What is Absolutely Essential?

What is Absolutely Essential?

What is Absolutely Essential?
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.
2 Apr, 2020

Recent weeks have forced us to define what is essential. What are essential grocery items? What is the “non-essential” travel and contact with others we have to avoid? Much of socio-economic life has coasted to a halt in response to the definition of essential. Countries, communities and individuals may all have different definitions of essential. “Recent events clearly demonstrate that the process of designating ‘essential services’ is as much about culture as any legal-political reality about what is necessary to keep society functioning,” said Christopher McKnight Nichols, associate professor of history at Oregon State University. Some of the readjustment may indeed make us reassess lifestyle and consumption. These microscopic organisms against which we have neither prevention nor cure are paring back a great deal of the bloated decadence of our culture to the very essentials. But take a step backward and consider the widest possible perspective. What in this world is truly and absolutely essential? It’s easy to miss it.

There are many essential things for maintaining life and preserving our safety and health. We do not want in any way to minimise the practical emphasis given to these aspects of loving our neighbour as our moral duty. Yet the thing that is absolutely essential above all things is studiously ignored by so many, including most of our leaders. Other things are merely temporary and will leave people at some time or other. But this one thing and this only, will stay with them forever if they have it.

This is why there is only one thing absolutely essential and necessary. Jesus Christ has identified this one supremely essential thing (Luke 10:42). Clearly it is related to the eternal good of our souls in relation to God. James Durham explains further what it is. He speaks of peace with God through Christ and Godward living. This is living in fellowship with God, glorifying and enjoying Him.

1. What cannot be absolutely essential

(a) No created or temporary thing can be absolutely essential.

It must be something which cannot be taken away from us, something spiritual, eternal and entirely satisfying.

(b) No mere form of religion can be absolutely essential.

We can be sure that this mere outward profession can and will be taken from us (Luke 19:26; Matthew 7:21).

(c) No particular aspect of religion can be absolutely essential in itself.

Happiness is not promised to only one aspect but to uninhibited godliness and obedience to God’s will in general. Mary sat at Christ’s feet and heard His word (Luke 10:42). She was justly commended by Christ on that account. Yet it is not for that in itself but as it evidenced her love to the Saviour, her respect to godliness and her eager and earnest desire to get her soul saved by Christ.

2. What is absolutely essential

It can be summarised in the following way. Peace with God through the Lord Jesus with a view to the salvation of our souls. The sincere practice of true godliness, communion and fellowship with the Father and His Son.

This is not the mere hearing of the Word (though it is our indispensable duty). Rather  it is using the Word as a means of our daily progress in holiness and godliness, and of our peace and reconciliation with God. And therefore this one thing can be nothing else except the life, power and practice of godliness. It is all one and the same thing, whether we call this one necessary thing Christ, religion, or the salvation of the soul. The eternal salvation of our souls is the goal of godliness. Our union and communion with Christ is the means of attaining this. It is always inseparably connected with the practice of sincere piety (1 Timothy 4:8). This one thing then is godliness in its spirit, power, and substance.

This is what the psalmist desired (Psalm 27:4). Not to attend God’s outward appointed worship only but to be lively in religion, to have communion with God in His sacred institutions, and to have the amiable and desirable hope of enjoying God in heaven. This is the one thing, which comprehends many other things, the making of our peace with God, through Jesus our peace-maker and Mediator, and the study of the power and practice of godliness, that our spirits may be saved in the day of the Lord.

3. Why it is absolutely essential

This one absolutely necessary thing does not encompass every kind of necessity. Food, drink, clothes, health, strength, and other things are also necessary in their own way. But there is nothing absolutely necessary except this one thing. The believer may lack other things, but cannot be without this.

(a) God commands it

We may please God and have His approval even though we are not rich in worldly goods, or in reputation, or do not have health and strength. We are not commanded to be rich, but we are commanded to be godly, to be at peace with God, to be sincere in fulfilling every commanded duty.

