In the course of his marvellous treatment of the theme, Christ Precious to Those Who Believe, John Fawcett occasionally breaks out into prayer on the pages of his book. Sometimes those prayers seem to rise from his own heart, at other times he puts into words the kinds of expressions he hopes might rise from other hearts as they read. At the end of the second chapter, which deals with the character of the people to whom Christ is precious – that is, those who believe – he offers a model of the awakened sinner’s address to God, as his own soul is moved with the truths he is handling. This is his petition:
Almighty and everlasting God, my Creator, my Preserver, and my Judge, before whose awful tribunal I must shortly make my appearance:
I am a poor individual of the fallen race of mankind, brought forth in iniquity, conceived in sin, and chargeable with actual transgressions almost without number. I have brought myself under the condemning sentence of your righteous law, and made myself deserving of your everlasting displeasure. It is high time for me to awake out of sleep, and to inquire, with the utmost seriousness and the deepest concern, whether there is any possible way of escaping from that wrath which is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.
I feel a ray of hope spring up in my soul, since you have said, in your holy word, “you are destroyed, but your help is from Me.” Jesus Christ, your only begotten Son, came into the world to save sinners, such as I am. This is no delusive supposition, no uncertain report. It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance. But I learn from the sacred Scriptures, that he who disregards this testimony, who does not receive it in the love of the truth, who does not believe in the Son of God, the appointed Saviour, must everlastingly perish. I learn from your word that pardon of sin, deliverance from condemnation, and the enjoyment of eternal happiness, are inseparably connected with true faith in his name.
O Lord, please mercifully grant to me that divine illumination without which I shall neither know the way of peace nor believe the truth to the saving of my soul. O teach me to know myself, the deep depravity of my nature, the guiltiness of my whole life, the purity of that law which I have violated, the inflexibility of that holiness and justice which I have offended, the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and my own utter inability to do anything towards delivering my own soul out of that state of sin and misery into which I have brought myself. Bring me to an acquaintance with you, the only true God, and with Jesus Christ, whom you have sent to redeem and save the lost and the undone, whom to know is life eternal. May your Holy Spirit set before me, in the most powerful and engaging manner, the glory of his person, the sufficiency of his sacrifice, the efficacy of his blood to cleanse from all sin, the perfection of his righteousness to clothe the naked soul, the fulness of his grace to supply every need, and his ability in every respect to save to the uttermost all that come unto God by him.
May that precious gospel, of which Christ crucified is the sum and substance, appear to me, in all its truth, as the testimony of God; in all its sacred importance, as the word of life; in all its fulness, its suitableness to my case, its preciousness, and its glory, that I may be enabled to receive it with full and entire approval, as a system most honourable to God and safe for man, and that I may believe it with my whole heart.
Let me be a partaker of that faith which is connected with unfeigned repentance of sin, a sincere attachment to Jesus Christ, a subjection of heart and life to his will and government, a holy indifference to all that this present world can offer, and a sincere and constant endeavour to obey your commands. May I receive and embrace the truth as it is in Jesus, so that it may dwell and abide in me, in all its sacred energy and sanctifying power, working effectually in me, as it does in all those who believe. So let my heart be purified by faith, and give me an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith which is in you. Nor let me be a stranger to the joy of faith, but fill me with all that joy and peace in believing, which arise from the view and manifestation of pardoning mercy, through the precious blood of your dear Son – to whom, with yourself, and the blessed Spirit, the one eternal God, be equal and endless praises. Amen.
Following on from the introduction, here is the first element of a scriptural framework helping us through the issue of respect for civil authority.
A Proper Subjection
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor. (Rom. 13:1–7)
This is part of the apostle’s treatment of practical Christian living in the real world, and here Paul traces a tight, logical sequence. What he says may be considered an outworking of the full spiritual force of the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12). The implications of this commandment concern our relationship to God-appointed authority, and its demands reach far deeper and wider than parental authority. The Shorter Catechism helpfully expands the essence, reminding us that the fifth commandment requires us to preserve the honor of and perform the duties belonging to all people in their various places and relations, whether as superiors, inferiors, or equals. By way of negative contrast, it forbids the neglecting of or doing anything against the honor and duty that belong to all people in their various places and relations.
