May I draw your attention to three volumes, each relatively new, each stimulating in its own sphere? Each is written by a friend, and two received an endorsement from me, so please take that into account in what I write.
The first is from Brian Croft. The Pastor’s Ministry: Biblical Priorities for Faithful Shepherds is a basic introduction to the work of the ministry. It is a reflection of the failure of many churches and the paucity of much seminary instruction that these truths should seem so fresh, even novel, to many. It is also a reflection of the carelessness of our hearts that – though we may think we know them – we so often need to be reminded of them. This, then, would make an excellent gift for men entering or leaving any stripe of more or less formal ministerial training, as well as a good refresher for men already in the trenches. My endorsement read:
What my friend Brian Croft says in this book should be so obvious that it barely needs saying. Tragically, these are the very principles and practices that are so often unknown or neglected and so quickly lost or forgotten. Whether you need instruction or correction, learning or reminding, Brian’s gift for simple and clear communication of plain pastoral realities will clear your head, warm your heart, and strengthen your hands.
The second book is by David Murray, and is called The Happy Christian. In my endorsement, I wrote:
What does it mean to be happy? The light of nature allows us to observe, desire and appreciate the benefits of certain kinds of happiness. Only the light of Scripture enables us properly to define, obtain and cultivate true and lasting happiness. David Murray’s difficult task in this genuinely stimulating and sometimes provocative book is to accept and acknowledge the former source of illumination while being governed by and relying upon the latter. He has no appetite for the fixed grin and glassy stare of a carnally-manufactured positivity. Instead, David seeks to train our hearts in Christian cheerfulness, genuine gladness, and believing hopefulness, to enjoy and employ the “solid joys and lasting treasures” of the true children of God. Some might take issue with the balance of his foundations and the choice or proportion of his materials, but all Christians would do well to consider the structure and style of the building David erects. It is a good and bright place to live, and many of us need to start construction.
I hope that gives some sense of the excellent work that David has done. This is a book very carefully pitched. My sense is that it steps outside the typical circles of many Reformed and evangelical writers, and – without compromise – seeks to engage and to attract those who might otherwise look over or around that circle. In doing so, it draws on many of our wonderful resources of a genuinely Christian worldview, and reminds all of us of what we are so often missing in our walk as disciples of Christ. Again, you can get it at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk, as well as Westminster.
The final book is by Stuart Olyott. This one is called Something Must Be Known & Felt: A Missing Note in Today’s Christianity. It is at once an exciting and unsettling book. It is a necessarily uncomfortable book. It is, at points, a contentious book. Some might consider it a dangerous book. It is, because of rather than despite all that, a good book. I agree with its primary thrust, even if I am presently left behind by some of its particular details.
Those who know Stuart Olyott as a preacher or author will know that he is not a man given to reckless flights of ungrounded fancy. That is important to recall in reading this book on the place of feeling in the life of the believer. His contention is that biblical Christianity is a holy compound of doctrine, ethics and experience, the last of these being often perverted or neglected today.
To correct this, he first gives a survey of emotion from the Scriptures then an overview of the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul. He applies these two matters in the spheres of assurance, Christ’s felt presence, guidance from God, asking and receiving, and waiting on the Lord (the latter two having to do particularly with prayer). In every instance he simultaneously discharges both barrels against the arid wastes of barren intellectualism and the dry expanses of mindless enthusiasm. Each chapter is a blend of scriptural evidences and personal and historical experiences. There is both a deliberate resistance to mysticism and an unembarrassed supernaturalism.
It is hard in a book so brief to give adequate attention to every point made. That means that there are some bold and bald assertions which need to be set in the context of Stuart’s wider ministry. This is not the writing of a man going soft, but of a man pressing on. He wishes to open our eyes and our hearts to elements of Christian experience of which we are ignorant, and ignorance here cannot be bliss.
