Friday, 31 December 2010

Have you got a minute

It does not seem that long since we entered the twenty-first century, yet we are already into its second decade. Time is speeding by and we are often oblivious to its rate. We are accustomed to persons breaking speed records, but very few take note that time itself is the fastest commodity of all. We only have each second of time for a second, we only have each minute for a minute, and then each is gone.

How many minutes did we have in 2010? About 525, 600. We may have slept for 170,000 of them, which leaves about 350,000 minutes that passed through our hands in 2010.

What can we do in a minute from a spiritual point-of-view? Imagine that each of us offered a prayer during each of these minutes, which means we would have prayed 350,000 prayers in 2010. We can pray when we are doing other things, so the suggested figure is not that unrealistic, especially when at other times we can offer more than one prayer per minute. Hopefully we did pray a large number of prayers throughout the year. These minutes have gone for ever, but we have the whole future in which many of them can be answered.

Another activity that we could have done in each minute was to think about Jesus, even if what we were doing was thanking him for saving us. Imagine thinking about Jesus 350,000 times in 2010. I’m sure most husbands think about their wives each minute, and vice versa, or at least every five minutes! Even if we extend the timeframe to five minutes, we would have thought about Jesus 75,000 times in 2010.

The point of this unusual exercise in arithmetic is to encourage you that time may not have been as wasted as you think. You may have offered up many more prayers in 2010 than you realise and you may have thought about Jesus far more often than you can remember. Such minutes may have passed for ever, but their effects will last for ever. God rewards those who pray to him and who think about Jesus. Hopefully we will do the same in 2011.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Some features of preaching

When we look at the sermons of Andrew Bonar that have been handed down in books and other ways, we will see several prominent features. Here are four that I observe.

A leading feature of his preaching was that it was imaginative. Many of his sermons display this characteristic, but as an example I refer to his address on angel workers in which Bonar imagines a gathering of angels in which they relate various visits they made to earth on behalf of God (eleven of them, plus an introduction and a conclusion, which of course ignores the notion of three headings each sermon). All the missions are recorded in the Bible, such as the angelic missions at the Passover in Egypt or in the life of Christ. This method has the benefit of using a string of word pictures with a basic theme, yet each being different. If the listener knows the Bible, then this type of sermon has a gripping effect because the listener is curious to discover which incident will be described next. If the listener does not know the Bible, he still finds the presentation intriguing. Of course, what seems to be the main feature (angelic visits) actually is the background – the main feature turns out to be God’s message to Bonar’s church in Finnieston, with a wide range of applications covering Christian workers (most of the angels are nameless), the unconverted (the angels involved in acts of divine judgement spoke of its awfulness), the wonder of speaking about Jesus, the wonder of serving Jesus, and so on. I suspect that all who heard him got the message, and also that few forgot the message.

A second feature of his sermons was simplicity. Bonar prepared for his sermons by reading the original languages and studying appropriate commentaries and other helps. Yet what is so striking about each of his sermons and addresses is their straightforwardness. None of them are difficult to understand. Of course, making a speech complex is not the mark of an effective communicator. The best way to convey important information is not to simplify it, but to clarify it. I have heard low-level sermons that actually had nothing to say; and I have heard complex sermons that confused me although I realised that I understood the doctrines being discussed. How pleasant it is to listen to a straightforward sermon on profound doctrines delivered in a manner and choice of words that are easily grasped. Listeners did not leave Bonar’s sermons scratching their heads, although many left with pierced hearts.

A third feature of many of his sermons was a focus on crucial aspects of Christian living. Bonar was deeply concerned with holiness of life. It was one of the priorities in his own life. He was sensitive to the presence of indwelling sin in himself and in others, and realised that its outworkings had to be dealt with in his preaching. For Bonar, living the Christian life was a serious matter and he never trivialised it by inappropriate comments from the pulpit. I suspect that this concern about living the Christian life explains the large number of sermons that he preached on Bible characters. In them the ups and downs of the Christian life are seen, and remembered. Dealing with such enabled Bonar to warn his listeners about dangers and to encourage them with examples of growth and development.

A fourth feature of his preaching was his enrapture with the Saviour. This was a lesson he learned early, during his time in Jedburgh. In his entry for Sunday 29, 1836, he records, ‘Especially blessed be God for bringing me to Jedburgh, where my views of truth have been greatly quickened, and the necessity of preaching Christ in every sermon impressed upon me by example and by experience. If already God has so wrought, I sometimes cherish the hope that, when He has ordained me, and actually put me into the ministry, I shall be a thousand-fold more useful. Since last year at this time my times of strong sorrow and vexation have been few; I find that the constant service of Christ is the true remedy.’ There are several matters that could be highlighted from this comment by a trainee pastor: the spiritual benefits for preacher and hearers of preaching Christ in every sermon; Bonar’s logic that initial blessings were indications of future ones from God; and his realisation that engaging in service for Jesus was an effective way of getting rid of negative feelings and fears.

What was the reason for Bonar’s success? His daughter, in her Reminiscences, provides the reason: ‘The congregation that gathered round Dr. Bonar in Finnieston Church was attracted, not by the eloquence of the preaching, but by its simplicity, and the fresh light the preacher threw upon the Scriptures, making them appear to many like a new book.’ She continues: ’The most ignorant among his hearers could understand his simple unfolding of truth, while many a striking saying fell from his lips as he leaned in his characteristic way over the pulpit, and talked quietly to those before him. The most fearful felt their faith strengthened by his joyous confidence in the things of which he spoke. Eternal things came very near, and unseen things became real, as they listened to one who spoke as if already among them.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

A preacher who is heard

I have been thinking a lot about my preaching, mainly because of some things I observed in studying Andrew Bonar's methods of delivering sermons. I realise he lived in a different world from today, a world which we are told dislikes preaching. I suspect that he would reply that the inhabitants of the various places where the gospel was declared in the New Testament did not like its contents either, yet the apostles and others continued to preach to them. And, I assume he would say, that is to be expected in all periods and places.

