Sunday, 4 January 2015

Sunday Thoughts - Beginning a New Year

We have now arrived at a new year. 2015 has begun and we do not know what God has planned for it. It is common for people to express good wishes, but that is all that they are. They can only happen if God brings them to pass. Sadly, some people will commence the year afraid and wondering if things will only get worse in 2015. Their fears may seem logical, yet they will only happen if God allows it.

Of course, there is always the possibility of a wrong response to the awareness that what God has planned will happen. The wrong response is that we try to live according to his secret will and not according to his revealed will. We can easily tell if we are focussed on his secret will because we will become fatalistic, which is not a good spiritual outlook. Instead we have to partner our awareness of his secret will with a desire to practice his revealed will. His secret will is not written down anywhere on earth, but his revealed will is stated very clearly in the Bible.

If we could ask God one question, and we decided to ask him what he intended to allow in 2015, he would reply to us in the words of Deuteronomy 29:29: ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.’ In other words, he would say to us that the details of his secret will are none of our business.

Is it hard to discover God’s revealed will? The answer is no, because it is clearly described in the Bible. Yet we must approach it aware that some of its requirements are more important than others. The most important of his requirements is that we trust in the Lord Jesus for our personal salvation. Until we do so, we remain at enmity with God. God invites, indeed commands, us to trust in Jesus right away. Once we have ensured that we trusted in Jesus, we can then consider his other requirements.

God’s revealed will is clear that he wants us to live spiritual lives wherever we are. He does not expect us to be ‘spiritual’ in church and something else in the home and in the world. If we are unspiritual at home and in the world we will be unspiritual in the church as well. The revealed will of God for us in 2015 is summarised in Paul’s words in Romans 12:1-2: ‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ If we do so, we will have a good 2015.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Praising God in 2015

There are many reasons for praising God. Further, there are many aspects of praise that we can offer. On the first day of another year, I want to mention some details from Psalm 100 that may help us have a fruitful 2015. This well-known psalm, which we have sung hundreds of times, is about praising God.
What were the aspects that the author of Psalm 100 mentions in his statement of praise? In verse 1, we can see that his praise had a global perspective. This is surprising in a sense because when the psalm was composed the kingdom of God was located within the nation of Israel. Yet the psalmist was looking forward to times of universal blessing.
In doing this, he was a good model for us to follow in the year that is beginning today. Why should we have a global perspective? The answer is obvious. We serve a God who is concerned about the nations, who has made many promises about the nations coming to serve him. We can mention two examples. One is the covenant he made with Abraham in which the patriarch was informed that through his seed all the nations of the world would be blessed. The other is the great commission given by Jesus when he told his apostles to go into all the world and make disciples.
How do we participate in the global activities of God? One obvious way is by prayer in which we remind God of his glorious intentions and interact with him in divine energy supplied by the Spirit concerning the spread of the message of his kingdom. One good resolution would be to pray for five countries every day and ask God to bless his church in those places.
A second detail emphasized in the psalm is gathering together with the people of God. In verse 4, the psalmist encourages his fellow believers to attend the worship of God in the temple, and to attend in a spirit of suitable praise. What are acceptable features of such praise? The psalmist mentions several in the psalm and three of them are gladness, gratitude and gathering.
When the monarch of a country is crowned it is a time of national celebration. Sometimes the country then has the opportunity of celebrating significant milestones of the reign, whether with regard to periods of time or by noting significant events that have occurred during it. Yet with regard to those milestones we know that they also indicate that the reign is coming closer to its end. When a king has reigned for fifty years, we know that he will not reign for another fifty.
It is very different with the King we worship today. Jesus, our great Saviour, began to reign two thousand years ago and his reign will never end. The milestones that we pass in the history of his kingdom don’t reduce the number of years in which he will reign in the future. The reality that we rejoice in is that he will reign for ever and ever. Each time we meet, we come to celebrate that great fact. We look back on 2014 and see a year in which Jesus reigned and as we look ahead to 2015 we anticipate a year in which Jesus will reign. Therefore we are glad.
Our worship is also marked by gratitude. There are many reasons why we should be grateful. We have received much from him in his common grace – food and clothing, homes and other features of a comfortable life. We also have his great and precious promises that assure us that he will work all things together for our good. And we have the amazing salvation that he has provided for sinners. Today, having believed in Jesus, we are justified and adopted, we are being sanctified, and we are heading to a better world.
How does Jesus want us to express our gratitude? He wants us to do so together, by gathering together with him and in a corporate way to respond to him with intelligent and warm exuberance. The fact that he wants us to gather together is a sufficient reason for doing so. Not to do so is a snub to Jesus and a failure to grasp an opportunity to gather with others and join them in grateful worship.
The third and final feature we can observe is that as we worship we are surrounded by grace. We can see aspects of God’s grace in verse 5: his goodness, his steadfast love and his faithfulness. In other words, the Lord is completely reliable. No good thing will he withhold from any of his people. He will be good in time and he will be good in eternity. We gather in worship to contemplate the grace of God and to remind ourselves of the wonderful fact that the God of all grace is our God forever.