(b) It makes us truly happy

True religion is the one thing necessary to make us happy here and hereafter. There is only one thing absolutely necessary inseparably connected with our welfare and happiness. It is not the many things some are troubled and anxious to obtain. It is this one thing, the practice of godliness and our peace with God, which can make us happy.

The meaning of Luke 10:42 is as though Christ had said, “Martha, your mind is taken up with many things and you are troubled with them. That is all the benefit you get from them. Trouble yourself as you will, to get all things right, they will not be governed by you nor can they satisfy you. But there is one thing necessary for the saving of your soul—namely, the practice of godliness and peace with God. This is absolutely necessary for your blessedness; but the other things you are anxious about, are not.”

There is nothing absolutely necessary for the happiness of men and women, but godliness and peace with God. This is  making sure of our own salvation and holy calling through Christ Jesus.

A person may have all other things but if they lack godliness they cannot be happy. A person may lack all other things but if they are godly and have peace with God, they cannot be miserable. No other thing can mar his happiness. If then the possession of other things cannot make people happy, and the lack of them cannot make them miserable, then surely no other thing is absolutely necessary to promote our welfare but true religion.

  • It must be spiritual. That which concerns someone’s happiness must be spiritual,  incorruptible and immortal. The soul of man is spiritual and it must have a spiritual source of happiness.
  • It must be perfect. No imperfect thing can make anyone happy.
  • It must be eternal and unchangeable. One cannot be happy today and miserable tomorrow. If it is a thing that is subject to change, it cannot make us happy.

All the idols in the world put together have none of these three things. They are not spiritual, and cannot satisfy the soul; they are not perfect, but have some defect. They are merely temporal and not eternal: a man may be taken from them or they from him. 

(c) It ensures our spiritual welfare

Without godliness, a soul will never be well. Godliness is not only commanded, but useful and profitable for all things, and so absolutely necessary. This may commend godliness to you above all other things: it our happiness consists in it, and this cannot be said of any other thing in this world.

The godly man has the most contented and cheerful life and the most joyful and comfortable death (2 Corinthians 6:10; Philippians 4:11-13). Godliness brings God’s favour, friendship and peace. His promise and covenant is that they can lack no good thing or happiness, though they lack the things of the world. All those who are blessed in heaven have perfect happiness without the things of this world.  

Conclusion

It would be a great blessing if we were in these times to return to what is absolutely essential; glorifying and enjoying God. This is the essence of true godliness. Perhaps some other things (although perhaps necessary in their own way) have been distracting us from this. Or perhaps we have been content with an outward appearance of godliness while in practice denying its real spiritual power (2 Timothy 3:5). We now have the opportunity to ensure that our primary focus is what is most glorifying to God and for our own true spiritual happiness. Let us not lose it.

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5 Ways to Diagnose the Hidden Idols of the Heart

5 Ways to Diagnose the Hidden Idols of the Heart

5 Ways to Diagnose the Hidden Idols of the Heart
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.
15 Nov, 2019

Many things can creep into our hearts as hidden idols.

If we stopped to look at it we would see how they weave themselves into our everyday thoughts and actions. We don’t admit it to ourselves but they do get more attention than God and seem to offer us more meaning and happiness. Some things are more obvious: success, work, image, material possessions, even smart phones. But heart idols go even deeper than you think. They are bound up with the deepest emotions and instincts of our heart and that is what keeps them hidden. If we are serious about putting God first we need help in diagnosing what is taking His place.

James Durham explains the subtle ways in which we commit heart idolatry and helps us to diagnose it. The heart Idolatry need not be an avowed conviction that we should worship something or someone other than God. Neither is it restricted to letting ourselves fixate on sinful things. We can be committing idolatry when we let ourselves love or value lawful things–things which are good and legitimate in themselves–to an excessive degree.

5 WAYS TO DIAGNOSE tHE IDOLS OF THE HEART

There are five things which indisputably belong to God: respect, love, confidence, reverence, and service.

It’s not that we should give no honour, love, etc, to anyone other than God, but that we should not love or serve anyone or anything too much, i.e, more than God.

When we veer away from giving God these five things, we are in effect committing idolatry in our hearts (Ezekiel 14:1-7). What does this mean?

