The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Sanctifying God’s name at the Lord’s supper

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What is going on when a believer comes to the Lord’s table? What should be gripping your heart – your thinking, feeling and willing – when you come to the Supper? According to Jeremiah Burroughs, in his book on Gospel Worship, it is imperative that we come to the table with understanding. Burroughs says:

I must know what I do when I come to receive this holy sacrament; knowledge applied to the work that I am about; when some of you have come to receive this sacrament, if God should have spoken from heaven and have said thus to you, what are you doing now, what do you go for, what account had you been able to have given unto him, you must understand what you do when you come thither. (244)

So, what might your answer be? Here is Burroughs’ quite magnificent answer, given – I suspect – not to be parroted without understanding, but used as a model for the kind of thoughtful engagement by which we sanctify God’s name in coming to the Lord’s table:

First you must be able to give this account to God, Lord, I am now going to have represented to me in a visible and sensible way the greatest mysteries of godliness, those great and deep counsels of thy will concerning my eternal estate, those great things that the angels desire to pry into, that shall be the matter of eternal praises of angels and saints in the highest heavens, that they may be set before my view; Lord, when I have come to thy word, I have had in mine ears sounding the great mysteries of godliness, the great things of the covenant of grace, and now I go to see them represented before mine eyes in that ordinance of thine that thou hast appointed.

Yea Lord, I am now going to receive the seals of the blessed covenant of thine, the second covenant, the new covenant, the seals of the testimony and will of thine; I am going to have confirmed to my soul thine everlasting love in Jesus Christ.

“Yea Lord, I am going to that ordinance wherein I expect to have communion with thyself, and the communication of thy chief mercies to my soul in Jesus Christ.

I am going to feast with thee, to feed upon the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Yea I am now going to set to the seal of the covenant on my part, to renew my covenant with thee, I am going to have communion with thy saints, to have the bond of communion with all thy people to be confirmed to me, that there might be a stronger bond of union and love between me and thy saints then ever; these are the ends that I go for, this is the work that I am now going about, thus you must come in understanding; you must come with understanding, you must know what you are going about; this is that which the Apostle speaks of, when he speaks of the discerning the Lord’s body; he rebukes the Corinthians for their sin, and shows them that they were guilty of the body and blood of Christ, because they did not discern the Lord’s body, they looked only upon the outward elements, but did not discern what there was of Christ there, they did not understand the institution of Christ; they did not see how Christ was under those elements, both represented, and exhibited unto them, that’s the first thing, there must be knowledge and understanding. (244-45)

When you come next to the communion service, you might consider the question: “What are you doing now, what do you go for?” You are not required to be able to give Burroughs’ answer in its entirety, but it would be good to consider how we, too, need to come with understanding, that we might not only benefit ourselves but also, and especially, sanctify the name of God in our worship.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Sunday 3 November 2019 at 09:30

Desiring Christ

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John Flavel, preaching in his Method of Grace on alluring the hearts of men to come to Christ, focuses on his being “the desire of all nations.” He asserts that “the desires of God’s elect in all kingdoms, and among all people of the earth, are, and shall be drawn out after, and fixed upon the Lord Jesus Christ.” Having explored the title, and asked why and how it is appropriate, Flavel spends most of his sermon in applying these truths. He concludes with seven uses of direction for stirring up heart desires toward Christ, as follows:

Do these, or any other considerations, put thee upon this enquiry; how shall I get my desires kindled and enflamed towards Christ? Alas! my heart is cold and dead, not a serious desire stirring in it after Christ. To such I shall offer the following directions.

Flavel, JohnDirect. 1. Redeem some time every day for meditation; get out of the noise and clamour of the world, Psal. 4:4. and seriously bethink yourselves how the present state of your soul stands, and how it is like to go with you for ever: here all sound conversion begins, Psal. 69:5–9.

Direct. 2. Consider seriously of that lamentable state, in which you came into the world; children of wrath by nature, under the curse and condemnation of the law: so that either your state must be changed, or you inevitably damned, John 3:3.

