The Most Dangerous Kind of Self-Deception

The Most Dangerous Kind of Self-Deception

The Most Dangerous Kind of Self-Deception
Andrew Gray (1633-1653) was a gifted young preacher who died after a ministry of only 27 months in Glasgow. His sermons were marked by deep spiritual experience. It was said of him, "...never in the history of our country did a man of his years make so deep a mark."
13 Mar, 2020

If the most dangerous form of deception is self-deception, then we must know the most dangerous way of deceiving ourselves. There are all kinds of ways we may overestimate our good qualities or be blind to reality. Scripture warns about deceiving ourselves in spiritual things (1 Corinthians 3:18; James 1:22,26). But when it concerns our eternal good it is of infinite concern. That is unsettling of course, but Scripture does seriously and frequently warn us about this (Matthew 7:20-22). The heart is supremely deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9). That is why we need to examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5; Psalm 139:23-24). We may be able to deceive ourselves but God is not deceived (Galatians 6:7-8). If we simply brush it off for ourselves or pull back from warning others, what are the consequences? It is not just a blight of nominal Christianity on the Church, it is eternal ruin.

We do not want people to be always questioning the reality of God’s grace when it is really there. We want the freeness and fulness of the grace of the gospel to be embraced and enjoyed. But there is also the real danger of a reckless false assurance. Some think that they can make a profession with their mouth while their lives are professing something very different. Others take comfort from all their activity in the life of the Church or how much they know. Surely this means they are the real thing?

We need to address this urgent question. “God knows their/my heart” is too easy a reflex response to avoiding seriously searching questions. Are we blurring the distinction between a real and an empty profession? Andrew Gray sounds a warning note from Galatians 6:3 in this updated extract.

1. What is Self-Deception?

It is when someone:

  • believes themselves to be that which indeed they are not;
  • thinks they have more than indeed they have;
  • desires not to appear what they really are but desires to appear that which they really are not.

2. Is Self-Deception a Widespread Problem?

Scripture makes it clear this is a significant problem.

  • Scripture commands make it clear that it is a widespread problem (Romans 11:20; Romans 12:3; 1 Corinthians 3:18).
    (b) Scripture makes it clear that it is not one or two persons but often a whole generation that deceive themselves (Proverbs 30:12). Christ observes I in many (Revelation 3:17) who thought themselves to be rich when they were poor.
    (c) Christ often reproves people for misconceptions about their own spiritual state (Luke 12:57).
    (d) Scripture makes it clear this is a significant problem by giving many marks and evidences of grace for people to examine and test their condition. Why would all these marks of real grace be given in Scripture, if there were not too much self-deception?

3. Why Should We Be Concerned About Self-Deception?

We need to consider the following to be on our guard against self-deception.

(a) Many Are Self-Deceived
Do Not Think of Yourself More Highly Than You Ought. There are many whose delusion will be exposed when Christ will come and judge the world. This is clear from Proverbs 30:12 and Matthew 7:22. It is more than probable that where there is one who does not mistake, there are six who do mistake. I urge you therefore to search, lest God should be provoked to search and find out your iniquity.

(b) It is Very Hard to Undeceive Ourselves
This is an evil that is very hard to drive people away from, “They hold fast deceit, they refuse to return” (Jeremiah 8:5). No matter what anyone says they will go down to their grave with this, “I am in Christ.” It is exceedingly hard for one under the power of this to abandon their mistake.

(c) Self-Deception is Mocking God
It is, as it were, denying the justice and omniscience of God for a person to live under such a mistake. “Be not deceived, God is not mocked” (Galatians 6:7).

(d) Self-Deception is One of the Greatest Possible Evils
There are seven things that God hates (Proverbs 6:16). But what is that which leads someone to these seven things? It is “a proud look”. If you would not want to make yourselves hateful in the eyes of the Lord, guard against self-deception. There are some who say, “I am holier than thou”; but these are a smoke in His nostrils.

(e) Self-Deception Hardens Us Against the Gospel
There is nothing that hinders the success of the gospel on many men and women’s hearts so much as this: they do not think they need Christ (Proverbs 26:12). There are lies in their right hand, so that they cannot deliver their souls (Isaiah 44:20). The two sorts of people who are furthest away from conversion by the gospel are the presumptuous person and the hypocritical person.

(f) Self-Deception Will Be a Fearful Discovery to Make in Eternity
What a dreadful day some will have who think they are going to heaven, when they will go down to those everlasting flames. They will see their hope has been nothing but as a spider’s web and as a morning dream? I confess, it is one of the most lamentable things to be under this mistaken presumption; it is like an ox going calmly to the slaughter.

4. How Does Self-Deception Happen?

The reason this happens is that many use a false standard for examining themselves and this leads them to a wrong conclusion. Here are the false standards that people use.

(a) An Outward Rather Than Spiritual View of the Law
They use the letter rather than the spiritual meaning of the law than by the spiritual meaning of the law. This was the rule Paul took before his conversion; “I was alive without the law” (Romans 7:9), and, “Concerning…the law, [I was] blameless” (Philippians 3:6). A person may be blameless in their view, according to the letter of the law, to whom Christ will say, “I never knew you: depart from me” (Matthew 7:23). The law reaches to the inward person as well as outwardly. If you never committed one act of iniquity, yet if you think only one evil thought, the law pronounces a curse on you. If many of us sat down to judge ourselves by the spiritual meaning of the law, we might be forced to cry out, “Woe is me! For I am undone.”

(b) Activity Rather than Grace
People judge themselves by their religious activities rather than whether it is done through grace. This is like the Pharisee (Luke 18:12). Judge yourself more by your graces than by your religious duties.

(c) Extraordinary Rather than Ordinary Experience
Some people are ready to judge their condition by the extraordinary experiences they have had rather than their ordinary way of living.

(d) Conscience Rather than the Law
Some people think all is well if their consciences do not speak any evil against them. But the law has much to say to you when your conscience says nothing against you. Some think they can build their eternal blessedness on a peaceful or silent conscience. But do not always believe your conscience.

(e) Good Intentions Rather than Good Practice.
Some say “I have good intentions” when their behaviour is challenged. But if you yourself by your intentions, you may be making a very great mistake. If good intentions could bring someone to heaven, then every slothful person would be in heaven because they have desires (Proverbs 13:4). The gospel and the law require not just intentions but obedience.

(f) Gifts Rather than Grace and Practice.
If you could speak about God like an angel and could understand all the mysteries within the Scriptures, yet still did not practice in some measure what you know, God would say unto you, “I never knew you.”What advantage will you have in knowing alll the excellent things of God, if you do not practice them? If knowledge could have brought people to heaven, Balaam would be a shining star in heaven today. Do not judge yourselves by your gifts and knowledge, but by your graces and practice.
(g) Human Rather than Divine Approval
Some say, “I have the approval of all the saints, I may therefore conclude I will go to heaven.” Although the approval of the saints may sometimes have its own weight, there are some in hell who have had much approval of the saints. Let Christ’s approval be the rule by which you judge yourself. What advantage would it be if every minister called you a saint, but Christ called you a reprobate?

(h) Outward Blessings
You may have temporal blessings such as food, drink and clothing in abundance and yet be a stranger unto God. Do not judge your condition by God’s outward dealings.

5. Why Are People Self-Deceived?

(a) They Do Not Examine Themselves
The apostle follows his warning to help the Galatians guard against presumption with this direction, “Let every man prove his own work” (Galatians 6:4). Search yourselves much using God’s standard. Some are unwilling to examine themselves because it will discourage them others are unwilling because they have already come to the conclusion. “Why do I need to search? Am I not certain that Christ is mine?” But we can never be too sure He is ours.

(b) They Do Not Exercise Faith
Some do not exercise spiritual faith. Faith will help a Christian exceedingly in humbly walking with God (Romans 3:27).

(c) They Boast of What They Have
Paul, reproves those who boasted of the things they had received as though they had not received them (1 Corinthians 4:7). If you are conscious of that, it will keep you humble.

(d) They Are Ignorant of their Corrupt Nature
This is the mother of pride and presumption. When Paul speaks about original sin in Romans 11:25 he warns them of presumption.

(e) They Do Not Consider What They Ought to Be
If someone compared their attainments with what they ought to be, it would crush presumption. If we think we knows anything, we know nothing as we ought to know.

(f) They Compare Themselves With Those Who Are Worse
Some judge themselves by the lives of those who are worse as the Pharisee did (Luke 18:11).

Conclusion

Are you prepared to ask yourself the question, “am I under this mistake and delusion?” The person who is furthest from it will be most ready to ask this question. Search yourselves and see how it stands between God and you. Many assume quickly and easily they are forgiven and at peace with God. It is a matter of eternal concern. This is one of the most dreadful and terrible things we can be, a self-deceiver. Do not think yourselves to be something when indeed you are nothing.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION

This recently published volume of sermons by Andrew Gray is highly recommended. They are packed with both simple and profound thought communicated with almost tangible passion and highly recommended. There are sermons with evangelistic appeal as well as those that reach the hearts of believers with a uniquely penetrating power. 

We have obtained the following special discounts exclusively for Reformation Scotland readers.

UK Customers: Buy it for £24.95 £14.36 using the code ref.scot2019.

North America: Buy it for $30 $15 using the code BERECONCILED50OFF.