Although Andrew Bonar was a successful preacher, he was not regarded, by himself or others, as an orator. Indeed his daughter observed that even after years of preaching ‘Strangers had to grow accustomed to the peculiarities of his voice, and his habit of letting it suddenly drop just when the hearer's attention was fixed.’ So how was he able to build up his congregation in Glasgow numerically and spiritually? What were the secrets that made over 1,000 people gather regularly over many years to listen to him? One response that we might give is to stress it was God's sovereign purpose, which is a true answer, although I suspect we often use it to avoid our responsibilities. Another answer is the state of God's servants as they focus on their preaching. How did Bonar personally prepare for and protect his preaching?

One reason was his focus on prayer in discovering which passage to preach from on each occasion. He records in his diary that he had ‘been much impressed with the sin of choosing my text without special direction from the Lord. This is like running without being sent, no message being given me. I ought to feel, “This I am sent to tell you, my people.”’ Bonar wanted to preach not only from God’s Word, but he only wanted to preach what God wanted him to say from the Word on each occasion. Therefore he went to God in prayer in order to discover what verse(s) he must preach about.

Prayer was essential for another reason as well. Bonar not only wanted to preach God’s message, but he wanted to preach it with God’s power. He wrote on one occasion, ‘God will not let me preach with power when I am not much with Him. More than ever do I feel that I should be as much an intercessor as a preacher of the word.’

Bonar also believed that preachers should be in a spiritual frame of soul whenever they preach, and the two marks of such a frame are joy and love. He noted ‘that joy in the Spirit is the frame in which God blesses us to others. Joy arises from fellowship with Him – I find that whatever sorrow or humiliation of spirit presses on us, that should give way in some measure to a fresh taste of God’s love when going forth to preach.’

Further he also wanted to preach aware of God’s presence, to preach ‘with the solemnity, and earnestness, and affection that Jesus would have had had He been there’. He did not mind the prospect of preaching with God at his elbow, indeed he desired it. I suppose that a preacher would not flaunt himself or engage in trivialities if he was conscious of God’s presence.

Bonar did not assume that his prayers had to be limited to preparation. Prayer should not only precede his preaching, it should also follow his sermons. Perhaps surprisingly, Bonar did not regard preaching as his main activity of the Lord’s Day (and he preached at least twice on them); instead he believed that intercessory prayer was his most important work of each Lord’s Day. So he spent a lot of time praying about his listeners each Sunday after they had heard him.

One feature of his preaching that worried him often was church growth without converts through preaching. He was not content to have individuals converted through other means, although he rejoiced over such. I suppose he took to heart that most New Testament church growth occurred through preaching. This problem is not limited to him, since today I would suggest that, in the main, less people are converted through preaching than by other means. His response was to pray until he saw blessing through his preaching.

So I suspect that Bonar was heard by God before preaching, heard by his people in preaching, and then heard by God after his preaching. He was a preacher who was heard because he prayed.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Hymns, honestly

Yesterday, a special Plenary Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland agreed to allow congregations freedom to include suitable hymns and instrumental music in worship services. In a sense, this is returning the Free Church to its position on worship in the second half of the nineteenth century.

We now have a situation in which two different views are held concerning public worship (although no clear description of such worship was accepted). One view (held by those who adhere to inspired praise) is that the use of hymns in public worship is unbiblical because there is no biblical example of such or any biblical warrant for using them; the other view (held by those who embrace hymns) is that the alternative view is inadequate for expressing New Testament revelation concerning the Trinity, use of the name of Jesus, etc, and that traces of New Testament hymns expressing such truths are cited in the New Testament letters.

One inevitable consequence of using hymns is that congregations will now include within their services the words of men (and women) whom they would not normally allow to teach in their churches. Hymns reflect the theological opinions of their authors, yet it is possible for their words to mean different things to different people (so that a Calvinist can read, for example, some of Charles Wesley’s hymns in a Calvinist manner, which I did for several years when I was a member of a hymn-singing church). Eventually I concluded such a practice was not one I could agree with because it was a misuse of the authors’ purposes in writing their hymns. If I was to treat their other types of writing in such a way, I would be accused, correctly, of abusing their texts for my own benefit.

The denomination in which I was previously also adopted the practice of rewriting phrases or lines in many hymns in order to conform them to its doctrinal perspectives. Most of the authors were dead, so obviously permission could not be obtained from them for these adjustments to their words (I suspect that sometimes permission was not obtained from living authors either). No information was given to indicate where or why such changes were made. If we adopted such practice with regard to their books, we would be criticised for inappropriate editing (at the least!), and for making them say something that they had not intended to say. I am not aware of what authority a church committee has for such a practice.

It was also the case within that denomination that many of the theological opinions of the church members (very fine people) was taken from the hymns they were singing. For example, many of the ideas about heaven which were adopted were based on hymns and not on the Bible (even if the hymns themselves were expressing biblical truths; my point is that the Bible was moved a step further away).

It was a relief to me to discover that the concept of using only inspired praise, the ‘psalms, hymns and songs’ referred to by Paul in Ephesians and Colossians (and equated by him with the word of Christ in Colossians, a description that cannot be made of hymns that require re-adjusting by doctrinal committees). Of course, I will continue to use inspired praise, but I feel sorry for those who now have to wonder whether they truly understand the intended message of the hymns they sing or whether they are actually singing the original words of the authors.

Monday, 12 July 2010

How do we preach?

