. He took not upon Him the nature of angels, but the nature of poor ruined man. Oh, this is a heart-engaging consideration!

Many think nothing of it, that Christ left His place in heaven, came out from the Father’s bosom, and took upon Him our nature. But is it not a great wonder? The eternal Son of God, the second person of the glorious Trinity, came down here on earth, and took on Him the nature of the seed of Abraham!

O wonderful condescension! Many think nothing of it, but let me tell you, poor sinners could never otherwise have gone up to heaven to Him. No; for if He had appeared like Himself, the second person of the ever-blessed Trinity, if He had appeared in His regal robes of glory and majesty, we could not have looked near Him. The Lord became bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh. And should not this engage us to love Him very much?

Love Christ for taking the form of a servant

He not only took on Him our nature, but He took on Him the form of a servant. He came not only like man, but like an insignificant, low-ranking man. Indeed, had He come like a rich or great man, poor folk would not have got to come near Him—not so much as to touch the hem of His garment. But our Lord has His own way of coming. He comes like a poor mean man into the world, and He goes ofttimes to poor men’s houses. And seeing He came in such a poor mean way, should not this make us look to Him?

Love Christ for taking all our infirmities

I will tell you further what He has done. He has taken on Him all our infirmities and our diseases. “He was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. He was tempted in all things like unto us, that he might be able to succour them that are tempted.” Here there may be some that are hungry, thirsty, and cold, as were some after the affair at Pentland. Although it has not been exactly the same with those who were at Bothwell, at Pentland they were likely to perish in the woods. They were both cold and hungry and thirsty. You know what persecutions they suffered by enemies. But may not this be matter of comfort to all sufferers in affliction: “We have not an high priest that cannot be touched with our infirmities,” but one who was exercised with sad afflictions, and suffered, and was persecuted in His body, in our nature, and therefore knows well how to support and succour His people in all their afflictions. And should not this engage us to love Him, and to desire conformity to Him? For indeed He knows well how to see to us, and how to comfort us under all cases and conditions.

Love Christ for bearing the wrath of God

I tell you further yet, what He has done for us. He bore the wrath of God for believers, for all that come to God in and through Him. This is a strong reason for all the people of God to love Him with their whole heart and soul – that He has borne the wrath that would have crushed all the elect, yea, all the world, and kept them in the place of torment for ever and ever. He bore the wrath that made Him sweat great drops of blood, and cry out, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” What shall I say? He was so deserted of God as made Him cry out on the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabbachthani? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” I think the person that has soul’s love to Christ has good reason to and may well bear the wrath of man: for that wrath is far inferior to the wrath that Christ has borne for His people. Oh, how this ought to endear Christ to us!

Love Christ for dying for us

I will tell you what else Christ has done for believers. Listen carefully. He has even died for them, even the cursed death of the cross. This is how He has taken away the sting of natural death, and He will keep us from eternal death if we believe in Him; for while “we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”

Love Christ for going into the grave for us

Christ not only died for us, but went down and perfumed the grave for believers, so that they may say, “O death! where is thy sting? O grave! where is thy victory?” Take note. For, I think, if you are believers you will have love to Him on this account. Those who have gone to the scaffold for Christ did it cheerfully, as if their dying day was the best day that ever they saw in their life. They were sometimes so joyful that their souls, as it were, leaped out of their bodies, because our Lord has gone through death and the grave for them. That is why they have the victory and have overcome death and the grave.

Love Christ for rising again for us

Which leads us to something else that He has also done for believers, and that is, He rose again and overcame death. But oh, how few are buried with Him in baptism! How few have mortified every sin and corruption arising within them, that they may partake of His resurrection unto eternal life and salvation!

Love Christ for interceding for us

Lastly, I will tell you another thing that Christ does to make Himself loveable to us. He is interceding always at the Father’s right hand for you, if you are a believer. Christ’s praying refers to every believer in the Church of Scotland. He prays even for ministers and members who have largely given up praying for Him and His cause! And this is how He “is able to save all that come unto Him; because He ever lives to make intercession for us.”

I say, consider these things, and you will think it no wonder that the believer loves Him above anyone and everything else whatsoever!


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Are we born innocent?

Are we born innocent?

Are we born innocent?