On more debatable points the author is especially careful to add to scriptural arguments trustworthy witnesses both immediate and distant, including incidents from his own life. I struggled with some of his statements, especially regarding God’s ways of offering guidance or answering prayer. I also confess that this may be because of my own paucity of experience at this point. At each such point the author offers enough scriptural substance to make us tentatively positive, exercising a cautious care in debating his affirmations. Even those who would back away from some of the more striking assertions should take pains not casually to dismiss any part of the argument.
There is much here to which I can readily add a hearty “Amen!” At some points, I should be happy to find my minor concerns proved unfounded. In a very small number of cases, I should need more compelling evidence fully to embrace some of what is written. The fact that the untaught and unstable might abuse some of these things does not mean they should not be addressed. Neither should our reactions against various abuses blind us to what we ourselves might be missing.
Read it carefully and prayerfully; wrestle with it humbly and scripturally; respond to it righteously and earnestly. Buy it at Amazon.co.uk.
A few weeks ago I mentioned a CofE primary school in Crawley, West Sussex, called St Margaret’s, Ifield, that is in the process of seeking a new head teacher. The position has now been advertised. Perhaps you or someone you know might be interested? As you will see from the advert, the school is seeking a robust and faithful Christian who will be an excellent head teacher. Oh, and there happens to be a fine Reformed or Particular Baptist church not too far away …
The credits roll. The hero and/or heroine (fling in a plural or two as appropriate) mount their horses, or link their arms, or climb aboard, or do something else redolent of completion, and disappear into the sunset. Some measure of victory lies behind them, even if more battles might lie ahead.
It is what happens at the end of a thousand films or television programmes – not all, but most. Sitting on a long aeroplane flight, as was my recent situation, you catch a glimpse of it up and down the aisles. But review the programmes on offer, and a slightly more nuanced story emerges. The vast majority of films presume upon a painful, dystopian, or even (favourite phrase) post-apocalyptic setting for the action. Despite a succession of happy-ish endings (even temporary ones, where the hero[es] wander on to the next conflict in the dystopian haze) the working assumption is that man is a fairly miserable creature.
It may be struggle and conflict. It may be sickness and disease. It may be disasters natural or man-made. It may be broken relationships of battered minds and bodies. Whatever it may be, the vast majority of these films seem to begin with evil in the ascendancy. Of course, they often end on a high note, but high notes don’t work when you need another slice of devastation and grimness against which to set your next hero. It is a matter of interest of me that no matter what denials our cultures cultivate against the fact of original sin and the depravity of our nature, it is what they assume when they begin to consider or anticipate the future.
What seems to be the norm is a fairly realistic (biblical) view of human nature, with a desperate desire for someone who rises above the norm and who can therefore overcome the dead ends into which our nature drives us. We struggle to argue overmuch with the first – it might at least give us at least some point of contact as we seek to expose the proud folly of sinful man. With regard to the second, it is a tragic case of fallen men looking in all the wrong places.
You will doubtless have heard on a number of occasions those who bewail the present day. I admit to having limited sympathy with those who argue that we are living in the absolute worst of times. I read of the social conditions, cultural norms and spiritual battles of past days and I sometimes think, “We do not have it so bad.” However, very often, those who have decided that these are the worst of days use that conclusion to drive a certain way of thinking and acting. Perhaps it is the pastor’s conference where the prevailing mood is one tending to despair, where most of the older men are quick to suggest that the nation is under judgement, or some such assertion, ready to root any sense of believing anticipation out of the heart of those naive young bucks who think they have a prospect of blessing. Perhaps it is the crippling affliction of a whole congregation, maybe under the influence of a more negative spirit in the preaching, by which the diagnosis of local, national or global malaise has become an excuse to attempt and expect nothing. After all, why bother?
My gut instinct – and, I hope, my scriptural instinct – is to reject that spirit of defeatism, even where it comes from men whom I otherwise esteem and respect. And yet, it is worth bearing in mind that there are harder times and easier times. Paul wants Timothy to “know this, that in the last days perilous times will come” (2Tim 3:1). It seems that Paul means that, in the period between the first and the second and last coming of the Lord Christ, there will be seasons marked out by distinctive and heightened spiritual danger, periods of intensified spiritual combat. The apostle goes on to describe those seasons: “men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2Tim 3:2–5). I would suggest that it takes no great exegete to recognise that, in the modern West, and perhaps in other particular places around the world, we seem to be heading into – if we are not already in – a perilous time.
