Why Face-to-Face Communication is a Biblical Priority

Why Face-to-Face Communication is a Biblical Priority

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

2. Satan Tries to Keep Christ’s People Apart

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

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

 

3. A Pastor’s Presence is Unique

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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Christ’s Intercession Answers Your Fears About the Church

Christ’s Intercession Answers Your Fears About the Church

Christ’s Intercession Answers Your Fears About the Church
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
26 Oct, 2018

What will the Church look like in 10-30 years time? It’s the sort of question that launches a thousand predictions, strategies and plans to enhance confidence. But our fears for the Church go beyond the levels of church attendance. There are wider pressures on the Church from without that are especially threatening. Then there are the dangers from within such as moral failure, error. Our strategies won’t make much headway against these destructive forces. So we have genuine, justified fears for the Church. What can we do? Our answer is in looking beyond confidence in our own activities to the activity that is taking place in heaven.

In a day of small things there may be many such fears in relation to the Church. Like Eli, we may tremble for the ark of God. Such fears should not of course make us despise the day of small things and ignore evident encouragements.  In the following updated extract, James Durham addresses four main fears about the Church. These are all answered in the intercession of Christ. There is much to be gained from considering how Christ has entered into heaven itself to appear now in the presence of God for His people (Hebrews 9:24). It is a constant, unceasing intercession (Hebrews 7:25). John chapter 17 allows us to see some of what Christ desires for His Church.

 

1. Will We Have Enough Suitable Preachers?

There is a fear of preaching and ministers being scarce or weak in quality. Ministers are the great gift which Christ has given for the edification of His body. The Church suffers when it does not have pastors according to God’s own heart. But if you compare Psalm 68:18 with Ephesians 4:8, 12-14 you will find that Christ’s intercession answers that fear completely. In the Psalm it speaks of Christ having received gifts for men, which assumes He has made request for them.  Ephesians 4 says “He gave gifts to men”. Compare these two passages with a third (Acts 1:4).  Christ instructs His apostles to wait at Jerusalem until He sends the promised Holy Spirit. The Spirit was poured out after His ascension (see Acts 2) and only given once Jesus was glorified (John 11:39). These passages all show the connection between Christ’s ascension, the Spirit being poured out and gifts being given, whether ministers or others.

There is nothing most people care about less than a ministry. Some would rather have none at all, others want them to be only such as please and humour them. But our Lord has received gifts to be given to men. The One that poured out such gifts on the apostles and others gives the gifts that He pleases and sees necessary for the edification of His Church. And that he gives such gifts to men, that his people are not praying much for; whence is it, but from his intercession? He delights in this aspect of the spiritual glory and majesty that He has. He places a respect on ministers in saying that He holds the stars in His right hand (Revelation 1:16), He has them there to use as He pleases.

 

2. Will Our Enemies Triumph?

The Church of God is greatly exercised by the difficulty of enemies and their mighty opposition. Islam and other false religions, Romanism, and false brethren threaten to swallow up the Church of Christ. It is like a little bush burning with fire yet not consumed. But there is comfort in Christ’s intercession with respect to this.  Christ sat down on the right hand of God and is expecting His enemies to be made His footstool. (Hebrews 10:13). He is pleading for and supporting this at the Father’s court.

All the persecutions of the early Church were broken as the fruit of this intercession. This is why it is said most emphatically that He must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet (1 Corinthians 15:24). This is according to the promise made to Him by Jehovah (Psalm 110:1). He cannot be an intercessor unless His enemies are brought down. For who will be able to stand when He gives in His complaint against them? Who will plead the cause of the persecutor when He pleads against them? He is so certain of His enemies being made His footstool that he is waiting until He sees it accomplished. He must reign until then notwithstanding all the malice and might of devils and men.

 

3. How Far Will Rulers Go in Rejecting Christ?

It is difficult for the Church and people of God to think on the great confusion there is in the world. There are few courts and parliaments that are for Christ. Few governors, higher or lower, consult His honour or regard Him. It is not His friends or those that favour His cause that control governments and guide such things. Mostly the opposite is the case. But the comfort is that there is a court in heaven that gives out orders. The Church has an representative who is there constantly but the devil and the world have no representatives there. Jesus Christ is the Church’s representative and intercessor there.

In Daniel 10:13 we read about the help of Michael the chief prince against the prince of the kingdom of Persia. In Daniel 10:21 we further read that there was none to assist in all the court of Persia except “Michael your Prince”. The great intercessor was at court, seeing that nothing went wrong, that no decree was passed to the prejudice of the people of God and His work. When they were building the temple, Christ is said to build the temple of the Lord. He was to bear the glory and be a Priest, sitting and ruling on his throne with the government committed to Him (Zechariah 6:13). What danger can there be when heaven guides everything? What danger when the Church has a representative at the court, to see that nothing goes wrong. When Michael the Prince is there He sees and reads all the acts and decrees of the court. Indeed He composes them He sees to it that there is nothing in them hurtful to His Church. Should we not thank God for this?