Direct. 3. Consider the way and course you have taken since you came into the world, proceeding from iniquity to iniquity. What command of God have you not violated a thousand times over? What sin is committed in the world, that you are not one way or other guilty of before God? How many secret sins upon your score, unknown to the most intimate friend you have in the world? Either this guilt must be separated from your souls, or your souls from God to all eternity.

Direct. 4. Think upon the severe wrath of God due to every sin; “The wages of sin is death,” Rom. 6:23. And how intolerable the fulness of that wrath must be when a few drops sprinkled upon the conscience in this world, are so insupportable, that hath made some to chuse strangling rather than life; and yet this wrath must abide for ever upon you, if you get not interest in Jesus Christ, John 3:36.

Direct. 5. Ponder well the happy state and condition they are in who have obtained pardon and peace by Jesus Christ, Psal. 32:12. And seeing the grace of God is free, and you are set under the means thereof; why may not you be as capable thereof as others?

Direct. 6. Seriously consider the great uncertainty of your time, and preciousness of the opportunities of salvation, never to be recovered, when they are once past, John 9:4. let this provoke you to lay hold upon those golden seasons whilst they are yet with you; that you may not bewail your folly and madness, when they are out of your reach.

Direct. 7. Associate yourselves with serious Christians; get into their acquaintance, and beg their assistance; beseech them to pray for you; and see that you rest not here, but be frequently upon your knees, begging of the Lord a new heart, and a new state.

In conclusion of the whole, let me beseech and beg all the people of God, as upon my knees, to take heed, and beware, lest by the carelessness and scandal of their lives they quench the weak desires beginning to kindle in the hearts of others. You know what the law of God awards for striking a woman with child, so that her fruit go from her, Exod. 21:22, 23. O shed not soul-blood, by stifling the hopeful desires of any after Christ.

Blessed be God for Jesus Christ, the desire of all nations.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 24 September 2019 at 09:03

Sad fulfilments

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In 2013, Evangelical Press published a book called The New Calvinism Considered (Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk). Here is a quotation from near the end of the book. Sad events in the last few weeks and months are proving true some of these unhappy predictions, and I grieve over those who asked, “What next?” even while I remain grateful for those still asking, “What more?”

From its beginning, the new Calvinism was in some respects a splendid and many-coloured thing. But it did have and still does involve some fearful tensions. It has within it still some wonderful prospects and it contains within it some significant and increasingly evident dangers. But remember that mere fads never last. I am far from saying that the new Calvinism is a mere fad, but there is an appetite for novelty in the world and among professing Christians that has carried and perhaps is still carrying people into this movement on a wave of enthusiasm. The novelty will not last forever and the freshness is already fading, despite what will be the increasingly desperate attempts of some to keep the fireworks going off by increasingly extreme gestures and gimmicks.

I suspect that when the freshness and the newness wears off, we will be left with many people asking at least two questions. Some will say, and are already saying, ‘What next?’ They will look for the next fad, the next new wave, and will jump aboard and be carried on to whatever seems new and stimulating. But some will ask, and are already asking, ‘What more? What else is there? What am I missing? This is the God that I want to know and serve. How can I know him more? How can I know him better without losing that sense of wonder because of God’s love and grace toward me in Christ Jesus? How can I grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? How can I grow in holiness, becoming more and more like Christ Jesus?’

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 27 July 2019 at 20:43

Alphabetizing the Saviour

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A friend sent me an excerpt from the Inauguration Address of William Swan Plumer as Professor of Didactic and Pastoral Theology at Western Theological Seminary in 1854. Some readers might know Plumer as the commentator on the Psalms, or as author of other excellent works. Within a couple of paragraphs in the written record, he takes off, flies, and soars. Here is his magnificent opening gambit. Do read it, soak in it, profit by it, and live in the light of it.

Jesus Christ is a wonderful, glorious person. To look away from self and man to Christ, is to lay hold on everlasting life. If men would be safe, let them flee to him. When he is in the ascendant, the night flies away, and the morning comes – a morning without clouds. His names and titles are as important as they are significant. Every one of them is as ointment poured forth. His lips drop as the honey-comb – honey and milk are under his tongue, and the smell of his garments is like the smell of Lebanon. His people sit under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit is sweet to their taste. To them he is altogether lovely. He is their Advocate, the angel of the covenant, the author and finisher of faith. He is as the apple-tree among the trees of the wood, the alpha and the omega, the Beloved, the shepherd and bishop of souls, the bread of life, the bundle of myrrh, the bridegroom, the bright and morning star, the brightness of the Father’s glory, and the express image of his person.

