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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When is Being Debt-Free Absolutely Wrong?

When is Being Debt-Free Absolutely Wrong?

When is Being Debt-Free Absolutely Wrong?
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.
1 Nov, 2019

We are drowning in personal debt. It’s recognised as a crisis. With growing insecurity one small change can often send individuals and families into tragic unsustainable debt. Overall debt in the UK is expected to reach £2 trillion by 2020. How should we think about debt? When the Apostle Paul says that we are not to owe anyone anything it seems unmistakably clear (Romans 13:8). But then he goes on immediately to make an exception. In fact, he urges us to take on the biggest possible debt: “to love one another”. What are we doing about this personal debt?

In explaining this verse, John Brown of Wamphray emphasises that it is important for Christians to fulfil their obligations. They should be faithful in relation to the agreements and debts they contract. They should not give anyone legitimate reason complain about them. They should seek to manage the little money they receive from God in a wise and careful way so that they can pay off their debts (2 Kings 4:1-3; Proverbs 3:27 and 6:1-3).

The debt they cannot free themselves from but must constantly pay is to love one another. Paul goes on to show that this is what God’s law requires. It is something that we must be reminded about constantly (1 Timothy 6:11; 1 Corinthians 14:1-2; 2 Timothy 2:22).

1. THE DEBT OF LOVE IS REQUIRED FROM EVERYONE

The duty of Christian love is a duty required of every kind of person. It is a mutual Christian duty (John 13:34; John 15:17; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; Colossians 3:14).

2. THE DEBT OF LOVE IS REQUIRED DAILY

This is a debt required of us daily and which we can never be freed from. It must continue (Hebrews 13:1). It is a debt we are constantly obliged to pay to our neighbour.

3. THE DEBT OF LOVE IS REQUIRED FOR EVERYONE

We should desire the best for everyone: eternal life, peace with God etc. This same principle of love ought to extend to everyone whether they are saints (Colossians 1:4) or strangers (Deuteronomy 10:19-20). It includes anyone who is called our neighbour (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:19). We are to love one another and our neighbour (Romans 13:8-9; 1 Peter 2:17).

Believers are indeed bound to have a special respect and love for those who are fellow children of grace and children of the same Father (Galatians 6:10). The same has love us and commanded us to do this (1 John 4:11 and 21). This will prove that we do indeed know and love God and He dwells in us (1 John 4:8, 12 and 20). It will show that we are of God, dwell in the light and have passed from death to life (1 John 2:10-11 and 3:10 and 14).

It is of course true that in terms of frequency, effects and degree of delight we may love some more than others. These include those to whom we are related or are friends with or those who have shown us kindness (1 Timothy 5:4; Proverbs 18:24; Galatians 6:6).

4. THE DEBT OF LOVE IS OUR MORAL DUTY

Although believers are out of the reach of the condemnation of the law they are under its direction. The more the law urges a duty the more believers ought to strive to fulfil it. In urging this duty of love Paul says that it summarises the second part of the Ten Commandments. He calls this “the fulfilling of the law” (Matthew 22:39; James 2:8; Galatians 5:14).

5. THE DEBT OF LOVE IS REQUIRED IN EVERYTHING

This love for our neighbours should preserve us from wronging them in terms of their honour, person, reputation and possessions. It would urge us to use all lawful means to secure their spiritual and outward good. In a word, it would keep us from transgressing any commandment of the second part of the Ten Commandments in thought, word or deed (Romans 13:9 see Galatians 5:14; Hebrews 10:24). We must labour in this love (1 Thessalonians 1:3; Hebrews 6:10). We ought to serve our neighbour in love (Galatians 5:13).

Where this love is found we do not devise, contrive or seek anything that harms our neighbour. We will not even so much as take up a bad report against our neighbour (Psalm 15:3). Love does not envy but bears long and is not easily provoked (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). It does not think any evil but covers over a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).

CONCLUSION

Romans 14:8 is simple in its wording but it includes a very great deal indeed. Love for others so motivates a person to obey God’s commandments without even thinking about it. 
When the Christian is changed their behaviour is also changed. This is so much the case that without this love – the Christian with all their knowledge and profession is nothing, it is merely an empty sound (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).

But how do we show that love to all fellow-believers, what is our duty towards them? Any breach in fellowship and the love we ought to have should be truly distressing to us. Christ spoke of how reconciliation ought to take preeminence over other duties such as worship (see Matthew 5:21-26). It is easy to make professions, to parade zeal and orthodoxy but our obedience matters. This is the test of whether our love is genuine (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

We may well have spoken the truth to another person faithfully and without leaving them in any doubt as to where they have gone wrong. But did we speak the truth in love? Or did we give them such a volley of truth as will inoculate them lifelong against the Biblical principles we are defending due to the way in which we have done it? Of course a failure to say or do what is right can also lead others to sin and error. It does not mean that we abandon any truth or principle; it means that we are unwilling to value it above Christian love. We value both love and truth enough to want to lovingly and patiently exhort our fellow Christians to be of one mind with us.

It is often in our use of the tongue and how we speak about other Christians that we fail to fulfil the requirement of love. We should always seek the good and not the harm (even indirectly) of others. 

We need to pray for much grace in order to fulfil this perpetual debt of love.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION

No one has written on this subject in a more spiritual, biblical and powerful way than Hugh Binning in his book Christian Love. It is brief but needs much careful pondering and prayerful practice. 

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The Christian’s Spiritual Dress Code

The Christian’s Spiritual Dress Code

The Christian’s Spiritual Dress Code
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.
28 Jun, 2019

We live in a look-at-me culture where image is everything. Many are encouraged to be obsessed with how they appear to others. Thinking less of ourselves in these ways is not humility but another symptom of self-obsession. Our culture generally celebrates pride as though it was a virtue. There are many ways in which we need to resist these pressures but we need to begin within. The Bible tells us that all Christians need to be concerned about how we clothe our minds, our words and our behaviour. There is something that should be worn by every Christian in this sense. That garment is humility.

This is especially emphasised in 1 Peter 5:5, “all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility”. It is striking that when Peter points out the responsibilities of Christians, he speaks of submitting to and serving one another. He shows how congregations should display humility in relation to the authority that Christ has established in the Church. He even singles out the younger members of the flock who may be more tempted to show disrespect.