And so Paul goes on to counsel Timothy: “Whatever you do, boy, don’t try anything. The Spirit has departed and prospects are poor. Keep your head low, and don’t make eye contact. Batten down the hatches, retreat behind the barricades, and hope against hope that somehow you and a few others make it through relatively unscathed. Dodge, duck, dive, and do whatever it takes to survive. Try and keep it painless. Maybe once the storm has swept over you will be able to creep out of your hole and try again. Keep face, of course! Learn to preach and pray primarily against the failings and compromises of other Christians and churches. Build up your sense of superiority on the graves of their reputations. Teach about faithfulness in the midst of trials in such as way as to allow everyone to paint their own face in the portrait. Present revival as a panacea, as something that happens to bad people out there, resolving all our difficulties without requiring faith, repentance, or Spirit-stirred activity among the saints. Press on in this way, Timothy, and perhaps I will see you on the other side.”
What nonsense! I trust we are all aware that Paul spoke in rather different fashion:
I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2Tim 4:1–5)
So it is quite possible that we look out and see something of a present spiritual wasteland, perhaps increasingly a spiritual battleground. We may be troubled at a perceived paucity of proven men and fear a sickly trickle of younger ones. We recognise surges in atheism, paganism, idolatry and false religion, some of it militarised. Old errors are stalking the land, and capturing many hearts. And it may in some measure, even in large measure, be true. We may shortly be living through one of the perilous times, if we are not already doing so.
But is now the time to run or hide? Can we responsibly and righteously walk away when others may be ready to walk in and make the sacrifices necessary to exalt Christ? Who will call sinners to repentance? Who will hold the line and set the standard for those who may be following? Should we interpret these as the days of small things, and so make our excuses for little faith and low expectations?
Surely a field of battle on which holding the line, let alone advancing it, is hard, is a field of honour? If our analysis is in any degree right, have we considered the privilege of being called to serve Christ in this hour? To what has he called us? “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier” (2Tim 2:3–4). We cannot say we were not warned! In the words of Andrew Fuller, “A servant that heartily loves his master counts it a privilege to be employed by him, yea, an honour to be intrusted with any of his concerns” (Complete Works, 3:320). How much more ought we to count it a privilege and an honour to serve such a Saviour as Christ in dangerous seasons?
We must of course beware of vainglory, that casual and carnal bombast that presumes that heroism runs in our veins. It is probably still the case – it certainly has been in past conflicts – that the men who are most full of themselves on the training ground are not often (even rarely) the ones who acquit themselves well on the battleground. It may be worth remembering the words of Ahab, albeit in a different context: “Let not the one who puts on his armour boast like the one who takes it off” (1Kgs 20:11).
All the same, surely now is the time to rise to the challenge. Now is not the time to step back, but to step up. It may or may not be ours to see great advances made, but those advances might need to be weighed rather than numbered. To accomplish a little something in the darkest hours of the hardest fights may be worth as much in the grand scheme of things as to do great deeds when the enemy is already running. Brands snatched from the burning are worth risking much to save. The enemy may not start running until some of those hard stands and have been taken and those hard yards have been won. Besides, “when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do’” (Lk 17:10).
Now is the time to assess the days, count the cost, and preach the Word. We must be ready in season and out of season. It is our duty and our privilege to convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. This is part of the good fight of faith, what Spurgeon called “the greatest fight in the world.” It is the hardest; it is the best; it is the most worthy, being fought for the best cause and the best Master, and offering the best reward.
Remember how Mordecai spoke to Esther as the people of God faced devastation and she began to explain her circumstances and make her excuses. He informed her bluntly that her circumstances would not save her. He assured her confidently that the Lord had not forgotten his people. He promised her soberly that cowardice might see her swept away. And he questioned her graciously, stirring her soul: “Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Are we living in the last days? Certainly? Is this one of the dangerous seasons? Possibly, even probably. Yet who knows whether or not this is our high privilege: that we have come to the kingdom for such a time as this.