He is their Creator, captain, counselor, covenant, cornerstone, covert from the tempest, a cluster of camphor, and chiefest among ten thousand. He is to them as the Dew, the door into the fold, a diadem, a daysman, a day-star, a deliverer, and the desire of all nations, ranks and generations of pious men.

In their eyes he is the Elect Emmanuel, the everlasting Father, and eternal life. He is a Fountain of living waters to thirsty souls, of joy to troubled ones, of life to dying ones. He is the foundation on which his people, with safety, build their hopes of heaven. He is the father of eternity, the fir-tree under whose shadow the saints rejoice, the first and the last, the first fruits, the first-born among many brethren, and the first begotten from the dead.

To his chosen he is as the most fine Gold, a guide, a governor, a glorious Lord, God, the true God over all, God blessed forever. He is Head of the church, the help, the hope, the husband, the heritage, the habitation of his people. He is the horn of their salvation. He rides upon the heavens by his name, JAH. He is the Jehovah of armies, the Inheritance, Judge and King of his people. He is their Light, their life, their leader, their law-giver, their atoning lamb, the lily of the valley, the lion of the tribe of Judah.

He is the Man Christ Jesus, the master, the mediator, the minister of the true sanctuary which the Lord pitched, and not man. He is the mighty God of Isaiah, the morning-star of John, the Michael of Daniel, the Melchisedek of David and Paul, and the Messiah of all the prophets. He is the Only-begotten of the Father – full of grace and truth. He is both the root and the off-spring of David. He is the Peace, the prince, the priest, the prophet, the purified, the potentate, the propitiation, the physician, the plant of renown, the power of God, the passover of all saints. He is a polished shaft in the quiver of God.

He is the Rock, the refuge, the ruler, the ransom, the refiner, the redeemer, the righteousness and the resurrection of all humble souls. He is the rose of Sharon. He is the Seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the seed of David, the Son of God, the son of man, the strength, the shield, the surety, the shepherd, the Shiloh, the sacrifice, the sanctuary, the salvation, the sanctification, and the sun of righteousness of all believers.

He is that holy thing that was born of Mary. He is the Truth, the treasure, the teacher, the temple, the tree of life, the great testator of his church. He is the Way, the well of salvation, the word of God, the wisdom of God, the faithful witness, the wonderful.

His person is one; but his natures are two. He is both human and divine, finite and infinite, created and uncreated. He was before Abraham, though not born till for ages the patriarch had slept with his fathers. He was dead, and is alive forevermore. On earth he had not where to lay his head, yet he disposes of all diadems. He has the arm of a God, and the heart of a brother. To him all tongues shall confess and all knees bow; yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered. None loves like him, none pities like him, none saves like him. It is not surprising that such a person lives and reigns in the hearts of his people. No marvel that the virgins love him, and the saints praise him, and the martyrs die for him, and the sorrowing long for him, and the penitent pour out their tears before him, and the humble trust in him, and the believing lay fast hold of him. His frown shakes the heavens, his smile gives life, his presence converts dungeons into palaces, his blood cleanses from all sin, his righteousness is the white robe of the redeemed.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 6 September 2018 at 10:23

Posted in Christology

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It’s coming home

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This Wednesday evening something momentous is happening. All around the country, people will gather together. They will probably be keyed up all day, and it will only get more intense as the evening draws on. They will come together with expectation and hope in their hearts. Their songs will express these deep desires. After all, something will happen that is special in itself, with the prospect of much more ahead. By the end of the evening, those people might be rejoicing over something that has not happened, for most of them, in their lifetime.

And, if Wednesday pans out OK, there is more to which we can look forward. After Wednesday, Sunday. And on Sunday … well! Sunday could be the greatest of days! Sunday could be the day when glory, so long looked for and longed for, finally comes. Sunday could be the day we have all been waiting for. Again, that Sunday would be something special in itself, but it holds the promise of so much more. All those years of hurt never stopped me dreaming.

