Monday, 28 December 2009

More advice on the ministry

As I said in a previous post, I have been reading the life of Robert Findlater. A ministerial friend set him the following advice regarding the service of Christ.

‘On your being licensed to preach the gospel, I congratulate you. The office of an ambassador for Christ has, by all invested with it who have tasted of the grace of God, been considered as pleasant and honourable; while at the same time, it has been felt by them to be arduous, l will not enlarge on these things. The apostle of the Gentiles magnified his office, and reckoned it his glory, and a grace given him, to preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ. His heart and delight were in the work; while at the same time, no man knew more by experience, both what he had to do, and to suffer, in the faithful discharge of his office. I pray God, that by the lively state of religion in our own souls, by communications of spiritual consolation from Himself, and by the abundant success of our labours, He may lead us to feel the pleasantness of the office; that by gifts and graces, He may qualify us for honourably transacting the business of reconciliation, between Him and rebel sinners; and that in proportion as He exposes us to the difficulties connected with the office, He may support us under them.

‘A circumstance, or rather quality of the office, to which my attention is directed as much as to any, is the solemn tenure on which we hold it. “Woe unto us, if we preach not the Gospel.” The sinner must receive warning, else his blood will be required at our hand. By faithful dealing with all, we must deliver our own souls. Who is sufficient for these things? You suppose my experience may enable me to suggest something profitable on the subject. I have little experience yet, that I can either call my own, or by which I can profit others; but if I have learned any thing by experience, it is the answer to the foregoing question, namely, “Our sufficiency is of God.” The more we feel our own insufficiency, and are led to God, in Christ, for all things, both to our own and our people’s souls, the more comfort do we feel, the more success are we likely to get.

‘But you will perhaps be thinking that I might say something more, of what I have learned by experience, in preaching the Gospel. In a letter I must be general. I think then, I know, that there is nothing of greater consequence to comfort and success than personal religion. Most difficulties arise, or are increased, either from the want, or the low state of this in the soul – entirely destitute of it, we must be unfaithful, comfortless, and burdened in the work – weak in religion, we are likely to be unskilful, in some degree unsteady, inactive, or exposed to the fear of man that bringeth a snare, ready to be overborne by every difficulty. And the more lively our own souls are, the more comfort do we feel; the more faithful are we enabled to be; and the better do we know, whether to apply for supplies of grace, for strength under difficulties, for ability, and success. All this is to be understood, in consistence with our sufficiency being of God. Personal religion is all from Him; and is the first and fairest means of success.

'I do not know a better way, in dependence on our Redeemer’s grace for encouraging personal religion, than to spend much time at once, and often, in deep meditation, self-examination, searching the Scriptures, and prayer. A person cannot (with a deceitful heart) meditate, examine, or read without prayer. I know because I have felt it, that converse with the world is hurtful; and had I been engaged in the profitable exercise alluded to, when at College, and at home I spent much time idly, or even in reading books that were in themselves useful, too constantly – I would now be more fit for my work. Without intimate spiritual knowledge of the Scriptures also, I must add, we cannot rightly divide the word of truth.

'And as speaking to a brother, I would advise you to study your discourses well. We are accountable for what we say; and not a little care and pains are necessary, in choosing fit passages of Scripture, by which to illustrate or prove our subject. I find most pleasure in delivering my most carefully composed discourses.

'I hope the Lord will direct and bless you and your labours. You will likely get some settlement soon; and it is chiefly in the view of this that I have written the preceding, as your situation then will be similar to mine. – I am, yours truly, John Shaw.’

Advice on the ministry

I have been reading the life of Robert Findlater, a minister who experienced an extensive period of revival in his Perthshire congregation in the second decade of the nineteenth century. He came from Kiltearn, north of Inverness, and knew various evangelical ministers in the area, one of whom was Charles Calder of Ferintosh. Calder sent him the following letter when he was licensed to preach the gospel:

'It gave me sincere pleasure on my return from the Moray-side, where some pressing calls brought me last week, to hear of your being licensed to preach. That in the blessed work to which you are thus called, you may be signally countenanced of God, and become the happy instrument in the hand of His Spirit of winning souls to Christ, and of spreading the savour of His name, is my hearty prayer.

'To a young man in similar circumstances with you, newly licensed to preach the everlasting Gospel, and expressing to the eminent Cadogan, how much he felt burdened in the prospect of the work before him, the reply was, "You have but one thing to do, Exalt Christ, and the promise is, ‘And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.’” This important counsel you will find much benefit from always bearing in mind; and together with it, a saying I met with t’other day in the memoirs of the pious Mr. Pearce, “It is from diligent ploughing in the closet, that successful reaping is to be looked for in the pulpit.”’