 

4. Will We Survive Our Internal Problems?

A fourth thing that troubles the Church of God is that stumbling blocks abound within. Spreading error, is like a flood that threatens to drown the Church. Great stormy winds come which seem likely to blow down the house of God. Offences and stumbling blocks abound and combine with error like a flood is about to drown everything. When the devil is removed from the throne and cannot persecute with violence he selects another way. He spews out his flood of error to devour the woman and her child (Revelation 12:13-15).

Yet the Lord is active too. After the end of a period of persecution, John sees an angel (interpreted to symbolise Christ) ascending from the east (Revelation 7:1-2). He has the great seal of the living God and nothing is valid until it is sealed by Him. Notice the time when He appears; it is when the winds are held, and ready to blow (Revelation 7:1). ‘Wait a little,’ he says, ‘before these winds blow that will take most off their feet and this delusion advance’. Some servants of God must be sealed and put beyond the reach of danger and then the winds will be allowed to blow. Why should we or could we be anxious if our hearts have a solid and living faith in this intercessor and advocate being in heaven and interceding in this way?

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The Ultimate Test for a Sermon

The Ultimate Test for a Sermon

The Ultimate Test for 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.
2 Mar, 2018

This will only be of interest to those who listen to preaching or those who preach. But of course that ought to include us all one way or the other.  We all want to know what makes a good sermon. It is taken for granted that it must be clear, faithful to Scripture and engage the soul with spiritual realities. Sincerity, clarity and accuracy are important criteria. But there is something more that makes all the difference to a sermon.

James Durham effectively sums up the ultimate test for a sermon in one word – Christ. The following comes from the first of his 72 sermons on Isaiah 53. He is speaking about “our report” (Isaiah 53:1). Jesus Christ and what concerns Him (declaring the glad and good news of a Saviour) is the proper work of a minister. This is the great subject of a minister’s preaching. Christ Jesus, and what concerns Him in His person, natures and offices is the essential subject of preaching. They make Him known:

  • as God and man;
  • in His offices as Priest, Prophet, and King. A Priest in His suffering and satisfying justice; a Prophet in revealing the will of God; a King, for subduing His people’s lusts and corruptions; and
  • in the way by which sinners, both preachers, and hearers may come to have Him for themselves.

All preaching should aim at this mark. Paul insists on this: “I determined to know nothing among you, but Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). It is as if he had said, “I will deal with nothing else but this alone”. Not only will he avoid getting involved with secular employment, he will also lay aside his learning, eloquence and human wisdom to make the preaching of Christ crucified his great work and study.

The reason for this is in the fourfold way that preaching is related to Christ.

 

1. Is Christ the Subject of the Sermon?

All preaching must explain Christ. “To him give all the prophets witness” (Acts 10:43). The four gospels and the apostolic epistles also do this and are like many sermons about Christ. Any preaching which does not relate to Christ misses the mark and its text. [Durham is not saying that Christ is the only subject for a sermon. Rather, whatever subject the sermon may have, its relation to Christ should be made clear].

 

2. Is Christ the Foundation of the Sermon?

Christ is the foundation of preaching. Thus, any preaching that lacks Christ lacks a foundation and is like building castles in the air. “According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation…For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:10-11). This implies that all preaching should be squared with (and in agreement with) this foundation.

 

3. Is Christ the Aim of the Sermon?

Christ is the great aim of preaching, not only that hearers may know Him in their understanding but that they may have Him high in their hearts and affections.“We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:4). That is, not only do we not preach ourselves as the subject, but we do not preach ourselves as the aim of our preaching. Our goal is not to be great or greatly thought of, but our objective in preaching is to make Christ great.

 

4. Is Christ the Power and Life of the Sermon?

Christ is the power and life of preaching, without Him no preaching can be effectual, no soul can be captivated and brought to Him. Paul says: “We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumblingblock” they cannot stand to hear Him; and to “the Greeks foolishness”. To those that are saved, however, Christ is “the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

 

Application to Ministers

  1. It is likely that “our report” would succeed more if Christ were the subject and substance of our message and we declared Him more.
  2. In making “our report” we must be careful to ensure that it is well matched to the foundation; and,
  3. Neglecting this may be the cause of a lot of powerless preaching, because Christ is not preached as the subject matter and goal of preaching. Many truths are (sadly) spoken without regard to this goal or with little regard to it.

The report concerning Christ is the main subject has been, is, and will be common to all ministers of the gospel until the end of the world. It is “our report”. It was the report of all the prophets: “to him give all the prophets witness” (Acts 20:43). They all agree in the following joint testimony:

  1. One subject: Christ and the same things concerning Him e.g. pardon of sin in Him and through faith in Him and in no other way etc.;
  2. One commission: they arenot all equal but they all have one commission. Not all are apostles, yet all are ambassadors. There is the same authority for us to report and you to receive the gospel as if Isaiah or Paul were preaching. The authority depends on the commission not the person commissioned;
  3. One common objective: they all have and are sent to fulfil one common objective;
  4. One common Master: they are gifts from one and the same Mediator. “When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men…some, apostles etc.” (Ephesians 4:8).

 

Application to Congregations

This is the great subject of preaching and you should be most glad to hear it.