Christians all ought to think about themselves less. They should adorn themselves with this humility. The word “clothe” in Greek literally refers to an item of clothing that was specific to slaves and this emphasises the aspect of mutual service. God opposes pride but has a special regard for those who take a lower place. Humility is so important and such a hard lesson to learn that Peter continues to press this point home in the next verse (1 Peter 5:6). In this updated extract Alexander Nisbet shows what it means to clothe ourselves with humility.

 

1. Humility Must Be Worn in All Our Interactions with Other Christians

Every one of the Lord’s people owe mutual subjection to one another. This involves giving and accepting loving reproof for faults (Leviticus 19:17; Psalm 141:5).  It also includes instructing and admonishing one another in relation to our duty (Colossians 3:16). They must humbles themselves to carry out all the duties of love they owe to one another (Galatians 5:13).  All this is included in the requirement given to the members of the church in relation to their fellow-members: “all of you be subject one to another”.

The lost may glory greatly in their pride and violence as something that adorns them (Psalm 73:6,18-19). The grace of humility gives a Christian a lower esteem of themselves as a result of the sense of their own sinfulness (1 Corinthians 15:9) and the undeserved goodness of God (2 Samuel 7:18,20). As a result, the Christian is inclined to honour others before themselves (Romans 12:10). They do not seek more esteem from others than God allows them to have (1 Corinthians 3:5 and 4:6). The Christian also accepts all God’s chastisements as less than what they deserve (Ezra 9:13). Humility is the thing that adorns Christian most. They should tie it around them and delight to wear it (as the word here literally means). They should be just as ashamed to appear before others without it as they would be ashamed to appear without their clothing.

 

2. Humility Must Be Worn in Everything a Christian Does

No duty that the Lord’s people owe to anyone can be properly discharged without receiving this humble spirit from God. The exhortation to be clothed with humility is clearly to be understood as a means for carrying out the things previously required as duties for Christians.

 

3. Humility Must Be Worn to Please God

The Lord may permit proud sinners to prosper in their sins for a time (Psalm 73:4-5) but He still declares war on them. He stands against them in battle array (as the word translated “to resist” literally means). He will take the most suitable opportunity to bring down all who live in the sin of pride. This sin is most obvious in neglecting to pursue reconciliation with God through Christ (Psalm 10:4). It is also obvious in when things that are clearly urged and required by the Word are left undone (Nehemiah 9:16-17,29). Unthankfulness to God for His mercies is another notable kind of rebellious pride against God. (2 Chronicles 32:25-26).

When we consider the way that God opposes pride it should make the pursuit of humility lovely to us. It should make pride hateful to the Lord’s people since they do not want God for their enemy. For this reason, he urges humility, because God resists the proud. Every humble sinner may expect evidence of God’s favour and the increase of the graces of His Spirit. This should commend the grace of humility to them and make them strive to exercise it. The fact that God gives grace to the humble is an encouragement to adorn ourselves with it.

 

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How to Listen to a Sermon

How to Listen to a Sermon

How to Listen to a Sermon
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 Feb, 2019

Hundreds of thousands of minutes. That’s a lifetime total of hearing sermons. But listening to sermons involves far more than clocking up time staying awake during preaching. Despite the amount of time we devote to this, clear guidance on how to listen to sermons is rare. Christ says that it matters how we hear the Word (Luke 8:18). The benefit we derive depends on the way we listen. So how ought we to listen?

It’s important that we benefit from the preaching we hear. We have ears so that we might listen to God’s Word (Matthew 11:15; Mark 8:18). And when we do listen we need to understand, it is a solemn thing to be always hearing without understanding (Mark 4:12).  Our hearts and lives should produce fruit from what we hear (Luke 8:15).

We also need to pay attention to what we hear as well as how we hear it (Mark 4:24). When we compare what we hear in sermons with what Scripture says we are also listening in the right way (Acts 18:11). Although something preached may not seem to be exactly what we think we need right now, we are to store it up for when we will need it most (Isaiah 42:23).

No doubt online sermons have been beneficial to many. But if they incline us to think less of preaching in reality and in the context of public worship we are not listening in the right way. Particularly if people feel they can skip church and listen at home. Perhaps it doesn’t seem so attractive as listening to their favourite celebrity preacher but it is God’s appointed context.  There is a bond between a minister and his congregation that is absent from an online sermon from another preacher. We are not to be sermon tasters but sermon doers.

In this updated extract, James Durham gives some helpful advice for how to benefit from hearing the Word preached. Listening well to a sermon begins before we ever get to church. As the Larger Catechism puts it, we need “preparation and prayer” before going to hear the Word preached. This is where we need to start.

 

1. Listen with Preparation

This involves:

  • praying for the speaker;
  • praying for ourselves that we may profit by the Word;
  • preparing ourselves to be in a spiritually settled condition for such an activity;
  • seeking to have the right estimation of the Word;
  • blessing God for His Word and for any good received beforehand by it.

 

2. Listen in Person

We need to be present to listen (Acts 10:33). If we are absent from church, neglecting gospel opportunities we are not listening in person. Neither are we properly there in person if we are sleeping during the sermon when we should be listening.

 

3. Listen with Expectation

We should go to hear with an expectation of and longing for the presence of God or of meeting with Him. We come with hunger and thirst as new born babes, having laid aside anything that may hinder receiving it with desire (2 Peter 2:1-2).

 

4. Listen to God

When we are called to hear the Word we meet with God in His ordinances. We must be present, as before God, to hear, as Cornelius was (Acts 10:33). Go to hear out of respect for God’s honour. Go to hear out of conscience not out of mere custom or for appearance’s sake.

We must look to God, receiving the Word as God’s Word, not as man’s (1 Peter 1:23-25; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 4;11). There is a special fear which we ought to have before His name. There ought therefore to be trembling and fear in our attending to these ordinances (Isaiah 66:2; Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 and Malachi 2:5).

 

5. Listen with Your Whole Heart

Listening is more than hearing, especially if the sermon is heard, but it is not understood (Matthew 13:13). But there is a danger when though it is understood, it is soon forgotten. We must avoid letting the Word slip out of our mind and rather retain and store up what we hear (Luke 9:44).

Listening involves devoting our ears and memories to what is preached. Not wandering in our minds and thoughts (Ezekiel 33:31-32). We must not devote only our ears and memories, however, but also throw open our hearts to the Word, to let it sink down in them.

 

6. Listen with Submission

We must not go to hear with prejudice. Faith must mixed with hearing, giving credit to the Word. It is a great sin not to believe God’s Word when we hear it (Hebrews 4:1-2).  This happens when we fume against the reproofs of the Word and quibble with its teaching as well as when we reproach it rather than ourselves.

