The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Archive for the ‘Christian living’ Category

Conditional lives

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“All of this is conditional.”

So said our Prime Minister when setting out the proposals for the ending of the UK’s national lockdown. It seems like a sensible thing to say. Whether or not you like the idea of being a slave to ‘the science’, our widespread ignorance makes it at least reasonable to suggest that we can only proceed step by step, simply because we do not know what will happen when we take each step. Even a bolder and more definite plan, and even taking account of the more detailed advice that has been promised, it always has to be what is insistently called “a conditional plan.”

It is striking to see how angry and afraid people become because of this. It reminds me of a road trip to preach at a church in the Midlands many years ago. Setting out in good time, I discovered that a major motorway had been closed overnight and the re-opening had been delayed. In company with thousands of others, I queued. In company with hundreds of others, I got fed up queuing and tried to find a way around. When those hundreds of us ended up in other and worse queues, I returned to my original queue, which was still shorter. When the road opened, off we all went, most of us now late. To begin with, I had the pedal to the metal, wondering if I could still get there in time, occasionally dropping out of the fast lane to let someone past at a ridiculous rate of knots. And I noticed their faces and their driving styles. They appeared, typically, angry or scared. Their plans were in disarray. They had thought that they were in control, and now they needed to get back in control, to catch up lost time, to get a grip again on their lives. It seemed to me that they thought that they had been in charge of things, and, when things were taken out of their hands, they became deeply agitated. At some level, it was idolatry of the self. At that point, I slowed down, called ahead to say that I would be late, and drove—relatively safely and sanely—to the place where I was preaching. I arrived about thirty minutes into the service, stepping inside the door as a man was fervently pleading for the safe arrival of the preacher. His earnestness suggested that he would be the man who would have to step in if I did not arrive. His relief when he opened his eyes was palpable. I don’t know if anyone has ever been that glad to see me! But I had been taught again that I am not in control.

It is a lesson that has been pressed home again in the last few weeks. On one level, everything has fallen apart. So much that I had planned, for which I had prepared, and upon which I had presumed over the course of the coming months, now lies in ashes. The plans for the Lord’s day ministry that I had in mind, the evangelistic efforts locally, the connections and investments close at hand, all proved conditional. Next week I should have been at a conference in the UK and then one in the US. They were, it seems, eminently conditional. This week, my involvement in a European conference in the summer was tentatively cancelled, but that’s conditional on the next few weeks. Possibly rescheduling of these conferences for the future is … er … conditional upon factors outside of our control. We are looking at plans for post-lockdown church meetings. Much of it is conditional. At its most visceral, we have come again face to face with our own mortality, and with the mortality of those who are most dear to us. My life is conditional. Perhaps the fear has faded a bit, but all plans might have been ended by death. I have had to face again my utter weakness. I have been reminded—I have needed to be reminded—that I am not in control, and that God is. In fact, in that there is something quite refreshing.

You see, I spend a lot of time planning. I think efficiency is a marvellous thing. My days tend to be quite full, even if not always well-constructed and minutely-detailed. I like a bit of flex. The bigger picture tends to be, in my calendar, a rainbow-hued glory of seamless transition from place to place and task to task. In the last few weeks, I have spent at least as much time deleting and re-ordering as I have entering and scheduling.

And in that there can be a real sense of relief. The first few weeks of lockdown, everything just dropped. The schedule to which I was a self-indentured slave meant very little. There were times when I could have danced, others when I felt the responsibility for diligence with a newly-cleansed calendar. But it was not simply the absence of the demand that offered peace; for many, the fact that they were no longer in control seemed to induce fear or anger. What gave me peace was the reminder that while I am not in control, God is.

Everything I plan is always conditional. I just tend to forget that it is so. Every plan, made by every individual and institution, every prime minister, president and potentate, every governor and every government and every grunt, is conditional. The world’s plans have been brought to a standstill, or even to nothing, by a virus we can barely trace or track. We all tend to forget that it is so. James reminds us of this reality at the personal, visceral level:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (Jas 4:13–16).

sun behind cloudsWe make our plans, and we forget that even tomorrow is not guaranteed. It is not wrong to make plans, but we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” Anything else is to boast in arrogance, and all such boasting is evil. What I ought to remember is that the only words which never fall to the ground are God’s. Nothing fails of any of his plans and promises. In that true sense, nothing has fallen apart; nothing has ended prematurely; nothing has been rescheduled. Everything has worked out as the Lord God has intended. From my perspective, all has proved conditional. From the throne of heaven, all comes to pass as it was intended. God’s sovereign determinations and unconditional decrees have issued in unfailing outcomes.