(a) These are the most important truths. The truths that concern Christ and the covenant of grace are those that people should most welcome and study. These are foundational truths and we need to have them confirmed by the Spirit. Many Christians make the mistake of not heeding the clearest and most solid truths. Things that increase understanding, tickle their affections, or resolve a difficulty are almost the only matters sought after. These are certainly good things. Yet, if the clear and solid truths of the gospel were studied and applied more they would find that these would answer all difficulties.

It is grieving when folk are more taken up with notions and speculations more than these soul-saving truths. Such truths include: Christ was born; He was a true man; He was and is King, Priest, and Prophet of His Church etc. Other things are often heard more greedily. Yet if these are meant to be the great subject of what minister must preach, it should be your great endeavour to know Christ, in His person, natures, offices, and covenant. You need to know what He is to you and what your duty is to Him; how you should walk in Him and with Him.

This was Paul’s aim: “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord…That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:8&10). It is as though he was saying: “It is my purpose, not only to make Him known but to know Him myself”.

There is little faith in Christ and little explicit use made of His offices. People make little effort to know these things. Therefore, on the one hand, let me exhort you to make this more often the subject of your study. On the other hand, let me reprove you that there is such readiness to sniff when plain truths are urged or when they are not explored in an unusual way. This attitude says that we are exceedingly unthankful to God for giving us the best things to speak, hear, and think of.

(b) Think highly of hearing Christ preached. He is the best news, and God has sent ministers on the mission of making Him known to you. Nothing is comparable to this news. Not even if He had sent them to tell you all the secret things in God’s purpose that will take place in the future and all hidden works of nature.

What would you have been without this news? What would sabbath-days and week-days, your lying down and rising up, your living and dying have been? You would have have had a sad and sinful life and a most comfortless and terrible death. Think of this gospel, therefore, as having greater worth than you do. Regard their feet beautiful on the mountains that bring this news and glad tidings (Isaiah 52:7). They bring this good re- port of making peace between God and sinners. This should be highly thought of, prized, and deemed a greater favour than usually we do.

(c) Thriving best under the gospel. From this you are able to know those who thrive best under the gospel and profit most from it. It is those that learn of Christ most. This is making best use of Christ and what is in Him. It is discovering by personal experience the effects of knowing Christ. “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Philippians 3:10). I am afraid that out of the many that hear this gospel, there are but few that know Christ in this way.

 

Conclusion

We can be tempted to give more attention to the style, language, exegesis of a sermon than the One who gives it authority, effectual power, purpose and meaning. Durham brings us back to the One whose words are Spirit and life and who is able to use the words of those whom He has sent. This is an encouragement for preachers who are discouraged when they consider their own abilities and little hunger for the Word amongst those who hear.

This is what gives preaching seriousness and authority rather than an effort to entertain. Yet Christ-centredness will also avoid sermons being theological lectures. This keeps preaching from being a mere psychological pep-talk. It makes sermons edifying. If we need preaching that encourages spiritual maturity it will be in so far as it draws hearers to “grow up into Christ in all things”.

Such preachers will be determined not to divert attention from Christ to themselves. The more they seek to be Christ-like in their life and to cultivate fellowship with their Saviour, the more their sermons will communicate Christ.

 

The article above is drawn from an appendix to the booklet Penetrating Preaching by James Durham published by the Trust. In this booklet Durham shows how Christ Himself demonstrates how to apply the Word in preaching.

Penetrating Preaching

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What can we learn from the Saviour’s method of making the Word hit home? Reading this booklet will provide you with some vital lessons from Christ Himself about the difficult task of applying the Word from the pulpit. If truly followed, they would revolutionise preaching today.

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What Do Reformers Look Like?

What Do Reformers Look Like?

What Do Reformers Look Like?
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
13 Oct, 2017

We are familiar with Martin Luther’s image. It is striking and immediately recognisable. It is said that there was enormous demand for printed pictures of Luther in his lifetime. Lucas Cranach, in a particular portrait captured the intense eyes of the German reformer. But we do not intend to focus on the physical appearance of the reformers or even their unique personality traits. Fearlessness may not in fact be an essential requirement. It is the spiritual characteristics that matter most. What graces as well as gifts blend together in those that God uses to bring spiritual transformation?

Anthony Burgess helpfully outlines these from Scripture in a sermon preached before the House of Lords in Westminster. He shows that the work of Reformation requires the conflux of many noble and excellent graces. In particular, it helps us discern the difference between those who want to effect change in the Church of God under the influence of the ideas and tastes of mere men and those who have the sole purpose of glorifying God. We are all called to effect reformation in our own lives and families – we need to be reformers ourselves.

 

1. They Know God’s Will

They must have a clear understanding of God’s will out of His Word. The king was to write God’s Word, and to be acquainted and familiar with it (Deuteronomy 17:18-20). This was so that he might be better able to reform all the abuses that might creep into the worship of God. It is a great fault when men in place and power think that matters of religion do not belong to them at all. They cannot in fact discharge their duties, if they know do not from the Word what to do.