1. WHAT DO YOU RESPECT?

We commit idolatry when anything – even any good and legitimate thing – gets too much of our respect, so that our happiness depends on it. We can’t do without it, while we can do without communion with God. If something happens to deprive us of this thing, and then by comparison all our other comforts, including the promises of God and God himself, are of little value to us, this shows that that thing had too much of our respect.

2. WHAT DO YOU LOVE?

We commit idolatry when we give our hearts away to created things – we’re addicted to them, we pursue them with excessive energy, we dote on them, or we sorrow immoderately when we lack them. A covetous person, who loves the world (1 John 2:15) is called an idolater (Colossians 3:5, Ephesians 5:5). Ahab loved Naboth’s vineyard so much that he could not rest without it (1 Kings 21). Demas idolised the world, when for love of it he forsook his service with the apostle (2 Timothy 4:10).

There are three ways to tell if your love to created things is excessive.

  • If your contentment depends on them to the extent that you fret when you cannot enjoy them, as Ahab did with Naboth’s vineyard, and Rachel when she had no children (Genesis 30:1).
  • If your love for created things competes with God, so that respect and love to the world shuffles out your duty to God, as it did with Demas.
  • If love to the world undermines your zeal in doing your duty towards God. This was the case with Eli (1 Samuel 2:24). Eli honoured and loved his children above God (1 Samuel 2:29). Not that he tolerated their wicked wrongdoing entirely, but because he did not intervene as sharply as he should have (and likely would have, if they had not been his own sons). By contrast, Abraham is commended for showing his love for God, because he did not hold back his only son when God called for him.

3. WHAT DO YOU PUT CONFIDENCE IN?

Putting our confidence in humans or human thing is idolatry. If we place our protection in humans, even in princes (Psalm 146:3) or in crowds, or in horses and armies, we are idolising them. Rich people may “make gold their confidence and fine gold their hope” (Job 31:24). They regard themselves as safe, not because God has a providence, but because they have these resources. Asa trusted doctors and not God for the cure of his disease (2 Chronicles 16:12). The rich man based his rest for his soul on his full barns (Luke 12:19).

You tell that some people’s confidence is misplaced because of the course of action they take when trouble comes. Some people do not hesitate to make use of sinful means to get things sorted. Or, because of the fuss they make when disappointment comes. Or, because they rely on their resources in a way that spoils their resting in God and his providence.

4. WHAT DO YOU FEAR?

We may fear people, or events, more than we fear God. Fear can make us sin, or at least keep us back from doing what we should, either in little things or important things. Some, for fear of the Jews, did not confess Christ (John 12:42). This makes an idol of our actual enemies! We have more fear for “the one who can kill the body”, than for “him who can destroy both soul and body”! In this way great and important men in the world are idolised. In fact, the same thing can happen to good and well-qualified individuals, if we become addicted to them and their words and opinions, not so much because of the truth or reasonableness of what they say, but because of the personalities themselves.

5. WHAT DO YOU SERVE

When we are brought under the power of any thing, to serve it, that is idolatry. Every person or every whim that we set out to please is in this sense an idol. We cannot serve two masters, both God and mammon, and if we “serve men”, we are not “the servants of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

You can identify this kind of idolatry by seeing, for example, what people are most excessively taken up with, and most careful to accomplish. Or, by looking at what people will go to greatest lengths to attain. Or, by what gets most of their time and energies. Or, by what most sways, and overcomes, and overawes them most, so that they cannot resist it, even supposing they have to thrust aside a duty to God, or it puts them out of sorts for duties of worship.

WHAT KIND OF IDOLS CAPTURE OUR HEARTS?

It would be hard to speak of all the various different idols which may be loved, feared, and rested on too much, and so put in God’s place. Let us look at only a few.

1. THE WORLD

The world is the great clay idol that both covetous and hedonistic people hunt after, calling, “Who will show us any good?” (Psalm 4:6). This idol keeps thousands in bondage. An excessive desire to have the world’s goods, and so to have a prestigious reputation in the world, is the idol of many.