It is not particularly surprising but it is disappointing. Furthermore, it is dangerous. It is in some respects the typical kneejerk reaction to current events (by which I mean events over the last few months, even years, rather than merely weeks), and the typical danger that you can never be entirely sure in which direction the knee will jerk and the foot will strike. It is the continued assault on freedom in the name of freedom.
In the last week or so school inspectors in the UK gave an unseemly grilling to primary school pupils at Grindon Hall Christian School, where the impression was clearly given (even if not intended) of a real hostility – in the name of promoting “British values” – to the school’s distinctive Christian ethos.
Quite apart from the inappropriateness and intrusiveness of some of the questions asked by almost-complete strangers to young children (questions which, in any other context, might have been taken in an altogether distasteful way), it rather opened a window into the attitudes of some of those who are appointed guardians of freedom.
But time marches on, and new challenges are already arising. The government is now rapidly pushing forward legislation that will preserve our “British values” and combat anti-extremism. Among the consequences of this legislation would be the opportunity – even the requirement – for university authorities to vet the addresses and materials of visiting speakers. That is the context in which I first saw the warning given, but the consultation document is pushing it across the public sector at the very least, with a variety of services and spheres impacted. Effectively, a proactive and preventative demand for censorship would be imposed in a variety of key public settings and environments.
I am sure that the opportunities for those who believe that “British values” demand, or provide the opportunity to pursue, a sort of amorphous atheistic amorality will not be slow to use the weapon put in their hands. As so often, the latest two-edged Excalibur, offered as the key to defending freedom, may become the very means by which freedoms are curtailed.
Naturally, the government provides all manner of assurances about how such things are enforced. With regard to school inspections, for example, Department for Education guidance makes very clear that in advancing our ill-defined “British values” schools are not required to promote “other beliefs” or “alternative lifestyles.” However, this seems to be precisely the point at which pressure was applied to the school in question not only corporately but individually and inappropriately with regard to particular students. We can expect that the same will happen with these new powers, should they come into law.
So, while our politicians line up with their pens and pencils aloft to trumpet their allegiance to free speech, they are simultaneously – and in the name of freedom – preparing to crack down on freedom of speech. It is, it seems, OK to be Charlie Hebdo (not personally, one understands, that would be a little dangerous, but it’s fine for other people to be Charlie Hebdo), and be able to poke fun at the fundies of all stripes. That must be defended. But I suggest that it must be made clear that such swipes and skewerings are not the only expressions of freedom of speech.
Generally speaking, and despite media attempts to push us into the first of the following categories, true Christians are neither violent extremists (dogmatic conviction need not translate into militant physical aggression) nor extravagant satirists (willing and able to undermine and offend for the mere sake of it, and call it wit and art – never having read Charlie Hebdo, I cannot comment on whether or not or to what extent they fall into this category). The Christian’s only real offense should be the offense of the cross, though the rugged edges and sharp points of that cross have a habit of puncturing pride and pomposity wherever it is found, and pride is of the essence of fallen man’s sense of himself. The weapons of our spiritual warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. The armoury of God’s kingdom bears little relation to those of the kingdoms of the world. However, those without spiritual discernment are quite prepared to lump true Christians in with the violent extremists and deny them any of the privileges of the extravagant satirists. Indeed, the very nature of our message indicates that the gospel will be among the first and most aggressively pursued targets of those who – in the name of freedom – wish to silence dissent.
Only a fool would deny the difficulty of ensuring genuine freedom of speech and expression while at the same time preserving a measure of social order and cultural decency. But the response to terrorism, even Islam’s militarised religious supremacism, should not be to diminish all freedoms. That will not halt the terrorists, not least those driven by religionised hatred. In some respects, it will simply simplify their task.