 

2. They have a Zeal for God

They have a zeal for God’s glory and His pure worship.  This was evident in David, Hezekiah and most remarkably in Christ Himself.  It is an excellent thing when rulers take God’s dishonour to heart more than their own. They ought to be most concerned about Christ’s laws.

 

3. They have Love for the Souls of Others

They have affections for people in general and love to the souls of others.  Unless a man is clothed with a public spirit he cannot labour for a reformation.  Nehemiah was in a good position personally, yet how deeply and sadly he was affected because the temple was desolate? Christ Himself at the very time when He was received with the greatest acclamations ignores this and weeps for Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39). God has dealt graciously with your hearts when neither riches, honours or any personal dignity can do you any good, until Jerusalem is established a praise in the earth. This is how it was with David.

 

4. They have Pure Aims

They have sincerity and pure aims.  Governors may be carried far in a reformation, yet if pure love to God and His ordinances are not the star which leads them, the outcome will be very uncomfortable. Jehu is a sad instance of this, though he did everything according to God’s heart (as Scripture says in 2 Kings 10:30-31) yet in Hosea 1:4, God threatens to be avenged on him. Take heed therefore of corrupt, political designs in promoting God’s work. This has often made God let His own ark fall into the hands of the Philistines. Not because His cause was not dear to him but because those who managed it had selfish interests.

 

5. They are Humble

They have humility under all the honours God that puts upon them.  This was eminent in Gideon and David. Those who are lifted up by any success that God bestows on them are like a blazing star that shine brightly at first but ultimately end in slime. John the Baptist produced a great reformation and had the eyes of the world on him. Yet he rejoiced because he must decrease and Christ must increase (John 3:29-30).

 

6. They are Eminently Holy

They have exemplary holiness of life.  Reformers must conform to the general rule that he who reproves others ought himself to be free from those sins.  Reformers must be an example to others; they are to others as the part-coloured sticks were to Jacob’s sheep (Genesis 30:37-43). It is very unfitting when governors make laws against impiety, profaning the Sabbath, contempt of holiness while these sins can be found in their lives or in their families?  Reformation is achieved in great measure when the lives and families of men are changed as well as when public worship and ordinances are reformed.

 

7. They have Believing Courage

Reformers must have fortitude and courage accompanied with faith.  Every reformation encounters great opposition and contempt.  When Hezekiah sent out messengers to call people to observe the Passover purely, they were mocked and scorned (2 Chronicles 30).  To endure all kinds of accusations and slanders and to be tried by God Himself requires humility and patience as well as faith and courage.

 

8. They are Prudent

Prudence and extraordinary wisdom are required in reformation.  Some think it was weakness for Gideon to go out with a few men at night but it showed his great prudence.  Anyone who has read Church History can see that imprudence has greatly hindered propagation of the truth. We must of course be careful that prudence does not degenerate into carnal and mere political wisdom. God ultimately makes this kind of wisdom to be seen as great folly, especially when it is accompanied with corruption of His worship.

 

Conclusion

Reformation depends on individuals and families living out the Word of God in all areas of practice as well as faith. It is about closer obedience to God’s revealed will. We may never be used to bring about wide scale change but this does not mean we cannot be reformers. These qualities are needed in our lives as we strive to submit to Scripture in everything. We must advance in reformation and encourage others in the work of reformation as far as possible.

These days we have few true reformers in the Church. We have enough transformers – those who have their own vision of change. Sometimes this is change for the sake of change because culture has changed. Reformation is God’s work as opposed to transformation through our own innovation and ideas. Reforming is a spiritual work that requires spiritual men using spiritual means for the spiritual good of Christ’s Church. We are all too aware of various trends in modern Christianity that mushroom and then evaporate. They promise much but are just reinventing aspects of faith and practice. We don’t need this. Instead, we can be solidly grounded through reformation according to God’s revealed will. We need those who will have the courage and wisdom to submit to the Word of God in everything.

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Your Role in Preventing Ministry Failure

Your Role in Preventing Ministry Failure

Your Role in Preventing Ministry Failure
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.
13 Jul, 2017

​Why do some ministers fail completely? Certain high-profile pastors (most notably in the United States) have fallen in recent years, badly and publicly. Some observe the numbers of pastors haemorrhaging at an alarming rate. Surveys suggest that the two main reasons 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?

The issues involved are spiritual, spiritual sins such as pride and inward decline. Spiritual pride goes before a fall. Perhaps ministers begin to believe that they are “perfect” simply because there is an expectation that they must be. Perhaps they become detached from their message and start to think that they are “above the rules”. Certainly, it must stem from failure to keep short accounts with God and confess particular sins regularly and particularly. The apostle Paul had strict self-discipline in his watch against sin – lest having preached to others he himself should be a castaway (1 Corinthians 9:27).

Yet there is another kind of ministerial failure: going about the spiritual duties of the ministry in an unspiritual way. This has a serious impact not only on the pastor himself but also on those to whom he ministers. There is a lesson for us all in terms of the expectations that we place on ministers in terms of outward things. As long as things seem to go well outwardly there may be less concern about spiritual prosperity. Perhaps we do not wisely consider how to encourage the preacher without feeding his pride. Sometimes church members are also less comfortable (if they are honest) with high spiritual standards and make this clear in various ways. It can help create a climate in which the causes of such failure flourish.