 

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The Most Foolish Thing You’ve Ever Done

The Most Foolish Thing You’ve Ever Done

The Most Foolish Thing You’ve Ever Done
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.
14 Feb, 2020

“I have behaved foolishly”. Politicians and other celebrities seem to find it easy to acknowledge the stupidity of their actions when found out. They now regret what they did due to the consequences. But they often don’t seem to acknowledge the serious moral culpability of what they have done. “Foolish” seems a breathtakingly ego-centred way of trivialising sin. Many people are willing to admit to “foolish” actions. It’s easy to think about doing foolish things in a casual way. Looking back, we can identify things we either regret or are ashamed of. We’re thinking of the exceptions rather than the rule. But let’s take a closer look at describing sin as foolishness. Perhaps it tells us more than we realise at first.

The Bible often describes sin in terms of foolishness (Mark 7:22), especially in the book of Proverbs (19:3; 24:9). The Psalmist confesses his sin in these terms (Psalm 38:5; 69:5). There is a moral aspect to folly and an insanity in sin. James Durham deals with this in the following updated extract from a sermon on Psalm 85:8.

1. SIN IS THE GREATEST FOLLY 

Sin against God is an exceedingly great folly. It is the most foolish and the maddest thing in the world. Therefore, it is called folly here, i.e. folly in the extreme. It is that which most mars and interrupts the peace of saints. What verse 2 calls “iniquity” so graciously pardoned, is called folly here. This is because of the folly and madness that is in sin. This is the reason that the sinner is so often called a fool and simple in the Book of Proverbs (see Proverbs 1:20-33). In Ephesians 5:15 the Apostle exhorts Christians, to walk not as fools but as wise. In Luke 15:17 the Prodigal Son is said, when converted, to come to himself. That is, as if he had been beside himself, all the while he was going on in his sinful way.

(a) Sin is madness in its futility
Is it not folly for a man to sit abusing and wasting away his time, to be given to filthiness, to neglect prayer, to curse and swear, to let his mind rove on things that never were nor will be, and in which there is no profit? There is great futility in sin.

(b) Sin is madness in its consequences
If we look at the sad and bitter fruits of sin and the great harm that comes by it, it is evidently desperate madness and pleasure purchased at too high a price. Such pleasure is only imaginary and not real. It mars the life of grace and peace with God. It treasures up wrath against the day of wrath (Romans 2:5). 

You can see this in Ahithophel, whose counsel to David and Absalom was so shrewd that it was as if one had enquired at the oracle of God (2 Samuel 16:23). The upshot of his deep wisdom was utmost folly, however, when he went and hung himself. The rich man who had been wise to store up lots of good for himself was addressed as a fool. His soul would be taken from him and then whose would these things be (Luke 12:20)? What advantage or wisdom is it for someone to gain the whole world, if they lose their own soul (Mark 8:36)? What a mad and foolish bargain. 

(c) Sin is madness in its appearance
If we look at sin from a spiritual perspective we will see folly in its very appearance. A wicked man in sinning looks as like a fool, as David did, when he played the mad man before the king of Gath (1 Samuel 21:13). Is it not folly to see someone labouring in the fire, and wearying themselves for nothing and pursuing the east wind (Habakkuk 2:13; Hosea 12:1)? They are like a man who is delusional and imagines himself to be a king, riding in great state and triumph, when he is only a poor, pitiful creature, to those who see him. 

(d) Sin is madness in its cause
No just or relevant reason can be given for sin. It is, therefore, no doubt, folly. Can anything demonstrate man’s folly so much, as their contending with God, walking in the way of death and leaving the way of life (Proverbs 1:22)? The Word of God is true wisdom and the way of life is clearly show in it with God as our pattern. Is there anything more reasonable than that we should live in conformity to the Word of God and to Him we ought to follow? But sin opposes the whole Word of God and God Himself. 

Strive to firmly believe this truth; that sin, whether it is doing what is forbidden or neglecting duty, is the greatest folly (Romans 6:21). Ultimately this is what everyone will find out to their cost. If we could discern spiritually the condition of most men and women, who are still unregenerate and despise the offers of grace and will not receive Jesus Christ. The most insane person in the world would not be a sadder and more pitiable sight to us than the lamentable case of such souls who forsake their own mercy and following after lying vanities. 

2. WORDS OF PEACE FOR THOSE GUILTY OF THE GREATEST FOLLY 

Despite the greatness of this folly, even God’s people (“saints”) commit many acts of folly. He speaks peace to them in the following ways.

(a) Inviting them. He urges them to return and assures them that He will heal their backslidings (Isaiah 55; Jeremiah 3; Hosea 14). He preaches peace to them through Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2; Revelation 3:18-20). 

(b) Pardoning them. He requests them to be reconciled (2 Corinthians 5:20). He discharges their debt (Colossians 2:13-14; Jeremiah 50:20; Isaiah 40:2).

(c) Assuring them. He not only makes peace but declares that peace to the pardoned sinner (Mark 2:5; Mark 5:34; Psalm 35:3). He comes in and dines with them and one main dish on the table is peace (John 14:27). 

3. AVOID RETURNING TO THE GREATEST FOLLY AFTER SUCH WORDS OF PEACE

Even those saints who have been given to folly and to whom God has spoken peace may return to folly. After peace was spoken to David, he fell into adultery and murder. After a sweet word of peace was spoken to Hezekiah (Isaiah 38), he falls into the folly of pride and vain boasting (Isaiah 39). After peace was spoken to Peter, he denies his Master. After Jehoshaphat had peace spoken to him he fell several times into the same sin even after he was reproved for it (2 Chronicles 18-20). How soon and how suddenly they fell into sin.

(a) Avoid even comparatively little sins. Beware of saying “it is a little sin”. The devil drives sin and temptation as a carpenter drives a wedge. If you let in the point of the wedge by a little sin it will become a great one before it is finished, just like the thick end of the wedge follows the thin end.

(b) Avoid sins of omission. Some may not commit open sins but instead neglect prayer. They may misspend and trifle away their time.

(c) Avoid formalism. Beware of a cold-hearted way of worshipping God in public or private. God, the all-seeing God observes whether you are whole-hearted, sincere and serious in the duties of religion.

(d) Avoiding neglecting spiritual duties.
These include self-examination, self-denial, putting sin to death and making use of Christ. Neglecting these is gospel folly, not making use of Christ as our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30).

(e) Avoid unbelief.
The heart has a secret, natural inclination to this, especially in difficulties. 

(f) Avoid heart idols. Perhaps you will not give way to grosser sins but your souls will instead be carried away by the idols of the heart. You allow vain, proud, covetous, revengeful, and filthy thoughts. But if Christ gets the heart, He must reign in it and command it completely.

(g) Avoid the love of the world. Guard yourself against excessively pursuing after the things of this world, however lawful in themselves. This can destroy more souls than things that are sinful (Luke 14:16-24). 

4. HELP TO AVOID RETURNING TO THE GREATEST FOLLY 

Durham gives twelve helps to avoid returning to folly after God has spoken peace to us. 

(a) Walk in fear (Psalm 2:11; Proverbs 16:18; Philippians 2:12; 2 Corinthians 7:1)
(b) Watch and pray (Matthew 26:41; Mark 13:37).
(c) Keep your heart (Proverbs 4:23).
(d) Renew your vows to God.
(e) Repent for past folly (Psalm 51:3)
(f) Abide in Christ and His strength (John 15:4-5).
(g) Fulfil your vows (Ecclesiastes 5:4).
(h) Reject all temptations (Hosea 14:8).
(i) Examine your obedience.
(j) Walk humbly, not trusting your heart (Proverbs 28:26).
(k) Help, exhort and edify each other (Hebrews 3:12-13).
(l) Do not sin against conscience (1 John 3:20).

 

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Keep Calm in An Age of Anger

Keep Calm in An Age of Anger

Keep Calm in An Age of Anger
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.
22 Mar, 2019

We’re getting angrier, about a lot of things. It’s the dominant emotion in western societies on a daily basis. That hothouse of anger–social media–is even more ablaze with rage (according to a new study). Frustration and moral outrage explode against a great deal we cannot control or even influence. It’s an emotional contagion where seeing people express anger drives others to display it too. And our own irritability works in the same way. Every outburst legitimises the next. How much of this is righteous anger? And how can we resist sinful anger? We need to know.

One of the clearest verses of the Bible dealing with anger is actually a command telling us to be angry. But the full command is “Be…angry and sin not” (Ephesians 4:26). It goes on to forbid letting “the sun go down on your wrath”. It gives us counsel about keeping righteous anger and killing sinful anger. Later in the same chapter (verse 31) we learn about the different types of sinful anger that people choose to express. James Fergusson has especially helpful reflections on these verses in the following updated extract.

 

1. How to Identify Sinful Anger

Sinful anger or unjust desire of revenge is, when anger is kindled rashly (Proverbs 14:17) for no cause, (Matthew 5:22) or for a very light one (1 Corinthians 13:5). Or it is when it exceeds just bounds (Genesis 49:7).

There are different types of anger. They are brought together in verse 31 which lists bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, evil-speaking and malice.

(a) Bitterness

This is the lowest degree of sinful anger. It includes all secret, hidden displeasure and alienation of affection. It has more of discontent and grudge, than of revenge in it (Psalm 37:1).

(b) Wrath

This is fierce, impetuous rage, and passionate commotion of the heart and affections due to a felt sense of a perceived or real injury. It prevents and obstructs the use of reason, which being soon up, is as soon allayed, 1 Sam. 25:21, 22. with 32.

(c) Angry Shouting

Clamour means boisterous words, loud menaces, and other inordinate speech. These are the black smoke by which the fire of anger and wrath which has been kindled within first manifests itself (Acts 15:39).