Yes, that’s right. For many of us, Wednesday night is the prayer meeting, and after that we look forward to the Lord’s day.

On Wednesday evening, many of us have the opportunity to seek the face of the Lord of hosts. Our brothers and sisters will expect us to be there with them. It is our assurance that, as we pray together, we shall do so at the very throne of grace, in the presence of our God. We gather together as Christians with the privilege of asking our Father in heaven for the blessings we most desire. As we do so, we anticipate that he will answer us. We shall do business with heaven. It might not be immediately spectacular, but there will be some celestial traffic, and we shall obtain good and needful things for our immortal souls and our often-painful pilgrimage. More than that, we might obtain not just drops but showers of blessing. This might be the night when the Lord draws near in a distinct way and shows his favour to us, granting the Spirit in a measure to which we are unaccustomed.

And after Wednesday, Sunday. And on Sunday … well! It is the day of resurrection. It is the Lord’s day. It is our chief of days. It is the day on which the risen Christ made it his pattern to meet with his disciples. It is the day when we anticipate that the Spirit will work among us so as to make his abiding presence with us sweet and profitable to our hearts. We shall, we trust, as the Word of the Most High God is declared to us, hear the voice of the Eternal. We anticipate the opportunity to enjoy the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. We shall sing his praises with our blood-bought brothers and sisters, encouraging one another in the Way. We shall seek his face again as a congregation, pleading for those blessings which the Lord delights to give. We will spend time together considering the things of God and serving our great King. We hope that this might be the day on which friends we have prayed for come to hear the truth, and to heed it. We long to see people being saved. We hope that God might condescend in a distinct way and show us his glory, so that we shall be changed, and never be the same again. We pray that we might get such a sense of eternity, such a grip upon heavenly reality, that we would spend the rest of our lives with a more sure and sweet sense of the things which are not seen but which are most real.

The problem in the eyes of many is that on Wednesday evening England are playing a World Cup semi-final. If they win, the final is due to take place on Sunday afternoon. And so it may come down to a simple choice. Who or what is more important? Football is fine and dandy, and this is a great sporting occasion. There is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying football. However, if you choose football over the Lord God, if you choose to prioritise worship in that way, then football has become your idol.

So, will you miss this or spoil this for a game of football? You might say, “But what if it’s another ordinary prayer meeting? What if it’s another ordinary Sunday?” Remember what you are doing, or ought to be doing, when you gather for prayer, when the church congregates for worship. It is never, in that sense, ordinary or mundane. And with whom and on what basis are you engaging? What would a World Cup victory mean when you lose your job, or your health, or your wife or child? What will it mean when you come to the end of your own life? How will it sustain you against temptation? How will it uphold you and enable you in the battle for real godliness?

Some might say, “Think of the opportunities for witness!” Actually, the best witness you can give is the plain evidence that the Lord is supreme, and that not even an otherwise-beloved sport is allowed to rival him.

Some might say, “What about the scope for fellowship?” Fellowship isn’t simply being together at the same time in the same place, not even united around the same object or activity. It is Christian engagement designed to stir one another up to love and good works, a communion with each other that flows out of union and communion with God. Even a bunch of Christian friends gathering to enjoy a game of football on another occasion is not fellowship, though it might be a joy in other ways.

Some might say, “Can’t we just slide it all around and still get a blessing? Why can’t we do both? Why not get the game in and then get to church before it starts, or at least before it’s over? I went this morning, why do I need to or have to go again?” Would you say to your wife, “I just want to spend some time with this other lass, and then I will get straight back to you?” How do you think that would go? Did you really get your fill of God? Truly to meet with God stirs rather than sates the appetite of a healthy soul. It never leads us to neglect further opportunities to meet with the Lord, but rather to desire them. Would you say to God in as many words, “I simply want to give my idol its due, but I will turn my attention to you just as soon as I have bowed before my other god.”