If we become angry or afraid because of the conditional nature of our plans and purposes, it is because we have not reckoned with our humanity, our mortality, our feeble finitude. We are not in control. That is true in the great things of our existence, and it is true of all the minute details of our individual lives. That tends to make the self-determining heart afraid and angry, or drift into despair, or insist upon the emptiness and pointlessness of it all. But true faith faces this, and turns to God and puts all things in his hands, and hangs all our plans and purposes upon his merciful and loving designs, without fear or anger.

My times are in your hand;
My God, I wish them there;
My life, my friends, my soul I leave
Entirely to your care.

My times are in your hand;
Whatever may unfold;
Pleasing or painful, dark or bright,
All by your love controlled.

My times are in your hand;
Why should I doubt or fear?
My Father’s hand will never cause
His child a needless tear.

My times are in your hand,
Jesus, the crucified!
Those hands my cruel sins had pierced
Are now my guard and guide.

My times are in your hand,
I’ll trust abidingly;
And, after death, at your right hand
I shall forever be.

William Freeman Lloyd (with minor modernisations)

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 12 May 2020 at 12:31

Planning like immortals

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How are you planning under these present circumstances? Some, it seems clear, are not planning at all. If this life is all, and if there is nothing else to worry about, if—in short—the dead do not rise, then, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” (1Cor 15:32). It is hard not to see that attitude in the thoughtlessness of many, even if the words themselves are missing. They have barely considered the implications of mortality.

Others, more cautious, are making more careful preparations. Have you noticed, though, what you assume in making your plans? If you are anything like me, you instinctively assume that you will be fine. That you will not have to self-isolate. That you will not fall sick. That you will not be hospitalised. That you will not die. We plan like immortals.

In fact, most of us always have. We have said, in effect, what the people of James’ day said: “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit” (Jas 4:13). We have lived our lives as if our tomorrows were assured. To some extent, we still do, despite the disease sweeping the globe. Most of us, I imagine, are still planning on the assumption that we will be fine. Perhaps the old and the weak might struggle; perhaps the foolish and the feeble might be swept away. We, on the other, will batten down the hatches, and we shall emerge when the storm is past. It goes for the selfish stockpiling and panic purchasing that is blighting our communities with ugliness and distress. The assumption of all that selfishness and greediness is that I will be alive and well to enjoy the fruits of my investments.

And what was the warning that James issued in his day? Yes, you have made your plans to go here and there, to do this and that, but “you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (Jas 4:14). We plan like immortals, but we are feeble and frail. We plan like immortals, but we are the dust of the earth. We plan like immortals, but we cannot guarantee a moment of our lives under the best of circumstances. In this present season, we certainly cannot presume upon the future.

What is the alternative? It is not wrong to make preparations for tomorrow, and this situation should not freeze us with fear or debilitate us with despair. But we ought ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that” (Jas 4:15). It was always true, but it ought to press upon us now, that our times are in God’s hands. We should make our plans in conscious dependence on him. When I remember this, it makes a difference to the way I plan. I still prepare a sermon, but I am conscious that I may not be alive and well to deliver it. I no longer presume that I will stand to preach, but I urge others to be ready, and to be ready to be unable, too. And, when I have planned, I ask that the Lord might preserve me, if it be his will, to do what I have planned.

I still make my plans to care for my family and God’s flock, but I take pains to make sure that—as much as lies in me—I am prepared both for the best and for the worst, not least by committing all to the hands of God. We have drawn up our timetables for schooling at home, we have thought about how to care for our neighbours, we have made some preparations for various aspects of encouraging and comforting and evangelising ministries. We want to be ready for what lies ahead. But, after all my best planning and preparing, I still need to sit back and say, with all humility, “If the Lord wills, I shall live and do this or that.”