(d) Evil Speaking

Evil speaking (or blasphemy as the word means) is a further fruit of wrath and anger. This is disgraceful and insulting speech by which someone who is incensed seeks to stain the reputation of the person who has done them (real or perceived) wrong (1 Samuel 20:30).

(e) Malice

Malice is rooted anger and continuing wrath. It makes the person consumed by it daily intent on all opportunities for revenge. They are completely implacable until they get their vindictive inclination satisfied (Romans 1:31)

Bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, evil-speaking and malice grieve the Holy Spirit of God (Ephesians 4:30). They greatly darken the work of grace in the heart by which He seals believers. There are no sins more opposed to the fruit of the Spirit (mentioned in Galatians 5:22). Where such sins are given way to, grace must be in decay. Thus, the apostle immediately adds to the command not to grieve the Spirit “let all bitterness, wrath and anger be put away”. This implies that otherwise they would grieve the Spirit.

Sin is so subtle and we are so weak and unskilled in resisting it that when it gets in, one sin makes way for a further. Thus, it goes from bad to worse. The wisest course therefore is to oppose it in good time, lest it gathers strength by our indulging it. The apostle outlines various degrees of sinful anger. The first makes way for the next and the next is always worse and a step nearer to the worst height.

 

2. How to Have Righteous Anger

Anger is a natural affection, planted in our first parents at the first creation. Indeed it was also found in Christ Himself, who was without sin (Mark 3:5). It is not in itself a sin therefore, nor always sinful. As it is in its own nature it is indifferent. It becomes good or evil, according to its reasons, causes, objects and purposes. Sometimes and in some situations being angry is a necessary duty for a Christian to be angry e.g. when anger flows from zeal to God’s glory (John 2:15 with v17) and love to our brother (Proverbs 13:24).

It is righteous when it is arises from just and weighty causes. Chief of these is God’s dishonour, whether by our own sins (2 Corinthians 7:11) or the sins of others (Exodus 32:19). It is incensed not so much against the person of our brother as against his sin. It is therefore against sin in ourselves, as much as in others (Matthew 7:5). This is clear when it does not hinder other duties of love which we owe to the person with whom we are angry (Exodus 32:19 with 32). It is also clear when it does not impair our access to God in prayer (1 Timothy 2:8). We must not go beyond the bounds of our calling, nor should we give way to private revenge in pursuing our anger (Luke 9:54-55). When the reasons, purposes and behaviour are right, anger is praiseworthy and commendable. The apostle commands anger in the right circumstances.

 

3. How to Restrain Sinful Anger

It is easy to pass from moderation to excess in our natural affections of joy, fear, grief, desire. This goes from what is lawful and in some cases necessary, to what is sinful (Psalm 2:11). When anger is given way to it is most difficult to keep within and not exceed bounds and not to exceed. This happens by transgressing one or other of the limitations of righteous anger mentioned before. He cautions not to sin when we are angry.

 

4. How to Watch Against Sinful Anger

It is possible (even in the child of God) for lawful anger to degenerate into sinful wrath. The mind is embittered and accordingly rages against the person who has done the wrong. But the child of God must not have an implacable spirit which cannot be exhausted by length of time. If their anger at any time should exceed bounds and turn to wrath or bitterness of spirit, he exhorts them to suppress it speedily. They must suppress it even before the sun goes down, not cherishing that evil or indulging themselves in it for the space of one night. The apostle supposes they may have anger but they must not maintain it long. “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath”.

It is not enough for Christians to refrain from the venting of their passions in their inordinate expressions and actions; but they must also, and in order to their refraining from those, set about the rectifying of their inward affections and most secret distempers of their spirit: otherwise, if the flame of anger and wrath doth burn within, it will most readily send up a black smoke of clamour and evil speaking, to the offence of others: for, Paul forbiddeth not only clamour and evil-speaking, but also all bitternesse, wrath and anger.

 

5. How to Deal With Sinful Anger

The child of God is not to be discouraged and give up resisting sin. Nor are they to run away when sin prevails. But, having received a new supply of strength from Christ (2 Corinthians 12:8) by exercising faith in prayer, they must attack sin afresh with renewed courage. In doing this they may recover what was previously lost. Paul instructs that if their anger should at any time be excessive they should set themselves against it without delay and not let the sun go down on their wrath.

It is not sufficient to suppress and weaken our sinful corruptions. We ought to aim at, and rest satisfied with nothing less than totally subduing them. We should remove them by pulling them up by the very roots. He says “Let all bitterness etc….be put away”. The word put away means: “Let it be lifted up, and so destroyed”.

Sins of the tongue and outward actions are to be put away and put to death as well as sins of the heart. They are in some ways more dangerous (Matthew 18:7 because more dangerous to others. They always flow from a defiled heart (Matthew 15:19) and make it worse than it was.

 

Conclusion

In a time of moral outrage we need to be clear about true righteous anger and how and when it should be expressed. The people of God also have an opportunity in an angry age to show the grace of Christ. Watching against and dealing with sinful anger marks out believers as different, especially when we do not join the bandwagon of vitriol. It’s extremely hard to deal with sinful anger, it just seems to come from nowhere. But the more that we seek grace through prayer take steps against it the less we will be defeated by it.  The Holy Spirit who is grieved with all forms of sinful anger has been given to help us put it to death.

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What is Personal Reformation?

What is Personal Reformation?

What is Personal Reformation?
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.
31 Dec, 2018

There’s no shortage of people offering personal transformation and life-hacking. It’s all about the power of positive thinking, planning and self-belief. It’s breezy and simplistic, offering instant and effortless change with a few tweaks. Personal reformation is entirely different. It is all about grace not self-help. It doesn’t masquerade as a quick fix in a few easy steps; it is extensive and lifelong. It is being transformed by the renewing of our mind and working out God’s perfect will in practice (Romans 12:2). It involves applying all that God requires to our hearts, lives and families.

Personal reformation is certainly extensive; it applies to our heart and outward conduct. It relates to all of our lives at all times, in all of our interactions with others. It involves seeking God and His glory in all things (1 Chronicles 22:19; 2 Chronicles 20:3). It is spiritual, a concern for fervent zeal and the real power of godliness in the heart and life, not just a formal outward profession.

Personal reformation was strongly emphasised during the Second Reformation and at the time of the Westminster Assembly. We can learn much from their concern to see the Word of God influencing our lives. The Solemn League and Covenant (1643) was crucial to the Westminster Assembly and the kingdoms of England and Scotland at this time. The climax of this vow to God has much to teach us about some of the key themes of personal reformation. As we will see, to take the Solemn League was not simply to swear an oath but to commit to every day personal reformation and holiness.

1. Repentance

The Covenant speaks of “our unfeigned desire to be humbled for our own sins, and for the sins of these kingdoms”. There is a sincere confession of sin in personal reformation (1 John 1:9). When we look into Scripture and compare it with our own lives, it should leave an abiding impression and make us want to change (James 1:21-25). It will bring us to humble ourselves before God (Psalm 38:3-4; Joel 2:12-13). We will be conscious that our deceitful hearts naturally do not want to identify and expose sin (Jeremiah 17:9; Psalm 19:12-13). We will want to be humbled for our own sins in particular not just sin in general.
There will be serious concern in case we are hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). When we discover our sins we will want to turn from them (Ezekiel 18:30-31). The sins of the society around us will not be an excuse to make us say that we are not as bad. Rather we will be humbled for these sins and those of the professing Church. We will mourn over them (Ezekiel 9:4). This is because we cannot separate ourselves from them; we have been involved in them to some extent. It is no comfort to know that the sins of the nation are only worse versions of what is in our own hearts (Ezekiel 6:11).

2. Valuing the Benefit of the Gospel

The Covenant goes on to mention some of these personal and national sins. One of these is not having “valued the inestimable benefit of the Gospel”. We live in a nation and society that despises and neglects the gospel (Matthew 11:16-24). But is the gospel an invaluable benefit to us or do we live as though it is just an add-on extra to a comfortable life along with many other benefits? What does the gospel mean to us on a daily basis? Is it the basis of all our confidence? Do we feel that we have moved on from it to other things or is it like a jewel that sparkles with new beauty every time we look at it? Appreciating the gospel according to its invaluable benefits is obvious if our lives are shaped by it.

Part of valuing it properly is when we labour for its “purity and power”, as the Covenant puts it. In other words we are concerned for its influence on others too. We are especially alarmed when it is distorted or not properly proclaimed. Yet we cannot merely rest in the idea that it is purely declared without seeking that there would be real spiritual power accompanying it.

3. Walking Worthy of Christ

We value the gospel and labour for its purity and power when we not only seek to “receive Christ in our hearts” but also strive “to walk worthy of Him in our lives” (Ephesians 4:1-2; Colossians 1:10). If we do not live out the gospel in our attitudes, actions and words we are effectively denying its power (Philippians 1:27). We are dishonouring Christ as Saviour if we do not strive to walk worthy of Him (Colossians 2:16; 1 Thessalonians 2:12).

When we think that it doesn’t matter how we live because forgiveness is freely available it devalues the gospel and turns the grace of God into an incitement for sin (Jude 1:4). As Edmund Calamy put it, sinning against the gospel is even more serious than sinning against the law. How much do we value the precious promises of God if we are not willing to “cleanse our selves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1)? We need to lay aside every weight, including those predominant sins that so easily beset us (Hebrews 12:1). This is why the covenant says that these things are “the causes of other sins and transgressions so much abounding amongst us”. Christians not living as they should means they are not salt and light and add to rather than restrain the corruption of the world around them.