The point is that the choices we will make or the priorities we will establish are not actually about football. These words are not against football: football does not inherently fall into the category of sin’s passing pleasures. The choice we will make has to do with our attitude to and expectations of God and his worship on his day. If football trumps God, or if we offer God a cold performance with a grudging heart, then we will be saying with our attitudes and actions what we might never dare to say with our lips.

We are told – and these are the words that are used – that this is the chance for us to witness the potential immortals. But we already have the assurance of meeting with the actual Eternal One. What or who is most important? What is most sweet? What is most real?

Saviour, if of Zion’s city
I, through grace, a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in thy Name:
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 10 July 2018 at 22:20

The deal

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“I’m just not being fed,” s/he said. “This is not a very friendly church. No one really speaks to me. I am not the only one who feels this way. There are lots of people who are struggling. I’m just not sure that this is the right place for me. Why can’t we be more like Broadstreet Evangelical? I really think that I would be better off there.”

“I am very sorry to hear that,” said the pastor. “Might I suggest a deal? I recommend that you go to Broadstreet Evangelical for six months, but on the following conditions:

  • You must not arrive more than two minutes before any service begins. If possible, slip in just afterwards. You should leave as soon as it is over, or – ideally – just before it is properly finished.
  • Please do not attend more than one service a week, certainly not more than once on any given day. When you are able, miss occasional days altogether.
  • Please minimise all contact with others who attend the church. Avoid face-to-face communication at all costs, but – if possible – filter out any notes, cards, texts, emails, or any other such interaction. Cut right down on meaningful conversation.
  • You should not go to anyone’s home, nor invite anyone to yours.
  • Under no circumstances must you engage with the elders. Don’t call them or answer the phone if they call. If you can, wait until they are looking the other way or engaged with someone else before you leave. If necessary, find an alternative exit. Make all conversation as perfunctory as possible. Do not come to them for counsel, consult with them in difficulty, seek them out when distressed, or listen to their advice.
  • Cultivate a healthy sense of resentment (passive-aggressive behaviour is fine) toward anyone who might even begin to suggest that you could make some sort of contribution to the life of the church. Maintain the stance that your occasional presence is quite sacrifice enough.
  • If you must engage with others, seek out the least spiritually healthy in the church. As soon as possible, steer the conversation round to the faults of the church, her members, and her elders.
  • Maintain a healthy circle of worldly friends. Spend as much time with them as possible, going to all the places they attend, engaging in all the chatter they pursue, indulging in all the activities they embrace. Keep up a lively social media engagement with such.
  • Put the advice of friends, family, doctors, self-help books, and anything else really, above and before the advice of any spiritually mature Christian.
  • Should anyone seek to reach out to you to minister to you, cultivate unreliability: assure them of your best intentions, but evade, postpone, or cancel all such interaction with varying degrees of notice. Train them to expect you to seem vaguely positive but never actually available.
  • Sleep through some sermons.
  • Don’t read. Just don’t.
  • Don’t push yourself. You’re worth it!
  • Minimise private devotion, especially private prayer. Make sure that you are at least as busy with other significant demands as you have been for the last couple of years. Don’t read any ‘tricky bits’ from the Bible, and don’t overdose on the obvious stuff.
  • Take long holidays, and give yourself plenty of time on your return to ‘get back into the swing of things.’
  • Never volunteer. Avoid being nominated.
  • Under no circumstances make meaningful eye contact.
  • Look out for others now at Broadstreet who left this congregation for the same reasons as you are giving. If they are speaking, you might want to listen.
  • Also, if anyone at Broadstreet tries to pin you down, I would recommend an occasional visit to Gaping Lane Community Church. By all means be subtle, but make clear that if Broadstreet is becoming a little narrow, the open-minded congregation over at Gaping Lane might be the place for you.

“There’s some other stuff,” said the pastor, “but that should do for starters. It should not take a great deal of investment – no new skills to learn, no additional duties to embrace. Perhaps if you would be willing to give it a go for six months, and then come back and let me know how your soul has prospered and your walk with the Lord has developed? Then we can chat again. Deal?”