But watch this space, for this is the brave new world. As mentioned in a previous post, to the humanist unbeliever who denies that he or she exists in their own tightly woven cocoon of a certain kind of ‘faith’, the Christian is just one of a range of dangerously nutty voices in the gallery of the fruitcakes. Indeed, the offense of the cross means that our gospel words will prove the pre-eminent spiritual red rag to the bulls of mere human reason and religion. But, if we are true to our convictions, we know that we echo the one voice of true reason, the single declaration of spiritual sanity, the alone hope of salvation, in an otherwise unstable and disordered world, wrecked by sin and riddled with its consequences. Unbelieving humanism is one among the range of rotten systematised alternatives to the truth as it is in Jesus. To whom else should we go? Christ has the words of eternal life.
We should expect that our freedom to make known the hope of the world will be deliberately (whether incrementally or more abruptly) assaulted and where possible eroded and removed by the very world that needs to hear it. The patients will assault the envoys of the only doctor with a cure for their condition. We must therefore ensure that our declarations and their accompanying actions are entirely consistent, that we bring with us everywhere the savour of Christ. As citizens of earthly kingdoms, we are entitled graciously yet firmly to assert our rights as citizens. But as citizens of heaven, we do not expect to find the warmest of welcomes in a hostile world. So let us brace ourselves against the storm, hold fast to the Christ who holds fast to us, speak the truth in love, call sinners to repent and believe, love our enemies, serve our Redeemer, and press on toward glory.
A couple of times a month, as God enables us, the church which I serve attempts to proclaim the gospel in the centre of our town, preaching in the open air, handing out tract-invitations, and engaging in conversation with those who have a few moments to spare. Today was one of those occasions, and it gave a fairly representative glimpse into the spiritual battleground on which we are fighting.
On our arrival, we found the Jehovah’s Witnesses established just along from our usual patch. They have been unusually active in our area recently, and have begun to employ some new techniques and hardware – well-designed portable leaflet stands which are put up in prominent or busy places (just outside bus, train and tube stations seem to be favourites, though obviously not limited to them) with a couple of well-spoken Witnesses manning their stations.
As we began to set up and hand out our invitations some distance away, a passing gentleman pointed out to me that we had a little competition. Trying to seize the opportunity, I plunged into what became a conversation with a French philosopher of sorts (literally French, philosophical by inclination), a thoroughgoing humanist for whom all was relative and death alone was absolute. We ranged hither and yon, with the usual shoal of red herrings as I tried to address his objections and bring him back always to the scriptural realities of sin and salvation. He parted with my contact details, and expressed a willingness to consider getting in touch so that I could speak with him further. I hope, too, that he will accept the invitation to come to our church services and to see what kind of people are true Christians, and so learn the character of the God we serve.
His claim that we had competition (to which I will return) was further and sadly enhanced by the arrival of another local group, wild-eyed Arminians with a thoroughly worldly programme and a range of heresies to proclaim and a great deal of health and wealth to promise. They saw us, sounded us out, got their gear out about twenty yards away and planted themselves all around us. Their basic approach is to set up something like a street party, invite people to another party, and then try to sweep people further into their clutches on a wave of emotions. There is a lot of Bible speak, but not a great deal of biblical truth. The noise of their contribution bordered on the overwhelming.
Interestingly, they were drowned out by about forty devotees of Hare Krishna who were making their way into and around the centre of the town with drums, bells and cymbals. We heard them coming a way off. Given that our Arminian friends had bordered on the aggressive in their locating of themselves, a troupe of orangey chanters trampling pretty much through and over them might have caused a snigger in less high-minded chaps than ourselves. One quick-witted of our number managed to get in amongst them and hand out a few tracts, but the poor fellow was almost drowned in the tangerine tide.
It did not appear, on the surface of things, to be our most successful endeavour. It certainly underlined to us the nature of the battle. As we prayed, we asked the Lord to save those who are trapped in these godless and heretical environments, and to bring all these systems of error to nothing. As one of our number pointed out, there was something Athenian in the situation: our spirits were provoked as we saw our town given over to idols (Acts 17:16) and so we tried to reason with them, preaching to them Jesus and the resurrection by means of tracts and conversations (less so by open proclamation on this occasion, given the nature of the environment). It is interesting that all the artwork I have found of Paul in Athens gives the impression of a rapt audience seemingly enamoured of a potent speaker who has his hearers in the palm of his hand. I wonder how near or far those images are from the reality? We are not Paul, we know that, but maybe it was not quite as neat and pleasant there as some of our imaginations make out.