Last night, I completed reading a book about George Davidson, a nineteenth-century Free Church of Scotland minister in Caithness. He was an interesting character for several reasons: he was a nephew by marriage of John Macdonald (the Apostle of the North) and knew him well; he was a tremendous organiser and turned a parish that was in a chaotic state when he became its minister into four healthy, separate congregations of several hundred persons in each; he experienced times of spiritual power during the 1859 revival (although it was 1860 before it reached his congregation); he knew painful personal sorrow through family bereavements (he was married twice and each of his wives died a few years after the wedding); he has a direct link to the current Free Church in that his son-in-law (Rev. J. D. McCulloch) was one of the persons who maintained the Free Church in the crisis of 1900.

Yet the detail from the book that spoke strongest to me was not said by the author about Davidson. Instead it was a comment made about Robert Findlater, another minister and one with whom Davidson stayed for a few months before he became a preacher himself. Describing Findlater's preaching, the author opined that 'there was a blessed newness about his preaching. He spoke from the heart, and seemed as if joy made him speak.'

In saying that his preaching was marked by newness, the author did not mean that Findlater was preaching new doctrines that his parishioners had not heard before. Yet they seemed new to his listeners and they found his presentation attractive and compelling, and followed him in large crowds to different locations in his parish in order to drink in what he declared. Certainly the sense of newness came from the work of the Spirit in his heart and theirs. Of course, the opposite of newness is staleness, and I have heard plenty stale sermons (and no doubt have delivered quite a lot as well). So what was Findlater's secret in being able to preach fresh-sounding, eagerly listened-to sermons?

I suspect a major part of the answer is found in the other details of the author's description, that Findlater 'spoke from the heart, and seemed as if joy made him speak.' Obviously sermons have to contain information, but often the impression conveyed to me at conferences and sometimes in churches is that the preacher is speaking only from his mind and not also from and through his emotions. I suppose the problem is a lack of passion, although not all passion is good.

I am intrigued that the impression made about Findlater's preaching was that he spoke out of joy. It has often been stressed to me, and perhaps I have urged others, to speak out of love, which of course is necessary. Yet surely when preaching about deliverance from sin and the riches of God's grace, there should be such joy in the preacher that others notice it.

It looks to me as if Findlater's preaching was marked by newness because the themes about which he preached made him very happy. So while I may not have Davidson's organisational skills or not be given by God the blessing of sharing in nationwide revival, I would like to be a happy preacher like Findlater.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

The Lord's Supper

This evening we as a congregation will have a service that includes the Lord’s Supper. The Supper is a family meal in the sense that those who will take part in it profess to belong to the family of God. There are many ways of looking at the Lord’s Supper. We can view it as an Eucharist or Thanksgiving; we can see it as a Communion in which we interact with Jesus and he with us; we can regard it as a Memorial in which we remember what Jesus did for us; or we can consider it as a Covenant occasion in which we renew our dedication to the Lord – of course, we can use all these ways, even simultaneously.

One of the most helpful ways of participation that I have found was told to me many years ago and no doubt most of you will be familiar with the method as well. The individual who informed me of it told me to take five looks when at the Lord’s Table.

First, he told me to look back and recall what Jesus did when he was here in this world. Looking back, we can think of his teachings, his miracles, his disciples, but above all his death and resurrection. He did not die as a helpless victim of stronger powers. Instead he was the sinbearer who performed the amazing achievement of paying the penalty for our sins.

Second, he told me to look up to where Jesus currently is, seated on the throne of God. The Saviour has been exalted higher than we can imagine, than human words can describe. Although he is so high, yet he will remember us as we sit at his Table. We are in his heart and on his mind as he governs all things.

Third, he told me to look ahead to the time when Jesus will return. That day will be a marvellous one because it will be the occasion of the resurrection of the dead, of the reunion of believers who have died, and of the commencement of the new heavens and new earth. Faith is like a telescope that brings those future events closer to our spiritual vision.

Fourth, he told me to look around at the others who are also sitting at the Table. The Lord’s Supper should not be taken with our eyes closed; instead we should observe who is sitting beside us. Perhaps in heaven we will yet speak about this occasion.

Fifth, he told me to look within in order to find a personal reason for gratitude to Jesus. A short look there will reveal how sinful I am, and therefore give a reason for grateful participation in the Supper. But he told me to spend less time with the fifth look than with the other four.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

The Free Church General Assembly

The 2010 General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland finished yesterday. How does one measure it? If assessed on lack of major disagreements or the absence of controversy, it was successful. Of course, lack of disagreement in itself is not always a definite sign of harmony. It may only mean that areas of potential divergence were not on the agenda. Or if judged by the firm control of the Moderator (David Merideth of Smithton Free Church), whose authority ensured that there was very little waffle or time-wasting comments, the Assembly was successful because everything ran smoothly. It was unusual watching those responsible for arranging the programme responding to having too much free time.

There were highlights for me, three in particular. (1) Douglas MacKeddie’s retiring sermon in which he focussed on, among other matters, the appropriate ways by which the Lord Jesus spoke the truth to a variety of people was a challenge to me, and no doubt to others, as to how to speak at the General Assembly and elsewhere. (2) The Moderator’s lecture on the Exciting Church was a reminder that neither the Bible nor church history, including Free Church history, endorses the existence of a church or denomination that conveys a sense that no spiritual excitements happen in its services. (3) The International Mission evening was the highlight I enjoyed the most, especially the contribution of Rev. Billy Graham as he described features of mission work in south Africa; there was a definite sense of the felt presence of God as he spoke, and if such a palpable effect happened in every service we would indeed be an exciting church. These occasions will be remembered by me.

I usually get the impression (very subjective, I know) that General Assemblies are the closure of an ecclesiastical year rather than the catalyst for the year ahead. Maybe it is because we get several reports looking back to what has happened. This Assembly was different in that some future plans for church revitalisation in Scotland were presented and hopefully they will exceed even the largest expectations of their most enthusiastic supporters.