4. Sincere Desires

Personal reformation involves sincere desires and resolve. The covenant speaks of “our true and unfeigned purpose, desire and endeavour”. Unless we want to reform and plan to reform it will not happen. The danger is of making promises and resolutions but then not following through on them. We need to act on our sincere purpose. There will not be perfection but there ought to be sincere attempts even though these will come short of what we desire. Edmund Calamy says that it is like shooting an arrow, if one does not hit the target, shoot another and then another until you are successful.

5. All of Life

This reformation is “for ourselves and all others under our power and charge”. We are not just to be concerned for ourselves but that others for whom we have responsibility would reform themselves too. Personal reformation doesn’t mean that we think only our individual reformation matters. Personal reformation isn’t just a private matter but it is to be “both in public and in private, in all duties we owe to God and man”. It must affect our job, family life and all our dealings with other people just as much as our duty to God.

6. Changing the Way We Live

Personal reformation means change and transformation. We will want to “amend our lives” as the covenant puts it. There will be things we need to start doing and things we need to stop doing according to the Word of God. If it’s just about reading books and discussing Christian things and we don’t want to go further than this – it isn’t reformation.

7. Reform as Much as Possible

The covenant has a very striking expression that “each one” is “to go before another in the example of a real reformation”. We ought to be an example to each other. We should hold fast to whatever reformation we have attained and seek to go further (Philippians 3:15-16). We should seek to encourage others to go further in this too, and be an example to them (Philippians 3:17). As Herbert Palmer put it, we are not to wait for others “but strive to excel others” almost to outdo them. We are to be “patterns to others, and lights to direct and excite [encourage] others to follow us”.

8. Depend on the Help of the Holy Spirit

We cannot engage in personal reformation on our own or in our own strength. We must humbly beseech “the Lord to strengthen us by His Holy Spirit for this end”. Edmund Calamy warned those who swore to the Solemn League and Covenant:

You must not take it in your own strength but in God’s strength. As it is taken in God’s presence, so it must be taken with Gods assistance, with self-abasement, self-denying, self-humbling hearts; you must take it joyfully and tremblingly; rejoicing in God and in his strength, and yet trembling for fear of your own unworthiness and unsteadfastness in the Covenant.

Besides prayer for such strength we must also seek a blessing on our endeavours for personal reformation. Private prayer and spending time in meditating on the Word is an essential aspect of this. As the Scottish Church put it at the time of the Second Reformation:

It is most necessary, that every one apart and by themselves be given to prayer and meditation, the unspeakable benefit [of this] is best known to them who are exercised [in it].

This is because it is the great special means by which fellowship with God is maintained and advanced. It also prepares us in the right way for all other spiritual duties.

9. Wider Reformation

Those who composed the Covenant believed that if Christians were personally reformed it would have a tremendous influence on the Church of Jesus Christ and the nation as a whole. National and personal reformation, Humphrey Chambers preached, “should always go together”. What indeed would things look like if even a small quantity of Christians lived as they should?

 

Conclusion

We ought to long that our consciences and conduct would give a clear witness to personal reformation in our own experience. The men of the Second Reformation were so concerned about this that they devoted days to prayer and fasting for God’s help in reformation, including on the personal level. On one of these an ordinary believer named Ralph Josselin wrote in his diary: “Oh Lord, never was there more need of personal reformation than now; stir me up to it”. That spirit is exactly what we need now too.

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Can True Zeal Learn from Blind Zeal?

Can True Zeal Learn from Blind Zeal?

Can True Zeal Learn from Blind Zeal?
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.
23 Nov, 2018

Blind zeal is not of course a good thing. It’s not informed by knowledge of the truth (Romans 10:2). It can achieve a lot and go a long way but all in entirely the wrong direction (Galatians 1:14). So what can we possibly learn from it? Well, have you never felt rebuked by the dedication and devotion others have to a false religion or sect? It can be a challenge to our self-satisfied complacency and make us think about true zeal. Shouldn’t the truth make us equally if not more passionate and dedicated? It’s true that blind zeal is often self-directed because it’s about earning salvation. But shouldn’t salvation by faith alone produce true zeal in us (Titus 2:14)? Zeal is important (Galatians 4:18). But does the Bible teach that true zeal can learn from false zeal?

Yes, Micah 4:5 says, “For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever”.  Micah seems to point forward to a time under the gospel when converts will seek to renounce all heresies and sects. Instead they will adhere constantly and zealously to God and the profession of the Christian religion. As George Hutcheson notes though, it seems that they will provoke themselves to this by the example of idolaters being steadfast in their ways of false religion. This is evidence of the glory of the Church and provides encouragement for the godly. Israel had various periods of apostasy where they adopted the false religious practices of the heathen nations around them. Here is a promise of a better time when the Church will prove to be constant in the true religion. We live in unsettled and changeable times and there is a great need for being constant. There is false religious zeal in New Atheists and other activists as well as those who profess a false religion. Instead of troubling us, their commitment to a bad cause should be a spur to us in devoting ourselves in the cause of truth.

 

1. True Zeal can Learn Constancy

Constancy in adhering to the true religion is the great glory of a Church. It is  an encouragement to the godly, to whom backslidings are a sad affliction.

 

2. True Zeal can Learn Dependence on God

The Christian profession and religion consists in walking in the name of the Lord. This means professing and practicing according to the revealed rule “the name of the Lord our God”. It means not seeking to be wise above what is written or doing these things in our own strength (1 Samuel 17:45; Psalm 118:11). We will have the encouragement we need from God. The phrase “his name is the same as “the light of the Lord” i.e. light for direction and comfort (Isaiah 2:5; Isaiah 2 is a parallel passage).

 

3. True Zeal can Learn Resolution

Those who seek to walk in these paths and adhere to them should make certain their claim to God by covenant. They ought to be filled with great affection toward their covenant God. To our duty in the right way we need to renew our resolutions and motives frequently. This will maintain our sharpness. Thus, they draw reasons for new resolutions from those that serve idols.

 

4. True Zeal can Learn Constant Perseverance

Eternal resolutions, or resolutions of constant perseverance are fitting for so high a duty as walking in God’s name. There can be no reason for us to be weary in this. The benefits of being constant in it will only appear greater as time goes on and comes to an end. It says “we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever”.

 

5. True Zeal Must Expect to See Blind Zeal

Even in the days of the gospel, there are still many who are so blindfolded and deluded they do not see the glory of Christ’s kingdom. Instead, they obstinately follow their idols. It says “all people,” that is, many, “will walk in the name of their god”.

 

6. True Zeal can Learn from Blind Zeal

The Lord’s people should (and by grace will) be far from being unsettled or drawn away by the multitude who forsake the true God. Instead, the steadfastness of idolaters is a motive for those who seek God to renew their own resolutions for greater obedience and faithfulness. Their blind zeal towards that which is no god may teach us our duty towards the true God (see Jeremiah 2:10-11).

You might like to read this blog post next –  Why Zeal and Reformation go together

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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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You Will Never Be Truly Content Without Godliness

You Will Never Be Truly Content Without Godliness

You Will Never Be Truly Content Without Godliness
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.
20 Jul, 2018

We all long for a genuinely peaceful satisfaction in life. Yet in our society of conspicuous consumption, discontent and wanting more and better seem to be valued more. Lifestyle gurus know this and they urge people to be content with who they are and what they have whilst still striving for their goals. Think positively they say, practice gratitude (to no one in particular) be proud of what you have achieved. But this isn’t real contentment because it depends on ourselves and our feelings. It’s a temporary and often imagined state. We need something that transcends not only our immediate circumstances but also ourselves and this brief changeable life. We were not made to live for ourselves or the things of time. We were made for God and for eternity. That’s why we will never be truly content without godliness.

This is what the Apostle Paul says. People make the great mistake of “supposing that gain is godliness” (1 Timothy 6:5). Some think that personal gain is highest achievement of this life. Even in spiritual things as well as the things of this life we can be entirely focussed on personal gain. They are using spiritual things to advance self. We can think that we are advancing in godliness but actually the whole activity is all about ourselves. Paul says that we need to know that gain is not godliness but rather “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6). These two things go together and cannot be separated. Godliness is profitable for all things both in this life and the life which is to come (1 Timothy 4:8). James Durham explains these points further in a series of sermons from which the following is extracted and updated.

 

1. What is True Contentment?

It leaves a person in quietness, calmness and composure of mind. They are so satisfied with God’s dealings that they think whatever they experience is best.

(a) It Involves Moderate Desires

Our inclinations, desires and plans in relation to ourselves and all the things of this world are moderated. This is the opposite of all inordinate desires for a change in our present lot. It keeps us from seeking “great things” for ourselves (Jeremiah 45:5). One who wants to be rich (1 Timothy 6:9) is the opposite of one who is content. This is because covetousness and contentment are opposed to each other (Hebrew 13:5).

Contentment is silent reverence for God’s way towards us. It restrains us from pressing inordinately after what we have or are able to acquire lawfully. Honest lawful labour is of course not opposed to contentment. We follow our calling as our duty rather than mainly to further our advantage or gain.

(b) It Involves Calm Submission to God’s Providence

It is opposed to fretful anxiety (Philippians 4:6 and Matthew 6:25). We are to follow the duties of our calling without being vexed or anxious about their success.

(c) It Involves Reverent Adoration of God’s Provision

Whether God provides little or much we are to be content with the things that we have (1 Timothy 6:8 and Hebrews 13:5).