The description of God’s people as sheep in verse 3 shows us that we are the recipients of his grace. At one time, we were lost sheep heading for destruction. Then we became liberated sheep as the Good Shepherd came and found us as we wandered in the ways of sin. He had to go to some strange places in order to find us, but he did. And then we became led sheep, and that is where we are today if we are Christians, being led to the refreshing pastures. In the future, we will be lavished sheep as Jesus bestows on us an endless and full supply of riches from the storehouse of glory.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Response to meeting for Brotherly Conference, 1788

In a previous post, I mentioned the concern a group of lay-leaders in Easter Ross had about possible criticism of their meeting together for mutual prayer and fellowship. What happened once they begun meeting? William Findlater tells of some repercussions:

'The judiciousness of their conduct, as well as their devoted piety, in thus recording their sentiments and objects, soon became evident. Their meeting thus exclusively, and being composed chiefly of men who did not frequent their parish churches, their motives were misrepresented, and their character aspersed by the moderate clergy, who at that time carried things with a high hand, both in Church courts and in their Parishes. These excellent men were stigmatized as ‘leaders of a hostile faction, – promoters of schism and division, – censorious, &c., and worshippers of idol shepherds – a term applied to the popular ministers, and as breaking asunder the harmony that should exist betwixt ministers and people.

'Such was the influence of these reports and calumnies, no doubt exaggerated or distorted, that soon after they had held some of their meetings, the late pious and excellent Mr. Mathieson of Kilmuir, to whose church some of these men repaired, made some pointed and personal allusions as to their conduct. In a few days thereafter, two of their number, who were his regular hearers, called upon him, and after requesting an interview in his study, and shortly stating the object of their visit, put into his hands the above document, which having read attentively, affected him deeply. He cordially embraced them, admitted that he had been misinformed as to their views, and ever after esteemed them as his dearest and most valued Christian friends, and uniformly vindicated their characters when assailed – esteeming them as the truest friends to the church and the cause of religion in his day, and acknowledged that the duty in which they were engaged should be an example to ministers, who he wished had such a meeting for such purposes among themselves – a wish which in a few years thereafter was realized, on the admission of Dr. M’Intosh to Tain, and Mr. Forbes to Tarbet, which the writer believes is still kept up by the majority of the members of that presbytery.

'From this meeting, he believes, emanated the first proposal of a Society for missions, called ‘the Northern Missionary Society,’ which has excited such a lively interest in that part of the country, as to be warmly supported, by liberal collections and donations, from all the contiguous parishes. The late highly respected and deeply lamented Dr. M’Intosh was among the first who called the attention of his brethren, and the religious public in Ross-shire, to its establishment, and was appointed and continued its active and confidential Secretary till his death.'

Meeting for Brotherly Conference, 1788

In the late eighteenth century, some local church leaders (not ministers) in Easter Ross agreed to meet regularly for prayer and fellowship because they were concerned about the decline in spiritual vibrancy in their churches. Aware of possible criticism, they drew up the following explanation of their gathering together.