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 25 January 2018 at 17:21

The corrective power of an old exposition

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Though it was not his idea, many readers will be well aware of the problem that C. S. Lewis famously identified as “chronological snobbery.” This is, in essence, the thoughtless assumption that our own conclusions are inherently superior to those of a previous age. It shows itself in various ways, perhaps in the simple failure to reckon with the conclusions of a previous intellectual or cultural climate, or even in the implicit or explicit rejection of them as necessarily discredited.

Such snobbery is as much a problem in theology as in anything else. We might exercise it simply by selecting or reading only modern texts, as if the modern age and our place in it have a monopoly on insight. We might excuse it by looking at everything through the lens of the moment and calling it contextualisation. We might embrace it by working on the assumption that our age and its big names has, by definition, a clearer view that the outmoded thinkers of yesteryear. Such attitudes, even in their more careless rather than arrogantly crass variety, can cripple our explanation and application of God’s word. This is as much an issue in the pulpit of the local church as it is in the classroom of the local seminary. It is primarily the former with which I am concerned, but the problem may begin, in many cases, in the latter. The solution applies to both.

There is great value, in all our thinking and preparing, in reading materials which might reveal a substantially or even radically different agenda. I do not necessarily mean opinions against ours (though there is value in those, too), simply opinions that are properly apart from ours. The resources we need might not be readily available to us, but they are worth tracking down and using. We need to duck out of our own age and dip into others as we are preparing our sermons and processing our theological convictions.

Let me offer a couple of practical examples. The first puts me in mind of an interesting experience at university. It concerns a colleague who cultivated an appearance and attitude that corresponded to his vampire-festooned leather jacket and appetite in death metal. He came in one day complaining about the fact that a mate had crashed at this place for a few days and had then disappeared just as quickly, leaving a puppy behind. Not knowing what to do with the unexpected canine, he called his grandma, who I think had a significant role in his upbringing. She was apparently as sweet and cute as he was brash and ugly. She recommended drowning the dog. My colleague was horrified. The disconnect was over only a couple of generations. She was, by nature and nurture, an early twentieth century country lass. To her, animals were animals. He was, by nature and nurture, a late twentieth century city boy. To him, despite the facade, animals were Bambified.

The same sort of disconnect comes when reading, for example, J. L. Dagg on the essential goodness of God. Consider, for example, this little gem:

Brute animals have, on the whole, a happy existence. Free from anxiety, remorse, and the fear of death, they enjoy, with high relish, the pleasures which their Creator has given them; and it is not the less a gift of his infinite goodness, because it is limited in quantity, or abated by some mixture of pain.1

Does that not raise a whole heap of problems? I mean, how could someone – even someone from as benighted a period as the nineteenth century – dismiss animals as part of brute creation? And how could anyone suggest that God’s goodness could be anything other than his intent to maximise happiness? Dagg goes on:

It is a favorite theory with some, that God aims at the greatest possible amount of happiness in the universe; and that he admits evil, only because the admission of evil produces in the end a greater amount of happiness than its exclusion would have done.2

It sounds rather familiar, does it not? But, says, Dagg,

It may be, that God’s goodness is not mere love of happiness. In his view, happiness may not be the only good, or even the chief good. He is himself perfectly happy; yet this perfection of his nature is not presented to us, in his word, as the only ground, or even the chief ground, on which his claim to divine honor and worship rests. The hosts of heaven ascribe holiness to him, and worship him because of it; but not because of his happiness. If we could contemplate him as supremely happy, but deriving his happiness from cruelty, falsehood, and injustice, we should need a different nature from that with which he has endowed us, and a different Bible to direct us from that which he has given, before we could render him sincere and heart-felt adoration. In the regulation of our conduct, when pleasure and duty conflict with each other, we are required to choose the latter; and this is often made the test of our obedience. On the same principle, if a whole life of duty and a whole life of enjoyment were set before us, that we might choose between them, we should be required to prefer holiness to happiness. It therefore accords with the judgment of God not to regard happiness as the chief good; and the production of the greatest possible amount of happiness could not have been his prime object in the creation of the world. We may conclude that his goodness is not a weak fondness which indulges his creatures, and administers to their enjoyment, regardless of their conduct and moral character. It aims at their happiness, but in subordination to a higher and nobler purpose. According to the order of things which he has established, it is rendered impossible for an unholy being to be happy, and this order accords with the goodness of God, which aims, not at the mere happiness of his universe, but at its well-being, in the best possible sense.3

It doesn’t really fit with our nice, early twenty first century idea that happiness really lies at the core of healthy theology. Not only are we jolted out of the idea that animals can expect happiness of the same order that humans enjoy, measured on the same scale that we might use for ourselves, but we are even denied the happy modern assumption that happiness should be considered the be-all-and-end-all of our existence.