Are we sinners because we do bad things, or do we do bad things because we are sinners? A recent survey in the US found that a clear majority of professing evangelicals would say that we are born innocent. This optimistic view of human nature may well chime with what many would like to think, yet the Bible paints a much bleaker picture of fallen human nature, with Paul going so far as to say that by nature we are “children of wrath.” Without a clear picture of the seriousness and urgency of the problem of our sinfulness, we are unlikely to put much effort into how we can be saved from it. The God whose grace rescues us from our sin will also seem less glorious than He really is. In the following updated extract James Fergusson opens up Paul’s words of Ephesians 2:1–3. Fergusson’s comments show clearly how what we need saving from is not something superficial, and the salvation God provides is not only radically transformative for us but on His part impressively rich and generous.

Every one of us by nature, and before conversion, is dead, not to sin, but in sin. Paul addresses the Ephesians as, “You who were dead in sins” (Ephesians 2:1). That means we are wholly deprived of all ability and power to convert ourselves (Rom. 9:16), or to do any thing which is spiritually good (Rom. 8:7). While Paul says that the Ephesians were dead in sins before God quickened them, he is speaking of a thing common to them with others, which is why he includes himself and the other believing Jews with them (verse 3).

The fountain-cause of this spiritual death was Adam’s sin (in him all have sinned, Romans 5:12), and through the merit of his sin imputed to us, we are deprived of original righteousness (Romans 7:18), and a perverse inclination to all evil has come in its place (Genesis 6:5). Additionally, every individual’s own particular actual sins lay him lower under this state of death, and make it all the more difficult for him to be delivered from it (Jeremiah 13:23).

The evidence of spiritual deadness is sinful activity

The evidence that they were dead in sins and trespasses is their walking in and making a daily trade of sin, without striving against it, and without any thorough remorse for it. “Ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air …” (verse 2). Paul illustrates this woeful walk from the two guides which they followed, and which carried them on and encouraged them in their sinful course. The first was, the universal corrupt course and custom of “the world;” and the second guide was Satan, here called “the prince of the power of the air.”

Walking in sin is different from falling into sin

Although the regenerate still have a body of sin and death dwelling in them (Romans 7:24), and do sometimes actually fall in sin (indeed, even very gross sins, 2 Samuel 11:4, 12:9), yet they do not walk in sin. That is, to the child of God, sin is not like the way of the traveller, so as they make it their daily trade and employment (Psalm 1:1), or sin without any reluctancy flowing from a spiritual principle against what they know to be sin (Galatians 5:17), or walk after sin by making sin, and suggestions to sin, their guide whom they willingly follow (Romans 8:1). Sin may conquer the regenerate, and carry them as an unwilling captive (Romans 7:14, etc.), but they no longer “walk” in sin; for Paul says that for them it was “in time past ye walked.”

Such is the power of converting grace, that it causes people to change their former way and course, however deeply they were rooted in it and habituated to it. There is a change from how they walked in “time past,” such that they do not so walk in the time present.

The Lord is not at all moved by the merit or worth of those whom He doth convert, to bestow converting grace on them rather than on others whom He leaves in their unconverted state. In fact, He makes this grace of His to fall on those who are in no respect better than those whom He passes by. These Ephesians, before conversion, were second to none in sin and wickedness, yet He converted them.

The general corrupt custom and example of those with whom we live, or those who lived in the former times, is a strong incitement in the minds of many – and sufficient excuse – to follow them in doing evil, without further inquiry. But it is clear evidence that someone is still in an unrenewed state, when they make the example of others the highest rule according to which they walk, and when they labour to conform themselves more to other people than to the will of God.

We are all sinful by nature

Paul speaks in verse 3 of “the lusts of our flesh … the desires of the flesh and of the mind.” Our obstinate rebellion comes out in the fact that we follow the “lusts,” that is, the impulses and motions and sudden flashes, of our inbred corruption (here called “flesh”), which, flowing from Adam’s first sin, has infected his whole posterity (Christ alone excepted, 2 Corinthians 5:21) and seats itself in all the powers and faculties of our souls and bodies, even including the understanding and will (Romans 8:7; Colossians 2:18). All corruption and sin, even that which is in the mind, is called “flesh,” because it is conveyed by fleshly generation (John 3:6), the fleshly members of the body are the instruments by which all sin is carried out (Romans 6:19), and every sin draws the person away from God to earthly and fleshly things.

This inbred corruption of their natures Paul subdivides into two, the “flesh” and the “mind.” When the term “flesh” is contrasted with the “mind,” it is distinguished from the “flesh” beforementioned. Here it must mean the corruption which is seated in the sensual appetites of the soul, while the “mind” means the more noble faculties of the soul, i.e., the will and understanding, in so far as they are also corrupted. Then the “desires” of the flesh are the deliberate and fixed resolution to follow those lusts and suggestions of corrupt flesh, which, accordingly, Paul says they “fulfilled” and accomplished to the utmost.