 

7. Listen with Dependence

We must renounce our own resources to depend on Christ in seeking to hear the Word.

 

8. Listen in the Right Way

We should thirst after the pure milk of the Word, that we may grow by it. We are not listening in the right way when our ears itch for novel expressions, words or things (1 Timothy 4:3). Neither must we give more weight and attention to things that are novel compared to duties or truths already known.

When the same truth, expression, or verse cited by one preacher is not respected and received as much as when it spoken by another we have partiality. We are respecting men in a way contrary to James 2:9. The same is true if we are diverted from what is said to love of the speaker. Or if we delight in what is spoken simply because it is spoken by a certain speaker. If we delight in the manner of speaking or expression more than in God, respecting God and profiting spiritually we are not listening in the right way.

 

9. Listen with Reverence

We do not have the right spirit if we disrespect the ordinance of preaching for some worldly or personal respects. Particularly if we prefer any small trivial thing to it.

Reverence involves avoiding vain looks, idle thoughts and other trifling, irreverent behaviour. This includes unnecessary speaking or talking during the time of the sermon.  Even speaking in prayer disrespects the Word unless it is a very short prayer in reference to what is at present spoken.

When we stumble without cause at any expression in the sermon we are being irreverent. Especially when we are so frivolous as to laugh at what is spoken, undermining the ordinances of God’s worship. This even relates to dressing in a way that shows befitting respect to preaching as God’s ordinance. We should also show reverence in the way that we go away from hearing the Word.

 

10. Listen without Distractions

We should be watchful to prevent what may divert, distract or constrain our minds when we come to hear. It is our responsibility to order things so that they may not be a hinderance to us in meeting with the blessing of the gospel.

Some are distracted by vain things while they should be listening. They notice the clothes others are wearing or the way the church building is decorated or constructed.  We should avoid being distracted even by reading something additional (even though it is Scripture) when we should be listening. Even good thoughts can tend to divert us from hearing.

 

11. Listen Prayerfully

We ought to intermingle very short prayers for ourselves and others as we listen. We should pray for the speaker while he is preaching that God would help him. Pray that God would help us to keep such a Word for the time when we may need it. Bless God when words are spoken in the right way. Listening prayerfully will help us avoid quenching conviction of sin or the stirring of affection awakened by the Word.

 

12. Listen and Do

We ought not to listen more for knowing than for doing, more for informing the mind than for reforming the heart and life (James 1:22-25). We must apply it to ourselves and test whether we commit the faults or do the duties mentioned.

 

13. Listen for Eternity

We must give due weight to God’s warnings and threatenings of judgement and to the gospel. We must consider and make use of the preached Word as a means to convert as well as confirm (James 1:21). We ought to make use of the promises offered in preaching as directed by God to us through an authorised ambassador. We must lay due weight on them as coming from Him. We fail to listen for eternity when we reject the many sweet offers of the gospel and do not come to the marriage of the King’s Son (Matthew 22:1-14). In doing so we grieve God’s Spirit who urges them on us. If we do not accept Christ and make use of Him, we tread Christ’s blood under foot by having so little esteem for it.

 

Conclusion

Listening to a sermon is a spiritual rather than merely intellectual or social activity. We must approach it in the right way. We can benefit a great deal from sermons if we prepare ourselves to listen to them in the right way and give careful and earnest attention to them. Afterwards we need to pray and meditate on the truths declared and make sure to practice what we have been shown is God’s will for us. In our conversation with others we can encourage them to remember and benefit from the Word preached. Wouldn’t it make a vast difference to our hearts, lives, families and churches if we did?

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Resisting Perfectionism in Striving for True Perfection

Resisting Perfectionism in Striving for True Perfection

Resisting Perfectionism in Striving for True Perfection
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 Sep, 2018

​Perfectionism is ruining a generation. In a world that places maximum value on performance, status and image anything less than perfection is failure. Perfectionism has been increasing over the generations and is an epidemic hitting millennials the hardest. A recent study by psychologists advances this conclusion. “This is a culture which preys on insecurities and amplifies imperfection, impelling young people to focus on their personal deficiencies”, they say. Their definition of perfectionism is “an irrational desire for flawlessness”. This enormous peer pressure can lead to depression and suicide. In seeking to perfect the imperfect self, millennials are focussed on the wrong things in the wrong way. They are focussed on image and success rather than spiritual and moral concerns. They have no place for grace, only merit. It prompts the question: how do we strive for true perfection while resisting perfectionism?

In one sense perfection is a goal in the Christian life (Matthew 5:48; 2 Corinthians 7:1; 1 Peter 1:15). But grace teaches us that God is working with the imperfect to bring them to ultimate perfection in eternity (Ephesians 5:26-27). Grace doesn’t despise perfection but neither does it worship it or expect to achieve it in our own strength. Paul expresses this in a helpful way. “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after” (Philippians 3:12). Yet Paul makes clear that he is not “perfect” and has not attained what he desires but still he perseveres.

Paul is conscious of his own shortcoming. He has not attained the knowledge of Christ and progress in grace he desires. He does not have the conformity with Christ that he pursues. But he continues to strive after no less than perfection in these, even though that is beyond this life. Those who (like Paul) have attained the most of any, still come short. As James Fergusson notes, being conscious of and acknowledging our imperfection keeps us humble. It prompts us to aspire to further growth. Paul emphasises this in the context of the false apostles who were seeking perfection through circumcision and conformity with the ceremonial law. Paul discards that but also shows how he still has not arrived at perfection in this the things of Christ, he is striving towards it. The following is an updated extract from James Fergusson’s comments Philippians 3:12.

 

1. We Will Always be Striving After Perfection

Those who have made greatest progress in the knowledge of Christ and in conformity with him, are far short of what they should be. This is how it was with Paul. “Not as though I had already attained“, he says.

 

2. We Should be Conscious of Our Imperfection

Believers ought to be conscious of this imperfection and also acknowledge it sometimes. They may be kept humble by this and brought to aspire to further growth. They will also desire that others may be preserved from dangerous mistakes concerning them or of a high esteem of themselves. This is what Paul does when he says, “Not as though I had already attained“.

 

3. Our Imperfection Should Encourage Not Discourage Us

We are conscious in the right way of falling-short of what we should be when we are not discouraged by this.  Instead it should incite us to make swifter progress toward the mark. Thus, Paul says “but I follow after”.

