How Christ Reforms His Church

How Christ Reforms His Church

How Christ Reforms His Church
George Hutcheson (1615-1674) ministered in Ayrshire and Edinburgh and was a noted bible expositor. Like many other ministers he was removed from his congregation in 1662 for refusing to conform to the rule of bishops.
30 Oct, 2020

It’s good to appreciate the history of the Reformation and what it recovered. But we would be mistaken in thinking this is merely a past event. The best way to appreciate what it achieved is by being committed to reformation in the present. Reformation means making the Word of God the only rule and principle in matters of religion. Wherever this is not faithfully applied in principle and practice, the Church needs reforming. At the Reformation, John Calvin explained that there were two great areas in which the Church needed reforming. Firstly, “the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly…the source from which salvation is to be obtained”. He emphasised the importance of worship because it is the goal of salvation. This is also one of Christ’s key priorities in reforming His Church. It includes the spirit in which we offer that worship as well as what we offer. 

The Reformations under Hezekiah, Jehoshaphat and Josiah were marked by a return to biblical worship and a zeal against idolatry. These biblical histories also show us the challenges of such a work. Calvin was well aware of the difficulty of involved in this work of reformation. “I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word”. Yet it is ultimately a work that Christ undertakes for His own glory in using those who serve Him in this. Christ must be as a refiner’s fire to purge the Church’s dross (Malachi 3:2). He purges His people, His public worship and ministers so that their worship may be pure and acceptable, all things being restored to their integrity (Malachi 3:3-4). In this updated extract, George Hutcheson helps us to understand how this prophecy of Christ applies today, even to the purest of churches. Reading it should bring us to pray that Christ will do this work, however hard it may be.  

1. Christ’s Reforming is Very Trying

Christ’s coming to His Church in the ministry of His gospel and to carry on a reformation, makes such a time prove very winnowing. “Who may abide? who shall stand?” (Malachi 3:2). It is a trying time and therefore it is hard to endure, so that it is a wonder to see any get through it. It is no wonder when we consider the many hypocrites in his Church, and the great hypocrisy and dross of His saints which He cannot endure.

Great vicissitudes and shakings often accompany a time of reformation; many errors and delusions usually prevail then. The ministry of the gospel is effective in exposing sin but if people do not amend their ways, they become worse. The respectable become godless, the formalists become careless, and the ungodly become rebellious. How speedily may a people under the gospel fill up the measure of their sin and become ripe for many judgments. It is for these reasons that Christ’s coming is declared to be such a terrifying day; “Who may abide? who shall stand?”

2. Christ’s Reforming Removes the Church’s Dross

There is not only much unsoundness in Christ’s Church but it is also difficult to discern until Christ exposes it. It is then seen to cleave so closely that it is difficult to remove. No less than “a refiner’s fire, and fuller’s soap”, can either reveal or remove this dross in the metal and filth in the cloth. Only Christ’s fan can reveal the chaff and take it away. Christ has sufficient power to purge His Church and reach the dross. He is so zealous that He will not spare at all. He will either consume everything together or separate the dross. For “He is as a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap”.

3. Christ’s Reforming is Needed by the Purest Church

The purest Church of Christ is so ready to contract pollution within time, that purging is necessary. God’s chose people who are not to be destroyed need purging because they have much dross. However hot the furnace may be it is their comfort and purging that He intends. He is a refiner to His Church and He will purify it.

4. Christ’s Reforming is for the Church’s Good

Christ’s purging His Church, by His Word, Spirit and rod, speaks of His love and a purpose of much good. He sits at it as a task on which His heart is set. He “purifies as gold and silver”; precious metals refined for honourable use. Thus, the godly must submit to His way of purging in its duration, even though He sits at it as a work that is not soon finished. They must submit to the degree of purging as silver and gold in the fire, knowing that He sits at the furnace. He will make it apparent that His refining is not with silver in relation to the heat and extremity of the trial (Isaiah 48:10).

5. Christ’s Reforming Purifies THE CHURCH’S Worship

Pure ordinances and “an offering in righteousness” (according to the rule of Jesus Christ and through His righteousness) are a special mercy for Christ’s Church. The mercy is completed when it is joined with personal reformation; when there are purified Levites and “an offering in righteousness”. It is personal renewal and reconciliation that enables people to engage in pure service; right service must begin there. “He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer an offering in righteousness”.

We are not to please ourselves as to what we do in service to God unless He has declared He will accept it. Thus, the only way of acceptable worship is through Christ. When He takes any in His hand and brings them out of their polluted condition, He makes them and their service (in itself abominable) well-pleasing through Him. When He comes and purifies His people, “then shall the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the Lord”.

6. Christ’s Reforming Purifies THE CHURCH’s Ministers

Christ’s coming under the gospel does not tend towards the destruction of a ministry, though indeed they often need to be purged. “He shall purify the sons of Levi”. A holy ministry is a special blessing to the Church for keeping ordinances pure and promoting purity among people, especially a pure and acceptable way of worship. When the sons of Levi are purified, they offer in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem are pleasant to the Lord’.

7. Christ’s Reforming Restores the Church

Christ is the restorer of all things by His coming in the flesh and by His death and gospel. He is the substance of all that is excellent to those that close in with Him by faith. To be “pleasant as in the days of old, and as in former years”, means not only that their service will be acceptable as of old when most godly men offered. It also implies that all the remarkable evidences of favour manifested toward them and wondered at in their fathers’ days as the free reward of their service, will really be given to the godly in and by Christ.

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Church Government is All About Christ

Church Government is All About Christ

Church Government is All About Christ
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
21 Oct, 2020

The general distrust of institutions and authority within society affects the church and its government. So does an individualism that sees nothing in it of personal benefit for us. It’s not hard to see why church government is out of fashion and treated with contempt. Many see it as something barely necessary for what’s really important. But church government is not about some kind of detached institutionalism, it’s all about the authority and the ministry of Christ. And its purpose is, in fact, our edification and growth in the Christian life. ​In another article we can look at how it edifies us, but here we want to focus on how church government is truly Christ-centred.

In this updated extract, some of the members of the Westminster Assembly explain from Scripture how church government is indeed all about Christ as Mediator. People can abuse it and get it wrong, but if we treat the whole matter with contempt because of that we are in danger of mistreating Christ’s own authority in His Church. When we fail to see this there is a danger that mere men get the place and authority that is reserved for Christ alone.

As Scripture is the rule of church government, so Christ is the sole root and fountain from which it originally flows. Jesus Christ our Mediator has all authority and power in heaven and in earth for the government of His church committed unto him from God the Father. This is clearly evident from the following.

1. Christ Has Been Given the Government of His Church

Plain testimonies of Scripture declare that the government of the church is laid upon His shoulder, to which end the Father has invested Him with all authority and power. “The government shall be upon his shoulder,” etc. (Isaiah 9:6-7). “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” etc. (Matthew 28:18–19). “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:32–33). All things, including all authority and judgment is given to the Son (John 5:22, 27; John 3:35). He has the key of David to open and no man can shut (Revelation 3:7). “God raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this world, but also in that which is to come”. He has put all things under his feet, and given Him to be “the head over all things to the church, which is his body” (Ephesians 1:20–23).

2. Christ Has Been Given the Titles of Government of His Church

Eminent princely titles are attributed to Jesus Christ our Mediator with authority, power, rule, and government in reference to His church. A Governor which “shall feed” (or rule) “my people Israel” (Matthew 2:6). “That great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20). “That Shepherd and Bishop of our souls” (1 Peter 2:25). “One is your Master, Christ (Matthew 23:8, 10); “Christ as a son over his own house” (Hebrews 3:6). “The head of the body, the church” (Colossians. 1:18; Ephesians 5:23). “Head over all things to the church” (Ephesians 1:22). “To us…but one Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:6), “made of God both Lord and Christ” (Acts 23:6); “Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16). He is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36); God’s king set on His “holy hill of Zion” (Psalm 2:6); “David their king” (Jeremiah 30:9; Ezekiel 34:23 and 37:24; Hosea 3:5); “King of kings” (Revelation 19:16).

3. Christ Fulfils the Work of Government of His Church

Certain fundamental acts of power and supreme authority in the government of the Church are especially ascribed to Jesus Christ our Mediator, as appropriate to Him alone above all creatures. These include the following.

(a) Giving laws to His Church

“The law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2); gave commandments to the apostles (Acts 1:2); “There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy” (James 4:12); “The Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver” (or statute maker), “the Lord is our king” (Isaiah 33:22).

(b) Instituting ordinances for His Church to be edified

These include:

  • preaching the Word (Matthew 10:7; 1 Cor. 1:17; Matt. 28:18–20; Mark 16:15);
  • administering the sacraments: Baptism (John 1:33 with Matthew 3:13 and
    28:18–19) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:20, 23, etc.; Matthew 26:26, etc.; Mark 14:22,
    etc.; Luke 22:19–20);
  • administering censures (Matthew 16:19 with 18:15–18, etc.).

(c) Ordaining and appointing those officers who are to administer His ordinances in His Church

“He gave gifts to men … and he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:7–11. Compare 1 Corinthians 12:28; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; Acts 20:28).

(d) Administering Christ’s Ordinances in Christ’s Name

Christ’s ordinances are not administered in the name of civil governors, ministers, churches, councils, etc., but in Christ’s own name. The apostles spoke and taught “in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:17–18); “Whatsoever you ask in my name” (John 14:13–14; 16:23); “Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son” (Matthew 28:18–19); “They were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5); “In the name … with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one to Satan” (1 Cor. 5:4[–5]). Assemblies of the church are to be in Christ’s name. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name” (Matthew 18:20).

This has been extracted from a pastoral book on church government called Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici: The Divine Right of Church Government which has recently been republished.

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Is Church Government Worth Suffering For?

Is Church Government Worth Suffering For?