So, are we in competition? Are we, as my Gallic interlocutor suggested, just one of a range of equally valid voices all clamouring for attention? As I pointed out to him, we are not.
First of all, we do not compete in terms of method. We are not going to attempt to out-suave, out-dance, out-shout, and out-beat those who come with their empty messages and vain offers. We are not playing that game and we do not need to. Just because the world suggests that we are one among many in the marketplace of ideas does not mean we have to prostitute our message with the same froth and filth as everyone else. We are not competing in terms of our method.
Second, as I made clear, we are not merely offering another alternative to a range of spiritual or intellectual placebos. In that sense, we are not competing in terms of our message. Every other offer he was hearing – indeed, his own notions and his own system in which he so ardently believed – called out to mankind to look to themselves, to work harder, do better and climb higher. Ultimately, and in many cases sooner rather than later, every other one of those systems and claims will crash and burn. Ours is the one distinctive message: a call to look out and up, to look to Christ who has accomplished all, finished the work, having climbed down to save his wretched and rebellious creatures by suffering and dying in their place, exhausting God’s curse against sin and providing his own righteousness in order that we might stand before him with peace and joy. We call men away from everything else to the one true and living God, and to his Son, who loved us and gave his life for us, and rose from the dead in triumph on our behalf. We see and feel and loathe and mourn the clamour of falsehood and idolatry that swirls around us, but it is not a competition between parallel vanities. It is a battle between the truth of God and the range of damnable errors and heresies and emptinesses that masquerade as hopes for the hopeless and helps for the helpless.
May God grant that within and without the walls of our church buildings, he would give us grace to give earnest, winsome and unflinching testimonies to the truth as it is in Jesus, demonstrating in our lives the truths that we confess with our lips! May God’s message and God’s method prevail, and may the light overcome the darkness!
It is too easy to make our witness to Christ programmatic and mechanical. There is no doubt that some measure of order and organisation is often profitable. There are many right and proper endeavours that demand structure, planning and management in order to do them well. People must be gathered and equipped, instructed or trained or encouraged, informed where to be and what to do, and so the programme begins. I am by no means suggesting that all such endeavours need to be culled – far from it!
However, could it be that too often we think of doing evangelism rather than simply being evangelists, of being fully and readily evangelical? We are, after all, gospel people, are we not? We are the ones who have been called out of darkness into God’s marvellous light in order that we might proclaim his praises (1Pt 2.9). In a sense, our witness to grace ought to be the most spontaneous, instinctive, natural thing in the world.
There are times when – because of fear, weariness, laziness, busyness, sickness, doubt or other reasons – we have to take ourselves in hand and stir ourselves up and spur ourselves and others on. Nevertheless, we should not need to be beaten into testifying of the grace of God in Christ. It bubbles out of a man like the apostle Paul under a variety of motivations, but it rarely seems to need to be drawn out, only directed as it flows.
Again, it is worth bearing in mind that we might wish to ensure that when speaking to unconverted men and women of the Lord Christ and his death and resurrection there are certain truths that we strike each time, every time, and time and time again over time. There is a certain core of truths that needs to be held up and pressed home. Here once more is something of fixed substance. But at the same time, there need be no rigidity, no dry formula, in speaking of him whom not having seen we love. It should be a ready, cheerful and unforced testimony – the sort of enthusiasm which we would struggle to quell in almost any other sphere.
And how do we cultivate this relatively artless and effortless expression? By meditating much upon the person and work of Christ, by walking closely with him, communing with him, and delighting ourselves in all he is in himself and to us.
Let us be less about doing evangelism and more about being evangelists. Let the truth flow from us readily as we go about our business. “Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2Cor 2:14–15).