Or, for a more psychological, more immediately internal concern (and don’t those very words remind us of just how modern we really are?), how about John 21? There we find Peter, affirming his love for Christ and informed that his future holds service and suffering, even to death, after the pattern of his Lord. Peter immediately asks concerning John, “But Lord, what about this man?”

Most sermons on the text explore the spirit of competition or curiosity that might seem to possess Peter’s soul at this point. Almost every modern commentary, and all the more the closer you get to the present day, make this an occasion for delving into the psyche of Peter. Why does he ask this question? Is it an inexcusable attitude of rivalry? Is it an inappropriate spirit of inquiry? I think those are fair questions. In our self-obsessed and social-media-drenched age, it is an appropriate application to ask whether or not we are more caught up in the lives of others than we ought to be.

However, go back a little further, and Augustine barely touches on that matter. As far as he is concerned, the really pressing question of the passage is this:

Which of the two disciples is the better, he that loveth Christ less than his fellow-disciple, and is loved more than his fellow-disciple by Christ? or he who is loved less than his fellow-disciple by Christ, while he, more than his fellow-disciple, loveth Christ? Here it is that the answer plainly halts, and the question grows in magnitude. As far, however, as my own wisdom goes, I might easily reply, that he is the better who loveth Christ the more, but he the happier who is loved the more by Christ; if only I could thoroughly see how to defend the justice of our Deliverer in loving him the less by whom He is loved the more, and him the more by whom He is loved the less.4

I would suggest that, without Augustine to prompt us, this question might not even enter our modern consciousness. I am not necessarily saying it is the only question, still less the only right question, but it is clearly a question that could and should be asked. And yet how many of us would have thought to ask it? We are so wrapped up in our obsessive internalisation of issues, that we may not even step far enough outside to ask the question about Christ and his love. We are tempted to make the passage all about us. Augustine is ready to make it much more about Christ.

My point is not that these are spectacular examples, or even spectacularly insightful examples. If anything, it is their ordinariness which appeals. A fairly constant and fairly careful checking against the standard of another time and possibly another place, in the regular course of pastoral ministry, prevents us from assuming what we assume is the obvious answer. It stretches our exegetical approach and challenges our applicatory instinct. We might still reach the same conclusions and make the same applications, but we do so having tested those conclusions and applications against the wisdom of the ages. We are consulting with those who made very different assumptions to us, even if they are working the same channels as us. We are confessing that we have no monopoly on wisdom, no iron grip on insight. Even if we might not have got it all wrong, it forces us to ask if we can get it more right.

  1. J. L. Dagg, Manual of Theology, First Part: A Treatise on Christian Doctrine (Charleston, SC; Richmond, VA; Macon, GA; Selma, AL; New Orleans: Southern Baptist Publication Society; S. S. & Publication Board; B. B. & Colporteur Society; B. B. & Book Depository; B. B. Depository, 1859), 80.
  2. J. L. Dagg, Manual of Theology, First Part: A Treatise on Christian Doctrine (Charleston, SC; Richmond, VA; Macon, GA; Selma, AL; New Orleans: Southern Baptist Publication Society; S. S. & Publication Board; B. B. & Colporteur Society; B. B. & Book Depository; B. B. Depository, 1859), 80.
  3. J. L. Dagg, Manual of Theology, First Part: A Treatise on Christian Doctrine (Charleston, SC; Richmond, VA; Macon, GA; Selma, AL; New Orleans: Southern Baptist Publication Society; S. S. & Publication Board; B. B. & Colporteur Society; B. B. & Book Depository; B. B. Depository, 1859), 80–81.
  4. Augustine of Hippo, “Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John,” in St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. John Gibb and James Innes, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 449.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 22 January 2018 at 23:06

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