Saturday, 22 May 2010

New Principal at Free Church College

One of the happy events at this year's General Assembly was the appointment of Professor John L. Mackay as Principal of the Free Church College. I have interacted with him at different levels over the years and in each of them he has maintained a consistently high Christian character. Many others can say the same.

Before I went to the Free Church College as a student for the ministry, I imagined I knew a bit about the Old Testament. My time in the Old Testament classroom not only told me how little I knew (I was and am grateful for that discovery), but also showed me how it is possible to make the Old Testament very relevant for Christians – and for others searching for the true God. In his classroom, we knew we would not travel down pointless roads; instead we anticipated ascending spiritual heights.

His commentaries for Christian Focus (Exodus, Jeremiah, Lamentations and most of the Minor Prophets) and Evangelical Press (Isaiah) are outstanding examples of Reformed scholarship and should be in every minister's library. They are faithful to the text of Scripture, which would be expected from a Free Church of Scotland professor. In addition, they are lucid and understandable, which makes them very user friendly in sermon preparation. Hopefully, more such commentaries will come.

This appointment is evidence of the degree of confidence the Free Church has in him and of the affection it has for him.

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.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Prayer by a Free Church minister

I have been glancing through my copy of the life of John Milne (a Free Church of Scotland minister in Perth in the nineteenth century) and came across this prayer that he had recorded in his diary: ‘I pray for a far more energetic thankfulness; to be a whole and a continual burnt-offering. Let all false fire die; but let the flame of love, through the Holy Ghost, keep me spending and being spent. Renew my spiritual strength, O Lord.... I see some whose heart seems to be right with God, and yet they do not receive much blessing on their work. Perhaps they are not seeking themselves; but are they honouring the Lord by faith? The soul that is lifted up is not upright; it is cleaving to self instead of God; it is trying to rise by building a Babel instead of taking hold of the Almighty. But there is a dishonouring of the Lord by the want of a large, joyful, practical expectation that goes on in His strength, and surely prevails. Moses had not this at the commencement of his enterprise, but got it afterwards. Many seem never to get it, and to drudge on in an unprofitable routine.’

Friday, 14 May 2010

John Piper, Sweet and Bitter Providence, IVP, 2010

The book of Ruth describes a marvellous love story between Boaz and Ruth. Perhaps some readers leave it there and fail to recognise that another important feature of the book is its emphasis that God is at work, even in times of trouble, disappointment and confusion. His purpose includes short and long-term goals. In the short-term, he provided graciously for Naomi, Ruth and Boaz; in the long-term, he was preparing for the royal line of David, and through it the coming of the Messiah.

The material in this book of 160 pages began as a set of sermons preached by the author. Reading his words gives us an example of how to preach an Old Testament book in such a way that sermons are relevant for twenty-first century listeners. Piper also shows us how to connect biblical passages to the person and work of Christ.

Throughout this Bible study, we see the sad failures and the godly traits in the lives of Bible characters, enjoy helpful illustrations that help clarify various points made by the author, receive insights into the gracious ways of God (particularly in explaining the picture of God as an eagle under whose wings Ruth had found refuge) and appreciate the reality of the connection between the ordinary events of life and the spread of God’s kingdom.

Is it the best book on providence or on Ruth? No doubt there are deeper theological works on the doctrine of providence and larger commentaries on the Book of Ruth. Nevertheless for those wanting to begin studying the doctrine of providence, this book is ideal. And it will be a tonic for those who perhaps are experiencing difficulties in providence and want their faith in God refreshed.

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.