Yet as I sit here thinking about the Assembly, I do not sense that it has very much to say to the people to whom I will be ministering tomorrow. I have prepared an accurate summary for the congregational newsletter, but for some reason it sounds a bit detached from where most of them are. I am not anticipating lots of questions about it and I suspect that is the challenge facing the Assembly. It meets, makes decisions, but what does it bring about that will enliven the Christian experience of our congregations and get them to value its role? I wish I knew the answer.

Friday, 14 May 2010

How to avoid a depressing general election

I have been away from home for a couple of weeks, attending a couple of conferences and a holiday in between. My first conference was the Banner of Truth annual event in Leicester where I enjoyed meeting up with old friends as well as listening to informative lectures and sermons. Two addresses on the Sabbath by Iain D. Campbell and a biographical account of an African church leader by Palmer Robertson spoke to me the most.

Having said that, the most interesting detail for me from the conference was the news that the Banner are going to republish the biography of John Milne of Perth by Horatius Bonar. I read this biography years ago and easily recognised that I was reading about a spiritual giant. Since I still have my copy, I will not be purchasing the Banner edition. But I would recommend it to all.

Something else happened to me at the Banner conference – I only purchased three books. What does this say? Am I running out of money? No. Am I becoming more sensible with my money? Probably not. Have I decided to read the books I already have? Hopefully.

After I returned to Scotland, my wife and I went on holiday to Ireland. We spent the weekend in the North and took the opportunity on the Sunday of visiting Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church in Newtonabbey where we heard two excellent sermons by Ted Donnelly and experienced a warm welcome and kind fellowship from the congregation.

On the day before, I was led by an unknown impulse straight to the door of the Evangelical Bookshop (it is true, I found what I was not looking for, but was grateful I did, and not just for the warm welcome by John Grier). I mention this because I purchased several books there, which proves that nothing serious happened in Leicester to my book-purchasing practice.

After that, we went down to Killarney, a very beautiful area. I managed to read two books for review in the Free Church Record, and I will post them here soon. One is John Piper’s book on Ruth and the other is Roger Steer’s biography of John Stott.

One benefit of spending our time there was that we escaped all the hype, mail shots, TV analysis, desperate promises, third leaders’ debate (I didn’t watch the previous two) and other matters connected with the final week of the General Election competition. Sadly, for me at any rate, my absence from the country did not prevent the leader (and party) I liked least from getting the most votes.

We returned to Scotland in time for the Scottish Reformed Conference at which we heard two excellent preachers and three very good addresses. Dale Ralph Davis gave helpful insights into Christian living from David’s experiences at the end of I Samuel and Kenneth Stewart challenged us to the reality of our discipleship. There was a large number in attendance, with a large proportion being young people. The conference was a good boost for returning to work.

The lesson from all this: whenever a general election comes along, apply for a postal vote, arrange a holiday, attend a conference, read a couple of Christian books, return home and, despite the media hype and excitement, discover the same needy world as existed before.

Monday, 29 March 2010

J. I. Packer and Mark Dever, In My Place Condemned He Stood (Crossway).

The cross of Jesus is central to the Christian faith and to the life of each Christian. Therefore it is important that we know what was involved in Christ’s death, how we can explain it to others, and what difference it makes in our lives once we have trusted in Jesus.

Of course, many books have been written on the death of Christ, so some reasons should be given for highlighting this one. First, it is short – I hope we all realise that a book should not be judged by its length but by its depth. There is little point in using a lot of words to say a small amount, but there is obvious benefit in using sufficient words to say a great deal. Second, it is scriptural – our understanding of what happened at Calvary cannot be based on any other source apart from the Bible, and this volume is an exposition of what the Bible says took place there. Third, it is succinct – sadly, not every short book is to the point, and so misses it. This book cannot be defined as doing that. Indeed it goes straight to the cross and stays there. Fourth, it is scholarly – not in the sense that the writers are above our heads, but that they actually use theirs and convey to readers the profound insights they have been given concerning this important doctrine.

This book contains three important articles by Packer on the atoning work of Christ, one article by Dever on the significance of the blood of Christ, plus some additional material. Its publication was prompted by the appearance of books from within the evangelical community that downplayed, if not actually denied, the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death. In this book, readers will discover the meaning of theological terms such as penal substitution, propitiation and reconciliation and will be led to reflect on the wonderful love of God that sent his Son as Saviour. There is also a chapter, compiled by Ligon Duncan, which lists and summarises important writings on the atonement and their authors.

Sinclair Ferguson assures us that this book is ‘a must read – a tract for the times to call Christians to be Bible-based, Christ-centred, atonement-believing and -understanding, God-adoring people.’

Words of Power

At one of my services yesterday I was preaching from 1 Samuel 3. One of the verses in that chapter that hit me like a mallet was verse 1 which says that 'the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.' The writer does not mean there was not any Scripture (the priests at that period would have read to the people from the Pentateuch and Joshua); nor does he mean that there were not any sermons (the priests would have instructed the people from these books), and neither does he mean that people were not attending public worship and participating in it (although aspects of their worship left a lot to be desired). The religious leadership was a big concern (Eli was ineffective and his sons Hophi and Phinehas were sinful rebels against God), and no doubt their behaviour was one of the reasons God was silent. Thankfully he had taken steps to prepare a servant who would be different, although at that time Samuel was still very young. The point that I suspect the author is making is that God was not speaking powerfully in a fresh way at that time.
It seems to me that one of the greatest tragedies that the church can go through is implementing a religious programme in the presence of a silent God, when he chooses to say nothing to them, and also chooses to say nothing through them to others. Such a situation does not include the absence of words; there were plenty words during the period of 1 Samuel 3, the problem was that God was not often involved. What was absent was the presence of divine power accompanying these words. Whenever I speak, I do so according to the energy I have. When God speaks, he does so according to his power and listeners are affected by what he says.
I don't suppose there has ever been a period in which so many words have been said or written about the things of God as today. Books come from Christian publishers in an increasing number, Christian newspapers and magazines appear regularly, and thousands, if not millions, of Christians are blogging about this or that. Yet in all we have to say, how many of us are aware of God speaking in power to us and through us?
I don't know how many words I read and spoke yesterday. Obviously I wanted the Lord to speak powerfully to me before I preached and through me as I preached. The message I preached was the gospel, which Paul says is the power of God unto salvation for all kinds of people. So hopefully God was at work. But what if he was not?
I often hear people say that if we returned to the Bible's message we will see blessing. The congregation I am in has never departed from that message in its history, nor have the other congregations in my denomination. But are we satisfied with merely repeating a true message about God that does not give evidence that he is speaking to us or through us in a powerful and widespread way?
Perhaps the source of the problem is that we would rather speak for God than to God. In one way, that is a very simple analysis of what is wrong. Yet it has been shown many times in church history that power comes through prayer. In 1 Samuel 1–2, true power (that is, power with God and power from God) was with a woman who prayed (Hannah), although few would have realised it. Earlier I said that I don't know how many words I read and said in preaching yesterday. More importantly, God knows how many words I used in prayer for power.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Lord's Supper as Communion