For some, this may be a shift in our whole outlook, and a most necessary one in these days. To presume that all will go well with you is to “boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil” (Jas 4:16). It is to plan like an immortal. And I am not.

The repeated imagery of the Scriptures for the life of man is that of something fundamentally fragile and frail: “As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more” (Ps 103:15–16). It is not morbid for me to remember this in these days; it is wise. It will keep me humble.

So, God helping me, I will plan like a mortal. So should you. When it comes to the matters of this life, we should make our plans wisely and carefully and selflessly, and write above every moment, “If the Lord wills.” And there is a yet more careful preparation that we all need. If I am to plan like a mortal, I need to prepare for my death. For this will come, one way or another, and the dead do rise, either to the resurrection of life or to the resurrection of condemnation (Jn 5.29). There is only one proper and adequate preparation that I can make, and that is to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, who only is able to deliver, not merely from sickness, but from sin and death and hell, and to grant eternal life, a true and happy immortality. Let us not, then, live boastfully and arrogantly. Let us not now plan like immortals. Let us remember that we are dust, and let us prepare by faith to live righteously and to die confidently, trusting in the Lord, in whose hands is life everlasting.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 20 March 2020 at 12:15

The church and the plague

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“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, honour to whom honour” (Rom 13:1–7).

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk 20:25).

“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:24–25).

“Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss” (1Thes 5:26).

“But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge’” (Acts 4:19).

“You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13).

“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise” (Lk 6:27–31).

And then the government said, “Thou shalt not gather, no, not for religious worship, not even on the Lord’s day.”

So what do we do? How do we proceed? Are we capitulating to anti-Christian authorities if we fail to gather together on the Lord’s day? Or are we honouring the authorities which God has put in place over us? Where and how do we obey the civil authorities, and how does that connect with our duties to the Lord our God? I have some kind of innate resistance to the idea of civil government regulating the worship of God. I trust that I have developed, over time, a principled commitment to being among God’s people on the Lord’s day, and making the most of those opportunities. However, I am most concerned to work out how to honour the Lord in all of this.

In this regard, I have read some amusing comments suggesting that, because—as is well known—all Europeans are basically socialists, therefore they will obey their governments without question, demonstrating mindless submission to their near-totalitarian authorities, whereas free Americans, of course, will resist their government the moment the big boys start throwing their weight around. Not quite following the logic there, but it seems a somewhat simplistic reading of the situation.

So, we are to be subject to the governing authorities, appointed by God. If we do what is good, we shall have nothing to fear from them. We are to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. All this would include recognising the measure of oversight and national direction a competent and well-disposed civil government might be able to provide, and at least honouring the government’s intentions to preserve the health and life of its citizenry, maintain the economy, and so on. So, for example, if the government assures us that it has stockpiles of toilet paper, we don’t need to go on binge-buying toilet paper on the working assumption (working suspicion?) that they are trying to deprive us of toilet paper and hoard it for departments and officials of the state. If the government, for the preservation of life, urges or requires that we avoid public gatherings, including religious worship, we have—at the very least—an obligation to take that into account. In doing so, it is proper to take into account the difference between counsel and command: the government might advise us to do something which we choose to do or not to do, or to do in a certain way. In such an instance, we have a little more freedom of manoeuvre.

But what if the government forbids what God commands or commands what God forbids? Does it make a difference if it is temporary and a matter of outwardly good governance? God has commanded us to meet as a gathered church, has appointed the first day of the week as the proper day on which that should take place, and has made sweet promises in connections with those gatherings. Our love for God would surely carry us toward a dedicated commitment to gathering with his people in his presence for his praise. If we are healthy saints, we will have both a sense of our proper obligation and a proper appetite for the worship of God together. And, when we gather, there usually ought to be proper expressions of affectionate fraternity among us—whatever may be the equivalent of the holy kiss. Indeed, we might argue that such times as these are times when the gathering of the saints becomes more significant, not less so, as we come together to cast ourselves upon God, and receive the spiritual sustenance our souls need to keep faith keen, hope bright, and love strong amidst these challenges.