Here Paul takes that principle and applies it to the relationship of believers to the civil magistrate. It is a rule for all people: each one must be subject to the governing authorities, “the powers that be,” in the evocative phrasing of the King James Version. It is a call not merely to grudging quietism or passive acceptance but to an active and comprehensive embrace of submission in all lawful duties and services. It is not a mere matter of obligatory constraint or restraint, but a positive pursuit of a disposition and deeds that show one’s awareness that the Lord has appointed authorities.
There is a recognition inherent in this submission that the power exercised by these authorities is by divine appointment (Prov. 8:15). God has devised, designated, and delegated the exercise of all earthly powers subordinate to His own. The highest and lowest civil authorities have been ordained in principle and in person by the Lord of heaven and earth. There is a clear sequence of corollaries: to resist these authorities is to resist what God has ordained, which is to resist God, which is to invite wrath or judgment. Although the context suggests that the primary reference is to the judgment meted out by civil magistrates in accordance with God’s appointment, there may be a hint of eternality in the language as well.
All this is bounded in the intended benefits of government. Rulers are appointed to be a terror to evil—to spook the bad guys, keeping evil at bay—so that the citizen who acts uprightly should have nothing to fear. We must recognize that God has appointed earthly authority to be a blessing to men. Civil magistrates have been granted the sword to defend good and to punish evil. Even usurped or abused authority—which we might and should as Christians and citizens speak against—ought to and often does provide a measure of control and order in a nation against the outbreak of open sin, a protection against those times when every man does what is right in his own eyes (Judg. 21:25).
Two reasons are provided for this principled submission. The first is “wrath,” the fear of temporal judgments against evildoing, but this is not the only reason and would in itself be a fairly shallow one. The saints also obey “for conscience’ sake,” recognizing their obligations to the God who has appointed those authorities and having their consciences bound ultimately to Him.
The implications are clear and practical. Christians are to offer to the government whatever belongs to the government by right— appropriate maintenance and appropriate reverence: “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (Rom. 13:7).
Whether in the material or the moral spheres, governments ought to receive from us what God has called us to give. Before we begin to buck at this and start offering exceptions to the rule, we would do well to recognize that this commandment was not issued to a church basking in the hazy afterglow of the largely tragic Constantinian settlement. It did not float down to saints enjoying the benefits of a post-Enlightenment liberal democracy, but to believers who were living in the Roman Empire under the tyranny of such beasts as Claudius and Nero Caesar. These men were no friends to humanity, let alone to Christianity, but despots who ruled with the proverbial fist of iron as those who considered themselves gods. The issue is not first and foremost the character of the magistrate or his abuses of the power put in his hands, but the position to which he has been appointed by God as an agent of temporal justice in some measure.
We must acknowledge that this does not suspend the believer’s ultimate obligation to God. The apostles themselves were perfectly clear that they ought to obey God rather than men whenever the civil or religious authorities commanded something that God forbade or forbade something that God commanded. Peter challenged the Sanhedrin, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge” (Acts 4:19). Not long after, he and the other apostles were even plainer: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
While we will consider this tension in more detail as we move on, we should note that this understanding dictates the occasions on which and the tone in which some form of resistance or disobedience is legitimized. Perhaps the finest examples are found in the book of Daniel. In the first instance, Daniel’s three friends refuse to bow to the image of gold erected by Nebuchadnezzar. Threatened with death in the fiery furnace if they will not obey, their reply is a model of gracious refusal. Their language is polite and eminently respectful. Their recognition of the king’s authority is sincere and humble. Their refusal to obey is absolute. Their faithfulness to God is complete: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Dan. 3:16–18). How infuriating it must have been to Nebuchadnezzar to have men who humbly and reverently accepted his right to throw them into a fiery furnace and politely refused to obey him anyway!
Daniel is no less noble and gracious when forbidden to pray to anyone but Darius. He will not lay aside God’s law in the matter and is willing to be thrown into the lions’ den as a consequence. And how does he respond to the concerned emperor who hurries down to the den the morning after? With words like these: “O king, live forever! My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths, so that they have not hurt me, because I was found innocent before Him; and also, O king, I have done no wrong before you” (Dan. 6:21–22). Daniel honors his sovereign, testifies to God, and defends his actions, all at once. Recognizing the authorities as appointed by God conditions our attitudes and actions toward them, even when as disciples of Christ we are legitimately obliged to refuse particular demands.
I would not go so far as to call this high art, and I have no idea whether or not the author, Edwin L. Sabin, was a Christian by profession or in truth, but there’s something that rings real about the following poem. How often we fight and struggle, only at least to discover what Sabin identifies here.