Today we have a communion service. In the Supper the Lord Jesus has fellowship with his people. The Supper is not merely an occasion for remembering what Jesus did, it is also an occasion for feeding on him in a spiritual way. This aspect of feeding is illustrated by the eating of bread and drinking of wine as symbols of his body and blood. The connection between Jesus and his people at the Table is brought about by the Spirit who brings believers to Christ in a spiritual and not a physical way.

This meeting between Christ and his people is to be recognised by faith. It is not their faith that brings about the encounter, but their enjoyment of it is enhanced by a spiritual understanding of what is taking place. By faith, they are to think about what is occurring at the Supper. I would mention briefly two blessings that we should receive from Jesus at the Supper – Christlikeness and assurance.

The purpose of spiritual feeding is to make us spiritually strong, to develop into mature Christians marked by Christlikeness, which is helpfully depicted by the various details listed as the fruit of the Spirit. These details are found in Christ and they are transferred to believers as they meditate on them as they were and are displayed in Jesus. As they think of his love, they become loving; as they focus on his peace, they experience his peace; as they reflect on his joy, they become happy; as they consider his gentleness, they become mild and kind.

The symbols of bread and wine point to the person and work of Christ. When we think of the bread, we should think of his humanity and not just his physical body. Think of the way he displayed love to needy sinners, think of his gentle manners as he interacted with them, think of the joy he experienced when they responded to him, think of the peace he knew in the company of his disciples. When we focus on the wine, which depicts his death, we can think of his sacrificial love, of his gentle response to the soldiers who crucified him, of his delight in rescuing the penitent thief as a picture of how he rescues all condemned sinners, and of the peace he had as he committed his spirit to God.

If our minds and hearts are active in considering Jesus at the Table, he will meet with us and give to us progress in the spiritual life. By receiving from him through this channel of grace, we will become more like him.

Some might say that these benefits will be given through other means of grace, such as preaching and prayer. In a certain sense, that is true. Yet the Lord’s Supper is the only occasion when the family of God share publicly in a means of grace that is exclusively for them. At the Supper Jesus meets with them corporately as a family and gives them the assurance that they are children of God and that he is their Elder Brother. Fresh assurance is therefore also received by taking part in the Supper.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Reformed evangelism

In my congregation at present we are giving thought to methods of evangelism. At one level, evangelism is simply telling another person about Jesus and this can take place anywhere. I can recall many Christians who spoke to me about Jesus in a very natural way before my conversion; their words were the overflow of a heart that was focussed on Christ. I was not converted the first or the hundredth time someone did so. Nevertheless I was aware that they had a warm affection for Jesus Christ.

I have been at a conference this past couple of days and communication of the gospel in our postmodern, post-Christian European society has been one of the topics on the agenda. Personally I don’t think that what is called postmodernism is very new; instead I wonder if what has happened is that thinking people (i.e., those with degrees), who in the past focussed on evidences and theories (modernism), have now caught up with the rest of us who did not place much attention on these details in the first place and merely did what we felt like doing. Perhaps then the way to evangelise contemporary people is to imitate how previous generations did it, making allowance of course for changed environments. For what it is worth, evangelism as far as I can see involves three actions by us (by actions, I mean actions from the heart).

First, we have to look for lost sinners rather than looking at lost sinners. Often, discussions of postmodernism and modernism are merely expressions of paralysis by analysis. I may be able to assess that a postmodern human does not believe in the certainties of technology while he plays with his pocket computer, mobile phone etc, but unless I go and speak to him in a loving way about his need of Christ my diagnosis is merely an opinion heading for the waste-paper basket (or for the delete button in my paperless world).

Second, having looked for lost sinners by making contact with them, we have to love them. I’m curious as to why many Christian commentators give the impression that postmoderns are the first group not to experience true love. From my limited understanding of society, the absence of true love was a feature of previous situations as well (families sending children to work in factories and up chimneys was hardly an expression of a loving society, nor was the presence of starving migrants wandering about the countryside). Was family life so wonderful in previous periods? The church (the true one, that is) has always been the counter-cultural society that showed love to its members and to those outside of it. Love requires involvement and time, and it is hard for a society focussed on its own shallow needs (by purchasing things) to give love to those with deep needs (by sharing things). True love cannot be programmed beforehand and slotted into one’s diary; it can only be given at the place of need. Of course, the love we have to show is the love of Christ, and we can only have this love by spending time with him personally in private devotions and corporately in church fellowship.