Paul then points out the root and fountain-cause of this their miserable slavery and subjection to sin, that is, their natural sin and misery. “Ye were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (verse 3). We were all, from nature, that is, from the very cradle, birth, and conception, “children of wrath,” i.e., by reason of our original sin, liable to God’s eternal wrath.

By nature all of us are wholly sinful

Whatever differences may be among the unregenerate as to circumstances in life, externals in religion, or the particular sins to which they are enslaved, yet all of them are alike vile in God’s sight. Paul pronounces of himself and all of them, Jew and Gentile alike, that they were children of disobedience, because one way or other they followed the lusts of the flesh.

Those who lead a blameless life before the world in their unconverted estate (and therefore thought their condition abundantly good, Philippians 3:7) will, when converting grace comes, see themselves to have been as vile and wretched as any. They will not only see that nothing they did was truly good and acceptable to God, for it was not done in faith (Hebrews 11:6), but also that the root of all sin was in them, budding out without any check or restraint, except from respect to self-interest, reputation, pleasure, or advantage (Matthew 14:5). The more blameless they were before the world, the more their spiritual pride abounded (Philippians 2:7), and so they were all the more loathsome to God (James 4:6).

The whole person, both soul and body, is infected with sin by nature, so that not only the sensual part, but even our will and understanding, are corrupted by it. In the understanding there is not only ignorance but also mistakes about God and good (1 Corinthians 1:23). In the will there is a crooked perverseness and averseness from what is spiritually good (Romans 8:7).

Every unregenerate person is a slave to sin in all these ways. Paul affirms of us all that before conversion, not only flesh was in us, which lusted after unlawful things, but those lusts came the length of fixed resolutions and desires – and not only so, but we fulfilled and accomplish them. Respectable people do not wholly fulfil the lusts of the fleshly appetite, yet they fulfil the desires of the mind by their pride, vanity of spirit, self-seeking, and such like.

All are guilty of original sin by nature, and from the first moment of conception (Psalm 51:5), and therefore, in the course of divine justice, liable to the stroke of God’s wrath and anger, and this by nature also. So the misery of the unregenerate is never sufficiently seen until it is traced back to this bitter root and fountain, the sin and misery in which they were born. When Paul says we were “children of wrath by nature,” he implies that we were also sinners by nature, seeing wrath always follows sin, and sin is the root, fountain, and headstone of all our misery.

Seeing our sinfulness helps us to appreciate holiness

The apostle Paul is intending to establish the Ephesians in the doctrine of salvation by free grace in Christ. In order to do this, he sets out the happiness of the state in which free grace had placed them, by showing the misery of their previous state, before conversion. “You hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). That is, they had been dead – not naturally, but spiritually, for there was nothing in them of the spiritual life which consists in the union of the soul with God (John 5:40) – nothing of the power of the soul, flowing from this union, to do things which are spiritually good and acceptable to God (John 15:5). Natural life consists in the union of the soul with the body, whereby the person is enabled to move, speak, and do the actions which are competent to that life. Analogously, their spiritual deadness tells of their separation from God (Psalm 58:3), and their total inability to do any thing which is spiritually good (Romans 8:7).

Seeing our sinfulness helps us to appreciate God’s mercy

God is rich and overflowing in the exercise of His attribute of mercy. This is apparent when we consider that there is no creature towards which He does not exercise His mercy (Psalm 104:24), and that mercy is exercised, not only without, but also often contrary to, the deserving of those on whom it is exercised (Ezekiel 36:21–22). Yet there is nothing in which God does more to manifest the riches and abundance of His mercy, than in the work of bringing dead sinners to life, and of carrying on the work of grace in them until it is perfected in glory. Just think of the misery of the objects of His mercy (Ezekiel 16:3, etc.), and their bad deservings (Jeremiah 14:7), the greatness of the good things which He bestows on those miserable objects (Luke 12:32), the course He takes for satisfying divine justice, so that those good things can be given without wronging justice (John 3:16), and the multitude of sins which mercy covers in those objects, not only before their conversion (Isaiah 55:7), but also after it (Proverbs 24:16)! All these, and many considerations besides, manifest God to be rich in mercy in quickening dead sinners. “God, who is rich in mercy, hath quickened us.”



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