Is Church Government Worth Suffering For?
George Gillespie (1613 – 1648) ministered in Fife and Edinburgh and was one of the main Scottish theologians at the Westminster Assembly. He wrote several important publications in support of Presbyterian church government.
15 Oct, 2020

Few people want to hear about church government today, let alone suffer for it. Of all principles and truths it is perhaps one that people are least likely to want to suffer for. They may even think that Scripture doesn’t really require anything very clear about how the church should be ordered. They just think of it as a kind of administration and that there are many ways of “doing church”. We need to consider the matter more carefully, however. To be punished for resisting state control over the church would be to suffer for church government, for instance. Is that worth suffering for? Perhaps, at face value, this issue seems very remote from Christ and the main things. But it does in fact concern us with Christ Himself.

Thousands of Covenanters suffered torture, banishment, imprisonment, loss of goods and execution. Why? For liberty? Yes, in an indirect sense. Certainly for Christ but in relation to a specific matter. The reason they suffered these things was their steadfastness on a matter of church government. George Gillespie was one of many who had in earlier decades suffered for church government. Many had suffered more than he, including imprisonment and loss of possessions. In this updated extract, Gillespie shows that the question of whether the state should control the church is not a side issue. It concerns the glory and authority of Christ Himself. This was the key controversy he was seeking to help resolve.

Christ Himself Suffered for Church Government

This controversy highly concerns Jesus Christ Himself in His glory, royal prerogative, and kingdom which He has and exercises as Mediator and Head of His Church. The crown of Jesus Christ or any part, privilege, or piece of that must be a noble and excellent subject. This truth that Jesus Christ is a king, and has a kingdom and government in His Church, distinct from the kingdoms of this world and from the civil government, has a commendation above all other truths. Christ Himself suffered to the death for it and sealed this truth with His blood.

For it may be observed from the story of His passion, this was the only point of His accusation which He Himself confessed and owned. It was aggravated, prosecuted, and driven home most by the Jews and prevailed most with Pilate as the cause for condemning Him to die. It was mentioned also in the superscription or sign written on His cross. Although in reference to God and providing satisfaction to divine justice for our sins, His death was a price of redemption, yet in reference to men who did persecute, accuse, and condemn Him, His death was a martyr’s testimony to seal such a truth.

This kingly office of Jesus Christ (as well as His prophetic office) is not only administered and exercised inwardly and invisibly by the working of His Spirit in the souls of particular individuals. It is also exercised outwardly and visibly in the Church, as a visible body politic, in which He has appointed His own officers, ambassadors, courts, laws, ordinances and censures. All these are to be administered ministerially in His own name as the only king and head of the Church.

Herod and Pilate (like many princes, potentates, and states) looked on this with so much fear and jealousy, as another government co-ordinate with civil government. But what was dark on their side has been light on the other side to those servants of Jesus Christ who have stood, contended, and sometimes suffered much for the ordinance of Church government and discipline which they looked on as a part of Christ’s kingdom. John Welsh (of Ayr, my countryman of precious memory) suffered much for the same truth and was ready to seal it with his blood.

It is indeed no new thing for the most faithful ministers of Jesus Christ to be reproached and accused of being guilty of Treason. This was not only the lot of David Calderwood, Welsh and those that suffered with him but of John Knox before them. Likewise many martyrs, confessors and the apostles themselves. Yet (if we will judge righteous judgement, and weigh things in a just balance) we do not rob the government of that which is their’s, by giving to Christ that which is Christ’s.

We desire to hold up the honour and greatness, power and authority of government against all that despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities. We hold that it is proper for kings, princes and governors to be called lords over their subjects over whom they exercise civil government.  But only Christ may be called Lord and Master in the spiritual government of the Church. All bear office in it ought not to usurp dominion, nor be called lords, but only ministers, disciples and servants. We acknowledge and affirm that civil Government in empires, kingdoms, dominions, and cities is ordained by God for His own glory and for the great good of mankind. Any who are enemies to civil government are enemies to mankind and the revealed will of God. Such persons as are placed in authority are to be be loved, honoured, feared, and held in the greatest respect and esteem because they are the lieutenants of God, in whose seat God Himself sits and judges.

The Lord guide you and all His people in ways of truth and peace, holiness and righteousness. The Lord grant that this controversy may (I trust it shall) have a happy end to the glory of God, to the embracing and exalting of Jesus Christ in His kingly office, to the ordering of His house according to His own will, to keeping the ordinances pure, to the advancing of holiness, and shaming of profaneness. And finally to the peace, quiet, wellbeing, comfort, and happiness of the churches of Christ.

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Should Most Evangelicals Support Women Preachers?

Should Most Evangelicals Support Women Preachers?

Should Most Evangelicals Support Women Preachers?
John Brown of Wamphray (1610-1679) was the Church of Scotland minister of Wamphray near Dumfries. One of the great theological writers in the later period of the Second Reformation, he wrote a large number of books and also pastored the Scots Church at Rotterdam.
20 Aug, 2020

A recent survey conducted in the USA indicated that 7 out of 10 self-identified evangelicals agreed that “women should be allowed to preach on Sunday morning”. The results showed that these figures are not reduced when frequency of attendance and attitude to the Bible are taken into consideration. Three-quarters of those who claimed to believe that the Bible is literally true and attend services multiple times a week agreed with women preaching. Age did not seem to make a significant difference in people’s views either. We do not know what arguments these people consider strongest in favour of this view. Popular arguments are, however, familiar enough from the wider debate on this issue. If we claim to take the Bible as literally true, we must consider what it says on this subject. Whatever most evangelicals support we need to know what the Bible itself supports. Let us consider some of the passages that speak clearly on this matter.

Many books have been written on this subject, but shorter articles can still be useful. It is also helpful to consider how previous generations have understood Scripture in relation to this debate. Did they have clear biblical reasons for their views? It is helpful to do this because sometimes we are especially influenced by being so close to our own cultural perspective and current debates. Some want to claim that the New Testament’s assertions are merely cultural and can be bypassed. Yet who decides what is cultural and how far this approach goes? Others want to redefine what “teaching” means. A technical in-depth refutation of that kind of redefinition can be found in Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 by Andreas Köstenberger and Thomas Schreiner.

The question is not whether men are allowed to preach and teach publicly but women aren’t. The question is rather who is qualified according to Scripture to preach and teach. “Are all teachers?” (1 Corinthians 12:29) asks Paul. Clearly not. Not all men are qualified for office in the church. Only some men and not all are among those qualified and called to preach. This issue does not downgrade the important contribution of woman within the church any more than it downgrades male members who are not in office.

Arguments in favour of women preaching have been made in the past as well as in the present. In the more distant past, those who were promoting this practice were various groups and sects such as the Quakers. John Brown of Wamphray responded to these arguments and the following is an updated extract. Beginning with the passages that deal with this most explicitly he makes the following blunt observation. Some plead for women speaking or preaching in the public assemblies of the Church notwithstanding the fact that Paul has in two distinct places, expressly prohibited it.

1 Corinthians 14:34-38

One passage is 1 Corinthians 14:34 “Let your women keep silence, in the churches”. We might think, that this was indeed enough to satisfy us; but see what the apostle adds further to enforce this, “for it is not permitted unto them to speak”, i.e. in the churches. This is as if he had said “they have no permission to do so”. And as if all this were not enough, he adds all that is permitted to them i.e. to be under obedience as the law requires. By this he wants us to understand that women speaking in the churches is inconsistent with the obedience that the law of God has laid on them. He implies that speaking by teaching in the churches is an authoritative thing, and therefore not allowed to women in any way. Their proper behaviour according to the institution and law of God, is to be under obedience. He will not even permit them so much as to ask questions for the sake of learning in the churches lest this would make way for usurping authority and beginning to speak with authority. He adds in verse 35 that if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home. He adds that it was contrary to that modesty that is the ornament of women in saying that it is a shame for women to speak in the church.

What the apostle adds to confirm this injunction concerning women in the verses that follow  is also notable. They may be considered along with his previous directions which he had given to regulate the abuses of that church. He asks them if the Word of God came out from them or to them alone. In other words, are you the first, last, and only Christians there are? Or must you give laws to all the churches of Christ? And must they all follow you? It is as though no previous church has had the Word of God in relation to this. In verse 37 he goes on to say that if any man thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord. Those who defend women preachers must take notice of this. When they contradict this express injunction of the apostle, they declare themselves (whatever they want to say to the contrary) to be neither prophets nor spiritual.

We also see that what Paul spoke concerning this silence of women in the church was the commandment of the Lord. Therefore it is obligatory for all churches who seek to own any relation to Christ as their Lord and Head. Those who reject this commandment of the Lord renounce (in this area) their relation to the Lord as their Head and Lawgiver. The next verse (v38). “But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant” also have their own weight. It is as if he had said, if anyone still will not (despite all this) accept this let him do so. No more needs be said to convince him because he is wilfully ignorant and must remain so. Thus, we must say in this particular matter that if people will remain ignorant, we cannot help it. We must follow our rule and declare them unable of being convinced on this and so leave them to it.

1 Timothy 2:11—14

Another explicit passage against women preachers is 1 Timothy 2:11—14. This requires the women to learn in silence with all obedience and not to teach nor to usurp authority over the man. We can see from this that teaching publicly is an act of authority and that inconsistent, with the silence and obedience required from women. The apostle, as a faithful servant of Christ, will not therefore give way to it. He makes this known to Timothy so that he may suppress any such practice where it exists or hinder where people want to establish it. He adds his reasons; saying, for Adam was first formed, then Eve. By this he teaches us that such a practice is contrary to the law of creation, the law written on the Creation, and the way and method of creation which the Lord chose to follow. This made an express declaration of His will to mankind.

The apostle also adds that Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. That is, the woman being immediately and first deceived by Satan was the cause and occasion of Adam’s transgressing. Her submission to the man was further laid on her as a more grievous weight and burden, as a part of her punishment. Those who seek to have women usurping authority and teaching in the church seek to annul the sentence passed on women by the just Lord for Eve’s being the cause of Adam’s sin. Such declare in a way that that sentence was unjust; and that Eve was not the devil’s instrument to cause Adam to sin.