Third, having loved lost sinners into the kingdom, we continue to show love to them by loosening them from the chains that they drag along with them from their past. I have been puzzled (mainly by looking in the mirror) by the reluctance of some Christians (who were loosed from their chains by others) to spend time helping new Christians find the meaning of spiritual freedom. One way by which brotherly love is expressed is by spending time trying to find out why a new Christian is not making as much progress as he should. Often, the failure is caused by actions or attitudes which he did not realise were unhelpful and which could easily have been shown to him by someone spending time with him.

I’ll probably come back to this topic later. But it seems to me, for what it is worth, that evangelism involves looking for, loving and liberating those enchained by their sins. I know it can only be done by the power of God blessing the message about Jesus, but usually he conveys his power alongside or through our words and actions.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Attracting Listeners to Sermons

I have been reading a book called The Scottish Pulpit by William Taylor. Various well-known preachers are assessed by the author, including Samuel Rutherford. In his assessment of Rutherford, Taylor proposes a way of having a successful preaching ministry. This is what he suggests:

'Grosart says of Rutherford's practical discourses that their one merit is "that they are full of the exceeding great and precious promises and truths of the Gospel," and that "they hold forth with wistful and passionate entreaty a crucified Saviour as the one centre for weary souls in their unrest, and the one hope for the world." But, after all, is not that the "one thing needful" in all preaching? And it is for that especially that I would hold him up for an inspiration to you. Like him preach the living, personal Christ, once crucified, but now risen and reigning as the Saviour and Sovereign of men. Unfold His loveliness. Proclaim His merits. Hold up Himself. Let the truth which you declare to be the truth as it is in Him. Let the faith to which you urge be faith in Him. Let the loyalty which you enforce be loyalty to Him. Let the heaven which you hold before your hearers be to be with Him, and to be like Him. "Hold you there," and let your words be such as love to Him shall inspire, then you shall not lack hearers, and shall not need to lament the absence of results.'
I have no idea whether or not such preaching guarantees success. But all I can say is that it would be a nice way to be a failure.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Church Planting by Psalm Singers

Last night at our meeting of presbytery, a good friend asked a question to this effect: ‘Can effective church planting involving praise marked by exclusive psalmody without musical accompaniment take place outside Free Church areas of influence?’ It was a reasonable question, and one which I decided to take some time to consider rather than open my mouth without thinking (I am not implying that those who did speak were guilty of such a response). So I have thought about it and here is my response. Probably there is nothing new here for others, but it did help me clarify an aspect of my thinking.

Given that I believe the New Testament teaches that worship in first-century churches used unaccompanied singing of metrical psalms (music, as is acknowledged by historians, was not introduced until centuries later), it would be easy for me to say that the answer to the question is ‘yes’. That answer is sufficient for me, but I suspect those asking the question might want additional reasons. So here are three, and they can be classified as history, motive and understanding of success.

First, from a historical point-of-view, the answer is that such churches did plant similar churches – hundreds of Reformed churches in Scotland (and elsewhere) were planted, each of which was marked by inspired praise and no music. This was the case in virtually every denomination that existed in Scotland between the Reformation and the second half of the nineteenth century – it was not until then that hymns and musical instruments became common. The Free Church itself engaged in an extensive church planting activity after 1843 all over the country, and these plants did not use hymns and instrumental music. I suppose the question can be phrased another way: ‘Have more churches been planted in Scotland since hymns and instrumental music were introduced than were planted before then?’ Obviously I am not denying that church plants have taken place in groups that used hymns and music, but I would say that the evidence we have historically is that they are not essential for successful church planting. But I wonder what is the answer to my rephrased question mentioned a couple of sentences ago.

Second, the original question raises another question for me: why do we plant in non-Free Church areas? If the only answer to the question is, ‘Because we want to tell people about Jesus,’ then are we not duplicating the activities of other evangelical churches already in that area? While there are large sections of Scotland that do not have a Free Church, there are very few areas which do not have an evangelical witness, be it by Baptists, Brethren, Charismatics, Pentecostals, Church of Scotland (at times), and various independent churches. It seems to me that if all we want to do is ‘tell people about Jesus’, then we should join groups in these communities that are already doing so and help them.

Personally, my reasons for praying for, and supporting practically if possible, Free Church plants are based on more than initial communication of the basic gospel message. I would like to see Free Church plants because I have concluded that New Testament churches should practice covenant baptism (unlike Baptists), have recognised, ordained teachers (unlike some Brethren), regard spiritual gifts such as tongues and prophecy as limited to the apostolic period (unlike Charismatics and Pentecostals), have exclusive male eldership (unlike some evangelical Church of Scotland congregations), and have a commitment to specific doctrines, summarised/stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith (unlike most churches). In addition to these features, since I have concluded that New Testament worship involves unaccompanied inspired praise, and since this is the current practice of the Free Church, it is inevitable that one reason for planting Free Churches in non-Free Church areas is to have churches with this feature. If we move away from the items I have listed, then our contribution ceases to be Free Church in particular and becomes an undefined church plant. At present, the distinctives that stand out from most other evangelicals are our view of baptism (not just its mode, but also its meaning) and our current practice of praise. I see no valid biblical reason for modifying either of them in a church plant situation. This does not mean I don't want other groups of Christians to prosper in winning souls for Jesus.

Third, of course, we all want to have church plants that develop into self-sufficient congregations that go on to church plant (at least, I hope we do). But is that the only kind of successful church plant? Is ‘success’ based on a large number of individuals coming along or is it based on the number who become committed to what we believe? Sometimes the number who come along consists of a small group of committed people, at other times it becomes larger and larger. Does God denigrate the plant composed of committed people that remains small? Does he disapprove of their desire to remain loyal to his Word? Unfortunately, despite having made an attempt at answering the question raised by my friend, I cannot give a definite answer to the question in the previous sentence because the public answer will not be given until the Day of Judgement. But, without being presumptuous, I think I know what God’s Word says about it.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Revival – some questions

I would like to ask some basic questions about revival that affect us in the Scottish Highlands in particular?