 

4. We Should Strive for Perfection Even Though it is Not Attainable in This Life

Though perfection in holiness is not attainable in this life, we are still to aim at no less. Paul followed after in order that he might lay hold of that perfection which was yet lacking.

 

5. Striving for Perfection is Our Gracious Response to Christ

Any motion towards that which is spiritually good comes entirely from Jesus Christ. His grace first lays hold on us in our effectual calling. It infused principles of a new life in us when we were dead in sins and trespasses (Ephesians 2:1). Through this we are made to exert ourselves in the way of holiness. Thus, Paul is first apprehended by Christ and then follows after to apprehend. “I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus”.

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Why Lies Spread Faster than the Truth

Why Lies Spread Faster than the Truth

Why Lies Spread Faster than the Truth
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.
16 Mar, 2018

False news travels six times faster than the truth according to a scientific study. It’s 70% more likely to be retweeted. The study analyses 126,000 false stories tweeted by roughly three million people more than 4.5 million times. We’re aware of fake news and robots that generate it online. It seems that the robots are not responsible for the speed at which fake news travels–we are. What is it in human nature that is drawn to sharing falsehood?

It should be of great concern to us. The author of the study, Professor Aral makes a striking comment. “Some notion of truth is central to the proper functioning of nearly every realm of human endeavor. If we allow the world to be consumed by falsity, we are inviting catastrophe”. Of course the trend of post-modern thought has been to claim that truth is relative, not absolute. This undermines a concern for truth, even the facts because it is claimed that such truth claims are an exercise of power and privilege.

A biblical perspective gives us, however, a clear basis for distinguishing truth and lies. The study laments the effects of fake news: “False news can drive the misallocation of resources during terror attacks and natural disasters, the misalignment of business investments, and misinformed elections”. While these are important, it is also a matter of moral and eternal significance. The concern about the speed at which lies travel is of course not new.

If you want truth to go round the world you must hire an express train to pull it; but if you want a lie to go round the world, it will fly; it is as light as a feather, and a breath will carry it. It is well said in the old Proverb, ‘A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.’ (C H Spurgeon)

It is not a unique feature of social media; we have the same tendency to want to share certain news more than others. Apparently false stories have greater novelty and produce greater surprise and disgust. It is just as true when we get news by word of mouth, text or email. These driving forces make people spring to a quick judgment about what they have heard and often want to share it. David, for instance was too hasty in accepting Ziba’s lie about Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 16). There may be many “spiritual” factors that cloud our judgment and make us rush to characterise another believer and their words or actions.

There are many reasons why this may be so. Fundamentally the problem is not so much with the mouth as with the heart. The mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart (Matthew 12:34). The following are some of the ways we rush to judgment in heart as outlined by James Durham. It comes from his exposition of the ninth commandment which forbids false witness. They are some of the reasons as to why lies travel faster than the truth.

 

1. Rushing into Suspicious Judgment

Suspecting others unjustly is called “evil surmising” in 1 Timothy 6:4 or as it is in the original Greek “evil suspicion”. This is when people are suspected of some evil without grounds for it, as Potiphar suspected Joseph. It is jealousy when this suspicion is mixed with fear of something that we love or value being endangered. Thus Herod was jealous when Christ was born, as were the neighbouring kings when Jerusalem was being built. There is, I grant, a right suspicion; e.g. that which Solomon had concerning Adonijah (1 Kings 1 and 2). Yet Gedaliah failed, in not crediting Johannans information anent Ishmael’s conspiracy against his life (Jeremiah 40).

 

2. Rushing into Unjust Judgment

We may be guilty of rash judging and concluding unjustly concerning someone’s state. This was what Job’s friends did. We may judge unjustly of someone’s actions, as Eli did with Hannah in saying that she was drunk, because of her lips moving. We may judge unjustly of someone’s objectives. The Corinthians did this with Paul when he took wages; they said it was covetousness. When he did not take wages from them they said it was lack of love (see Romans 14:4 and 2 Corinthians 11:41 following).

 

3. Rushing into Hasty Judgment

By hasty judging we pass a verdict too soon in our mind from some apparent evidence. We might draw conclusions about what we assume to be in the heart though it is not in the outward behaviour. This is merely to judge hastily and before the time (Matthew 7:1).

 

4. Rushing into Judgment on Weak Grounds

There is light judging, basing our conclusions on arguments or other means that will not support them. The Barbarians suspected Paul to be a murderer when they saw the viper on his hand (Acts 25:4). King Ahasuerus trusted Haman’s slander concerning the Jews too quickly.

 

5. Rushing into Presumptuous Judgment

The ninth commandment may be broken in our hearts when we are constantly suspicious of our neighbour failing. We act contrary to Matthew 18:15 when we are not willing to be satisfied but rather base our judgment on what we presume to be probable.

 

Conclusion

We ought to be thankful that there is mercy for such sins of the heart that rise all too easily. How much we need truth and a love of the truth in the inward part. There is grace for this from the One who is full of grace and truth. Durham also observes that the ninth commandment requires us to preserve and promote the truth. It advances honest, simple and straightforward attitudes and behaviour among people. We should have a sincere and cordial loving regard to the repute and good name of one another. We ought to take delight and joyful satisfaction in this as well as having a suitable love to and care for our own good name. These principles will restrain the rapid judgment that is ready to accept a false report concerning someone else whether they are in the public eye or in our circle of acquaintance.

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Signs of Those Who Are Only Satisfied With Christ

Signs of Those Who Are Only Satisfied With Christ

Signs of Those Who Are Only Satisfied With Christ
The Covenanters were a group of faithful ministers and Christians in Scotland who worked to uphold the principles of the National Covenant of 1638 and Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 in order to establish and defend Presbyterianism against the imposition of Episcopacy by the state. They suffered severe persecution through imprisonment, fines and execution rather than abandon their principles.
15 Mar, 2018

​In a world constantly seeking the retreating mirage of satisfaction in the things of this life we need to know where to find true spiritual satisfaction. Samuel Rutherford said that seeking such satisfaction in this world is like digging into cold ice expecting to discover warm fire. Spiritual satisfaction is in Christ and what He has done alone. As Calvin put it: “The whole of God is found in him, so that he who is not satisfied with Christ alone, desires something better and more excellent than God.” Not to be satisfied with Christ involves “detracting from the glory of God, by desiring something above his perfection”. They are “ungrateful” who “seek elsewhere what they already have in Christ”. It is vital therefore to rest in this satisfaction. How can we assure ourselves that we are those who are only satisfied in Christ?