Galatians 3:28

Some say that women can be preachers because male and female are one in Christ. “Seeing” (they say) “God gives His Spirit to one as well as to another, when the Lord moves in women by His Spirit, we do not think it unlawful in any way for them to preach in the meetings of God’s people”.

The following is the answer to this:
(1) There is neither male, nor female just as there is neither Jew nor Greek but all are one in Christ. This is true in reference to the privileges of the Covenant under the present New Testament administration. It is different from what was the case under the Old Testament. This is what Paul is speaking of in Galatians 3:28. But it does not follow from this as a consequence by any clear connection or appearance of reason that women as well as men may therefore preach in the assemblies of the church

(2) That God gives His sanctifying Spirit to women, as well as men, is very true. But that He moves them to preach is not. If the Spirit of God moves in women, He will prompt them to duty i.e. to keep silence in the Church and not teach there or usurp authority. Rather she will learn in obedience, remembering what her sex is called to by the law of God, and that punishment on all women due to Eve’s conduct.

Acts 2:17

Some think the passages we have cited out of Paul’s Epistles do not oppose their practice of women preachers. Yet a more explicit contradiction is not imaginable. They appeal to the fact that women have prophesied in the Church to counter this.
In answer to this, the Lord has indeed made use of women to be prophetesses, He is free to make use of whom He will. His rare and extraordinary acts are no rule to us, however. His Law is our rule, and we must go to the Law and to the Testimony. He is absolute and is not bound by the rules and laws, He prescribes to us,

Some point out that Peter applies Joel’s prophecy in Acts 2:17 which speaks of women prophesying. But how does Peter apply it? Were there any women preachers among the company converted through Peter? During the particular time in which Peter applies Joel’s prophecy we do not hear of the least appearance of any women preachers and this manifestly declares to the contrary.

1 Corinthians 11:5

Some say that Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 11:5 gave rules how women should conduct themselves, in their public preaching and prayers. The problem with this is that makes the apostle contradict himself in the same epistle. Is it not safer for us to say that whatever rules he gave, they were such as must be consistent with the plain, absolute and enforced prohibition of their preaching, teaching, or speaking in the public meetings of the church? But what were the rules he gave concerning women? He said that every woman that prays or prophesies with her head uncovered, dishonours her head. Some assume this refers to how they should conduct themselves when prophesying or praying publicly before others in the assembly. But the apostle is only showing what should be the conduct of both men and women when present in the public assemblies at the time of public worship. He shows how they should conduct themselves while the Word was spoken and explained and public prayers was being made, not by themselves but by others appointed for this.

Philippians 4:3

Some appeal to Philippians 4:3 where Paul speaks of women that laboured with him in the gospel. The question is, in what way did they do this? Some imagine it was by public preaching in the assemblies but what grounds are there for this? What hint is given of this? Is there no labouring in the gospel, except by public preaching? Some point out that Philip had four daughters that prophesied (Acts 21:9). But where do we read that they preached in the public assemblies of the church?

Arguing from Experience

Some argue that God has converted many to Himself by the means of women and frequently comforted the minds of His sons. They say that this manifest experience puts the matter to us beyond all controversy. The following answers may, however, be made.

(1) God may make use of women in a private capacity for this effect and has often blessed their honest endeavours to this end. We most willingly acknowledge this, but the question is not about their efforts and labour in private in their particular place and capacities, but about public preaching in open and public assemblies of the church.

(2) If people mean preaching in the public assemblies when they speak about God using women, it is suspect.  Such experiences, being false and falsely founded, can provide no evidence against the standing and binding laws of Christ in His Church. Otherwise we make experience our Bible from which all arguments are brought to defend all erroneous and irregular practices. It is safest to examine experiences by a standing rule; if they do not agree with this they are at best the result and acts of the power of people’s own vain imaginations. If people will steer their course by such a compass, we think it little wonder if they dash on the rocks and make shipwreck of truth.

Conclusion

Other points could be made but this survey of the key passages covers the main points in a concise way. Many of the arguments are not necessarily new, it is just that they are coming from a new source. There are many other treatments of this issue, some of which go into considerable depth. Yet for some the matter is settled by the clear words of Scripture themselves. If these words do not mean what they say they mean then how does that affect other clear passages? If we believe the Spirit is apparently saying something new to us about these verses then why is it so contradictory to what others have believed (1 Corinthians 14:36)? The debate on this question relates to a wider question of whether we accept the plain language of Scripture and its authority. Are we willing to let Scripture have supreme authority or is our submission to it conditional on culture or experience?

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What Happens When Christ Opens Doors for the Gospel?

What Happens When Christ Opens Doors for the Gospel?

What Happens When Christ Opens Doors for the Gospel?
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
7 May, 2020

Has the coronavirus prompted more concern about spiritual things? To some extent, yes. Google searches on prayer for 95 countries during this crisis have increased to the highest level ever recorded. The Danish author of the study, Jeanet Sinding Bentzen said she found that “search intensity for ‘prayer’ doubles for every 80,000 new registered cases of COVID-19.” The Pew Research Center also reported increased prayer in the USA. 44% of Americans have also said that the COVID-19 coronavirus is a “wake-up call for us to turn back to faith in God.” One of the UK’s largest online Christian bookstores, Eden, has seen physical Bible sales rise by 55 per cent in April. It is too early to say how significant this is or how the impact of this will be sustained or if it is a window that is already closing. But it should spur us to prayer ourselves. Perhaps you have heard of other indications of increased interest. Whether or not this is a window of opportunity for the gospel, it is helpful to consider what Christ means by an open door and its relevance to us. In these days of disruption for churches there is tremendous encouragement in it.

Scripture speaks about an open door in a number of places but especially in Revelation 3:7-8. It gives the encouragement that Christ is Head over His Church and opens doors that no one can shut. He has all power and authority in relation to His Church. It uses the language of Isaiah 22:20–22 and the authority given to Eliakim. As James Durham points out in the following updated extract, we can draw great reassurance from this.

It encourages us that Christ Jesus, as Mediator, has special oversight and government of the church He is completely sovereign so that when He shuts no one can open and vice versa. None of His orders can be obstructed, He has an exalted name above every other (Philippians 2:9) and no one can compete with His authority. He is holy and true (v7) and therefore cannot wrong any, nor fail in fulfilling His promises.

Ministers and churches can (like the church in Philadelphia) wrestle with great difficulties, weaknesses and distresses and these reassurances are given to encourage them. It shows them that Christ will support and comfort them in their trials. An open door is God giving opportunity to do good by the gospel (1 Corinthians 16:9; It is not only freedom to preach the gospel, but also God’s blessing on it (2 Corinthians 2:12).

It is as if Christ says the following to the minister of the church in Philadelphia who is said to have only “a little strength” (v8). “It is not for nothing that I have the key of the house of David, and open and no man shuts. I have given you commission to preach My gospel, and given you access to labour in My work of the ministry with some measure of success for doing good to souls.”

By assuring him that no one can shut this door, it is as though Christ is saying the following. “No one will hinder My work in your hands; no enemies or difficulties that you can meet with shall stop you. I have sent the gospel among you and given you ability to preach and the people ability to benefit. As I have sent the gospel among you, I will keep it among you, so long as I think good; no matter who may oppose it.”

1. What is an open door?

By an open door, Scripture usually means the Lord making way for the beneficial preaching of the gospel. This does not mainly consist in having ability and freedom, without any external restraint, to preach the gospel. It especially refers to God giving inward liberty to the preacher His blessing the Word, making it effectual and successful on the hearts of hearers. This is called, a door of utterance in Colossians 4:3, when a minister is not restrained in preaching the gospel, but as it were, the door is thrown open to him. In 2 Corinthians 2:12 it indicates God sending him in a special way and removing difficulties out of the way to make his ministry successful there. In 1 Corinthians 16:9 an effectual door is opened even where there is much opposition.
2. What does an open door imply?
It implies several things

(a) Ministers have their limitations
That there is a limitation in ministers who cannot make the gospel as productive as it ought to be. They cannot make the gospel as effective as it will be when the Lord sends forth the Spirit and enlarges a man to speak it with boldness. In this respect a door of utterance is opened to him, as clear from Colossians 4:3.

(b) Congregations have their limitations
That there is a further hindrance in that the ears and hearts of hearers are so locked up that the Word has no entrance but is repelled. The Lord opens this door, when by the work of His Spirit on hearts (like Lydia, Acts 16:4) He makes the Word to be received and admitted. Thus, Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:1, urges them to pray that the Word may have free course, that is, that there be no shut doors to hinder its progress. Both liberty for the minister to speak and blessing and success among the people are meant here.

(c) Providence maintains the Word
An open door also includes God’s providence in keeping the Word ministered and ordinances in a place with liberty in preaching and hearing. This may be despite many malicious opponents. No one can shut it.

3. Why does Christ open the door at certain times?

Christ is supreme and sovereign in giving gifts to men as well as liberty and inward freedom to make best use of them He also gives a blessing on them in making them successful. Gifts will not make a man able to preach unless the Lord gives a door of utterance. Even the great apostle Paul needs this (Colossians 4:3). Merely having utterance will not produce fruit among the people if the Lord does not open an effectual door and give the Word free course among them. Where there is most of the gift of utterance, there may be less success than where there are fewer gifts. This is because He whose privilege it is to set doors open, opens the door of utterance more fully to one, and the effectual door to the other, and does not open both equally to all.

4. What happens when Christ opens a door?

When Christ opens the door in this way, success cannot but follow necessarily and inevitably. No person or devil can shut out or impede it when He pleases to bless His ministers and commend the Word to the hearts of hearers. The meaning particular for the angel or minister here is. “I have called you to this ministry, and have given you some measure of utterance, though you do not have much ability. I have especially ordered matters so as the Word from you will have free course and success. No matter who rages against it, this will not be obstructed.”

This shows us that gifts and success in the ministry are different things. There is a little strength here (in relation to gifts) yet an open door (in respect of success). We find throughout Paul’s Epistles that a distinction is made between his liberty to preach on the one hand, and God’s opening an effectual door to him on the other.
Christ makes the Word successful, He gives both the gifts and the success. Not everyone experiences the same blessing. An open door is set before some more than before others or not at all before others. This is clear from comparing this and other epistles together.