First, can revival come to a Christian community that is divided (as the church in the Highlands is)? Obviously, division is not desirable, but does its existence automatically prevent revival coming? The answer from church history is that it does not. For example, the Erskine brothers, who had separated from the Church of Scotland, disagreed strongly with George Whitefield’s practice of preaching in evangelical Church of Scotland congregations and spoke harsh words against him. The disagreement resulted in an open breach. Yet both Whitefield and the Erskines continued to enjoy periods of revival through their preaching.

This is not to say that divisions will not produce aspects that mar the beauty of a revival, such as believers not praying together for converts or rejoicing together over converts. Nor does it means that God-sent revival will not result in unity being restored eventually. In fact, to maintain a wrong spirit in times of revival is a dangerous response from a Christian. Nevertheless although we live in a divided Christian community, we should not be discouraged from praying for revival.

Second, can revival come to a community that is diminished in population (as many parts of the Scottish Highlands are)? Sometimes the impression can be given that revival only occurs in places where there is a large number of people. When we picture in our minds a congregation experiencing revival, what do we imagine? We think of the vast crowds that listened to Whitefield and Wesley or that used to gather at communion seasons in the Highlands during the years of revival. What we forget is that often these crowds were swollen by large numbers who often travelled long distances. The reality is that the presence of revival in a small community can only be gauged by the effects in that area. And if every person in that area was converted, it would still not be a large number. So revival does not need large numbers to be called a revival; it all depends on whether a sizable percentage in a community is converted.

Third, what would be the point in God giving a revival to small congregations in communities with a declining population? There are many possible answers to this question. Here are three:

A first answer concerns the glory of God: revival in a small congregation shows that progress is not by human might or power, but by the Spirit; Jesus is to be honoured in small communities as well as larger ones.

A second answer concerns the present state of the church: revival can raise up in a small community a group of Christians that would be mighty in prayer, not just for its immediate community, but for the entire nation, and for the spread of the gospel throughout the world.

A third answer concerns the future: revival in a small congregation should ensure that there will be a Christian church for the foreseeable future in that community; it should also maintain the existence of Christian families from who may come individuals who will be used by the Saviour decades from now, long after we are no longer here.

Fourth, what methods will bring revival to us? There are several spiritual blessings that may be known without revival being experienced. These include dedicated Christian living (many believers have lived devoted Christian lives without seeing revival), harmonious church experiences (sense of God’s presence in the public meetings of his people), biblical preaching in content and manner, hearty witnessing to one’s faith etc. The reality is that revival comes primarily through earnest, insistent, reverent, communal prayer to God that King Jesus would send the Holy Spirit in gracious power.

Encouragements for prayer for revival are many: the purpose of God (often he uses revival to achieve conversions), the promises of God (there are many promises concerning revival in the Bible), and records of previous revivals (I can understand why many Christians do not like to read heavy theological literature or books of sermons or ponderous biographies, but I cannot understand a Christian who would not enjoy reading accounts of the great days of spiritual blessing of the past; reading them expands our estimation of what God can do in our communities today).

I have been reading about a three-year revival in GlenLyon in Perthshire that happened in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Glen Lyon was hardly the centre of national life at that time, yet its experience of revival had both widespread and long-term effects. They were widespread in that many of those blessed during the revival moved elsewhere, including abroad, and took its influence with them; also other parishes in the country were encouraged to pray for revival and, for all I know, that revival may have been a catalyst for the country-wide spiritual movement that preceded the Disruption. The effects were long-term because I noticed that several biographies of nineteenth-century ministers that I have read recently (selected without me knowing the connection) ministered to a spiritually healthy congregation in that out-of-the-way community.

Of course, this leads to one more question: when did the effects of that revival die out, or perhaps they are still being felt somewhere in the world?

Revival – some thoughts

I suppose many definitions could be given of revival, although most of them would be related to historical records, which means that there is the fact of revival. There are so many records of such spiritual occasions that only a perverse person would deny they occurred.

Further, many factors related to it can be assessed biblically, which means that there is a theology of revival. A theology of revival attempts to explain God’s action in promoting his kingdom through the gospel. It looks for biblical doctrines that describe, for example, the involvement of the risen Jesus in revival, the work of the Spirit in revival, the activity of the devil in such periods, the contribution of prayer made by God’s people for such times and in such times.

A third aspect of revival are features that are absent from some revivals and present in other revivals, which indicate that these features are not necessary for a revival to occur. Most of these things would come into the category of social consequences, and they may be beneficial or not for the community. For example, some revivals are accompanied by great improvement in the living standards of the poor (the revivals connected to 1859 in Britain and America had that consequence). Other revivals are followed by increased persecution of God’s people, resulting in loss of living standards (this happened throughout the twentieth century in communist countries).

A fourth feature of revival is that we inevitably visualise it through our own understanding of it. There have been frequent revivals in the Highlands, particularly the Outer Hebrides during the last two centuries and details of what took place in them have become part of our spiritual heritage. The knowledge of what God did then creates within us a longing for him to do it again. As I have listened to these accounts during the last three decades since I was converted, I have sensed that many people assumed that, when the next revival comes, it will be a repetition of what occurred previously. But while the gospel message will not change and the response of repentance and faith will be essential, there may be features in the next revival that will be totally different from previous ones.