Invergorden Ness, 17th September, 1788.
‘The after subscribing persons,(1) having, by the kind providence of God, and as the outward fruit of the gospel, attained to an intimate acquaintance of one another, although from different parishes; yet as members of one church, of which Christ is the professed head: – After spending some time in considering privately together, and secretly alone, the too many undeniable proofs (from the light of the word of God, and our own woful experience) of our own deadness and unfruitfulness, and the deadness and unfruitfulness of the day, with the prevailing of all manner of sin in the land –

‘We have come to the following resolution, that is, to meet four times in the year, or as oft as shall be judged fit and most convenient, and in the places that shall be agreed upon, to humble ourselves before the Lord by prayer and supplication, that He would avert the threatened and deserved judgment (in which we acknowledge our own guilty hands) which is already making too visible a progress one year after another. It is generally owned by the most considerable part of ministers and professors, that the Lord hath withdrawn his wonted presence, in a great measure, from his people and ordinances (and we own though others would deny this, that we have daily experience of it,) which calls for such a duty; and among other causes we briefly name the following.

‘I. The woful deadness and decay that hath fallen on ourselves, our heart backslidings, our closet coldness, our family formality, our dry and careless reading of the word of God, our barren minds as to meditation on the word, with love, profit, and delight; from whence has proceeded an untender walk, unguarded expressions, carnality in heart, inclinations, and actions, worldly in our minds and pursuits, resisting the remonstrances of our consciences, checks from providence, and the word of God, grieving the Holy Spirit, whereby our evidence of his love to us, and our interest in Christ, is darkened, which makes us go doubting in the dark.

‘II. The deadness and decay of the day we live in, as to a work of the Spirit on the generation. There are few or none crying, “What shall I do to be saved?” The Lord hath been calling home his faithful labourers and people these many years by-gone, and few – few rising in their room; whereby the hands of those that remain are weakened when they are not seeing a seed rising to serve Him, according to His promise; but instead of that, all manner of vice and immorality rising in our land: Adultery, fornication, and uncleanness, among all ranks, (of which it were to be wished that professors of religion were free,) – murders, robbery, and thefts, – hatred, malice, lying, Sabbath-breaking, &c., – contempt of godliness and the people of God, – religion evil spoken of, and the sincere practisers of it branded and stigmatised as the troublers of the peace of Israel, and as a people that turn the world upside down; which is a matter of lamentation, and should be a lamentation to us.

‘III. The low case of the church of Christ and His cause in our land: Great men setting up their power and interest to oppose Christ in His rights, prerogatives, and members. In His rights as sole Head of the church, and His prerogative to reign and rule in it; they (the great men) are thrusting in ministers on reclaiming congregations, with the force of the law of Patronage, – ministers who have nothing in view but the fleece; their manner of entry and their after walk proves it is not sparing the flock, but scattering them; which is a sin greatly to be mourned for, and has turned common in our day, and practised without a parallel. And when we add to this sin, the sin of the Judicatories of our Church, that so few of them witness for Christ and his members, with the neutrality of almost all professors in our day, which in the light of the word is clear to be against Christ (Mark, ix, 40) and his interest, and nothing but men-pleasers, – when they comply and fall in with whatever is proposed to them, they would not venture on the frown of men for a good conscience and the favour of God, (how learned Peter and John, divinity of God rather than men!) which we desire to acknowledge to be matter of humiliation before that, the professors of Christ are not confessors of Christ, – oh what can be found among a people to bring on wrath that is not found in our land this day! when to this we add corruption in doctrine, legalism generally taught, (which is laying too much stress upon works,) or of more refined pressing of evangelical duties without an eye to the Spirit of God. Some press duties, so as they seem to think that their own reasonings are able to enforce a compliance, and more than that, as of old, so of late, we hear that some broach awful errors, and that with impunity.