2. THE BELLY

The belly is a shameful god (Philippians 3:19), yet one worshipped by the majority of people, who labour for nothing more than for enough in this life to fill the belly (Psalm 17:14). They only want to earn their living and provide for their families. The fear of want captivates and enslaves many.

3. THE SELF

In some ways, the self includes every kind of idol. Your self, your reputation, your good name, people’s approval–your own will, opinions, beliefs, and conclusions. People are said to “live to themselves” (2 Corinthians 5:15), in contrast to living to God, when respect to self influences them to be “lovers of themselves” (2 Timothy 3:2, 4), and “lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (Titus 1:7) and “self-willed” (2 Peter 2:10).

4. INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE

Gifted or influential people, who have the power to do us considerable good or evil, are often made into idols when people put too much fear, love, or trust in them.

5. THE COMFORTS OF LIFE

Things which can lawfully be used as comforts and contentments–such as houses, spouses, and children–we can be too much addicted to. We can become absorbed in these things–even though they are in themselves very little–and so they turn out to be our idols.

6. SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS

Our prayers, repentances, blameless living, and so on, are often invested with more of our confidence than they should be. We rely too much on them for our salvation and eternal peace (Romans 10:3).

7. CHURCH

The purity of our worship, the forms of our worship, our church membership, can become idols. When we rest on these forms of godliness, and do not press on towards the power of godliness, they become our idols. This was the problem with the Jews, who appealed to the temple of the Lord and the covenant between him and them, and their external relationship to him (Jeremiah 7:4).

8. GIFTS FROM GOD

When we lay too much weight on God’s gifts (such as beauty, strength, intelligence, learning), or think too much of them, we make them into idols. In fact, we may put grace itself, and the sense of God’s love, and inward peace, into Christ’s place. We may sometimes seek for these things more than for Christ himself. When things like these are rested on, and delighted in, and Christ is slighted, or when we miss them and do not delight in him, then they are idols.

9. AN EASY LIFE

Ease, quietness, and our own contentment, can often be a great idol. This is how it was with the rich man, who told his soul to take ease (Luke 12:19). His ease was his idol, seeing how he rested on it, and made it the chief end of all his buildings and the goods he had to store. But his riches were his idol, seeing how he grounded his expectation of rest on what he possessed. Similarly, many idle people, who frame their life so that they will have no trouble, even though they are not being or doing anything profitable, make this the drift of all they do–to have an easy life. If this was not their chief end, it would be profitable, but when they neglect many necessary duties, only to avoid hassle, it is their idol.

10. ESCAPISM

Sometimes our minds please themselves with things which never exist except in their own imagination. Solomon calls this “the wandering of the desire”, as opposed to “the sight of the eyes” which others delight in (Ecclesiastes 6:9). Some people spend their gifts and skills on writing novels, romances, stage plays, and comedies. Even more subtly, yet perhaps even more commonly, people concoct imaginary and fictious scenarios where they get the revenge, delights, or prominence they desire.

11. PROFESSIONALS AND EXPERTS

The means which God normally works by, are often trusted in and relied on to such an extent that they become idols. These could be doctors, armies, or ministers–or inanimate natural causes. Worse than that, astrology and palm-reading are much prized but the Scriptures treated as antiquated and largely discarded.

CONCLUSION–THE REMEDY FOR HEART IDOLATRY

In order to honour God truly and have no other gods before Him (Exodus 20:3) we need a right response to Him. God must be esteemed, loved, trusted, feared, hoped in adored, honoured, served and obeyed above all else. In a word, He must be the supreme purpose of all our actions.

We must also depend on God and submit to Him. We must rest believingly on Him and express our faith and repentance in prayer.  There must be delight in Him and constant fellowship. We must also meditate on God and diligently use all of the means He has appointed for us to deepen our response to Him,.