(d) It Involves Tranquility of Mind Which Is Satisfied With God’s Dealings

Not only does it not fret against God’s dealings, it gives positive assent to them as being well satisfied with them. It is a sweetly serene frame of soul that makes a Christian say with the apostle, “I have all, I abound, I am full” (see Philippians 4:11-12 and 18; 2 Corinthians 6:8-10). Paul had as much contentment whether he had less or more of the things of the world.

 

2. How is Godliness Gain?

(a) It Extends to All Kinds of People

Its gain extends to individuals of every sex, age, rank, class, calling position and relationship.

(b) It Extends to All Kinds of Conditions

It is profitable in prosperity and in lack, making us always content in every condition. It is soundness to the bones in health and has an inward life and cheerfulness. In sickness and death it is eminently profitable. Its great gain and advantage beautifully blossom forth then, when all earthly comforts wither.

(c) It Extends to All Kinds of Activities

It is profitable in worship and the duties of our ordinary callings (Psalm 1:3).

(d) It Extends to This Life and Eternity

It has outward gain (so far as is fitting for themselves and those of their company). It always has inward gain through their secret converse with and walk before God (1 Timothy 4:8).

 

3. Why is There no Contentment Without Godliness?

If we look through the Scriptures, we will always find that it is the godly man that is the contented man. Godly Paul learned this great lesson and was taught this divine art. You can see from Philippians 4 and 2 Corinthians 6:3-4 how he arrived at this height. He could say “having nothing, yet possessing all things”. This is because contentment does not consist in the things we possess but in the right frame of mind. There is nothing that can put and keep us in such a right frame of mind except godliness.

(a) Godliness Shows Us the Emptiness of All Creature-Comforts

It sobers our spirit in pursuing creature-comforts saying to us to be content with food and clothing (1 Timothy 6:9). It limits our desires and intentions that we may be content even though we do not have many thousands or this or that among the fine things in the world.

(b) Godliness Moderates Our Affections in Using the Things of This World

It keeps us from being anxious in seeking and pursuing after the things of the world. It makes us quiet and satisfied in using and enjoying them. Without contentment through godliness a person is both vexed and perplexed in seeking and enjoying without satisfaction. This is because they seek and expect more from these things than they find.

But the godly man weeps as though he did not weep, rejoices as though he did not rejoice. He buys as though he did not possess and uses this world without abusing it (see 1 Corinthians 7:29-31). Godliness is the living water spoken of by our Lord (John 4:13) which when someone drinks they do not thirst again. It quenches those disquieting, gasping desires after the things of the world which all naturally have.

(c) Godliness Sets Our Affections on More Excellent Things

It takes our affections off these things and sets them on another more noble, excellent and durable object which alone can satisfy. There is no true contentment nor solid soul-satisfaction to be had except in God and looking to Him aright. Godliness takes us away from the empty and broken cisterns that can hold no water and leads us to the fountain of living waters (Jeremiah 2).

It makes us consider that the Lord has a holy sovereign hand in everything and teaches us to be quiet and content. It teaches us to pray, praise, believe, rest on God and trust in Him for deliverances from all difficulties. Now and then the godly have some sweet manifestations of God to their soul. These mightily and marvellously outlast the impressions that the lack of outward things make on their spirits (see Psalm 4:6-7). It is impossible for the mind to be quiet and content without having some satisfying object effectually offered to it. Only godliness does this. Even heaven could not make us content unless we had godliness (if it were possible for someone to be there without it). This is because without it the mind would not be adapted to the place.

(d) Godliness Gives Us Access to All the Promises

Access to all the exceeding great and precious promises makes us content. “Godliness” (says the apostle) “is profitable for all things, having the promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:7). Suppose a godly man in difficulty to get his dinner or supper and how to get his family provided for and sustained. When the children begin to weep for bread in beginning to hunger, he has a sweet word of promise to support his mind. God has said that He will never leave nor forsake him in Hebrews 13:5-6. This verse contains five negatives in the original language to maximise assurance.

The words that follow are: “we may boldly say, the Lord is my helper, I will not fear what man shall do unto me”. Godliness looks to what God has said and no one except the godly can say that God has said such things to them. The promise is in some ways as meaningful and satisfying (perhaps more) as if they had the rhing itself in their hand. They can say boldly “the Lord is my helper” and “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want (Psalm 23:1) and so quiet and content themselves. There is no condition the godly may be in without a promise for it.

Godliness gives access and right to the promise. Exercising godliness gives the promise (as it were) a new and fresh lustre. The godly rest satisfied in the promise and neither having nor not having disturb their peace and contentment. They know that if necessary this pain and sickness and this affliction or other will be removed and this or that need supplied. If it continues it will be for their best. This is in accordance with Romans 8:28 “All things work together for good to them that love God and are the called according to his purpose”. What more is needed? The godly may take hold of the promise boldly, no one else has the right to do this. Godliness does not meri the promise but God has made it the way by which we receive it. If you love and desire contentment, love godliness and exercise yourselves to it in a serious way.

(e) Godliness Helps Us Put Sin to Death

Lack of contentment of mind arises from some sin within which has not been put to death, as James tells us (James 4:1). Where godliness is in exercise, it keeps down and subdues pride and restrains lust. When corruption is ready to rise and fretting, impatience and discontent break out, godliness makes us say with Eli “It is the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:18). It makes us dare not give way to our corruption. The great thing that disquiets us is always something that is sinful. Godliness prevents or restrains that which leads to discontentment. It helps put sin to death and keep the mind calm.

 

4. Why is Contentment Necessary for Making Progress in Godliness?

The Holy Spirit joins these two things together to show that one helps and advances the other. A defect in either one is obstructive to the other. Those who are not exercised to godliness cannot have true contentment. Those who do not have contentment cannot advance in godliness. Will or can someone who is discontent pray effectually? It is impossible. It mars his liberty and boldness in prayer.

The discontented man cannot praise because praise flows from a satisfied mind and he lacks this. The discontented man cannot properly read, listen to sermons, or meditate because his mind is confused. Discontentment weakens the mind and makes us disinclined to and indisposed for godly exercise.

 

Conclusion

Look on and accept these two things as motives and helps to each other. Let them go hand in hand together. Neither of them will go alone, they must go together. Will I not then strive for contentment with my lot, whatever it may be? Will I not more than ever love and prize the connection between contement and godliness? Will I not through grace believe more thoroughly this great truth, that godliness with contentment is great gain? Let it stand as an eternal and unchangeable verity. Let it stand like a great and immovable rock in the midst of the sea against which the waves of the world’s contradictory, false and foolish notions beat and break themselves.

Special Offer on James Durham’s Collected Sermons

Durham’s sermons on The Great Gain of Contenting Godliness are included in a volume of his collected sermons. These have been published recently and are highly recommended. In an early sermon CH Spurgeon said, “If I had lived in his [Durham’s] time, I should never, I think, have wanted to hear any other preacher; I would have sat, both by night and day, to receive the sweet droppings of his honeyed lips” There are 61 sermons in this attractively produced volume and it runs to nearly 1,000 pages.  The usual price is £29.95 which already represents a discount but a further 10% is possible when purchasing using a code unique for readers of this blog. This makes the price £26.95 and the code is RST 18 when purchasing from James Dickson Books at this link.

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Are We Getting Holiness Wrong?

Are We Getting Holiness Wrong?

Are We Getting Holiness Wrong?
James Fraser of Brea (1639-1698) was originally from the Black Isle, Ross-shire. He was imprisoned on the Bass Rock for ‘illegal’ field preaching but survived the times of persecution.
13 Jul, 2018

We can have the right doctrine of holiness; one that takes it as seriously as Scripture does. But in relation to its practical outworking and in our assumptions concerning it, we may have got it wrong. No doubt there could be many ways in which we could do this. We may fall into the error that we can contribute something, that there is a place for our personal merit. Or perhaps we subtly divorce holiness from happiness and find ourselves in a constant conflict between the two. This is a serious mistake because holiness is the only way to true happiness. If we secretly equate happiness with sinful pleasure or our own will rather than God’s, we have gone badly wrong.  We can only look at a few ways in which we may be inclined to get holiness wrong.

James Fraser of Brea takes an honest look at himself, searching into his motives and attitudes. The discovery is startling, while he values holiness he has certain attitudes that are hindering his progress. The evil one is insinuating false notions that confuse and divert. The following are only a few of the many things that Fraser identifies. Of course free unmerited grace must always be in view.

 

1. Thinking Repentance is Only Inward

In thinking that the essence of true repentance consists in contrition for sin more than in turning in heart and practice from it. When I have not found myself in a mourning, sorrowful spirit but limited in my affections, I have not turned from sin. I was still taken up with trying to sorrow for it, thinking there was no true repentance without this. When I have mourned I depended on this, thinking it was sufficient. But repentance mostly consists in turning to God, mourning is only the manner of this act of turning (Joel 2:12; Isaiah 58:6; Proverbs 21:3).

I have neglected the outward practice of repentance under the pretence that the Lord requires the heart. But we should serve the Lord both in body and in spirit. It is true, we should not rest in the outward, or mainly look to that but should look to the heart mostly; yet the outward act should not be neglected.

 

2. Wallowing in Self Pity

After falls and slips, Satan has sought to keep me astonished and confused by what I have done. In this way I was kept from getting up to my feet and going forward. Those who fall when they are running in a race lose much time and are far behind while they think about what to do. The best way is to get up, consider our ways, mourn, seek pardon, and then go to work. This is how it was with Joshua, God told him to get up and do his work rather than lie on his face (Joshua 7:10). When David sinned, he immediately goes to repentance: “I have sinned, yet now, Lord, forgive.”