This is a gospel issue, since it affects the conviction with which the gospel is declared and also its credibility if the messenger fails to live up to the message. The souls of many are at stake. The conduct of a negligent minister has eternal consequences (1 Timothy 4:16).

It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God. (Robert Murray M‘Cheyne)

How does this relate to those who are not ministers themselves? The most important means at your disposal for combatting the spiritual causes of ministry failure is prayer. It is an essential but often forgotten duty. As opposed to negative criticism (justified or not) it is extremely positive and constructive. The apostle Paul appeals for the prayers of God’s people on many occasions (Romans 15:30-33; 2 Corinthians 1:10-11; Ephesians 6:19-20; Philippians 1:19-20; Colossians 4:2-4; 1 Thessalonians 5:25; 2 Thessalonians 3:1-2; Philemon 22). In some cases he makes the brief but earnest appeal: “pray for us”. In Romans 15 he asks them to strive together with him in prayer. The word means an agonising struggle such as combat or wrestling. He asked for prayer in the context of opposition and persecution. Ministers may not face the same kind of persecution but they are the focus of much opposition in an age of apostasy.

“Let the thought sink deep into the heart of every church, that their minister will be such a minister as their prayers make him. … How perilous is the condition of that minister … whose heart is not encouraged, whose hands are not strengthened, and who is not upheld by the prayers of his people!…It is at a fearful expense that ministers are ever allowed to enter the pulpit without being preceded, accompanied, and followed by the earnest prayers of the churches. It is no marvel that the pulpit is so powerless, and ministers so often disheartened when there are so few to hold up their hands. … When the churches cease to pray for ministers, ministers will no longer be a blessing to the churches.” (Gardiner Spring)

How ought we to pray for ministers? James Fergusson gives a number of illuminating comments on some of Paul’s requests for prayers.

 

1. Pray for Your Minister

Whatever abilities and graces a minister may have, he should seek the help of God’s people committed to his charge for further enabling him to go about the duties of his calling. He is to seek the help of their prayers especially (Colossians 4:3). Everyone no matter their gifts can engage in this. Paul assumes this and therefore calls on all (not excluding the least) to help him by their prayers (1 Thessalonians 5:25). He craved the help of their prayers as one who prayed for them (1 Thessalonians 2:16).

The most able ministers who have most grace are usually most conscious of the weighty burden of the ministry. They are conscious of the need for their own efforts, study and secret wrestling with God in prayer in secret. Yet in order to be best fitted for its duties, they see the necessity of not only this but also of the assistance and prayers of others. Paul, an able minister with eminent graces considers it necessary to seek the help of others for himself, emphasising “And for me” (Ephesians 6:19). Those Christians who are most eminent in gifts and graces are usually most conscious of their own failings. They also highly prize the worth of other Christians rather than undervaluing them as compared with themselves. They are ready to condescend to receive some spiritual benefit and advantage from them. Though Paul exceeded all in spiritual things yet he seeks the help of their prayers with the greatest affection.

 

2. Pray for Preservation

In Philippians 1:19, Paul attributes his preservation despite much adversity to the Spirit of Christ as obtained by their prayers for him. By salvation we understand, not only his eternal wellbeing but his constancy in avowing truth and the preservation of his temporal life for the time being. Prayer conscientiously engaged in is an excellent means for drawing from God through Christ the best mercies, not only for ourselves but also others for whom we pray. Thus, through the prayer of these Philippians, Paul would receive supply from Christ.

 

3. Pray for Liberty in Preaching

Piety and knowledge are not the only things required in a minister, they must also have a gift of utterance (Ephesians 6:19). In other words, a singular dexterity to express his thoughts to others in an appropriate, clear and persuasive way. Without this, his other abilities can avail little to inform the understanding or work on the emotions of his hearers. This is why Paul chiefly desires that utterance may be given to him.

Whatever gift a minister has of this nature (whether naturally or otherwise) he is not to rely on his gift and skill when he comes to exercise it in preaching so much as to depend on God. He must depend on Him for direct influence and assistance to strengthen his memory, uphold and order his speech and give him the present actual exercise of his gift. Without this he will either fail in his use of it or give the glory to his own abilities if he does not depend on God. This will provoke the Lord to blast his efforts and make them useless. Although Paul already had a gift of utterance, having now preached so long and so well, he wants them not only to pray for it to be continued but also that God would provide its actual exercise whenever he made use of it.

 

4. Pray for Boldness in Preaching

Paul asks for prayer in relation to this in Ephesians 6:19. A competent gift of utterance is not the only thing required in a minister.  He must also have faithful boldness in delivering his message without servile fear or partiality. Otherwise he may tickle the ear but cannot rouse up dead and sleeping consciences. Paul asks them to pray not only that he may have utterance but that he may be assisted to open his mouth boldly.