An enemy I had, whose mien [appearance]
I stoutly strove in vain to know;
For hard he dogged my steps, unseen,
Wherever I might go.
My plans he balked; my aims he foiled;
He blocked my every onward way.
When for some lofty goal I toiled,
He grimly said me nay.
“Come forth!” I cried, “Lay bare thy guise!
Thy wretched features I would see.”
Yet always to my straining eyes
He dwelt in mystery.
Until one night I held him fast,
The veil from off his form did draw;
I gazed upon his face at last—
And, lo! myself I saw.
The Westminster Conference will take place later this year, God willing, in central London at Regent Hall on Oxford Street. As usual, there are two days of lectures and discussion, Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th December. The outline for the two days is below, and the brochure can be downloaded to obtain the booking form. More information can be found at the conference website.
Sin and sanctification in John Owen (Sinclair Ferguson ~ Elder at St. Peter’s Free Church, Dundee). John Owen is one of the monumental figures of the seventeenth century. His profound scriptural sensitivity to sin and understanding of sanctification form some of the deepest currents of his work both as a theologian and as a pastor. This paper will explore these complementary and contradictory elements of Christian experience through the lens of Owen’s wrestling with the issues.
“On the side of God”: Andrew Fuller’s pastoral theology (Jeremy Walker ~ Pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley). Andrew Fuller is recognised as a theologian and for his friendship with and support of William Carey. However, these labours cannot be divorced from his principles and practices as a pastor and a preacher. This was his primary calling. It informed and was expressed in everything else in which he was involved. This paper will draw together some of the convictions recorded, conclusions reached and counsels expressed by Andrew Fuller in the realm of pastoral theology.
The atonement and evangelistic preaching in John Owen (David Pfeiffer ~ Minister of Cheltenham Evangelical Free Church). Apparent tensions between convictions about the definite extent of the atonement joined with commitments to the freeness of the gospel offer are perennial issues in Christ’s church. Few men have contended for the former more effectively than John Owen and his works breathe a lively and transparent concern that lost men should trust in the only Saviour of sinners. David Pfeiffer will help us to see these elements of Owen’s labour in healthy parallel.
Erasmus and the Greek New Testament (Peter Hallihan ~ retired from pastoral ministry; Editorial Consultant for TBS). Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469–1536) was the genius sometimes described as the prince of the humanists. Perhaps his most enduring contribution to learning and religion was his edition of the Greek New Testament of 1516, which became the basis of most vernacular translations of the Scriptures for the next three centuries. Peter Hallihan will give us insights into the man and his work, tracing some of his influences and influence.
Jonathan Edwards and the religious affections (Paul Helm ~ formerly Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London). The name of Jonathan Edwards, together with select elements of his theology, have become more prominent in the thinking and practice of Reformed evangelicals in recent years. Ready reference is made to well-known but not always well-understood works such as Edwards’ study of the religious affections. Paul Helm will take a fresh look at this book, emphasising its setting and its sources, helping us grasp the substance and application of Edwards’ work.
Isaac Watts and the gift of prayer (Benedict Bird ~ ThM Student and Greek Teacher at London Theological Seminary). Best known for his hymnody, Isaac Watts was also an influential theologian. He considered prayer to be not only a duty but a precious privilege, and he wrote to assist the saints in learning to pray. He showed that prayer is a gift, but one that can be developed. Prayer is not always high on the agenda in the church of Christ, and not often developed to a high degree when it is. In his Guide to Prayer, Watts directs us still to cultivate “this holy skill of conversation with God.”
On Thursday 25th June at 7.30pm I shall, God willing, be at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Kensworth, Bedfordshire, to give an address on Edward Harrison, vicar of the church in the 1600s before he embraced Baptist practice and polity and became one of the movers and shakers among the London Particular Baptists at the height of the persecution of Dissenters during the middle part of that century. It is all part of the “Real Life” sequence of events connected with Grace Baptist Church, Edlesborough.
The address is entitled “Living Dangerously.” It’s not my title, but it is certainly an apt one, for Harrison was a man who sacrificed much for the sake of a clear conscience before God and men. I have been impressed by his courage and refreshed by his convictions, and I hope those who hear me will be be similarly encouraged.
Your prayers for the occasion would be appreciated. Your presence, if you could make it, would be delightful.