 

3. Emphasising Holiness But Not Practising it

It is wrong to neglect to obedience in dependence on grace by resting in a resolve to do and it and mere thoughts of how good it is. Either I thought this was enough or else through complacency have not expected difficulty in practice. Yet those who know, approve and teach God’s requirements to other while neglecting it themselves, “say and do not” (Romans 2:13-14, 18; Matthew 7:21; Jeremiah 2:19- 20). Thus my thoughts delighting in obedience have not been so much to practise as to delight the understanding in dwelling on such subjects.

 

4. Rebranding Sin

Satan can transform himself into an angel of light, by gilding vices with the lustre and appearance of virtue, under spiritual pretences. I have been tempted to carelessness and excess under the pretence of avoiding unthankfulness and not using Christian liberty. I have neglected to have the heart rightly affected with the evil of sin, because repentance consists more in turning from sin than in sorrow for it. I have avoided prayer when not in the right spirit in case I make the easy yoke of Christ a grievous burden. Sin has prevailed in these ways and when it has overcome it appeared in its own clothing. The grace of God may be turned into lasciviousness (2 Corinthians 11:14; Romans 6:1). We have been “called to liberty” but we are not to use this to give opportunity for the flesh (Galatians 5:13).

 

5. A Legalistic Spirit

There is nothing does me more damage than a legalistic spirit or spirit of bondage. Satan presses duties in a violent way, presenting God as a hard master and an austere judge. He presents God as one that commands and requires duties in the way that tyrannical rulers make laws to entrap the subjects. He makes it seem as though God is urging hard duties and putting new wine into old bottles with the greatest threats and no promise of help. I am urged to obey hastily without being given time to breathe and extreme perfection is required or else it will not be accepted at all.  Finding the Lord’s yoke so hard, I have either cast it off or sometimes engaged in it disheartened. Nothing has influenced me worse than this. Talents have been slighted because God was viewed as a hard master. The Lord has not been served because our yoke is not made light. There is aversion and lack of love to God due to sinful fear (1 John 4:18).

 

6. Trying to Establish Our Own Righteousness

Satan and my own heart have held me fast for a long time in the snare of seeking to establish my own righteousness. When my heart has been in a good condition, with a felt sense of what I lack and desiring to obey it has resolved to use specific means to obtain this. I have found Satan deceiving me in this by making me love these duties, means, graces and obtaining them because it is the produce of my own desire and resolve. Thus, they have been my own (as it were) and my choice. I have despised other means because they were not my own choice. I have therefore been grieved when favour come in a different way and valued such mercy less. When I have fallen into sins I resolve to avoid I have grieved more because my resolutions have been broken and my will thwarted than because God has been wronged or my soul endangered. Thus God has been provoked to break down these resolutions and cast down the tower that reached to heaven (Proverbs 19:3; Romans 10:3; Mark 14:37; Isaiah 10:7; Psalm 58:3).

 

7. Thinking Holiness is All About Hardship

When difficult duties have been urged such as mourning, fasting, diligence etc. I have been brought to think that the purpose of the command was mostly to bring hardship on myself. I obeyed more often for this reason than to obey God’s command. It was like pagans who cut themselves or Roman Catholics who whip themselves and it did me harm. It engendered hard thoughts of God and made me do duties in a spiritless way and without spiritual benefit because I only sought hardship for myself.

 

8. Not Avoiding “Little Sins”

I have not avoided “little” evils, fearing that this would be like tithing “anise and cumin” (Matthew 23:23).

 

9. Focussing On Outward Sins Rather than Inward Corruption

In striving against the outward acts of sin I have not been considering the inward corruption of the heart. I have been “making clean the outside” but neglecting to cleanse it within; cutting the branches, and sparing the root (Matthew 23:25-26). I have not profited in holiness because the fountain has not been cleansed.

 

10. Depending on Our Own Strength

Going on in duties in my own strength without looking for divine assistance, has done me great harm. When I have gone on in confidence of my own strength the Lord has chastened me for my presumption, as it was with Peter. When duties have been difficult I have become discouraged because I was relying on and looking to my own strength.

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The Complete Remedy For Overcoming Spiritual Discouragements

The Complete Remedy For Overcoming Spiritual Discouragements

The Complete Remedy For Overcoming Spiritual Discouragements
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.
25 May, 2018

Many things around us seem to conspire to bring us down to the depths of discouragement. We can see plainly that things are not as they ought to be. Perhaps we look for fruit from our patient efforts to sow seed with others and it doesn’t appear even promising. So we become weary in well-doing. Ministers are easily tempted to discouragement in the midst of their labours. It’s also not difficult to become discouraged due to things within, especially our spiritual state and progress. How do we get out of being sucked into the spiral of despair? The only all-sufficient source of help is in divine grace.

John Welwood (1649-1678) suffered much though he was only in his twenties. The following extract is from one of the many letters he wrote during his trials and persecution. He was moving from place to place all over Scotland, preaching as he could. (More information about his life can be found at the end of this article). He was an especially powerful preacher and his sermons were said to have “a fiery earnestness”.

 

1. Nothing Should Discourage a Christian

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

 

2. Our Guilt and Ignorance Should Not Discourage Us

Should guilt discourage us? He has made Him “to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God through him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ says to the Father that if the Christian owes anything to Him, “put it on my account”. “The blood of sprinkling speaks better things than that of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24).

Should wrath discourage us? He has “redeemed us from the curse, being made a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). “There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Should our ignorance discourage us? Though we are as beasts before Him, yet he is continually with us and leads us like a flock. Our safety lies not in our wisdom and leading, but in His. Though we are foolish, our pilot is skilful and careful.

Does a body of sin and death discourage us? Indeed we have reason to cry out, “O wretched ones that we are!” “Who shall deliver us from it?” (Romans 7:24 and 8:2) It deadens us and deceives us, inclining little to what is good but a lot to what is bad. It makes us disinclined and slow to do our duty, and puts us out of the right condition for it. And if we say, we will be wise, yet it is far from us. Yet His grace is sufficient for us.

 

3. Sufficient Grace for These Discouragements

Our safety does not depend on grace within us, but grace outside us. If He would leave us to ourselves for only a day, how far wrong we would go. He has given us this promise, that his grace shall be sufficient for us. It is by this grace that we stand. It is by this that “we are made more than conquerors” in all the assaults and temptations that come from without, from Satan and from the world. It is He who keeps us from temptations and delivers from evil.

We should not therefore be discouraged by a body of sin and all the enemies that join with it. We should “be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might”. He is with us as a mighty One.

 

4. Our Poor Growth in Grace Should Not Discourage Us

Does our small growth in grace and in the knowledge of Christ discourage us? That is indeed our great complaint “our leanness, our leanness”. It is fitting that folk grow downwards in low thoughts of themselves, for He dwells with the humble.

The more folk have of grace, the more they see of corruption. The more they have of faith, the more they see of unbelief. It is fitting that folk have such workings within them, to keep them watching and wrestling. What an evil condition we find ourselves in when we have no such work to do. Besides, many times we make an idol of grace and prize it more than the Lord Jesus as the author of it. He may say unto us, Am not I worth more to you than however much grace? The God of all grace is ours. The fountain is ours; we are complete in Him.

 

5. Sufficient Grace is in Christ Not Us

It is fitter that He has our treasure than we should have it ourselves. We would desire to have all at one everything we need for the whole journey. This is still the aim of our hearts, and we would have a stock of grace within us so we would not be beholden to Christ for continual supply. We think it a poor life to live like beggars and to be like minors that must have a tutor.

We think that what is in our hand is surer than what is in Christ’s hand. But Adam had his stock in his own hand and he soon played the bankrupt. Though we had as much grace as possible we would undermine ourselves if His grace were not keeping us each day and moment. It is not our grace and worthiness that commends us to God, only the righteousness of Christ. We are obliged to God for the grace we get, not He to us. If He will keep us with little in hand, we ought to be content and not fall out with him because he will not fill oure purses with money, since we have access unto the treasure house.

 

6. Our Lack of God’s Felt Presence Should Not Discourage Us

Does God’s withdrawing discourage us? Sometimes there may be many fogs and clouds in our world below when all is fair weather above. Though our feelings say that His love changes there is “no variablness, nor shadow of turning” with Him. He loves us when He hides His face as well as when He smiles. He has many wise and holy purposes in all the afflictions we meet with. They are to be ballast for us. One would think it strange to see sand bags being cast into a ship but it is necessary for the ship would be blown over without this. We would go wrong if we lacked the ballast of affliction. Our hearts are ready to become unwatchful in a fair day. Afifictions give us the experience of God’s power, love, wisdom, and faithfulness in bearing us up under them, ordering them for our advantage and delivering us out of them.

 

John Welwood

After hiding in Moray and Fife and other parts of the country, Welwood was banished to Perth in 1679. Sadly he only survived in Perth for three months before contracting an illness and dying at the age of thirty. During his short time there he continued to preach, mostly to families who would come to visit him in the place where he was staying.

On his death bed he said that such was his assurance that he had no more doubt of being in Christ “than if I were in heaven already”. At another time he said: “Although I have been for some weeks without sensible [felt], comforting presence, yet I have not the least doubt of my interest [salvation] in Christ”.  

The morning he died, when he observed the light of day, he said: “Now eternal light, and no more night and darkness to me”. His gravestone had the following inscription: “A follower of the Lamb through many tribulations”.