This is a question that Thomas Hog of Kiltearn (1628–1692) sought to answer for the benefit of others. He does not give an exhaustive but rather a helpful and suggestive answer. The eleven observations he makes are worth pondering further and comparing with Scripture and our own experience. Hog was imprisoned several times including on the Bass Rock. Here he had some time for prayerful reflection as he suffered for Christ. These points have been transcribed from a manuscript in the National Library of Scotland with a little updating of the language.

 

Marks of those who, being lost in themselves, are fit for the consolations of Christ

1. They will acknowledge and not extenuate sin.

2. No earthly comforts can satisfy.

3. Searching sermons are most acceptable and searching Scripture texts are most sweet.

4. No creature can satisfy (no not even an angel) until Christ Himself comes.

5. They all think that they themselves are the chief of sinners.

6. They would take peace with God without all external comfort, indeed they would take Christ with all external crosses and troubles.

7. The least relationship to Christ and benefit from Him will be more sweet and acceptable than to be in any relation but His.

8. The least appearance of opening a door of mercy humbles and melts the heart more than any other thing.

9. They do not doubt Christ’s power, but because of their unworthiness as to whether He will have mercy.

10. All earthly contempt and crosses [trials] are thought light and easily borne. The saddest afflictions are thought nothing in comparison of their [formerly] lost condition.

11. They will not be content with peace without grace, with justification without sanctification.

 

About Thomas Hog of Kiltearn

Hog was a Highlander who also ministered in Ross-shire. Forced to leave his congregation in 1662, he moved to Auldearn near Nairn, where he continued to minister in private. In 1668 he was  imprisoned for some time for preaching at “illegal meetings” or conventicles.

After his release he continued to preach but was arrested in 1677 and imprisoned in the Bass Rock. This is a very high rock in the sea off the Scottish coast which was purchased by the government expressly for imprisoning presbyterian ministers. When he sought release due to his poor health Archbishop Sharp had him put in the lowest and worst dungeon in the place. Yet his health recovered in these circumstances.

After a later release he had further periods of imprisonment until he was banished from Scotland in 1684. In 1691 he was able to return to the parish of Kiltearn but only for one year. He was buried underneath the threshold of the church door. He also requested the following inscription: ‘This stone shall bear witness against the parishioners of Kiltearn if they bring an ungodly minister in here.’

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What to Do with Your Anxiety

What to Do with Your Anxiety

What to Do with Your Anxiety
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.
16 Jun, 2017

The viral conversation #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike is still going. It arose from fears due to a delayed response to a text message. “If you’re a human being living in 2017 and you’re not anxious, there’s something wrong with you”, says the originator Sarah Fader. We live in an age of anxiety. Every generation has its anxieties, but we have taken it to a new level. Generalised anxiety disorder (something different from depression) is common. Some say it is at epidemic level. The psychologist Jean Twenge observes that the average anxiety level of a Western teenager today is at a level that would have denoted a clinical anxiety disorder in the 1950s. A culture of self-obsession has not helped. But anxiety is neither to be trivialised nor valorised. It is very real in different levels and degrees and some situations require medical help. Yet it is also in part a spiritual issue. Self-help, mind tricks and “mindfulness” cannot treat it: these only mask the symptoms. The Bible has much to say about anxiety that is vital.

It is easy to repeat verses like 1 Peter 5:7 without insight into what it is to cast our cares and anxieties on the Lord. Alexander Nisbet has some helpful counsel on what this means. In general, he says, it teaches that believers should faith commit everything to the Lord in faith. They should commit their need to be sustained in fulfilling their duty, the outcome of their actions and their anxiety about these to the Lord. The Lord’s loving providence does not permit Him to neglect them, or any of their concerns. There is no anxiety He cannot bear for us and therefore no anxiety that we must hold onto and keep to ourselves.

1. Believers Are Subject to Anxiety

The Lord’s children are subject to much sinful anxiety in following their duty. This is apparent when they are hindered from their duty. This happens when they look more to their own weakness and the difficulties in the way of duty than to the sufficiency promised by the One that calls them to the duty (Exodus 3:11). It also evident when they are discouraged in their duty and filled with apprehension about probable hazards in the way of duty (Isaiah 51:12-13). The Spirit of the Lord wants to make them aware of this sin, since He finds it necessary to exhort them thus to cast all our care on Him.

2. Anxiety is Sinful When it Makes Us Unable to Do Our Duty to God

It is most commendable when Christians are concerned about discharging their duty aright and avoiding anything that may provoke the Lord in their way of going about it. This must stir them up to great diligence and making use of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 7:11). They may be concerned about the way they go about their duty or its success and outcome. Yet if such concern distracts their heart in duty and incapacitates them for it, it is sinful. It is to be shaken off by all that would discharge their duty acceptably. This is why the apostle directs us here to cast all our care on Him.

3. Prayer Frees Us from Anxiety

Prayer is the way to be liberated from anxiety and heart-dividing anxieties which indispose us for duty. Through prayer, we must commit to the Lord the success and outcome of our duty together with our being able to fulfil it (Philippians 4:6). We must commit them to Him by faith (Proverbs 16:3). This is how the Spirit of the Lord directs us to be free from sinful anxiety: to cast all our care on Him.

4. No Matter How Small, All Anxiety Must Be Cast on the Lord

The Lord allows His children to cast all their anxieties on Him. They may be about their souls and matters of highest concern or about their bodies and lesser matters. It does not matter how small the thing is about which their heart becomes anxious: He allows them to commit it to Him. He knows that a very small matter is ready to occasion much vexation of spirit to His own (Jonah 4:8). This is why He directs them to cast all their care on Him.

5. We Are Commanded to Cast Our Anxiety on the Lord

Believers have the privilege of unburdening themselves of their distrustful heart-dividing anxieties by casting them over on the Lord. Not only this, it is also the very great desire of our God that we should not sink under the insupportable burden of our own needless cares and fears. It is His authoritative command that we put these off ourselves and on Him. His people may not disobey this unless they wish to incur His displeasure and destroy themselves. This has the force of a command “Casting all your care upon him”.

6. Trusting God Relieves Anxiety about Outcomes

We cannot discharge any duty aright so long as we do not trust the Lord in our managing of it and for its outcome and success. We cannot do our duty aright while the heart is distracted with unbelieving anxiety about this. Trusting God with these is the best way to make speed in every duty. Having exhorted in previous verses in relation to duties toward their overseers, one another, and to God, Peter now introduces something to help attain all these. It is something without which none of them could be attained: cast all your care on the Lord.