I suspect the last sentence explains it all.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

End of a year (2009)

Today is the last Sunday of 2009. If we have attended church on each Sunday, we have participated in at least 52 sermons – some will have participated in far more, perhaps over 100. There are several ways in which we can reflect on these services. For example, if we failed to trust in Jesus for mercy, then we have lost many opportunities to have done so. Or we could say that each service was an opportunity to remind ourselves about an aspect of God or to learn something new about God – we would know quite a lot about him if we had used each service in this way. No doubt we can think of other ways by which to describe our involvement in these services.

As we anticipate another set of services next year, we should resolve to use each one for our spiritual benefit. The best way to prepare for each service is by prayer. Sometimes we imagine that prayer is a bit complicated and quite difficult to maintain. Even the most experienced Christian will confess that this is the case. Yet often, the reality is that prayer is straightforward.

A good way to pray is to send short petitions to God on a regular basis during a sermon. Before each feature of a service, such as when singing a psalm or listening to a passage from the Bible, we should ask God to bless that feature to us. It is amazing what you will begin to notice after you begin to pray in this way.

Of course, it is also very important to ask God to enable us to remember what we heard in the sermon – not every detail but the main point(s) of it. Sometimes, a person will complain about themselves to me and say that they find it hard to recall what is said. While it may be the case that the person has a bad memory, the lack of recall may be due to a failure to pray that God would enable us to remember what is good for our souls.

Remember that prayer is simply asking God to do something for us. If we ask him to bless to us each stage of the service, including remembering what was said in a sermon, we will find that he gives spiritual blessing each time we gather in public worship.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Marcus Loane, Makers of Puritan History, Banner of Truth, 2009

This hardback was previously published in 1960 with the title, Makers of Religious Freedom, and contains biographical accounts of four prominent Christian leaders from the seventeenth century. Two are from Scotland (Alexander Henderson and Samuel Rutherford) and two are from England (John Bunyan and Richard Baxter). The present title is one that was given to the American edition of the 1960 book.

Each of the four names is well-known today for various reasons. Three of them (apart from Henderson) have many books still in print. In addition, each of them was an outstanding preacher, and accounts of their lives are of value to contemporary preachers.

While the current title is not inaccurate (they did make history in Puritan times), it hides a prominent theme of Loane’s book, which is the contribution each of them made in the fight for religious freedom. Today we are facing threats to our religious freedom and while our circumstances are different from what they faced, we can learn from their dedication to Christ’s cause and their willingness to suffer for their convictions. Much of the freedom of subsequent generations can be traced to the readiness of these men, and many others, to do what was necessary in order to secure religious freedom in our country.

As with all of Loane’s books (and he wrote several), this one is easy to read. It will serve as a good introduction to the lives of the four men on whom he focuses, and will remind us of the cost that was paid by others to provide us with our freedoms.

Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, Christian Heritage, 2009.

According to Derek Thomas, the Marrow ‘is one of the most important theological texts of all time’. Sinclair Ferguson states that ‘Anyone who comes to grips with the issues raised in the Marrow of Modern Divinity will almost certainly grow by leaps and bounds in understanding three things: the grace of God, the Christian life, and the very nature of the gospel itself.’ When Thomas Chalmers read it shortly after his conversion, he stated that he now had ‘a growing delight in the fullness and sufficiency of Christ. O my God, bring me nearer and nearer to him.’

This hardback edition has been produced in a very attractive and user-friendly format, which makes it easy to read the original text by Fisher alongside the later notes by Boston. There is also an informative essay detailing the process by which this book came to be written and how its author has been identified (to begin with, he was known by the initials EF), as well as a summary of what became known in Scotland as the Marrow Controversy.

Although the title contains the word ‘Modern’, the book is a classic from the Puritan period. Originally written in England, it became a major influence in Scottish evangelicalism through the instrumentality of Thomas Boston, who provided extensive comments throughout the work (in a 1726 edition), and the group of evangelical ministers to which he belonged (later called the Marrowmen). The book helped many understand the gospel afresh, especially because the Church of Scotland at that time was affected by a form of legalism that diminished the doctrine of justification and distorted why and how believers should obey God’s commandments.

Even before Boston’s discovery of the book, it had been highly regarded in evangelical Scottish spirituality: according to David McIntyre, it was read by many suffering believers during the days of the Covenanters and was of great help to Fraser of Brea. After Boston’s contribution, the Marrow quickly became very influential in Scottish evangelical church life and it took its place on the bookshelves of the pious, alongside Samuel Rutherford’s Letters, William Guthrie’s The Christian’s Great Interest, Thomas Boston’s Fourfold State and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

Its republication is timely because we live in a day when the Reformed doctrine of justification is again under attack and antinomianism is spreading even within Reformed churches (perhaps we should anticipate another round of legalism in response). Reading this classic work will help us, including ministers and preachers, appreciate the wonder of God’s way of salvation and the effects his grace has in the lives of his people. It contains a helpful discussion on the Ten Commandments.