5. How do we recognise an open door?

An open door cannot be discerned from a man’s gift alone. A door may be shut where there are great gifts. Paul did not always have this door open to him, at least it was more in one place than another. We cannot conclude there is an open door from a man’s freedom from external afflictions in a place, or the great following he may have. There may sometimes be many adversaries where this effectual door is opened (1 Corinthians 16:9) which is not the case where there is great peace and praise. Here are some ways in which it can be discerned.

(a) When a minister gets the door of utterance opened and the ears of the people are opened to it which is not a flesh pleasing desire to have ears tickled but with someone’s gifts but a simple, diligent love to be edified and receive good.
(b) Where there is real change and much solid work; the people are made humble, serious, spiritual sensitive, fruitful, etc. rather than merely opinionated
(c) When the devil attacks and opposes the ministry of one more than of many others.
(d) When the devil and ungodliness are defeated in a place by the preaching of the Word.
(e) Where there are new converts.

6. How should we make best use of an open door?

(a) Diligently, as a man that is to reap corn that is already ripe.
(b) Humbly, with self-denial, lest his pride robs the Master of His glory with dire consequences for himself.
(c) Watchfully. He should make use of it with fear, lest he or any other bring about a miscarriage in this birth because of unskillfulness. He should also proceed with watchfulness, lest the devil sow tares while he is sleeping, and it prove to be false without reality in many hearers. This is Paul’s concern; he was conscious of his own and their weaknesses (1 Corinthians 2:3).
(d) Zealously, so that the authority of Christ may appear in His ordinances both to adversaries and friends.
(e) Solidly, by making the foundation sure and giving solid food to souls such as the substantial gospel truths and the plain duties of holiness. It is dangerous to bring such a people too soon to the new wine of the most sublime things in doctrine, or the highest practices of mature Christians. It is better that they are fed on milk and what is healthy and nourishing than to please their appetites by diverting them with useless questions.
(f) Dependently, God is the Master and He has appointed a great Steward over the house, who has the keys laid upon His shoulder. The minister has no inherent right to such blessing but is subject to the Master’s good pleasure. Christ must be acknowledged in every step of the
work as it is has been done, or is being done.
(g) Single mindedly, this is the great aim of all preaching in public and private i.e. the edification and salvation of the people, and forming Christ in them by travailing, as it were, in birth for that purpose.

Conclusion

Here is some helpful biblical insight in discerning true opportunities and blessing provided by Christ. We can identify when Christ is at work by His Spirit in a more extraordinary way. If we feel discouraged about the prospects of the gospel and preaching being blessed, we can see that Christ can work in the most unlikely of circumstances. He can make use of anyone who is serious and faithful in serving Him and who does not seek to take the glory to themselves.

This is an encouragement to those ministers who feel that their gifts are nothing special compared to others. They may actually witness greater blessing than others. It is also an encouragement to congregations to be faithful to their minister whether or not they think that he has the gifts of a more prominent preacher. They should greatly value the preaching they hear if it is faithful to Christ and His Word. If Christ chooses to bless it, the more humble ministry may possibly be more fruitful. be more blessed. Christ shows both ministers and people that as mere men they are insufficient for any such thing, they must look to Him. It is not gifts that commend a minister to Christ, but faithfulness in making best use of what he has received (Matthew 25:14–30; Luke 19:11–27).

It should encourage us to pray for the success of the gospel and the ministry of the Word. May the Lord open many such doors in our generation.

GET THE BOOK

In The Scandal of Stumbling Blocks, James Durham helps us to consider this vital issue deeply by defining the nature of stumbling as well as showing its serious consequences. He looks in considerable detail at different kinds of stumbling and identifies the ways that people can stumble and be stumbled. Durham provides practical advice for avoiding and preventing offense.

Now edited in modern English, Durham’s classic treatment on considerate Christianity can be used to edify a new generation.

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Are You Weeping Over Our Empty Churches?

Are You Weeping Over Our Empty Churches?

Are You Weeping Over Our Empty Churches?
David Dickson (c.1583–1662) was a Professor of Theology at the University of Glasgow and Edinburgh who wrote commentaries on many different books of Scripture. He opposed the unbiblical worship and church government foisted on the Church in Scotland by Charles II and this cost him his position.
20 Mar, 2020

Almost all churches have become empty overnight. The public worship of God has been removed across many nations. If you are kept from attending public worship, are you mourning over that as David did (Psalm 42:2-5)? Why should it cause so much distress? Worship is the highest activity we can engage in and God places special emphasis on public worship (Psalm 87:2). What is more important than the public worship of God? This is the purpose for which souls are brought out of spiritual darkness (1 Peter 2:9). The intention is not to make people feel guilty because they are prevented from attending public worship. Sometimes there are things beyond our control that stop us. The crucial question is: are we weeping over such an extraordinary and solemn removal of public worship across the face of the earth?

Some will say that they can worship privately at home and this can make up much of the loss. Connecting distantly as a spectator to an empty building is not the same as public worship. Private worship is a great privilege and benefit, it can bring us much edification. But, by definition, it is not, public worship. It is there that we most want to praise God (Psalm 22:22&25). Thus, the Westminster Confession says that God is to be worshipped “more solemnly, in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly or wilfully to be neglected, or forsaken, when God, by His Word or providence, calleth thereunto” (WCF 21:6). The Lord promises a special blessing for public worship (Exodus 20:24). David greatly desired that and so should we (Psalm 27:4; 63:1-2).

What about the public glory of Christ? The public glory of Christ is vital–His glory in the Church and in society. One great means of this is public worship of God (Psalm 29:9). God is more glorified by public worship than any other worship. It is possible for us to glorify God in the secrecy of our hearts and the privacy of our homes. Surely we want God’s glory manifested publicly as well as privately? Usually this is what is meant when we read in Scripture about the glory of the Lord being revealed. We want as many people as possible to see that glory and to join in praising God together (Psalm 96:1-3; Psalm 66:1). “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together” (Psalm 34:3).

Scripture never envisages the removal of public worship as being anything less than disastrous (read Psalm 74 for just one example). It is no light thing, it is not “just one of those things” that are unusual and regrettable but nonetheless merely “unfortunate”. Many interpreters have concluded that the beginning of gathered public worship is described in Genesis 4:26. It would be solemn to look back and identify the present moment as a time when people began not to call on the name of the Lord, because of the removal of public worship.

The book of Lamentations is for just such a time as this. It brings events into perspective. Jeremiah witnessed the destruction of everything. He pours out his heart and sorrowful prayers before the Lord. His tears flow freely,  especially concerning the spiritual losses such as the destruction of the temple. “The ways of Zion do mourn, because none come to the solemn feasts: all her gates are desolate” (Lamentations 1:4).

It is noticeable that he traces it back to God’s warnings through the prophets that this would take place. Thus, it is ultimately the Lord who has “cast off his altar” and sanctuary. He has “violently taken away his tabernacle…destroyed his places of the assembly” and “caused the solemn feasts and sabbaths to be forgotten in Zion” (Lamentations 2:6-7). The following is an updated extract from David Dickson’s exposition of that verse.

1. God Removes His Protection

Another point of his lamentation is that God has taken away the hedge of His protection from His Church. It is as if a man would pull away his hedge from his garden
and let all the beasts in. He has taken away His tabernacle, as any would pull away his hedge from his orchard. He has destroyed her places of assembly, so that they did not have a place to meet in. He has caused their solemn feasts and sabbaths to be forgotten, that is, there is no memory left of public solemnities. The fact that God violently pulls away His tabernacle shows us that there is no place so holy that God is held to unles it is visited in a holy way. Although He said of Jerusalem, “this is the place of my rest forever,” (1 Kings 8:13 and 9:13) yet when they abused it He forsook it.

2. God Removes His Presence

Jerusalem had this promise, yet God removed His presence because His worship was abused. How will then any place without such a promise affirm that God is held to it? There never was a place that God was more strictly held to than Jerusalem. Yet when they abused it He left it, for He is a God of purer eyes than to behold iniquity (Habakkuk 1:13). Let no one think they will enjoy the Word and gospel unless they walk in the light of it. Will the Lord expose His Word and ordinances to mockery and cast His bread to those that are not hungry?

But seeing the Lord is pleased to maintain a tabernacle among us, let us not defile the place of His rest by our sins. Do not stir up our love till He pleases (Song of Solomon 2:7). Do not provoke Him to be driven away from us and go His way. For if we do, although we may be dear to Him and also as near to Him as the signet ring of His hand (Jeremiah 22:24), He will pull us off and cast us away. He is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), but will do to us as to His Church in former times.

3. God Removes the Visible Church

God “destroyed the places of the assembly.” This shows that the sins of professing Christians will provoke God to remove the face or outward appearance of a visible church. If we do not make better use of our meetings in the church, God will make them like filthy lavatories. There was no visible church on earth except Jerusalem, yet when it was abused by idolatry, He scattered it. Although some stones here and there were reserved for a new building, the face of a visible church was abolished. It is as great folly to say there will always be a visible church in a place, as to say that a church cannot offend God.

Judah’s solemn feasts were the equivalent of our communions. If we do not make use of our solemn meetings, frequent preaching and communions, they will go out of remembrance. The public ensigns (i.e. military flag) by which we should follow our Lord will cease to be displayed.

Conclusion

These are truly solemn considerations that we must take to heart. They are very applicable to our own time. It is easy for us to take public worship for granted until we have it removed. Have we treated it as we should, have we benefited from it as we ought? Have we been too glib in assuming that God would not cast off the professing Church in the west? Could it be that (as with Old Testament Israel) we have actually corrupted God’s worship to suit ourselves rather than His commands and therefore God is taking it from us?