People are usually greatly incensed when their ministers deal with them frankly and can hardly endure being spoken to with holy boldness (Isaiah 30:10). Even the best ministers are greatly influenced by an unmortified fear of man and a sinful reticence to trust the Lord with the personal consequences of faithful boldness (Matthew 10: 26, 28; Exodus 4:10,13). Special assistance and influence from God is necessary therefore to make a minister open his mouth boldly. This means not concealing any necessary truth, not forbearing reproof of any known sin, not fearing anyone or considering danger and loss he may meet with for so doing. Paul asks them to seek this from God on his behalf “that he may open his mouth boldly”.

 

5. Pray for Christ-centred Preaching

Ministers must seriously consider the excellency, worth and mysteriousness of the subject they must preach and make known. This would entirely convince them of their own insufficiency for such a task and their need of assistance from God and the help of their people’s prayers for obtaining His assistance. Considering the mystery of the gospel that he was to make known is what moved Paul to distrust his own strength and seek the help of their prayers.

Such assistance from God is not for their own sake, to be praised or approved by men but that the Lord’s people may be edified and Christ exalted. This is done by laying open the rich and excellent things concerning Him in the Gospel. This is why Paul desires the gift of utterance and boldness “to make known the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19).

 

6. Pray that the Gospel would Prevail

It is the duty of the Lord’s people and servants not only to welcome and maintain the gospel where it is already but also to have enlarged desires together with utmost endeavours for the gospel to spread to those places where it is not. Thus, Paul wants them to pray that the word of the Lord may have free course.

The devil and sinful men cast so many great obstructions in the way of the gospel’s progress (Acts 10:23) that no human endeavours or anything but the omnipotent power of God can fully remove them. It is necessary to pray to God “that the word of the Lord may have free course” (1 Thessalonians 3:1).

 

7. Pray for Clear Preaching

One of the great tasks for a minister is to preach in way that makes what he preaches plain to the people. In terms of method (2 Timothy 2:15) style, (1 Corinthians 2:4) and close application (2 Timothy 4:2.), his purpose is (so far as is possible) to reach the capacity of the lowest. He thus says, “that I may make it manifest as I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:4).

 

8. Pray for Faithful Preaching

There are many other things (besides a holy boldness and plainness) to which a minister should give attention in preaching. He must preach in a way that is appropriate to the conditions of all, (Isaiah 50:4) so that he speaks with affection and pity, even to the most stubborn (Jeremiah 4:19). He must preach patiently not becoming weary because of lack of success (2 Timothy 2:25). He must preach zealously, with indignation against sin (Isaiah 58:1). He must also preach frequently (2 Timothy 4:2) and with self-denial (2 Corinthians 4:5). These and many other necessary things are all summed up by Paul in this comprehensive expression “As I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:4).

 

9. Pray for Fruitful Preaching

It is the duty of ministers and people to do all they can in seeking that the gospel may run through the tongues and ears of many and outward subjection rendered to it. It is also their duty to strive to have it received in hearts and testified by the holy life of those who do receive it. They must not rest satisfied with the outward spread of the gospel without some promising evidences of its spiritual fruitfulness. Paul urges them not only to pray that “the gospel may have free course”, but also “that it may be glorified” (2 Thessalonians 3:1).

Grace is not envious (1 Corinthians 13:4). The fact that God’s Word has prevailed mightily with ourselves and captivated us into obedience to it should incite us to plead with God that others may be similarly won. It also gives grounds for hope that such labour will not be in vain in the Lord. When Paul incites them to pray for others with confidence, he reminds them how the gospel had prevailed with themselves, “even as it is with you” (2 Thessalonians 3:1).

 

10. Pray for Every Aspect of Your Minister

This is so comprehensive as to be daunting but it comes back to the causes of ministry failure. We have produced a booklet which covers every aspect of a minister’s life and duties. This would enable you to pray for your minister in relation to all of the potential pitfalls for failings that he faces. Many of the personal matters are those that are helpful for your own self-examination. Once you have read it and used it in this way yourself you could pass it on to your minister as an expression of prayerful support.

It is called Sins of the Ministry and is an updated version of an older publication called A Humble Acknowledgement of the Sins of the Ministry.  Horatius Bonar refers to it in his classic book Words to Winners of Souls (1859). In fact, Bonar devotes a whole chapter to the subject of confession and uses the document as the foundation for his remarks. Baxter likewise devotes a whole chapter of his valuable book The Reformed Pastor to confessing the sins of the ministry. Bonar says that A Humble Acknowledgement is “perhaps one of the fullest, most faithful and most impartial confessions of ministerial sin ever made”. Any impartial reader of this booklet will surely agree. Bonar goes on to apply these piercing convictions to himself and ministers in his own day. The questions in our booklet aim to do likewise in order to make contemporary application.

The booklet is thoroughly searching but extremely necessary. Pastors often feel isolated and under intense pressure and attack. This booklet does not seek to add to such burdens. Yet failings are not resolved by hiding them. Perhaps neglecting to face these issues is the greatest hidden burden a minister carries. There is help and encouragement here for ministers to shine in the midst of the prevailing darkness.

It is 52 pages in length and can be purchased at our online store for £2 (not including p+p).