Now, what of the sixth commandment? We are told not to murder, and that commandment requires (to employ the language of The Shorter Catechism) us to use all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life, and the life of others, while forbidding the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbour unjustly, or whatsoever tends toward that end. Earlier this year I was struck down, for what may be the first time in my life, with proper flu. I was in bed for about a week, careful about exposing others to any potential infection for several days after that, especially when resuming my public pastoral duties, and particularly careful about not visiting more vulnerable members of the congregation for a further period of time. Under normal circumstances, I would probably encourage people with a high level of sickness to take particular precautions about spreading their illnesses. While I do not encourage people to cry off the worship of God for petty reasons, if someone is sick (especially infectiously sick), then—for their own sake and that of others—they should probably ‘self-isolate’, to use the current jargon. In that sense, we are simply applying the regular principle to an irregular situation. If someone is either unwilling or unable to make a wise decision for themselves, perhaps some diaconal counsel would be appropriate, even to the point of advising them to return home for their own wellbeing, and that of others.

Then there are those principles of love to our neighbour which are the very essence of our obligations to our fellow men, and which lie behind the sixth and other more ‘horizontal’ commandments. In encouraging God’s people last Sunday to think through this, I emphasised that much of what is required is simply the extensive and intensive application of Christian courtesy as well as particular wisdom. This might include properly washing your hands, especially if handling food others will eat; not shaking hands, embracing, or whatever your equivalent of a holy kiss might be, if the other party is not comfortable with it, or obliged to refrain from it for their own sake or yours; not being offended by someone who wants to take more precautions than you; taking particular care around the particularly vulnerable, whether the elderly or those whose immune system is already compromised or whose health is poor; taking unusual pains with cleaning the church building, especially those spots or rooms where the transfer of a virus might be more likely. How would love to our immediate neighbour work out if the government were to forbid gatherings for religious worship, or gatherings over a certain size? In the latter case, some smaller churches might be fine, while others would be over the threshold. What about love to the souls of men? How do we regard their eternal wellbeing? Incidentally, loving courtesy and care should extend to our ministry to those within the congregation who might need particular assistance, should they be necessarily self-isolating, and so isolated, or in need of particular care. Are we ready, if need be, to risk our own well-being for the sake of our brothers and sisters? What of those who are outside the kingdom, and may go to face the judgement unwarned and uninstructed if we do not warn and instruct them? That is a question that all Christians, especially the pastors of a flock, need to answer in principle now, before a crisis presses it upon us. What if other congregations have pastors laid aside by sickness, or by sensible precautions against sickness? Are we ready to travel to minister the Word of God? Are churches ready to adapt their meeting times and circumstances in order to accommodate every proper opportunity to hear the truth which saves?

And what of celebrating the Lord’s supper? That might present a particular challenge. It may depend on whether or not you believe that the Lord positively requires that you come to his table every Lord’s day. If you belong to a church or group of churches which celebrate less regularly, or much less regularly, it might not make much difference. What about the use of wine as against grape juice? Would the presence or absence of alcohol help? What about the use of a common cup? What about breaking or cutting the bread into smaller pieces ahead of time, if you use a single loaf? Does any of that make much difference if plates or cups are being passed hand-to-hand? This will likely say something about our theology of the Lord’s table. If it is nothing more than a memorial, perhaps we might more readily dispense of it. If we approach it as something talismanic, perhaps nothing will stop us taking it (unless the perceived danger renders our superstitions void for the time being). If we consider it a genuine means of grace, we will doubtless acknowledge that we need and desire it now, of all times, but other considerations may influence how or when or how often we celebrate it. Of course, given that it is not an ordinance for families, mates, or small groups, but for when “when you come together as a church” (1Cor 11:18), it may be that—leaving aside the context of division within the congregation—you acknowledge that, under these circumstances, the church is not truly gathering (and I am not suggesting that you cannot come to the table unless every member is present). Perhaps you can simply wait until the hopefully brief storm is over.

Let us try to work out some principles and some practices. I would suggest that we should be eagerly disposed to gather for the worship of God. Our primary commitment and expectation should be that, whenever and wherever possible, we gather with God’s people for worship on the Lord’s day. Let that be your working assumption. Let all your planning and preparing be carried out with the aim of enabling God’s people to come together to worship him and enjoy fellowship with each other as regularly and easily and as safely as possible.