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Preventing Patterns of Spiritual Harm in Church Life

Preventing Patterns of Spiritual Harm in Church Life

Preventing Patterns of Spiritual Harm in Church Life
Alexander Nisbet (1623-69) was a Covenanting minister and Bible expositor in and around Irvine in Ayrshire. He was ordained in 1646 and was removed from his church in 1662 for refusing to comply with the re-establishment of Episcopacy.
25 Feb, 2020

Controversy has been swirling around the recent term spiritual abuse. It’s about the spiritual harm that comes from misuse of spiritual authority. This may mean using spiritual motivations to manipulate and coerce behaviour. Clearly it is wrong and against Scripture to manipulate. But with such a loose definition, some may perceive spiritual abuse in the plain communication of law and gospel or the biblical exercise of church discipline. If we only identify spiritual harm taking place where an individual has a perception of being abused spiritually, we may also be ignoring the bigger picture. Great spiritual harm comes from the neglect as well as the misuse of authority. Others question whether it is fair to spotlight emotional and psychological coercion and control in a spiritual context more than elsewhere. Even experts on “spiritual abuse” say a separate category is not needed. Whatever we make of the term spiritual abuse, spiritual harm is real. Rather than the framework being set by the secular definition of spiritual abuse we need to think about this issue biblically.

Without minimising the distress of those who have been in situations of coercion, we need a wider view of the subject. No-one includes under spiritual abuse teaching that condones a sinful lifestyle (Jude 1:4) or preaches a false gospel. Yet these cause the greatest spiritual harm. Spiritual relationships can also be misused in many ways. Sometimes there are harmful pressures and unbiblical expectations that congregations use to control their pastors. Or there may be harmful interactions between fellow church members that may or may not lead to extreme situations. If we think that spiritual manipulation couldn’t take place in our own context we only need to look at similar types of churches when it has.

Scripture rejects manipulative teaching (2 Corinthians 4:2). It warns against leaders who impose burdens for their own benefit (Matthew 23:4) and those who use their status for personal gain (Ezekiel 34:1-3) or lust (1 Samuel 2:22). There are harsh words for those who make the church their own empire and abuse their position (3 John 9-10). But spiritual harm is also connected with sheer neglect of duties (Ezekiel 34:4-5; Matthew 9:36). We are not dealing with outward things but the lasting good of souls that will never die and have an eternal destiny. Neglecting to care for souls is the most serious neglect there is.

How do we prevent such patterns marring the life of the church? It is a very large subject. For now, however, we can focus on biblical teaching that sets the right standard for those in positions of spiritual authority. Everyone can learn from these principles and apply them.

The apostle Peter speaks of the duties of those who have the oversight of the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2-3). They are to feed the Lord’s people with His truth and rule them by His discipline. In order to do this, they need to pay diligent close attention to the condition of the people and their way of living. He urges them to take the oversight willingly not as if they were forced to it. Rather it should be from an inward inclination to serve their Master and profit His people not their own personal gain. They should do their work with a ready mind and heart prepared by Christ.

They must not pretend to have any dominion over the Lord’s people. Instead, their whole way of life should provide an example of holy humility. It is a passage that emphasises humble service for Christ and His people’s sake, not serving self by lording it over the flock. This example helps provide a model of how we should relate to one another and so prevent patterns of spiritual harm. Alexander Nisbet draws some practical principles from it in the following updated extract.

1. Feed Christ’s Flock

Every minister of Christ ought to be able to feed His people with His saving truth (Jeremiah 3:15). It needs to be rightly divided and applied (2 Timothy 2:15), to every one of them, according to their varying conditions (Matthew 24:45). This is no less necessary for cherishing and increasing their spiritual life than ordinary food for their bodies at the right time (Job 23:13). They need wisdom, authority and equity for ruling the Lord’s people by the right exercise and application of church discipline. Feeding and ruling are expressed by one word in both Hebrew and Greek, to signify that they are equally required of every minister. Their duty is mainly emphasised here when it is said “feed the flock”.

2. Watch Over Christ’s Flock

It is not enough for the ministers of Christ to declare sound and saving truths to His people in their teaching and rule them by church discipline. They must also pay diligent close attention to how their live and their varying conditions and needs. They do this by frequently conversing with them and visiting them. This is what “oversight” means. They cannot apply either the truth or discipline to the flock of God as they ought without this.

3. Remember it is Christ’s Flock Not Your’s

Ministers should be stirred up to greater faithfulness and diligence in their calling when they consider that the people for whom they are responsible are the flock of God. He will provide for them (Isaiah 40:11) and be fearful to those who neglect or wrong them (Ezekiel 34:2,10 etc)..In order to stir elders to be faithfulness and painstaking in their duty, the apostle describes the people they have responsibility for as “the flock of God”.

4. Serve with Earnest Spiritual Desire

Anyone with a sense of their own weakness and of the weighty responsibility of caring for souls will be reticent in one sense to thrust themselves into that work (Exodus 3:11, Jeremiah 1:6). Yet once they have been called to it and engaged in it, they should not carry out the duties constrained by their fears. They may be fearful of revealing their own weakness, or lest they fall under the censure of others. They may also fear that their own conscience may trouble them for neglect of their duty. The apostle is aware of this danger and seeks to dissuade them from it because it would harm the way in which they go about their duty without a sense of constraint or compulsion.

Every faithful minister should have a strong inclination and inward desire in his spirit towards his duty. There should be so much love to Jesus Christ arising from the sense of his personal obligation to Him (2 Corinthians 5:14) that it produces this. His desire for the salvation of souls (1 Corinthians 10:33) should also be so great that he is not motivated by any outward consideration of gain or glory etc. These desires will keep him in the work and not allow him to neglect it.

6. Do Not Serve for Personal Gain

Christ’s ministers have His authority to receive from the people (according to their ability) a sufficient means of outward subsistence, (1 Corinthians 9:14). Yet for any of the ministers of Christ to make worldly gain their great incentive to undertake that calling, or their primary motive for its duties is a shameful and filthy frame of mind. This is most obvious when they exert themselves to the utmost to please those most from whom they expect most gain (Numbers 23:1). It can also lead them to oppose and discourage others from whom they expect least (Micah 3:5). This evil is abominable to God, detestable to faithful ministers, and something that disables them from doing their duty in the right way. Thus, the apostle warns them against filthy and shameful gain.

7. Be Prepared for Any Duty

A minister of Christ who seeks to carry out his duty in the right way must wait for every opportunity for doing it. He must keep himself in some fitness of spirit for every part of his calling. He should be ready whether or not the opportunity of fulfilling specific duties are immediately available. This is implied by the requirement that they should be of a ready mind, eagerly awaiting opportunities.

8. Do Not Usurp Christ’s Lordship

All faithful ministers should abhor the idea of usurping amy lordship over their fellow-labourers (3 John 9) or over the people under their charge. This is apparent whent they seek to compel rather than persuade the people to be obedient to the gospel. This is contrary to the apostles’ practice (1 Corinthians 4:21,2 Corinthians 12:20). It is also shown when any make use of the Word, or discipline, to pursue their own private revenge or to achieve their purpose through mere force and wearing down those who oppose them (Ezekiel 34:4). This is contrary to the apostle’s commandment (2 Timothy 2:24,25). They are not to be “lords over God’s heritage”.

The church and people of God are His inheritance. He has purchased them to Himself with His blood (Acts 20:28). He is the only Lawgiver within it (Isaiah 33:22). God will never therefore cast off or hand it over (Psalm 94:14). This should make everyone afraid to lord it over His people. Neither should they call themselves alone “God’s heritage” since it is a name given here to all the Lord’s people. [Nisbet refers to the word kleron here which is translated heritage or charge. The word “clergy” was derived from this and applied to ministers alone to distinguish them from the laon – the people or laity. Nisbet and his contemporaries objected to these terms as unbiblical]. This is given as a motive to overseers to be diligent and to avoid usurping dominion over them.

9. Be an Example of Humble Self-denial

Ministers of Jesus Christ are complete when they have an attractive outward life combined with their abilities to teach and rule and other inward qualifications. Such a pattern of living allures the flock to follow them because they see it as worthy of imitation. Their behaviour should demonstrate the graces of God in their heart. These include faith and love (1 Timothy. 4:12) and patiently enduring personal wrongs (1 Corinthians 4:16). They should demonstrate humility and self-denial for the good of others (1 Corinthians 10:33). They are to be examples to the flock and all the rest of the apostle’s counsel to elders depends on this.

Conclusion

Patterns of spiritual harm can be prevented the more that positive examples of doing as much spiritual good as possible are displayed by those with oversight of the flock. The more humble self-denial and focus on the spiritual good of others there will be, the less spiritual harm will take place. The greatest spiritual harm happens when we want ourselves to be heard and obeyed more than Christ and when we refuse to submit to His authority and Word. What spiritual good indeed would be evident if we were content to decrease in order that Christ might increase?

Further Help

To explore these reflections further, you may find it helpful to read the article Your Role in Preventing Ministry Failure. It shows you how to support your minister through prayer. Surveys suggest that the two main reasons for ministries ending are burnout and moral failure. The two are not unconnected. Sometimes moral failure follows on from burnout but they arise from the same causes. Burnout often occurs due to chasing outward success and the approval of others. Success means focusing on what is visible and attracts attention, even if it means neglecting the inward life and cultivating personal godliness towards others. Moral failure begins with the neglect of the inward life. The origins of such failure are hidden and it may take time before they become more visible. How can you prevent what you cannot see?

 

 

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The Only Real Measurement of Christian Service

The Only Real Measurement of Christian Service

The Only Real Measurement of Christian Service
George Hutcheson (1615-1674) ministered in Ayrshire and Edinburgh and was a noted bible expositor. Like many other ministers he was removed from his congregation in 1662 for refusing to conform to the rule of bishops.
28 Nov, 2019

How do we measure the outcomes of serving Christ? Lots of activity? Large offerings and attendances? Many conversions? Our focus may be drawn to things that are commendable to a greater or lesser extent. But are they the main thing? Are we forgetting that any true growth only comes from God (1 Corinthians 3:7)? Overvaluing ourselves or other people and what we can do comes from undervaluing Christ. Are we in danger of getting in the way of people being able to see no one but the Saviour? This misses the whole point of serving Christ, there is no real progress unless we are brought low and He is lifted up.