Sins of the Ministry

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When pastors fall, it's a gospel issue. Lack of personal holiness in ministers creates contempt for their message. Reading this booklet will give ministers encouragement to shine in the midst of the prevailing darkness. Here is a guide for personal reflection which can also help pastors to discuss their common failings usefully and openly together.

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How Do You Know Whether Preaching Edifies?

How Do You Know Whether Preaching Edifies?

How Do You Know Whether Preaching Edifies?
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.
12 Aug, 2016

Many make the mistake of thinking that the best preaching is that which is most eloquent or proficient. “Sermon tasters” may go further and discern what they think makes an exceptional sermon. We need preaching that has a lasting impact on our lives, however. Such preaching will be spiritually edifying. It must be solid and full of substance but also practical. To edify means to build up in faith, godliness and spiritual maturity. But how do we know whether a sermon does this?

James Durham believed that edification was the key to truly biblical preaching. In fact, he spoke of it as key to the ministry and everything that happens within the Church. A sermon on Ephesians 4:11-12 (only recently discovered in a manuscript) emphasises these points. We must seek to “excel to the edifying of the church” (1 Corinthians 14:12). Durham says that we need to aim mainly at edifying the body of Christ.

In every sermon, in every exercise of discipline, in every meeting together, in every word we speak in our meeting, in all the steps of our conduct, look to edify.

Durham shows how Paul identifies a fault among the Corinthians in the verse quoted above. They were taken up with gifts such as who could preach and pray best. Paul’s exhortation is that they must concentrate all of their gifts on the purpose of edification. They should “have them visibly for the good of God’s people”. This is true for all Christians but especially for ministers.

Preaching involves a giftedness to “express and bring forth, for the edification of others” what ministers have obtained from God’s Word through the help of the Spirit. Durham gives various rules that help to discern whether the content of a sermon is edifying. What follows is something of a paraphrase of these points in updated language.

 

1. Preaching Edifies When it Exalts Christ Most

Preaching edifies when it comes near to Jesus Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God (2 Corinthians 1:24). Edifying preaching commends Christ to the heart of the hearer. It brings them to be in love with Him and the main things of the gospel which are the foundation of religion and godliness. Other truths that do not come near the foundation are a little beside the text, or at least the main consideration of a minister’s work. When tested these may well be found to be hay and stubble that will not survive the fire (see 1 Corinthians 3:10-15). [Durham is referring to the minister’s work of preaching being burned up because it mainly emphasised less foundational truths and therefore was less edifying].

 

2. Preaching Edifies When it Promotes Holiness Most

Paul instructs Titus to “affirm constantly that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works, these things are good and profitable to men” (Titus 3:8). Paul says that this is the opposite of contentious strivings about the law which were unprofitable and vain. But the doctrine of holiness serves to mortify sin and advance us in being conformed to Christ.

 

3. Preaching Edifies When it Penetrates the Heart and Conscience Most

Edifying teaching comes furthest into the heart and conscience of the hearer in a searching, convicting or comforting way. The apostle Paul refers to the doctrine commended to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Corinthians 4:2). This teaching does not only put the Word on the table as bread, it also divides a portion to everyone’s mouth. Such a preacher is approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). Generalised teaching will prove  insipid if it does not come in upon the conscience in a convicting way.

 

4. Preaching Edifies When it is Most Clear

The clearest teaching which people have fewest prejudices against is the most edifying. This is the teaching which is most powerful and plain. The hearer has the door of their understanding open to this and their conscience convinces that such a sin is sin and such a thing is duty.  There is no prejudice against that which is urged. The truth is not disputed and there is nothing but their affections to work upon. This is the readiest way to promote edification.

It is on this basis that the apostle wills rather to follow the doctrine that is acknowledged by all. He urges that on hearers and leaves other things that breed janglings and striving about words, which is opposed to edifying. It is God’s goodness to Scotland that “the mystery of godliness” is without all controversy (1 Timothy 3:16). The mystery of salvation and saving doctrine is kept among us without being controverted. The apostle Paul’s practice confirms all this. In dealing with Jews and others he lays down the principles they themselves did not controvert as the most suitable purpose for them.

 

5. Preaching Edifies in Dependence on Christ

Ministers should pursue all means and ways which may promote the edification of the body. These are a few general principles to help ensure these are more diligently and sincerely followed.

(a) Depend Much on Christ

We must depend much on our Lord Jesus Christ to help us forward. We must going about our work in the strength of He who has commissioned us not in our own. It must not be by the power of human gifts but “By the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness, on the right hand and on the left” (2 Corinthians 6:7). It must be in the evidence and demonstration of the Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:4), trusting more in this and the presence and Spirit of Christ going along with it than in what we have received. “If they had stood in my counsel and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned souls from their evil way and the evil of their doings” (Jeremiah 23:22). The reason why these prophets did no good is that they stood at a distance with God, and stole the word one from another. They were content to get the word of a prophet to fill up their preaching, but were ignorant of God.