7. Pride Holds onto Anxiety; Humility Casts It on the Lord

Unbelieving anxiety makes Christians break themselves with the burden of these anxieties which God requires us to cast on Himself. This is one of the greatest signs of pride there is in the world. Trusting God with the weight of these in following our duty is a prime evidence of true humility. This is a special way for the Lord’s people to prove themselves to be humbled under God’s mighty hand and without this they cannot but declare their pride. The way the words are constructed and their connection with the previous version imply this: “Humble yourselves…Casting all your care upon him” (1 Peter 5:6-7).

8. The Lord Cares for Your Wellbeing as Much as You Do

The Lord is altogether free from things such as anxiety and sorrow that are in us (Numbers 23:19). Yet those of His people that cast their care on Him will find no less proof of His love (keeping them from danger as far as necessary and providing everything they need) than if He were as careful for their wellbeing as they can be for themselves. Considering this should liberate their hearts from their distrustful anxieties. His care is asserted as a reason to enforce the direction to cast all their care on Him.

9. Keeping Anxiety to Ourselves Is Distrust of God’s Fatherly Providence

The Lord’s people must not take the weight of their concerns on themselves. They must not have their hearts distracted with anxiety about managing duties and their outcome. So long as they do this they do not believe the fatherly providence of God watching over them for their good. Such faith could not but banish their anxieties. This is implied in connecting God’s fatherly care as a reason for the direction to cast all our care on Him.

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10 Ways to Best Make Use of Free Grace

10 Ways to Best Make Use of Free Grace

10 Ways to Best Make Use of Free Grace
The Covenanters were a group of faithful ministers and Christians in Scotland who worked to uphold the principles of the National Covenant of 1638 and Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 in order to establish and defend Presbyterianism against the imposition of Episcopacy by the state. They suffered severe persecution through imprisonment, fines and execution rather than abandon their principles.
6 Jan, 2017

What are we to do with grace? That question ought to be more prominent in our thinking than it often is. Perhaps we think of receiving and possessing grace more than making use of it. Grace sets a sinner free – but free to do what? Sadly, many use that freedom in order to serve the sinful nature (1 Peter 2:16). Grace makes the sinner free to be a servant of righteousness (Romans 6:18). We must not, of course, turn grace into works and depend on our own endeavours. But idleness and carelessness are certainly not God’s purpose. We are meant to be busy and active with grace to the glory of God and the eternal good of ourselves and others.

John Kid (d. 1679) was a field preacher who emphasised making best use of grace. In one sermon he stresses that God has given a stock of grace for us to use. “Exercise your faith, and exercise your hope. It is not for yourself only you have got it: it is given you to benefit others; make the countryside the better for it. O trade with it”.   Frequently hunted down for preaching “illegally”, his ministry was to last only a few years. Kid was executed in 1679 together with another preacher, John King. In his last days he suffered through extreme methods of torture that mangled one of his legs. The last words of his written testimony are significant, especially as he acknowledges that he was in such pain that it was difficult to compose anything or speak publicly on the scaffold.

I am a most miserable sinner, in regard of my original and actual transgressions. I must confess they are more in number than the hairs of my head. They are gone up above my head, and are past numbering, I cannot but say as Jacob said, I am less than the least of all God’s mercies, yet I must declare to the exalting of His free grace that, to me who am the least of all saints is this grace made known, and that by a strong hand, and I dare not but say He has loved me, and washed me in His own blood from all iniquities, and well is it for me this day, that ever I heard or read that faithful saying, that Jesus Christ, came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.

His sermons dwell on grace to a great extent and so it is significant that he also said:

I am the most unworthiest that ever opened his mouth to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ in the gospel… I did preach Christ and the gospel in several places of this nation; for which I bless Him (as I can), that ever such a poor obscure person as I am, have been thus privileged by Him, for making mention of His grace as I was able.

It is a long yet edifying testimony but the final words are especially relevant to the subject of grace and its widest benefit.

The Lord is my light and life, my joy, my song, and my salvation; the God of His chosen be my mercy this day, and the enriching comforts of the Holy Ghost keep up and carry me fair through, to the glory of His grace, to the edification of His people, and my own eternal advantage. Amen.

The following points are extracted and updated from a sermon preached on Galatians 5:1 in July 1678.

 

1. Make Best Use of Faith

Make your calling and election sure. Pray and pray in faith, and yet know that prayer will not save you. Many good words will not save you nor do what is necessary.

 

2. Make Best Use of Hope

Make best use of your hope and pray more and more so that your hope is not marred. When Christians do not make best use of their hope it hinders them from seeing their privileges. Many do not care whether Christ stays with, or goes from Scotland. They are not troubled about it: hope is greatly decayed.

 

3. Make Best Use of Heavenly-mindedness

This grace is greatly decayed amongst us. It was not so when God began with you. It was so with you that the tears would have been seen to trickle down your cheeks. Then opportunities were taken for prayer and what was spoken was for God. But now this is laid aside in great measure laid by. We speak now of our own worldly things: we think our own thoughts. And since it is so, what wonder is it that the Lord disclaim us? We do not walk with God, nor are right in heart with Him.

Are we then a thriving land or people? It is not evident that our practice differs little from the practice of wicked men on His holy day? His day is not made best use of and no wonder you do not experience your privileges. Are you looking within the suburbs of heaven? Are you reading and praying with your hearts engaged? O what a desirable thing is it to have your hearts in heaven: to
be heavenly as God is, to see Him face to face, and to see Him as He is.

Remember that a holy God is taking notice of you: how you speak and hear. Resolve to walk in a more holy way and say: “This will be my work in future”. Are you not ashamed that a poor lass or lad has made more progress and profited more in Christianity in one year, than you have done in twenty (some of you in thirty) years? Oh, that it should be so and yet not laid to heart by you.

 

4. Make Best Use of Humility

We do not make progress in humility but all mind our own things like Baruch (Jeremiah 45:5). Yet it was not a fitting time to seek after these things. It is a more fitting time to endeavour after abasement and humility – this is more suitable to the times. The humble man that abases himself to the dust, is the man with whom the Lord delights to dwell. He dwells with the humble and contrite in heart; the man that is taken up with God and heaven.