The form the work takes is that of a dialogue between a Christian pastor and several individuals over matters connected to salvation, and we can see in their discussions many issues that trouble people today. The book will be useful in guiding readers towards assurance of salvation and protecting them from the many dangers antinomianism and legalism create.

It is also worth noting that a book written by an obscure author has stood the test of time. This is another reminder that a Christian does not have to seek prominence in order to provide sources of spiritual blessing, not only in his own day, but also in the days after he has gone.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Sweetness in preaching

As intimated previously, I read recently Douglas Sweeney's book on the ministry of Jonathan Edwards. I have been challenged as I have reflected on some of Edwards' words: 'There is a difference between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but a man can't have the latter, unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mouth.'

At one level, Edwards is saying that a true Christian has genuine experiences of God's grace that include emotional responses as well as intellectual understanding. Yet taking his illustration, I suppose it is possible to have experienced what honey tastes like without knowing how to define in accurate terms what has been eaten. I have met some who can speak about the Christian faith and yet don't convey, at least to me, a sense of its sweetness; I have also met some who were unable to explain theologically what they were enjoying, but whose delight in God's mercy was so obvious that, at that moment, I would have exchanged my theological knowledge for their experience.

I know that the best solution is to have both. What concerns me about myself is that while I have not yet lost any theological understanding I attained, I cannot claim to be always enjoying its sweetness. When prompted, out can come an explanation that answers any misunderstanding in the person asking the question. Yet the individual is not always thrilled to bits at having received a correct answer. I suspect that the problem with him is that my answer, while theologically correct, has not indicated a sense of sweetness in my heart or conveyed that sense to him.

Obviously Edward's intellect was such that he could answer any problem posed to him. His genius must have carried the continual possibility that his answers would be beyond the abilities of most listeners to understand him. No doubt, many a person would have found it hard to grasp all that Edwards said in a sermon, but I suspect they would also have been attracted to the God in whom he delighted as he preached. Was one secret of his ministry his freedom to preach in such a way that told his listeners that the doctrine he was speaking about was sweet in his own heart and that it would be good for them to have that sweetness too?

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Tired but happy

Each Sunday I preach three sermons, a feature that is not rare in my denomination because many of my colleagues also preach the same number every Sunday, with some also preaching in two different languages. I mention this figure because last Sunday evening, which had been preceded by an additional sermon on Saturday evening, several individuals kindly asked if I was tired. Their question, however, raises some issues.

For many years I was a truck driver working twelve hours a day, five days a week. Regularly I was tired physically at the end of a day's work. I have been a preacher now for several years and as far as I can tell I have not been as physically tired on my busiest Sunday as I was at times during my days driving trucks. But I will admit that on most Sunday evenings, after the services are over, I am tired. Yet I am pleased that I am tired because it means that I put some effort into preaching. If I was not tired, I would have to consider how much effort I had put in to delivering my sermons.

Of course, the tiredness is not only the consequence of physical exertion. There is an emotional contribution as well. There is emotional stress caused by knowing some listeners have rejected the gospel, and such feelings contribute to tiredness. There is also the regular Satanic assaults that come in variety of ways before, during and after a sermon – they also contribute to tiredness. These aspects make a preacher's tiredness a feature of his calling.

For a variety of reasons, I expect to be tired on Sunday evenings. After all, while Sunday is the New Testament Sabbath, it is not my day of rest. I have to take another day off. But the tiredness should not be all of the story, even on Sundays – I should find a place of rest, which is usually having a chat with my wife.

There can be other places of rest as well. No doubt, such places will be different from time to time. Sometimes rest comes from meeting with Christians for fellowship on Sunday evenings (I experienced this form of rest last Sunday and it refreshed me greatly, as such meetings have done on numerous occasions); at other times it comes from reading a biography of a person who experienced the presence of Christ. The list of possible places of rest is a long one, and each person has to find the ones that help him most.

There is at least one other benefit of being tired on Sunday night. At the end, before I go to sleep, I am glad to know that I have tried to serve Christ as best as I could. I realise that he does not need my best in order to achieve his purposes (I am preaching on Jonah at present and his response proves that point), and I also know that my best is marred by sin. Still, my tiredness tells me that I have tried my best, and I am grateful that, through Christ's grace, my hardest efforts are given to his cause.