For example, if a revival began tomorrow, what would be the contribution of modern technology? Revivals in the eighteenth century occurred within the limitations of the time: information containing points for prayer was conveyed by letter that could take months to reach their destination, preachers travelled on horseback or walked between places, and sometimes places experiencing revival were unaware that communities twenty miles away were also enjoying God’s blessing in a similar way (it also meant that some communities were unaware that a revival was taking place anywhere). Revivals in the nineteenth century utilised the invention of the telegraph and the development of printing of books to help spread the revival. A revival thirty years ago had the means of tape recordings and telephones to help it (we may not be familiar with that because we have not experienced a revival in which they were used.) But if a revival comes tomorrow, it is likely that the Lord would use our current technology as one of the means of bringing people to repentance and assurance. Sometimes, we look at the millions of people in our society and we ask ourselves, ‘How can we reach all these people?’ The question usually expects a negative answer. Whether God will bring a revival or not tomorrow, it is obvious that through modern technology the gospel can be preached to millions of people simultaneously.

And if God poured his Spirit out on our nation, it would not be difficult for the gospel to get prime time slots on TV schedules. The forms of media (newspapers, journals) that existed in times of previous revival were quick to report on revivals, and there is no need to imagine that modern media would ignore a widespread revival.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Encouragement from the past

I suppose there are a variety of encouragements that a minister can have. Obviously, he will get encouragement if he looks up to God in prayer and asks him to fulfil his promises of blessing. A preacher can also receive encouragement by looking round and observing the way God may have used him to some effect in the lives of other people. I have received some encouragement by looking back, not to events in my own life (although there are plenty years to explore), but to what God did in my city long before I was born.

Encouragement from those days is dependant on written records and I have been reading about two servants of God who came to Inverness in the past. They were quite different from one another and came here through different means, yet the consequences of their comings was of great significance to the town.

I have to look back a long time to see what God did through Robert Bruce (not the king). He is best known today for his book on the Lord's Supper, but in his own time he was famous for his faithful preaching. In those days, Inverness was not a holiday resort; instead it was a small village on the verge of nowhere and a suitable location for a king to banish preachers who had guts as well as words. Bruce was banished twice to Inverness by James VI (the man who later arranged for the King James Version), but the king on his second occasion (1620s) did not realise that he was extending the Presbyterian cause that he so much detested.

Bruce was by then an old man and not very well. He spoke a different language from the Gaelic of the Highlanders (although he may have been able to speak it somewhat). Yet his time in Inverness was much blessed by God as thousands travelled from all over the north of Scotland to hear the gospel from his lips. This had been anticipated by Bruce because, as he was about to leave for Inverness, he received from the Lord a special commission to go to Inverness and plant a seed that would last for a long time. He received this commission through an experience that many modern Reformed people would shake their heads at (a kind of trance as he was about to mount his horse), but which many Highland Reformed Christians would have regarded as to be expected. My encouragement is not that Bruce had such a profound commission (I have not experienced anything close to it), but that a man in his later decades of life came to this city and was used by God to such an extent that echoes of his ministry were heard in Inverness for over a century – a supporter of the Jacobite rebellions in the first half of the eighteenth century blamed Bruce's influence for the poor support they received in Inverness area (although Invernessians today are quite happy to benefit financially from visitors to Culloden etc.).

I do not have to look back so far for the other story that gives encouragement. Robert Findlater came here two centuries after Bruce, but almost two centuries ago (1820s). He came to a town in which religious controversy was alive, where large numbers of visiting workers were ignored, and where the ecclesiastical systems were ineffective in dealing with the increased population. Prior to coming to Inverness, he had been involved in a three-year revival in Perthshire and so was able to assess between genuine spirituality and formal religious behaviour. He noted that much of what he saw, even in his large congregation of 1800, belonged to the formal.

His response was to preach sermons that exalted Christ and not to use the pulpit for the minutae of Christian experience (he dealt with that in private meetings with individuals). He also realised that it was pointless asking visiting workers to church if they did not understand the message of the gospel. So he supported the setting up of Sunday schools in which such could be educated (today we call it pre-evangelism, but as an Invernessian I am pleased that the idea was here two hundred years ago). His method was successful and people were converted.

Why am I encouraged by Robert Findlater's ministry? Because he shows that focussing on Christ and using a bit of initiative resulted in making the gospel relevant to a growing centre of population.

So looking back as well as looking up helps me to look forward.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Achievements without prayer

I have been reading a Focus on the Bible commentary on the Book of Acts by Bruce Milne that Christian Focus will publish later this year. Among many comments that I found challenging about modern evangelical church life in Britian was this one:

Samuel Chadwick’s words are as relevant today as when he first penned them: ‘Satan dreads nothing but prayer. His one concern is to keep the saints from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, he mocks our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray.’ One is reminded of the reported comment of a South Korean leader who was recently taken on a tour of some ‘successful’ mega-churches in North America, but was surprised to discover in the course of it how little prayer featured in these congregations, either in the multiplicity of ministries being undertaken, or in the services of public worship. When his hosts asked him at the conclusion for his impression he apparently responded: ‘I am astonished at how much you folks are able to do without God!’

Friday, 1 January 2010

Is It More Difficult to Preach to Mature Christians?

Robert Findlater wrote to his father and in the letter suggested that it was more difficult to preach to mature Christians than to less mature believers or to non-Christians. This is his father's response:

‘26th March, 1807. I do not savour your opinion when you say “It must be more difficult to preach to established Christians than to those who are not, or those who have not yet attained to the knowledge of it” – except you mean a graceless minister: in that case, you are right, as he cannot preach Christ, neither knows he what way a Christian lives upon the gospel, so as to preach to them. But I never knew a godly minister but would rejoice upon having the people of God to preach to – yea, they are out of their element when they are saying any thing but “Feed my sheep – Feed my lambs.” You mention that it is to a young preacher the difficulty would be. There should be no such young preachers in the world that could not preach to the oldest Christians in it. However young the ministers of Christ are, they can say all to the oldest Christian: We have received the same Spirit of faith, therefore we speak. Without this Spirit they cannot speak, neither will they be understood. They know not the voice of a minister that is a stranger to the same Spirit of faith with themselves. I hope before you enter upon preaching you will change your opinion, which I pray God of his mercy, may grant you. Your mother prays the same.’