 

5. Make Best Use of Sincerity

We exhort you to be sincere as with the apostle Paul to the Philippians. He desires that they “may be sincere and without offence, till the day of Christ (Philippians 1:10). A godly man in our land who was one in a thousand [thought to be William Guthrie] once said that he had been studying sincerity for many years, yet he acknowledged he did not know what it was. A sincere man is making best use of his privileges in the right way. It would be good if we were conscious of not making best use of them: but what can we expect from God, while we do not make best use of them. Try and search your own selves, and be not reprobate (2 Corinthians 13:5).

Be acquainted with God, abide nearer to Him, know more of His matters, and be ready every moment to be in God’s matters. The soul that abides near God, will be constantly examining itself; it will constantly be laying hold on God by faith. Each moment he will allow no beloved except Jesus Christ. Abide near Him, that the power of His death and virtue of His resurrection may come, and enable you to make best use of your privileges. Let sin, every lust and abomination that makes you unlike Him be put to death. Seek to have sin slain so that you may live, die, and rise again, as He did. Nothing will satisfy such a soul except more of God’s ordinances. Prayer and preaching will be empty, if Christ is not there. You should cry out, “O to be like Him!” Those that are in closest fellowship with Him, enjoy their privileges and are nourished by the ordinances. Nothing please such a soul except that.

 

6. Make Best Use of Stability

What are you to stand for? What is it to go on in the strength of God the Lord? Folk these days are given to flinch in many things. When a steadfast man stands or keeps his ground, however, the more trials and difficulties he meets with, the more he grows. They do not put him not one step back but he prevails over them. Thus, he improves his steadfastness. Mark your ground before, or else a trial or temptation will soon cast you on your backs. It did so with David and Peter. Improve your steadfastness still more when many are going off both to right and left-hand extremes. Improve stability so that you will not turn from the right way of the Lord.

 

7. Make Best Use of Single-mindedness

If we would be justified and sanctified, we must be single-minded. We must be like Joshua who said: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:13). Although the rest go on
following a bad course, serving their own lusts and the world, yet (he says) I and my family have resolved to serve the Lord. One or another will prove stable in their resolutions, when another turns aside. Many in Joshua’s days went wrong when he kept the right way.  The times in which our lot is cast call for single-mindedness. Noah walked with God, and it is said that was “a perfect man in his generation”. Enoch walked with God; and it is said, “he was not because God took him.”

 

8. Make Best Use of Self-Examination

Try yourselves. We have taken an easy way now, we are not exercised in this duty. Men and women have abandoned it and it is now many years since it was rightly practised. You must examine
your state and see: whether you are in the faith or not, whether you are following hard after God or not.  Try whether you are in a thriving condition, following the Lord and advancing in Christianity. See if you are putting sin and corruption to death. Lay yourselves in God’s balance. Deal with yourself impartially as before God. The grace of self-examination has become very rare
in these days. We exhort you to weigh yourselves before God.  There are many may have the root of the matter in them, and yet things are not right between God and them. Exercising grace will keep things right but merely possessing grace will not keep you right if you are not assisted by exercising it.

 

9. Make Best Use of Self-denial

Jesus Christ Himself taught the lesson, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). What things do you deny yourselves in? He that
will not deny himself for Christ cannot be His disciple.

 

10. Make Best Use of Dependence

Let your souls depend on God. Though the mountains were removed and cast into the midst of the sea and though the fig tree should not blossom, yet truly we will  trust in the Lord, and joy in the God of our salvation who rules in Jacob to the ends of the earth. Will you wait, and wait on? Do you believe that God has power and that the God of Jacob will be your refuge? Dependence on God will make the Christian suffer the loss of all things. Say, the Lord is on my side, I shall not be moved. He is my strength and my saving health — my rock and strong tower. I trust in Him, and therefore I shall stand fast, and not fall. Depend on God, that He may clear up your sky a little. Depend on God with your souls, and that will make you make best use of all that happens in providence. Fix yourselves on God. Take Him as He has offered Himself in the promises of the gospel.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION

There is a very readable biography of John King together with his co-martyr John Kid. This was recently authored by Maurice Grant. It is warmly commended and available from the Scottish Reformation Society for £5.95.

Order from membership@scottishreformationsociety.org

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The Mark of the Christian

The Mark of the Christian

The Mark of the Christian
Hugh Binning (1627–1653) was a young minister who also taught philosophy at the University of Glasgow. He was a prolific author and popular preacher with a gift for clear teaching.
26 Aug, 2016

​You might recognise this title from a well-known book written by Francis Schaeffer. His point was that love “is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father”. It was a point made centuries earlier by Hugh Binning. He called Christian love the “badge that Christ left to his disciples: if we cast this away on every disagreement, we disown our Master, and disclaim his token and badge”. Both of course refer to Christ’s words in John 13:35 that “love one to another” is the way by which all men will recognise Christ’s disciples.

During his lifetime Binning experienced sad disagreements with those who were otherwise fully agreed on the Church’s faith and practice. He was a man of principle who did not cast away his convictions when difficulties arose. But he was also a man of peace who loved obedience to Christ’s new commandment: to love one another.  He did not give up speaking the truth even when it might offend others, but he spoke the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Binning believed that: “Unity in judgement [conviction] is very necessary for the well being of Christians…[and]… unity in affection is most essential and fundamental”. He says that “love is a uniting and transforming thing”.

His valuable little book Christian Love has particular beauty and power (see below for a special offer for purchasing it). It is not a book that sprinkles platitudes and slogans but rather penetrates deeply. In particular he comments on 1 Corinthians 13 with great insight. This is a chapter often read and referred to but seldom understood with accuracy and depth.

 

1. The Mark of God

“There is a special stamp of excellency put on this affection of love”. It is that God delights to reveal Himself in this way. “God is love”. We are to be “followers of God as dear children, and walk in love” (Ephesians 5:1-2). We are to follow this pattern. “God has a general love to all the creatures, from which the river of his goodness flows throughout the earth, and in that, is like the sun conveying his light and benign influence, without partiality or restraint, to the whole world”. Yet His “special favour runs in a more narrow channel towards those whom he has chosen in Christ”.

A Christian must be like his Father in this. Indeed Binning says “there is nothing in which he resembles him more than in this, to walk in love towards all men, even our enemies. For in this he gives us a pattern: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you, that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45).

To do good to all, and to be ready to forgive all, is the glory of God, and certainly it is the glory of a child of God to be merciful as his Father is merciful, and good to all, and kind to the unthankful. And this is to be perfect as he is perfect. This perfection is charity and love to all. But the particular and special current of affection will run toward the household of faith, those who are of the same descent, and family, and love.