When we look at our own personal service to Christ—is it about us or about Christ? Do we have the selfless attitude of Christ in what we do (Philippians 2:3-8)? It’s easy to measure ourselves by others and what they do—but that is wrong (2 Corinthians 10:12). We have nothing but weakness to contribute (2 Corinthians 11:30). Even when we have done everything that it was our duty to do we are unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10).

There is a biblical way to measure our service to Christ. It is the extent to which Christ is magnified. This was Paul’s approach (Philippians 1:20). Everyone would acknowledge this. But we cannot magnify Christ and ourselves at the same time. The way to magnify Christ more is that we should diminish. The motto of John the Baptist’s ministry was “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). We must be constantly decreasing, and He must be constantly increasing. It is fatal to undervalue Christ, but impossible to overvalue Him.

John the Baptist’s role was to point to Christ and prepare the way for Him. This meant taking attention away from himself. As George Hutcheson describes it, he was like the morning star which is increasingly obscured by the rising sun. Even though John was a burning and shining light, that brightness had to give way to the full glory of the Sun of Righteousness who was to shine ever more brightly. John did not stop being what he had been, but he was increasingly less esteemed as Christ was truly seen. This is how it should be.

As we reflect more on John the Baptist’s motto “He must increase, but I must decrease” we can see how it is the true measure of what it is to serve Christ. In a man-centred and man-pleasing age, attracted by what impresses us superficially, there is a strong temptation to eclipse the spiritual glory of Christ by letting someone else get in the way. As George Hutcheson explains in this updated extract, John the Baptist’s statement gives us the right perspective.

1. SERVICE TO CHRIST IS MEASURED BY HOW MUCH HE IS KNOWN

When Christ is not known, He will not be thought much of and not duly acknowledged. This means that others are esteemed too much. John implies that since Christ was not fully manifested, He was not properly esteemed. He implies also that He himself was esteemed too greatly by many. Indeed, some thought that John himself was the Messiah due to their ignorance of Christ.

2. SERVICE TO CHRIST IS MEASURED BY HOW MUCH HE IS GLORIFIED

When Christ shines in His glory, He will obscure the excellence of other things. This is the case with ministers in particular, not in respect of the purpose for which Christ has appointed them (to preach Himself). Such preaching will be in request even more as Christ becomes more glorious. But any pride or thinking of themselves too highly must vanish. When Christ shines in His fulness the light and glory belonging to ministers is seen as merely borrowed from Him, as the daystar borrows light from the sun. Christ’s splendour and light will obscure and swallow up their borrowed light as the rising sun does in relation to the daystar. The minister’s light and shining must be considered as only subservient to leading people to Christ and not to be rested on for itself. All this is implied when John says, “he must increase, but I must decrease”.

Proud envy will never be satisfied and those who indulge it will find they are tempted to it more and more in all kinds of ways. John tells those of his disciples who wanted to see him exalted that they were going to see him even less and Christ much more esteemed. “He must increase, but I must decrease”.

3. SERVICE TO CHRIST IS MEASURED BY HOW MUCH HE IS REVEALED

Where Christ manifests Himself and is truly known our estimation of Him will increase. It will be as the light that shines “more and more unto the perfect day”. There is such an excellence in Him that it cannot be fully comprehended at once. The more He is seen, the more He will be esteemed and accounted excellent. His kingdom and glory will continue to increase. “He must increase,” not in Himself, but as He is revealed and esteemed.

4. SERVICE TO CHRIST IS MEASURED BY HOW MUCH WE ARE CONTENT TO BE NOTHING

The purpose of the ministry of faithful servants of Christ is to commend and present Him. They will therefore be content to be abased and obscured, providing He is exalted and in request. They will be satisfied to see their Master esteemed more highly than themselves as merely the servants. This is why John speaks of this outcome as something with which he was content.

CONCLUSION

John goes on to say that Christ is “above all” (John 3:31). He is not only above John the Baptist but everything and everyone. Christ must increase and we must decrease, because He is above all. He comes from above, but we are of the earth and prone to speak and think in earthly ways (John 3:31). We need to remember how far below His majesty we are and to be humbled by any service we may be permitted to do for Him. The greater sense we have of His surpassing glory, the more we should be humbled and brought low in our own estimation. He must increase but we must decrease.

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Christ’s Message to Your Church

Christ’s Message to Your Church

Christ’s Message to Your Church
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
4 Oct, 2019

Christ’s message to your Church is a call to reform. It’s about spiritual reformation as well as outward reform.  It is easier to be consumed by outward activity rather than motivated by inward love and grace. Activity is highly visible; our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is largely invisible. The big danger for us all, when we’re focussed on issues, pressures and commendable activity, is that we neglect our inner spiritual health. It’s easy to fall into the temptation of outward faithfulness, yet inward decay. We have to be prepared to ask ourselves, “Have we done that?”

The fact that the Lord Jesus Christ wrote a challenging letter to Ephesus in the second chapter of Revelation means that this is a matter of primary concern to Him. James Durham says that we should consider this as if Christ were writing a letter to our Church. He explains that, “our Lord Jesus is the faithful witness” and shows us that when Christ says that He knows their works (Revelation 2:2), He is saying: “I know all your inward and outward works”:

 

  • what you have done in the church,
  • your way of administering all things in the church,
  • all your outward conduct in all these things,
  • your spirit in going about them,
  • the manner in which you are doing them,
  • the aims you had before you in doing them

“I know them perfectly, exactly, and thoroughly”.

1. CHRIST’S MESSAGE OF ENCOURAGEMENT

He has been identifying what was very outwardly commendable in the Church in Ephesus. He commends their zeal, faithfulness, hard work and patient endurance for the sake of Christ’s name. They had not flinched from defending Christ’s truth.

(a) Their Labour
Christ identifies the painstaking concerns and labour of the ministry in the Word and doctrine. He also takes notice of and approves the conduct of the respective members of this church in reference to their duty.

(b) Their Perseverance
They had suffered. Christ knew very well all the persecution and suffering they were enduring. There was the ill-will of some within the church against them and all the malice of others outside it. Christ knew all the troubles Satan and those whom he uses had caused. He saw how patiently, submissively and constantly they had borne it all.

(c) Their Zeal
They are also commended for their zeal in carrying out church discipline—they could not bear with those were evil. They were courageous, and zealous against corrupt individuals trying them, condemning them and not tolerating them. They tested their doctrine and teaching and whether those who taught it had a true calling from Christ.

“Christ does it all lovingly. Because He loves us He does what is necessary for our spiritual growth.”

2. CHRIST’S MESSAGE OF REPROOF

What could be wrong with them? For all that there is to commend, Christ has something very serious against them. They had left their first love.

What does leaving their first love mean? It is something inward. It is the grace of love in the heart and, as far as their Christian life was concerned, they had left it.

(a) Though they were outwardly zealous in the form of religion, yet they had fallen away from the inward spirit of tenderness that they once had. They were more taken up with duties that concerned the wellbeing and condition of their church, than with the inward duties of holiness. They had an outward zeal for religion, and an indignation against corrupt teachers that came in to corrupt it. They also had perseverance in suffering for it, but they had a coldness of affection in doing these things.

(b) They had not fallen away from grace itself. They still had grace but they had fallen away from exercising it to the extent and degree that they once did. They had fallen away from their first love rather than love itself. Believers are at first warm in their love in doing duties to God and to another. Christ’s reproof can be summarised as follows. Despite all I have commended you for, there is something in you that is not right. Though you are zealous in outward things, you come short in duties of mercy and in your love to one another. You are not as warm in your love to me, nor so single-minded in doing things for me as you once were.

Christ’s charge against us is defection

Defection inwardly. Not an outward defection from the truth and purity of doctrine, nor from the outward duties of religion, but an inward defection, declining in the way we exercise grace. We have not been so careful to maintain the way we exercise grace before God, as much as we have been to be seen of others.

Defection in love. Especially defection in love to God, and love to one another. This may be seen in our lack of love and sensitivity.

Defection in spirit. This is a defection in the way we do our duties. The duty may be commendable, but the principle from which it flowed may be grounds for rebuke.

Therefore, look at this epistle as if Christ were writing a letter to Scotland. In his letter, He is saying, that despite whatever purity and zeal you may have, yet you have fallen from your first love. Much of your love, warmness and tenderness has gone away. There is a decline and defection from the way grace is exercised. The sin is ours; the duty is ours; and the threatening also belongs to us. If there is anything commendable, it is more in outward form than reality. Believers are liable to decline from their first love, if not from their steadfastness.

3. CHRIST’S MESSAGE OF RECOVERY

He counsels them not just to repent but tells them how to go about repenting.

Christ never convicts us of sin without giving directions about recovery together with it. His direction here is in these three steps: remember, repent and do the first works. The goal of repentance is to be stirred up to reformation and steadfastness in well doing. Remembering brings us to repentance, and repentance brings us to reformation.

If Christ were charging us with a sin, it would be for falling away from first love. If He were calling for a duty from us, it would be to remember from where we have fallen, to repent and do our first works. We have not only fallen away from love but from that awe of God that should be on the heart. Remember this and other things, repent and do your first works.

 

4. CHRIST’S MESSAGE OF WARNING

He warns them in the most serious terms of what will happen if they do not.

He threatens the removal of the candlestick or lampstand. The candlestick is the church of Ephesus (see Revelation 1:20). This was not simply the people who made up the church but them professing, submitting to and living according to what Christ had appointed in the church, especially the means of grace. Removing the candlestick is God’s threatening to make them no longer a church. It implies removing the means of grace, the gospel and the ministry from them (see Matthew 21:43 and Acts 13:46).

Christ removes the candlestick from a people when He lets loose error which corrupts purity of doctrine (an essential mark of the church of God, and the foundation on which the church is built, Ephesians 2:20). He removes the candlestick by allowing disorder so that they abuse the freedom that the gospel has given them. They begin to show a secret desire for novelty and give themselves up to delusion. We have reasons to fear God’s threatening to remove our candlestick all these ways.
There is no greater judgment a church can be threatened with than the removal of the candlestick. There is no more serious threatening that can be given to a church or people in a church.