Perhaps it is appropriate to mention a faithful man of God speaking of the ministers of his time. He said they were like servants who serving a good master had got a good stock of their own, but they were so taken up in trading with it, that they ignored their master. When ministers cease having regard to Christ and dependence on Him in exercising their gifts and graces and advancing His work committed to their hands, they cannot prosper in edifying His people.

(b) Depend on the Power of God

Ministers must “seek to excel to the edifying of the Church” (1 Corinthians 14:12) and “stir up the gift that is in them” (2 Timothy 1:6). They must give themselves “to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:13) and give themselves wholly to meditation and prayer (as the words that follow instruct) that their “profiting may appear to all”. But neglecting these things reveals our nakedness. Therefore, when Paul bids them to seek to excel to the edifying of the church, he adds, “Let him that speaks in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret” (1 Corinthians 14:13). There should be wrestling with God not only for gifts and content to bring forth, but that we may also profit and do good by it. We must be more earnest with God, that people may get some benefit by what is spoken, than for getting something to get us through.

(c) Be the Ministers of Christ

Ministers must be ministerial in all their conduct as the ministers of righteousness, bearing something of their Master’s authority and yet kind, sober, sympathising with all kinds under their charge. “Giving offense in nothing that the ministers be not blamed, but in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God” (2 Corinthians 6:3–4). When this is compared with 2 Corinthians 6:1 (passing over the parenthesis in verse 2), Paul makes his working with God an argument not to receive the grace of God in vain. In a word, it is not only to have conduct which none can speak against, but to speak, preach, pray, confer, converse with others, and in all things to carry ourselves as the ministers of Christ, and not as other men. This is greatly lacking amongst us. It may be prudence, some lost pride, self-seeking, or some carnal purpose with a mixture of carnal affections, makes us speak or forbear speaking or acting in some business. Yet to speak and act as to be ashamed for the work’s sake (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13) and as the ministers of Christ, is another thing.

Most of these themes are drawn out further in the booklet Penetrating Preaching by James Durham published by the Trust. This can be purchased from our online store or other retailers.

The text above has been adapted from a sermon transcribed by Naphtali Press. Durham preached this sermon on Ephesians 4:11-12 before the Synod of Glasgow, 5 October 1652. The manuscript was only recently discovered in a library in the USA. The edited version will appear in the Naphtali Press Collected Sermons of James Durham (later in 2016 DV). The full transcription can be read in the Confessional Presbyterian Journal Volume 12 (2016). We are very grateful to Naphtali Press for kindly supplying the edited text. They have fulfilled an invaluable role in recent decades in reprinting editions of James Durham’s writings and others from the Second Reformation.

 

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Your Labour in the Gospel is Not in Vain

Your Labour in the Gospel is Not in Vain

Your Labour in the Gospel is Not in Vain
Matthew Vogan
Matthew Vogan is the General Manager at Reformation Scotland Trust. He has written various books including volumes about Samuel Rutherford and Alexander Shields.
24 Jul, 2015

Although we live in a comparatively barren generation spiritually, there may be opportunities of ripeness that we should seize. George Hutcheson says:

Ministers should not neglect such opportunities since they will not regain them easily.  He compares the condition of such people to fields already white to harvest.  They cannot neglect such a season without great damage and loss of grain.

White to Harvest is a free e-booklet by George Hutcheson that opens up John 4:35-38. He shows how a people may be ripe for the gospel. It is an updated extract from Hutcheson’s commentary on the Gospel of John. It contains much helpful instruction for those who desire to see the gospel flourish.

Even though we may see little success from gospel labours we can be encouraged that they may produce a spiritual harvest in the future.

The Lord sees fit in His deep wisdom not to let all His servants have either the same difficulties or success in their calling.  He lets some have hard work in preparing ground for Christ and sowing the precious seed. Yet these leave this world before any remarkable fruit of that work appears.  He may let others see very rich fruits from their labours in their own time. Thus, the prophets were sowers and the apostles reapers.  One laboured with little visible success the other brought in many, sometimes even with one sermon.

Those who labour faithfully in the Lord’s work may not experience much visible success. Yet they are neither disapproved of nor useless but are doing useful service in their generation.  They are working to help others who will reap the fruit of their labours. The prophets were sowers and the apostles entered into their labours and reaped the fruit of their sowing.

Christ said that the apostles were sent to reap where they had not laboured. Other men had laboured and they now entered into their labours (see John 4:37-38). This is how we must view the heritage of the Second Reformation. We do not need to engage in the hard toil of creating the foundations of reformation, we can simply make use of them in our own day. We have richly spiritual writings from men that have laboured in word and doctrine that we can also enjoy. If this is so the duty that lies on us in our generation is to seek fruit from this as far as we can. We also labour for a harvest to His glory, whether or not it is brought in during our time in this world.

White to Harvest

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White to Harvest by George Hutcheson opens up the way in which a people may be ripe for the gospel. He explains and applies the words of the Lord Jesus Christ in from John 4:35-38. It is of particular relevance to those who labour to see souls brought to Christ. It will also benefit all who desire the gospel to flourish. Ministers labour in comparatively barren times today but there is encouragement here that their work is not in vain. It is an updated extract from George Hutcheson’s highly regarded Commentary on the Gospel of John.

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