‘IV. The case of the young generation, who are generally given up to irreligion, and contempt of all that is serious, despising even the form of religion. What will become of the cause of Christ and his interest in our laud, if they continue as they are?

‘And being together for the above causes, we resolve to keep the following order, namely:

‘First. That each meeting shall choose a Preses, (only for order’s sake,) whose province will be to read and sing a portion of the word of God, and call one about to pray; and during the intervals betwixt the said duties, if one of us have a doubt, upon which he would have the mind of his brethren, that each give his thoughts freely upon it, for our mutual edification.

‘Secondly. That none of us bring any other person into this our meeting, without consent of the rest asked and obtained.

‘Thirdly. As the word of God requireth, that we should consider one another, to provoke unto love and good works; therefore, if one or more of us. see or hear any thing unbecoming in the walk, conduct, or expressions of one another, that we be free with one another, according to the Scripture rule: “Go tell thy brother his fault,” &c. Matthew, xviii, 15. “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart; thou shalt in any wise rebuke him, and not suffer sin upon him” Lev. xix, 17.

‘We are aware that this our meeting together, out of different parishes, will be misconstructed; but so far as we know ourselves, we have no divisive views in it; nor do we make a faction; and we desire to give none offence; but if the following of our duty give offence, we cannot help that. If we could meet unobserved, it would be our choice: not that we are ashamed of our duty, about which to find we have been at pains, and searched the word of God, and found it to be His command; and the exercise of His people, in such a day as we live in, to meet together for prayer and spiritual conference, as in Mal. iii, 16: “Then they that feared the Lord spoke one to another.’ The command in Zeph. ii, 1-3, seems to be to the same purpose: “Gather yourselves together,” &c.; and Heb. x, 21, 25: “And let us consider one another – not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together – for as much as ye see the day approaching.” These portions of Scripture, besides others that might be mentioned, prove that fellowship-meetings of the Lord’s people, mutual prayer, and spiritual conference, (being held within the bounds of men’s station,) is a necessary duty and special mean of life in a declining time, and of strengthening against the temptations of such a time. Wherefore seeing our call and warrant from the word, the example of the people of God, and the Lord’s dispensations, in the day we live in calling for it, our own needy cases calling for it, (being a day of famine,) we have now come this length, as to appoint the first Wednesday of November coming for our first quarterly meeting. And may those more near the Lord be stirred up for such a necessity, in a day of so much deadness and lukewarmness, that the Lord may justly complain as in Isaiah, Ixiv, 7: “There is none that calleth on thy name,” &c. O! for the spirit of prayer to cry, “Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts, look down,” &c., “Quicken us and we will call on thy name.”’

Peter's fall and restoration

'The case of Peter is sometimes coarsely handled. Many deal with the sad scene of his denial of Christ as though he were placed on the pillory to be branded as a traitor and coward by every passer-by. But when they scan and censure Peter's fall, it would be well if they inquired whether their own lives be not one continued denial of Christ; whether their hearts ever dictated Peter's question and confession, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life'; whether they have ever shared Peter's blessing, "Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven"; and whether, if they can see the greatness of his sin, they can also enter into the pungency of his sorrow over it. Not that we would dare to speak lightly of Peter's sin; but it is dangerous to contemplate the falls and infirmities of the saints of God without respect to their life of faith and obedience, and especially to the deep repentance consequent on their reclaiming and their experience of mercy; – to probe into their sins and faults, while our own hearts' corruptions remain unexplored by us. We are then in danger of extracting poison from such a precious passage of God's Word as this, if we are content to bring to its consideration a hard unhumbled heart.'

'Christ would have Peter to remember, ever to remember, the wondrous mercy he had experienced in being restored and forgiven, that there might be, as it were, a pillar set up here to which he might look back at every succeeding step of his journey; and we cannot doubt that where he now is, before the throne of God, he often looks back to this period, and from its review gathers fresh impulse to join in the song, "To Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood"' (extracts from sermon on John 21:15-17 by Charles Calder Macintosh, a minister in Tain, Ross-shire, in the nineteenth century).