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The Greatest Lie We Can Tell Ourselves

The Greatest Lie We Can Tell Ourselves

The Greatest Lie We Can Tell Ourselves
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.
27 Apr, 2018

Pop psychology believes that the worst thing we can do is not think positively about ourselves. Apparently we just need to have the right mindset and then we can do anything. Our negative thoughts then become “the lies we tell ourselves”. Biblical wisdom is far different. It reveals glorious truths and realities that provide us with more motivation than we could imagine. Yet it also reveals the uncomfortable truth about ourselves, leaving us with nowhere to hide. Unless we come to terms with this we will only deceive ourselves. The most glorious thing that the Bible says we can have is fellowship with God. Yet it is hindered by the greatest lie.

Both of these are brought together in one verse. “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (1 John 1:6). Hugh Binning opens up the most glorious privilege and the greatest lie.

 

1. True Religion is in Fellowship with God

True religion consists not only in the knowledge of God but especially in conformity to Him and communion with him. Communion and fellowship with God is the great goal and design of the gospel. It is the great result of all a Christian’s efforts and progress. It is not only the greatest part of religion, but its very reward.

Godliness has its own reward of happiness without borrowing from external things. This sweet and fragrant fruit which perfumes the whole soul with delight and fills it with joy, springs out of conformity to God. This means assimilation of nature and disposition, some likeness to God imprinted on the soul again in holy affections and dispositions. It also means our will coinciding with the will of God, drowning it in the sea of His good pleasure and having His law in the inward parts.

What is the root of this conformity except the knowledge of God? This has the power to transform the soul into His likeness. You see then where true religion begins lowest and by what means it grows up to the sweet fruit of that eternal joy that shall be pressed out of the grapes of fellowship with God. So then, whatever is declared by God to us in His word concerning Himself is not only presented for our knowledge. It is especially also a pattern for imitation and an inflaming motive for our affection. This is the very substance of the verse “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

 

2. True Religion is Becoming More Like God

The end of your knowing God is to become more like God. Let us consider that we know only as much about God as we love, fear and are conformed to Him. Any knowledge which is not doing this or does not have this goal will serve no other purpose except to be a witness against us.

If you want fellowship with God then consider what you engage in and what kind of person He is. The intimate knowledge of one another is presupposed in all true friendship. You must know what God is if you want to have communion with Him. There is no communion without some conformity and no conformity without knowledge of Him. Therefore, as He is light, so the soul must be made light in Him and enlightened by Him. We must be transformed into that nature and made children of light who were children of darkness. Now, as there is a light of understanding and wisdom in God, and a light of holiness and purity, so there is in our souls, opposite to these, a darkness of ignorance, unbelief, sin, and impurity of affections. Now, “what communion can light have with darkness?”

Looking often on God until our souls are enlightened and our hearts purified advances the soul to the closest conformity with God. This gives the soul greatest capacity for blessed communion with God. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

 

3. The Greatest Lie

There is nothing in which men allow themselves to be so easily deceived as in religion (the matter of greatest concern). The eternal welfare of their souls consists in this. There is no delusion either so gross or so universal in any other thing as in this thing. Delusion together with self-love (which always hoodwinks the mind and will not allow serious impartial self-examination) are at the bottom of this vain persuasion.

If anyone says they are a Christian they really say that they have fellowship with God.  In so far as you pretend to be Christians and yet do not profess holiness you fall under a twofold contradiction and commit a twofold lie. The first is between your profession and practice and the second is in your profession itself.

Your practice is directly contrary to the very general profession of Christianity. You affirm you are Christians and yet refuse the profession of holiness. You say you hope for heaven and yet do not so much as pretend to godliness and walking spiritually. Without this the name of Christian is empty, vain, and ridiculous.

This is the greatest most dangerous lie. It is the greatest lie because it takes in the whole of someone’s life. It is one great universal lie, a lie composed of infinite contradictions and innumerable individual lies. Every step, every word and action is in its own nature contrary to that holy profession. But all combined together it makes up a black constellation of lies—one powerful lie against the truth. And, besides, it is not against a particular truth but against the whole complex of Christianity.

Error is a lie against the particular truth it opposes but the whole course of an ignorant, ungodly life is one continued lie against the whole body of Christianity and Christian truth. It is a lie extended across the length of many weeks, months and years against the whole fabric of Christian profession. There is nothing in the calling of a Christian that is not retracted, contradicted and reproached by it.

O that you could examine your ways and see what a cluster of lies and inconsistencies is in them. See what reproaches these practical lies cast on the honour of your Christian calling. They tend by their very nature to disgrace the truth and blaspheme God’s name. It is no less than a denial of Jesus Christ and a real renunciation of Him. It puts you outside the refuge of sinners and is most likely to keep you outside the blessed city where nothing that makes a lie can enter (Revelation 21:27). What shall then become of them whose life all along has been but one continued lie?

 

4. The Greatest Lie We Can Tell Ourselves

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Some are ready to think too highly of themselves. They do not see themselves in  a way that may intermingle humble mourning. Rather, they measure their attainments by their desires. Now, indeed, this is in effect, and really to say, “we have no sin” ( 1 John 1:8). We are infinitely below either our duty or our desire, and need to be reminded of this often in order not to be drunk with self-deceit in relation to this.

Are there not many Christians who, having experienced sorrow for sin and comfort by the gospel and engage in religious duties who stop in this without desiring further progress? They think that if they keep that attainment all is well with them. They make few endeavours after more communion with God, or purification from sin. This makes them degenerate into formalism. They wither and become barren and are exposed by this to many temptations which overcome them. Is this not to really say, “we have no sin?”

Do not your walk and frame of spirit imply as though you had no sin to wrestle with, no more holiness to aspire to, as if you had no further race to run to obtain the crown? Do not deceive yourselves, by thinking it sufficient to have so much grace as may (in your opinion) put you over the line. As though you would seek no more than what is precisely necessary for salvation. Some may find that this is a self destroying deceit and they have not in fact passed over that line between heaven and hell.

 

5. True Religion is Beautiful in Practice

There is nothing so contrary to religion as a false appearance. Religion is a most complete thing, harmonious in all its parts. It is the same inside and out, in expression and action, all corresponding together. Now, to mar this harmony and to compose it out of dissimilar parts and make one part contradict the other is to make religion ugly and deformed. This happens when the course of a man’s life, in ignorance, negligence, and sin declare what is contrary to the profession of Christianity.

Practice is real knowledge because it is living knowledge. It is the very life and soul of Christianity when nothing more is needed except the intimation of God’s will to move the whole being. This is what we should all aspire to and not satisfy ourselves in our poor attainments below this.

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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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How Do I Know If I’m a Christian?

How Do I Know If I’m a Christian?

How Do I Know If I’m a Christian?
William Guthrie (1620–1665) was minister of Fenwick in Ayrshire who is best known for his valuable book on salvation and assurance The Christian’s Great Interest.
12 Jan, 2018

Could there be any question more important? But you don’t hear a lot of people asking it these days. Some people think it’s unhelpful, unsettling and unnecessary to ask such a question. But if we are wrong on the matter of greatest personal concern to us––wouldn’t we want to know? Sometimes people think it’s just a case of believing the gospel and seek to convince struggling souls to do this. But you can believe these things to be true and still not be assured they apply to you. Perhaps we are also functioning at a low level of assurance. The truth is that we cannot expect to have high levels of assurance while we have low levels of obedience. The more we find the evidences of faith working by love in our lives and hearts, the more assurance we can enjoy.

One book in particular has been of supreme help in this area: William Guthrie’s The Christian’s Great Interest. The subject of the book is assurance of salvation and it seeks to give various tests by which someone may know that he is a Christian and in doing so also sets out very clearly the way of salvation.

“Great Interest” doesn’t just mean that the book deals with the matter of greatest importance to a Christian and his chief concern. It is a legal term and means to have a valid stake or share in something to our benefit. Guthrie’s book deals with how the Christian may know whether he has a valid legal claim. The claim that matters is one within the Will and Testament or Covenant that the Lord Jesus Christ graciously makes with His people. Guthrie helps us to put ourselves in a courtroom trial where we are under Scripture as a judge to determine if our claim is true.

Guthrie opens the book with a concern that there are many “pretending, without ground, to a special interest in Christ”. On the other hand many others “who have good ground of a claim to Christ are not established in the confidence of His favour, but remain in the dark without comfort, hesitating concerning the reality of godliness in themselves”. This state of affairs prompts two questions – 1. How can someone know if they are in Christ and whether or not he may lay genuine claim to God’s favour and salvation? 2. What should we do if we cannot find in ourselves the marks of a saving interest?

Guthrie’s book was highly commended by John Owen. He said that it contained more theology than everything he himself had written. Thomas Chalmers said it was the best book he had ever read. It was the favourite book of Scottish homes for many generations. Here is a video of someone explaining how it was helpful to them personally.

1. Assurance is Possible

It is important to be clear that assurance is possible, and more easily attained than many realise. It is of the utmost importance to be “savingly in covenant with God”. Scripture must be the rule by which we are able to judge whether or not this is so.

Only a few, however, seem to reach this assurance. There are many different reasons for this:

  • Far too many are ignorant of the different ways in which God works.
  • Others deal deceitfully with God and their own conscience in holding on to sin.
  • There is also a lazy apathy that resists the effort of examining ourselves, but it is “a work and business which cannot be done sleeping”. Assurance must be laboured after, it is not something that falls effortlessly into our laps.
  • Many are ignorant concerning what evidence will satisfy the quest for assurance, despite the fact that it is clear in Scripture.
  • Some are looking for entirely the wrong evidences, such as attaining sinlessness or continuous rapturous prayer.
  • Many that are struggling to attain assurance can make the following mistakes: (a) they think that all who are in Christ know that they are; (b) they think that all who have assurance have the same degree of certainty; (c) they think that this persuasion should be continuous; (d) they think that a person must be able to answer every objection against their assurance.
  • Others believe that they have sinned against the Holy Ghost and put themselves beyond pardon. Guthrie defines what this is (and what it is not) very carefully and helpfully from the Scriptures.