This is the “badge” of Christ’s disciples. “These two in a Christian are nothing but the reflex of the love of God, and streams issuing out from it”. In order to support this Binning quotes from Galatians 5:10 “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith”. The other extremely apt verse he gives is 1 Thessalonians 3:12-13: “And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love onetowards another, and towards all men, even as we do towards you, to the end he may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, with all his saints.”

A Christian walking in love to all, blessing his enemies, praying for them, not reviling or cursing again, but blessing for cursing, and praying for reviling, forgiving all, and ready to give to the necessities of all, and more especially, uniting the force of his love and delight, to bestow it upon these who are the excellent ones, and delight of God, such a one is his Father’s picture, so to speak. He is partaker of that divine nature, and royal spirit of love.

 

2. The Mark of True Humanity

Binning says that most of Christianity is true humanity. “Christ makes us men as well as Christians. He makes us reasonable men when believers. Sin transformed our nature into a wild, beastly, viperous, selfish thing. Grace restores reason and natural affection in the purest and highest strain. And this is reason and humanity, elevated and purified – to condescend to all men in all things for their profit and edification, to deny itself to save others”. Yet “charity will not, dare not sin to please men. That were to hate God, to hate ourselves, and to hate our brethren, under a base pretended notion of love”.

We should be “blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation,” among whom we should shine “as lights” (Philippians 2:15). And truly it is humanity elevated by Christianity, or reason purified by religion, that is the light that shines most brightly in this dark world.

 

3. The Mark of Spiritual Light

On occasion Binning is lyrical in his spiritual understanding of Christian love.

Love is real light and life. Is it not “a pleasant thing for the eye to behold the sun?” Light is sweet, and life is precious. These are two of the rarest jewels given to men.

He follows this immediately with an arresting quotation from 1 John 2:9-11 that it is only those that love their brother who abide in the light. “The light of Jesus Christ cannot shine into the heart, but it begets love, even as intense light begets heat, and where this impression is not made on the heart, it is an evidence that the beams of that Sun of righteousness have not pierced it”.  Daylight is made for going about our daily work. Why is spiritual daylight given to the soul? In order “that it may rise up and go forth to labour, and exercise itself in the works of the day, duties of love to God and men”.

Now in such a soul there is no cause of stumbling, no scandal, no offence in its way to fall over.  When the light and knowledge of Christ possesses the heart in love, there is no stumbling block of transgression in its way. It does not fall and stumble at the commandments of righteousness and mercy as grievous, “therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).  And so the way of charity is the most easy, plain, expedient and safe way.  In this way there is light shining all along it, and there is no stumbling block in it.  Love for God and our brethren has polished and made it all plain

 

4. The Mark of Humility

Here Binning comes to one of the most challenging aspects of Christian love. It is demanding and self-sacrificing not insipid sentiment. Christian love will be as careful as possible to avoid stumbling others. (For more on this point see the recent article 7 Reasons to Avoid Stumbling Others). Although there are “many stumbling blocks in the world, yet there is none in charity, or in a charitable soul”.  Binning says: “I…think there is no point of Christianity less regarded”. Other matters are acknowledged though we may fail in practice but this scarcely comes into the minds of any. Few see it as their obligation.

“The apostle says, ‘Give none offence, neither to the Jews nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God’ (1 Corinthians 10:32). And he adds his own example, ‘Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved’, verse 33. If only those who love “all things to all men” as a slogan would be dissuaded by this verse from stumbling others.

Love is a light which may lead us by offences inoffensively, and without stumbling.  In darkness men mistake the way, know not the end of it, take pits for plain ways, and stumble in them.  Uncharitableness casts a mist over the actions and courses of others, and our own too, that we cannot carry on either without transgression. And this is the misery of it, that it cannot discern any fault in itself.  It knows not where it goes, calls light darkness and darkness light.  It is partial in judgment, pronounces always on its own behalf, cares not whom it condemns, that it may absolve itself.

“Charity is not self-addicted”, he says. Binning is unsparing in his treatment of uncharitable self-love. We want others to deal charitably with us but are less inclined to extend it ourselves. “If I be convinced that there is any equity and beauty in that command which charges others to love me, forgive me, forbear with me, and restore me in meekness, why, then, should it be a grievous command that I should pay that debt of love and tenderness to others?”

The root of this problem is pride. We compare the best in us with the worst in others in order to inflate our self-opinion. It would be better to compare our worst with other people’s best. “Humility makes a man compare himself with the best that he may find how bad he himself is, but pride measures by the worst, that it may hide a man from his own imperfections”.

SELFLOVE

 

5. The Mark of Righteousness

Binning shows that the commandments which relate to our neighbour (the fifth commandment to the tenth) are branches of Christian love. They all require “the works of righteousness and of mercy”. Yet these are “interwoven” through each other. Though mercy is usually restricted to showing compassion on men in misery, yet there is a righteousness in that mercy, and there is mercy in the most acts of righteousness, as in not judging rashly, in forgiving etc. Therefore we shall consider the most eminent and difficult duties of love, which the word of God solemnly and frequently charges upon us in relation to others, especially these of the household of faith.

 

6. The Mark of Liveliness

Binning says that cold love is “the symptom of a decaying and fading Christian and Church” (Matthew 24:12). It was the great charge that Christ had against Ephesus (Revelation 2:4-5). Love is the source of life and liveliness for a Christian. Without it the soul is in decay. “It is the …evidence, as well as the root and fountain, of abounding iniquity”. Binning says that it is the epidemic disease of the present time, love cooled, and passion heated”. From these arise “contentions, wars and divisions, which have brought the church of God near to expiring”. “Therefore being mindful of…Hebrews 10:24, I would think it pertinent to consider one another, and provoke again unto love and to good works”.

SPECIAL OFFER: Buy Your Own Copy of Christian Love

Binning’s book is published by the Banner or Truth and available as a special offer for £3.55  from James Dickson Books (usual price £3.95 – RRP £5.00). This is a special discount of 10% available to readers of this blog post using the coupon code RST16. Purchase here (enter the code after adding the book to the cart).

The book contains a biographical note as well as three expositions from Binning’s exposition of Romans 8:1-15 The Sinner’s Sanctuary. The first chapter identifies the love of a Christian and its opposite: self-love.  Chapter 2 considers the excellence of Christian love, again distinguishing it from the false selfish love that prevails in the world.  Binning then offers motives for Christian love (chapter 3) and practical teaching (chapter 4).  The fifth chapter dwells on humility and meekness as a key aspect of Christian love.

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