FURTHER REFLECTION

We have developed a resource, based on James Durham’s insights into the passage, to help you reflect more deeply on how Christ’s message to the church in Ephesus applies to you and to your church. It is called Outside In: Four Sessions to Help you Recover Your First Love for Christ. It will help you to think through carefully all of the many lessons that Christ wants the church to put into practice. 

“The way forward spiritually is to look back first.”

Outside In

Four sessions to help mature Christians

recover their first love for Christ

New Bible Study

Ideal for individual study

or small groups

BOOK KICKSTARTER

The material in this article has been extracted and updated not only from the Commentary on Revelation that Durham published but also from manuscript notes that have not been published. There is a project to re-publish Durham’s book on Revelation with its many helpful essays which will incorporate these manuscript notes.

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The Questions We Ask When Others Leave the Faith

The Questions We Ask When Others Leave the Faith

The Questions We Ask When Others Leave the Faith
George Hutcheson (1615-1674) ministered in Ayrshire and Edinburgh and was a noted bible expositor. Like many other ministers he was removed from his congregation in 1662 for refusing to conform to the rule of bishops.
30 Aug, 2019

Two high-profile professing Christians recently announced that they had lost or were losing their faith. As well as great sadness it should prompt serious questions. Some of those questions might be about evangelical celebrity culture and image. Are people sometimes catapulted to a position beyond their spiritual maturity? Are we socialising people into the faith rather than discipling them? Other questions might relate to whether evangelicalism is prioritising feelings over objective truth. What is being taught? Are unsettling and hard questions about truth being passed over in silence? These are all valid questions but first we need to focus on some that are extremely personal to ourselves.

One recent reflection considers not so much what those leaving the faith say as what they don’t say. There is an absence of mention of Jesus Christ in their announcements. This speaks volumes because it is everything in true religion. We read something similar in John 6:66, when many went back and left Christ’s teaching. They were leaving Him and no longer walking with Him. What we think of Christ’s teaching is one test of the reality of our profession. They did not find in Christ what they expected.  In this updated extract from an exposition of John 6:66-69, George Hutcheson draws attention to the questions that arise when others leave the faith. It shows that Scripture tells us to expect times of trial when people abandon the profession they have made.

1. What Does Leaving Christ Imply?

It is the duty of all professing Christians to maintain fellowship with Christ and converse with Him. They must confess Him publicly in the midst of a rebellious generation. Without this, the greatest pretence of secret friendship is of no avail (John 12:42-43). Thus, when people abandon this and do not attend the ordained means as previously, it is an undeniable sign of woeful apostasy, whatever they pretend to be. It was proof of their apostasy who walked no more with Christ that they did not publicly confess Him nor attend His ministry any longer (John 6:66).

2. Would We Leave Christ Too?

When many are defecting from Christ it may shake even the soundest so much that they will need warning and to be strengthened. Therefore, Christ asks if they also would go away (John 6:67). Even the godly have seeds of the same evils which draw others away. An evil example can have very great force, especially when it is widespread. Sin is very infectious, especially when it is maintained with plausible pretexts. It is no wonder therefore if some people are in danger in such a situation. Besides the guilt of their own defection, backsliders are guilty of weakening others.

In one sense Christ does not have an absolute, essential need of any followers, neither does He need to be anxious though everyone would forsake Him. But He still goes to considerable effort to confirm and keep those who are His own. This is why He deals with the twelve disciples in this way, asking a question that will establish them further. However many there may be who defect from Christ and think little of His company, some of a different stamp will still be found. We see this here in Peter (John 6:68).

3. To Whom Else Can We Go?

Since the fall we are so empty and poor that we must have something outside of ourselves to delight and rest in for happiness. If we do not choose Christ, we will put something else in His place. Peter’s question implies that if they went away from Christ, they must go to someone else.

Those who are minded to abandon Christ need to consider first where they will get a better master. If they will change Him, they will surely change for the worse. Nothing better can be found elsewhere. True disciples who know Christ’s unique excellence cannot endure to hear of any separation from Him. Peter’s question implies his abhorrence of going away from such a Lord to any other. All who seek to truly walk with Christ, should strive to learn to know Him to be the best and most excellent of choices.

4. What Do We Believe About Christ?

It is the duty of those who truly profess Christ to stick closely to all truth. In particular they must avow all the truths being opposed in their time; however important they may be. Besides confessing the excellence of Christ’s teaching Peter also confesses His person and office as Messiah. These were the truths being opposed then. They are fundamental truths, but they were reckoned small by those who opposed them.

The more we know of Christ, the more ties we will find binding us to Him which will preserve us from defecting from Him. In particular, the true knowledge of His office and person help us stick fast to Him no matter who may forsake Him.

Christ is the only true Messiah promised to the fathers and appointed by the Father to exercise the office of a king, priest and prophet to His Church. He is anointed with the Spirit without measure for this purpose. His people can expect benefits from all of this, to have fellowship with Him and receive of His fulness. This ought and will make Christ dear to all true disciples.

Christ is the Son of the living God having the same essence by eternal generation. He is therefore able to fulfil all that is required of Him and to give infinite worth to His sufferings. He has received a fountain of life from the Father and can produce and preserve life in His people. All this is implied in His being the Son of the living God.

Mere intellectual knowledge about Christ is not enough in itself to tie our hearts to Him. We must embrace what we know by faith. Peter confesses Christ and this is the reason why he will not go away. When the truth of Christ is confessed on the basis of a resolution to go to no one else it is an act of saving faith. Firm faith in the person and office of Christ, receiving and resting on Him is saving faith in operation. Mere reason does not take to do with the mysteries concerning Christ’s person, incarnation, and offices. Faith must receive them on the basis of divine revelation. Peter therefore says, “we believe and are sure”.

5. Where Else Can We Have Eternal Life?

Those who seek to stand fast in times of defection should have frequent thoughts of eternity. They should think of the life that is stored up there for those who are truly Christ’s. Peter fixes his eye on eternal life, what leads to that and where it may be found.

The doctrine of Christ and of the gospel is the only teaching of eternal life. It not only manifests and brings to light that there is an eternal life. It also offers it and shows the only way to receive it. It is the means of regeneration and producing faith. When embraced it gives a right to eternal life and its first fruits until full possession is reached.

Christ teaching rises above the teaching of all the philosophers as well as the corrupted religious teaching doctrine of the times in which Christ lived. It even rises above the law of Moses when asserted in opposition to Him or without Him.

Those who are seriously about eternal life will cleave to the true doctrine that leads to it. They will not abandon it nor its messengers. Not even in times of greatest defection. The disciples will not leave him, not only because He is the Messiah, but because He has the words of eternal life.

Christ not only the one who taught eternal life with His own authority and power in the days of his flesh. He is the one who has purchased this gospel and gives commission to all that preach it. He makes them effectual as the power of God to salvation.

Conclusion

In contrast to those who leave the faith, our resolve should be to “consider Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1). “Looking unto Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2) is the essence of all of the happiness and duty of the Christian. We should not make it anything less. We should not merely socialise people in Christian things but seek that they would be firmly established in “the truth as it is in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:21). It is evident that we have been savingly united to Christ when we hold fast to Him to the end (Hebrews 3:14). We are to hold fast our profession against the opposition that the world, the flesh and the devil make against Him. Christ gives us no reason to throw away our confidence in Him and receiving eternal life through Him alone (Hebrews 10:35).

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Why Face-to-Face Communication is a Biblical Priority

Why Face-to-Face Communication is a Biblical Priority

Why Face-to-Face Communication is a Biblical Priority
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.
21 Jun, 2019

​In our digital world, relationships have also become digital. Sometimes this brings the benefit of making those who are far away near but it can also have the disbenefit of making those who are near, far away. Sometimes we see people in the same physical space but they are in their own digital worlds. It can also be easier to use electronic forms of communication when personal interaction would be possible. Why meet up with one friend when you can chat to multiple friends by simultaneous text conversations? But we miss tone, expression, body language, touch and presence. Some studies have concluded that technology has had a negative effect on both the quality and quantity of face-to-face communication. But it’s more than a social problem, because we’re speaking about a biblical priority.

The Bible gives considerable emphasis to face-to-face communication. It speaks of open and unhindered interaction. In two short letters the apostle John shows the superiority of face-to-face meeting over “paper and ink” (2 John 12; 3 John 13). It is rather startling when we pause to think deeply about who was writing and what he was writing. Writing was useful in the mean time but it was not the best means. It was limited not in mere terms of efficiency but in communicating their love in Christ. Being able to “speak face to face” would make their joy full.

He could write his teaching about the faith but there was no substitute for being able to come to them. Then he could instruct them more fully in a way that would make their spiritual joy full. It reminds us also that audio as well as written sermons are ultimately no substitute for being present at a sermon. No internet preacher can replace the personal concern, awareness and prayers of a pastor who looks into your eyes and situation when he declares God’s Word. When God’s people meet together it also encourages one another (Hebrews 10:24-27). Live sharing and live-streaming a service are not the same thing.

Face-to-face interaction is also an emphasis in the letters of Paul. Twice in the same letter he expresses his desire to “see” the “face” of the Thessalonian Christians (1 Thessalonians 2:17). He didn’t just desire it, he did everything he could do to make it happen. It was something that was so important to him that he was praying night and day it might happen (1 Thessalonians 3:10). His earnest desire and intention to see them is clear. He even uses the language of bereavement (“being taken from you”) to express his grief. Why did he want to be present with them? Because there was something lacking that needed to be made up through preaching to them and conversing with them personally. There were things he still needed to teach them. James Fergusson reflects on these expressions in this updated extract.

 

1. Christ’s People Need Each Other’s Presence

There is special delight and benefit in the company, presence, and mutual fellowship of the Lords people among themselves. The presence and fellowship of the flock is a special delight to a pastor whose work among them has been blessed by the Lord. Paul’s labours were blessed to the Thessalonians; his absence from them was therefore a great grief to him. For this reason also, he greatly desired their presence.