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Help for Stirring Up Your Spiritual Life

Help for Stirring Up Your Spiritual Life

Help for Stirring Up Your Spiritual Life
Samuel Rutherford (c. 1600 – 1661) was one of the foremost Scottish theologians and apologists for Presbyterianism in the seventeenth century, playing a major role in formulating the Westminster Standards at the Westminster Assembly. He is best known for his many devotional letters and Lex, Rex–his seminal work on political sovereignty.
21 Jul, 2017

Sometimes we pray even though we do not feel like praying. We open our Bibles and our minds and hearts feel as though they are under a dead weight. How should we approach this problem? There is a widespread false assumption that the spiritual life is either all or nothing.  The idea is that things must come spontaneously and effortlessly or it just isn’t real. Yet the Scriptures speak of striving and agonising in prayer and disciplining ourselves in godliness. Exalted joy and love are not the only heavenly inclinations in the soul. There is genuine spiritual life in desiring to be revived. Mourning over our condition, examining and questioning ourselves and other things are also signs of life. Yet what can we do in such a situation? How do we stir up spiritual inclinations?

Such questions can be perplexing but are not always fully discussed; despite being so critical to our daily spiritual life. One person who did seek to tackle them was Samuel Rutherford in his book Influences of the Life of Grace. This deals with the sovereign influences of the Holy Spirit together with our own responsibility to engage in spiritual duties. Both work together in the area of spiritual growth and experience.

What Are Heavenly Inclinations?

Rutherford illustrates what he means by heavenly dispositions or inclinations by pointing to David’s experience in Psalm 57:7-8. David says “My heart is fixed, my heart is fixed; I will sing and give praise. Awake up my glory, awake psaltery and harp: I myself will awake early”. David had “a disposition of fixedness of heart”. His vehement affections are evident in the way he repeats this.  This heavenly inclination produced within him “a fixed resolution to praise”. “Praying begets a holy disposition to pray”.  “One grace brings forth another, and so holy dispositions [bring forth] holy actings; faith and trusting in God brings forth claiming God” as our own. The Lord “bids you pray, that you may pray; believe, that you may believe. So he commands heavenly dispositions, and He only can give them”. Influences of the Spirit generally come in connection with such commanded means.

David says “My heart is fixed, I will sing. Awake up my glory”. See how the touch of the Spirit in His heavenly inclinations sets afloat (a) the tongue; (b) the psaltery and harp; (c) David; (d) David’s heart to sing and praise. Though they were all sleeping, they are all awakened out of their sleep. It is in the same way as a great high spring-tide may set all the ships afloat, even though there were many hundreds of them. Thus:

  • Actions are of the same nature as our inclinations
  • Strong and mighty inclinations have strong and mighty actions
  • Lesser actions arising from inclinations waken up the soul to strong actions

Sinful inclinations to the love of the world, vain-glory and empty pleasures, bring forth sinful actions. The thorn-tree brings forth a thorn-tree and the thistle-seed a thistle. This is clear in Cain and the Pharisees for example. Thus also, gracious inclinations produce acts of love, faith, hope, godly sorrow, works of righteousness and mercy. As wine-grapes grow out of the vine, the Lord fits influences of grace for such inclinations. The harvest will be like the sowing: men do not gather figs from thistles.

How Do We Receive Heavenly Inclinations?

Get heavenly dispositions and God will act on His own work, and bring forth all His own acts out of His own seed. The way to get heavenly dispositions is:

1. Peruse the Word and promises often: (a) Meditate on them; (b) Learn them; (c) Observe and love the testimonies of God. This is proof of heavenly inclination (Psalm 119).

2. Keep communion with God in praying, hearing, reading and spiritual conversation (Luke 24:34; John 7:45-46; Song of Solomon 2:4-7). Someone who spends much time daily among the perfumes of a perfumer will find that smells will cleave to him whether he wants them to or not.

3. Seek and keep much in mind the things that are above (Colossians 3:1-3).

4. Cherish the Spirit, obey Him, do not grieve Him and work with Him (See Ephesians 4:29-30; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20; Song of Solomon 3:4 and 5:8-12). Be willing to act in response to the breath of the Spirit blowing on you as a wind and when He draws, follow Him sweetly and willingly.