Guthrie speaks of the different ways in which people are drawn to Christ. Some indeed may be drawn lovingly or called suddenly in a very direct way. The “ordinary” way involves being humbled by conviction during which the conscience is awakened till the soul is full of concern about salvation and driven from resting in anything of themselves, to casting their all on Christ for salvation. This is carefully distinguished from the temporary convictions of those that fall away.

 

2. Faith and the New Birth as Evidence

The first evidence that Guthrie calls for in this trial is faith. Faith is vital in the matter of assurance – indeed all other marks are worthless without it. Yet it can be mistaken. It is not as difficult or mysterious as men sometimes think; the Scriptures speak of it as a simple trusting, resting, and looking. It can be found in various marks of submissive obedience and devotion to Christ. “If men but have an appetite, they have it; for they are blessed that hunger after righteousness”. Thus Guthrie identifies the marks of true faith but also distinguishes it from false faith.

The second set of evidence called upon relates to the new birth. There is a total renewal when a man comes to saving faith in Christ. In mind, heart and will he is changed from being self-oriented and self-serving to serving and glorifying God. Attitudes to all aspects of life are renewed whether it is work or worship, relationships, recreation or eating and drinking. There is a respect to all of God’s commandments, submission to and valuing of Christ alone that hypocrites never have despite the outward similarities with believers that they may seem to possess.

 

3. Getting Assurance

The great question in the minds of many, however, is why some believers doubt. Guthrie opens this up in considerable depth dealing with God’s sovereignty and our own responsibility in these matters. He speaks of twelve areas where different levels of experience may be enjoyed but where assurance may be obtained.

Part Two of the book also proceeds to deal with the second question raised: What should we do if we cannot find in ourselves the marks of a saving interest? Many may believe that they have closed in with Christ in the gospel very few, however, really have. Yet there is a duty that lies on all under the terms of the Covenant of Grace as it is preached to all. There must be a “coming” on our part. “God excludes none if they do not exclude themselves”. “It is a coming on our part, and yet a drawing on His part”. What is it to close with God’s offer of salvation in the preached covenant? It means to recognise the full guilt of sin, our need of salvation and the impossibility of any salvation outwith God’s appointment in Christ. We must “quit and renounce all thoughts of help or salvation by our own righteousness”. Faith is humble though resolute, hearty rather than mere mental assent though it must depend upon knowledge.

4. Personal Covenanting

The Covenanters and Puritans found great benefit in personal covenanting with God. Usually this involved explicitly accepting of Christ and confessing sin and expressing satisfaction with the gospel way of salvation. The covenant was often renewed at Communion seasons and times of difficulty or desertion. Guthrie counsels those who lack assurance to make a covenant explicitly with God, writing down and speaking their acceptance in order that they may return to it in times of doubting. The author patiently removes any obstacles or objections that readers may have about covenanting, showing that it has clear scriptural warrant. The covenant was to be no mere decision card that was signed off unthinkingly. It was a solemn holy vow before God dealing with our never-dying souls to be taken with due meditation and consideration. Guthrie compares the covenant to marriage vows between the soul and Christ, as a way of formally confessing with the mouth the same covenant that the believer makes in the heart.

 

5. A Summary of the Book

The following is a helpful summary of The Christian’s Great Interest prepared by William Guthrie himself. The language has been slightly updated for the benefit of understanding.

Q. 1. What is the great business a person has to do in this world?
A. To make sure of a saving interest in Christ Jesus and to live in a way that is consistent with it.

Q. 2. Do all the members of the visible church not have a saving interest in Christ?
A. No, in truth only a very few of them have it.

Q. 3. How will I know if I have a saving interest in Him?
A. Ordinarily the Lord prepares His own way in the soul by a work of humbling and shows you your sin and misery. He makes you so concerned about it that you long for Christ Jesus, the physician.

Q. 4. How will I know if I have got a true sight of my sin and misery?
A. A true sight of sin makes a person take salvation to heart above anything in this world. It makes them reject all relief in themselves, seen in their best things. It makes Christ who is the Redeemer, very precious to the soul. It makes a person afraid to sin afterwards and makes them content to be saved on any terms that God pleases.

Q. 5. By what other ways may I discern a saving interest in Him?
A. By the heart going out seriously and affectionately towards Him as He is held out in the gospel. This is faith or believing.

Q. 6. How will I know if my heart goes out after Him aright, and that my faith is true saving faith?
A. Where the heart goes out aright after Him in true and saving faith, the soul is pleased with Christ alone above all things, and is satisfied with Him in all Him three offices, to rule and instruct as well as to save; and is content to cleave to Him, whatever difficulties may follow.

Q. 7. What other mark of a saving interest in Christ can you give me?
A. Those who are in Christ savingly are new creatures. They are graciously changed and renewed in some measure in the whole man, and in all their ways are pointing towards all the known commands of God.

Q. 8. What if I find sin now and then prevailing over me?
A. Although every sin deserves everlasting vengeance, yet, if you are afflicted for your failings and confess them with shame of face to God, honestly resolving to strive against them from now on, and seek pardon from Christ, you will obtain mercy and your interest stands sure.

Q. 9. What will the person do who cannot lay claim to Christ Jesus or any of those marks spoken of?
A. Let them not rest until they make sure of a saving interest in Christ.

Q. 10. How can someone make sure of an interest in Christ if they never had a saving interest in Him before?
A. He must take his sins to heart and the great danger into which they have brought him. He must take to heart God’s offer of pardon and peace through Christ Jesus and heartily accept God’s offer by retaking himself to Christ, the blessed refuge.

Q. 11. What if my sins are especially heinous and worse than the ordinary?
A. Whatever your sins may be, if you will close with Christ Jesus by faith, you will never enter into condemnation.

Q. 12. Is faith in Christ only required of men?
A. Faith is the only condition on which God offers peace and pardon to men; but be assured, faith, if it be true and saving, will not be alone in the soul, but will be attended with true repentance, and a thankful pursuit of conformity to God’s image.

Q. 13 How will I be sure that my heart does accept God’s offer and Christ Jesus?
A. Go and make a covenant explicitly and speak it all by word to God.

Q. 14 How will I do that?
A. Set apart some portion of time, and, having considered your own lost condition, and the remedy offered by Christ Jesus, work up your heart to be pleased and close with that offer, and say to God expressly that you accept that offer and for Him to be your God in Christ. Give yourself up to Him to be saved in His way, without reservation or exception in any way and that from now on you will wait for salvation in the way that He has appointed.

Q. 15 What if I break with God afterwards?
A. You must resolve in His strength not to break, and watch over your own ways, and put your heart in His hand to keep it and if you break, you must confess it to God, and judge yourself for it, and flee to the Advocate for pardon, and resolve to do so no more. You must do this as often as you fail.

Q. 16 How will I come to full assurance of my interest in Christ, so that it may be beyond question?
A. Learn to lay your weight on the blood of Christ, and study purity and holiness in all kinds of conduct. Pray for the witness of God’s Spirit to join with the blood and the water. His testimony added to these will establish you in the faith of an interest in Christ.

Q. 17. What is the consequence of such closing with God in Christ by heart and mouth?
A. Union and communion with God, every good here and His blessed fellowship in heaven forever afterwards.

Q. 18. What if I slight all these things and do not lay them to heart to put them in practice?
A. The Lord comes with His angels, in flaming fire, to render vengeance to them who do not obey His gospel. Your judgement will be greater than that of Sodom and Gomorrah and so much the greater that you have read this book, for it will be a witness against you in that day.

 

Conclusion

Thomas Chalmers gave a good summary of the book in his commendation. He spoke of Guthrie’s “intimate acquaintance…with the spiritual life, and his clear, affectionate, and earnest expositions of the peculiar doctrines of the gospel”. It is also full of “powerful and urgent appeals to the conscience” that awaken concern about this matter of “infinite importance”. It seeks to avoid the possibility of the reader continuing to deceive themselves while constraining them to seek after full assurance. Guthrie himself closes this plain yet deep and short but full little book with a sublime crescendo.

O blessed bargain of the new covenant, and thrice blessed Mediator of the same! Let him ride prosperously and subdue nations and languages, and gather in all His jewels, that honourable company of the firstborn, that stately troop of kings and priests, whose glory it shall be to have washed their garments in the blood of that spotless Lamb, and whose happiness shall continually flourish in following Him whithersoever He goes, and in being in the immediate company of the Ancient of days, one sight of whose face shall make them in a manner forget that ever they were on the earth. Oh, if I could persuade men to believe that these things are not yea and nay, and to make haste towards Him, who hasteth to judge the world, and to call men to an account, especially concerning their improvement of this gospel. ‘Even so, come Lord Jesus.’

You can read William Guthrie’s The Christian’s Great Interest online for free at the CCEL.org website.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION

All of Guthrie’s teaching and pastoral experience were poured into The Christian’s Great Interest – his only book. The remarkable fact that is has gone through more than eighty editions and been translated into several languages testifies to its value. This book describes in a clear and attractive style what it means to be a Christian, and how to become one. In the first part, he looks at how someone is drawn to Christ, what the evidences are of true saving grace, and the difference between a true Christian and a hypocrite. In the second part he describes how to ‘close’ with Christ, and deals with various objections, difficulties, and doubts.

 

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