 

2. Satan Tries to Keep Christ’s People Apart

It is therefore no small part of Satan’s work and business to mar the comfort of any such fellowship. One way of doing this is by sowing strife, division and prejudice among them while they are together (Acts 15:39). Another method is through some way or other scattering them into various places. This means they cannot enjoy the mutual fellowship they would gladly have. Paul says that he was taken from them for a short and the following verse (1 Thessalonians 2:18) shows that this was Satan’s work.

The godly are separated through Satan’s craftiness or malice; this may be in their affections and opinions or in their location. When he has achieved this he does everything to hinder their re-uniting and meeting together again as one. This is how great an enemy he is to the rich benefits that may be had from the communion of saints. Paul says in verse 18 they he would have come to them but Satan hindered it.

 

3. A Pastor’s Presence is Unique

Through the Lord’s blessing, there is a unique power in a minister’s presence and preaching. It is used to begin, strengthen or carry on the work of grace in hearers. This goes beyond what there is in his writings, while he is absent. Preaching has a more explicit promise of this type of blessing (Romans 10:17). Whether behaviour, gesture, or expression, there is almost nothing in the preacher that God has sent to win souls which the Lord does not use to edify one way or another (1 Corinthians 9:22). This is why Paul, not content with writing to them, desires to see their face so much. It is so that he may complete that which was lacking in their faith.

 

4. A Pastor and People Need Each Other’s Presence

A godly pastor delights to be among his flock so much that even necessary absence from them (due to persecution or otherwise) will be grievous to him. It was so with Paul, whose necessary departure from the Thessalonians was no less grievous than a father’s separation from his destitute orphans. This is what the word “being taken from you” literally means.

 

5. Make Use of a Pastor’s Company While You Have it

The Lord’s people have a duty to be wise in making good use of the company and labours of godly and faithful ministers. They may be deprived of them unexpectedly, in a moment and twinkling of an eye. Paul was taken from them for a short time (or in a short time, instantly–as it literally means).

 

6. Christ’s People Have a Bond of Affection Even in Absence

Affection is no small comfort to the Lord’s people in their saddest scattering. Although they cannot enjoy one another’s bodily presence, they may be present with one another in heart and affection. They do this by remembering and thinking about one another’s situation (2 Corinthians 7:3). They should be suitably affected by it (Hebrews 13:3). They should not only pray to God but also by all lawful means to do good to each other (Colossians 4:12). Although Paul was taken from them in presence, he was not taken from them in heart.

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Confessionalism and a Flourishing Church

Confessionalism and a Flourishing Church

Confessionalism and a Flourishing Church
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
14 Sep, 2018

Some people are inclined to think that confessionalism has a stifling effect on the Church. They assume that adherence to Bible-based creeds and confessions inhibits vitality or freedom. To them the Church is more about relationship and are suspicious of things that are more formal and less subjective. Others want to be as flexible and inclusive as possible for attracting others and play down doctrine. Are these prejudices about confessionalism valid? Are they consistent with Scripture? It is remarkable in fact how often growth in faith is connected with the personal and collective growth of believers in Scripture.

Adopting and using a biblical confession of faith does not guarantee that the life of a particular congregation will be as healthy as it ought to be. It will, however, guard against certain spiritual diseases that come from false teaching. In Ephesians 4 the Apostle Paul tells us that the Church is meant to flourish by means of truth. It is meant to be edified in love as we speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:13 and 15). We are to “all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”. But this cannot happen if we are like children, “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine”. By “speaking the truth in love” the Church is to “grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ” (Ephesians 4:14-15).

The less of the truth of the Bible we confess the less vitality we have. Christians are to resist error and hold to the truth and so walk in Christ, being rooted, built up, and established in the faith (Colossians 2:6-7). The Bible is not minimalist in the way that it declares the truth and neither should we be. A full confession of faith invites Christians to explore and value the panorama of God’s truth and become mature in their understanding. A Confession helps the Church fulfill its commission to make spiritually mature disciples (Matthew 28:20).

 

The Importance of Confessions

God has given us His Word so that we would have the information He wants us to know. A confession of faith is us putting in our own words what we understand God to be saying in His Word. Some people say they have no creed but the Bible. But they still have their own interpretation of what the Bible teaches. They either do or don’t believe in the Trinity, for example, or justification by faith alone. They just haven’t written down their beliefs in a systematic form. They do have a creed, just not a publicly available one.

Meanwhile, all sorts of heretics can quote the Bible. So if we restricted ourselves to using only the words of Scripture this would be an inadequate way of stating the truth. When someone quotes Scripture, it is always legitimate to ask, “What do you mean by that?” To say, “I only believe the Bible” is meaningless unless it is further defined. When a church writes down its understanding of what the Bible teaches, it allows anyone to see what it believes, and it also helps the church achieve clarity in its mission to tell the world what God’s Word says. This is why Jude exhorts us to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). Paul charged Timothy to hold fast the “form of sound words” and to guard “that good thing which was committed” to him (2 Timothy 1:13-14).

Anthony Tuckney (1599-1670) played a key role in shaping the Westminster Confession of Faith. He uses these words from 2 Timothy 1:13 to explain the value of confessions. He defines confessions as a way of setting down God’s truth in an orderly way. It is gathering such truths together which are scattered throughout Scripture. He then explains some of the benefits of a confession.

 

1. Confessions Help Us Grow in Truth

Forms of sound words have been used as declarations, not only of what we ourselves believe but also of what we think that everyone should believe.  We also desire and require that all with whom we join in the closest Church fellowship should profess or at least not openly contradict it. This is how it was with the apostles in what they decided in Acts 15 and how it is with Churches and their confessions until this day; and so may it be always. When controversies arise they may be better understood and resolved by the help of such confessions. They may also be a deposit (2 Timothy 1:14) to be given to posterity as legacies or inheritances of their forefathers’ faith.

 

2. Confessions Help Us Grow in Unity

Confessions are not only badges of our Christian Church communion but also great helps and furtherers of it. By this means troublesome divisions may be prevented and the peace of the Church better preserved. This is a benefit when we all profess the same truth, and all “speak the same thing” and are “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10).

 

3. Confessions Help Us Grow in Peace

Failure to keep more closely to such “forms of sound words” has allowed every one to speak and write the vain fancies of his own heart and spread the foulest heresies and blasphemies with impunity. It has torn us in pieces and divided us. May the Lord in mercy speedily heal these gashes and ruptures. One special means to cure this is holding fast the form of sound and wholesome words (2 Timothy 1:13).

 

4. Confessions Help Us Grow in Strength

The apostles formulated their decisions to help those who were weak (Acts 15:24) and a confession does this also. The truths scattered throughout the whole Scripture are gathered together in a synopsis for them to see more clearly. Where there are things more obscurely expressed they are more familiarly presented to those of weaker understanding.

 

5. Confessions Help Us Grow in Discernment

Confessions help to uncover and repulse seducers and subverters of the souls of God’s people (Acts 15:24). The same fence that keeps the deer in, keeps out the ravenous wild beast. They are a fence to the vineyard and so are of very good use in the Church. Some poison  can hardly be detected at first but as the mouth takes its food, so the sheep of Christ’s pasture discern by a divine instinct what food is wholesome and what is otherwise. It is not just those who have their senses exercised to discern good and evil, even the new-born babe has this taste. As soon as it is made partaker of the divine nature, it can tell when the sincere milk of the Word is adulterated (though perhaps not in what way). A godly Christian (who had a better heart than head) once had his spirit rising against something which he heard in a sermon, but he could not tell why. Afterward it was shown to him to be very corrupt doctrine.

 

6. Confessions Help Us Grow in Health

A form of sound words is especially that by which they recover and gain health and strength and so thrive. The new-born babe fattens and grows by the sincere milk of the Word (1 Peter 2:2). It is bad soil in which good plants are starved or diseased. Is it likely to be a wholesome diet if men (otherwise well and full of  health) do not thrive on it? A good tree (our Saviour tells us) brings forth good fruit and the same may be said of good doctrine. Although by the corruption of men’s hearts, good doctrine may not always bring forth good fruit in their lives, yet bad doctrine naturally brings forth what is bad and abominable. But let us continually esteem wholesome spiritual food. The man of God lives and thrives by this and does God’s will cheerfully. Like Elijah (who went forty days and nights in the strength of what he ate) the Christian continues in the strength of this food through the wilderness of this world until he comes to the mount of God. A sound heart relishes and thrives by sound doctrine. Since man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God it is not sufficient that these sound words have man’s approval. They must be not only acceptable words but grounded on what God has instituted, they must be words of truth, words of the wise given by one Shepherd.

 

Conclusion

If this is so, be sure to “hold fast the form of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13). As Christ said to the Church of Thyatira “that which you have already, hold fast till I come” (Revelation 2:25). Be sure to hold fast, take heed that you are not robbed of it but are sure you have it. In various passages (Revelation 6:9 and Titus 1:9) to hold fast means that we hold the truth so fast against all opposition that no strength of man or devil may force it from us but that we maintain it against all.

The truth is heaven’s pledge (2 Timothy 1: 14) with which God has entrusted us. Our souls are the pledge (2 Timothy 1:12) with which we trust God. We should be as careful of His pledge as we would have Him be of ours. Be sure that we will be called to an account for this and how solemn it will be if we are like the one described in 1 Kings 20:39-40).

This is the bequest given to us by our godly forefathers, should we not similarly careful to transmit it to our posterity (Psalm 78:3-4)?  The martyrs have sealed it with their blood, will we prove guilty of that through our unfaithfulness? This is the best part of our children’s inheritance, as the law was (Deuteronomy 33:4). Make sure that our forefathers will be not ashamed of us and our posterity at the resurrection for betraying God’s truth and our trust. Hold fast is the charge to many of those churches written to in Revelation 2 and 3, both the best and the worst. Holding fast may cost us in contending but if we are we faithful in the conflict, we may be sure of the conquest.

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