5. Beware of frequently smothering the light of divine knowledge. Deal tenderly with the light of the natural conscience and tenderly with convictions and warnings. If you do this, you will hardly lack divine inclinations and suitable influences (1 Samuel 24:4-6).

How Should We Do When We Lack Heavenly Inclinations?

How should we act when the soul is indisposed like a bird that cannot fly without its wings?

  1. It is possible that in those renewed ones that are in Christ, heavenly inclinations may seem to be a fire that has been extinguished and turned to cold ashes. We are to stir up and awake the principle of grace and act according to it. The instinct and nature of the new man possesses the principle of gracious acts and we are to make best use of the principle of grace.
  2. When one inclination is smothered by unbelief casting us down, there is still half of a contrary spiritual inclination alive which is working contrary to that unbelief. For this reason David chides his own soul in Psalm 42:5 for being cast down and urges it to trust in God. Whether David’s soul pleads against David’s soul by the principle of grace, or by an heavenly inclination or by both, it shows that all spiritual inclinations are never entirely lost, there is a seed of God which may be wakened up.
  3. When the inclination is smothered with heaviness, there is another counteracting heavenly inclination (Psalm 119:28). They have been disposed to deadness but behold there is a disposition to pray for strengthening in counteracting that disposition. In Psalm 119:81 the psalmist is in a fainting condition which indicates some weakness. There is still, however, a disposition to hope in God’s Word, which counteracts fainting. He says “I am become like a bottle in the smoke” (Psalm 119:83) which indicates some disposition to deadness in his spirit. But notice the counteracting disposition, he does not forget God’s statutes. 
  4. The Spirit in the renewed person ultimately prevails over the flesh (Romans 7:23-24). So the gracious disposition is also victorious over, and gets the better of the sinful disposition. David may have been disposed to doubt at the time when he is forced to flee to the cave and part from with his few soldiers. Yet his faith and believing disposition prevails over his fears and doubting. This is clear from Psalm 57:1 and also verse 3 “He shall send from heaven and save me”. In verse 7 he says “My heart is fixed, I will sing and give praise”. He believed in God’s deliverance since a slain man buried in the cave could not sing and give praise? 

When we do not feel spiritually inclined we must do as those who want to cross a river, if one ford is too deep try another and try every ford. There may be an indisposition to believe, but there may also be besides this a spiritual disposition to pray. Set to praying then.  Sometimes there is a deadness that hinders praying, so that we cannot speak (Psalm 77:4) yet there is also a disposition to praise in Psalm 77:14-15. Set about praising then. Perhaps dispositions, motions, experiences are all gone and there is nothing left but the principle of grace. Go over the promises and act on the principle, blow on the glowing coal and strengthen that which remains. When one tool is broken, the tradesman makes use of another.

Though sinful dispositions and the flesh have the better of us for a while, wait on the Lord and trust in His strength and act. The heavenly flamings of God will eventually prevail. The Spouse is drowsy for a while, and refuses to open and refuses Christ lodging in Song of Solomon 5:2. Eventually, however, when Christ puts in His hand by the hole of the door, faith and heavenly inclinations are victorious. She rises and opens; she misses and seeks Him. She prays and becomes sick of love for Him (Song of Solomon 5:6-8). Then she bursts out in a high song extolling her beloved in verses 10-12.

Job is cast down under much sadness of spirit due to unbelief in Job 19:6-7. “Behold I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard; I cry aloud, but there is no judgment” These are hard words indeed! If there is no judgment for an oppressed man crying to God, there is no providence, no God who rules the world. Yet in Job 19:25 he is able to say “I know that my Redeemer lives, I know I shall see him” [Rutherford’s paraphrase]. Get anything of the principle of grace and spiritual inclinations and act with them. You will not lack victorious influences on the basis of this because “greater is he that is in you, then he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

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Further Help

To explore these reflections further, you may find it helpful to read the article What You Must Do When You Feel Spiritually Dead. John Brown of Wamphray explains how Christ is still the life the believer needs even when we feel dry and barren and wonder if things will ever change. Not only this but he shows how to make use of that life.

 

 

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