If such gatherings were to become ill-advised, actively unwise, or even temporarily illegal, how might we then respond? There are a number of possibilities. First of all, I would expect that anyone actually or probably sick with coronavirus or any other such disease would be taking care of themselves and others by embracing such an illness as a genuine providential hindrance to gathering. I hope that goes without saying. So what of others? Perhaps a church could gather outside, with families in self-isolating units, with the requisite or recommended space between them. It might be a wonderful opportunity for evangelising, especially if there were properties nearby from which people could hear the good news. I think of the centre of our neighbourhood, with a square space surrounded by benches. One bench per family unit? Others standing or sitting in the spaces between? The opportunity to listen from the surrounding homes? It may be that the church building is big enough or the congregation small enough for such a gathering to take place within the building, with people sitting apart from each other, and proper care taken about the possibility of infection from mutual touching of surfaces like door handles. Under any such circumstances, proper measures for minimising risk would be essential (including parents taking pains to make sure that their children are looked after in this respect, like the young lads last Sunday who insisted to me that they didn’t like hot water and so were not going to wash their hands properly). Perhaps hand sanitisers (if they are still available) could be put at entrance points, with regular written or spoken reminders of good practice.

We might need to do a little ecclesiastical triage. Perhaps we could begin by stripping back some of the added extras to the essential rhythms of church life. For example, the church I serve has a number of additional meetings during the week, over the course of a month, or as one-offs, which we might need to review. While part of me says it is all the more important to preach the gospel under these circumstances, it is not necessarily a good idea to try to gather a crowd of strangers into one room at such times as these. So, we might focus on the morning and evening gatherings of the Lord’s day, and perhaps also meetings for prayer, which become more pressingly needful.

If other options are more limited, technology might be a particular help. For example, could the preacher go to the church building with his family, if healthy, and any others willing and able to attend? He could preach so that it could either be live-streamed to those who are not able to gather, or even recorded and/or streamed if no-one else can attend? We know, I hope, that there are spiritual dynamics associated with the gathering of God’s people to hear God’s word that cannot be replicated or transmitted by digital communication of the event, but such options at least keep in the loop those obliged to be absent, and might provide a temporary alternative (perhaps some instruction as to the pros and cons of such an arrangement might helpfully be given). Some churches already do this as a help to people already unable to attend, and this simply extends that provision on a temporary basis. It certainly has an impact on celebrating the Lord’s supper, as outlined above. Presuming I am available (and making plans if I am not), I currently intend to be at the church building on the Lord’s day, perhaps ahead of the usual hour if live-streaming proves a challenge with our limited resources, and making sure that audio and video recordings of the ministry were available for people to tune in at the regular times in order to give them some sense of normality and some necessarily reduced but still profitable dimension of church life. If things became more difficult, perhaps an elder could provide some kind of broadcast or recording from home, ministering to God’s people so that they could at least feed from the Word of God. If such technology lies beyond the church, there may be other faithful congregations providing a service that the saints could employ and enjoy, though every step of distance from the regular life of the covenanted congregation may well diminish something of the blessings that we derive, though the Lord knows how to shepherd his people in all seasons. Take into account, too, that in some cultures and contexts, such technological shortcuts may simply not be available. For some congregations, there may be older saints without the apparatus or awareness to use such means, and they might be the very ones who need most care of body and soul.

And what if the civil authorities were temporarily to ban all gatherings, including for religious worship? What then? I think I would be content, for the time being, to employ some of the means above to maximise the opportunities to preach the gospel to as many people as I could, within and without the walls of church buildings, and by as many legitimate means as I could find or devise. I am not persuaded that extravagant displays of civil disobedience, under these circumstances, are warranted or wise. And if, down the line, such government intervention became coercion or persecution, then I would feel perfectly at liberty to resist with a polite and humble disobedience any attempt to prevent the exercise of my God-given privilege to gather with the saints to worship him, despite my previous acknowledgement of the government’s counsels or commands in another context.

And liberty is important. It is worth taking into account the principle of Christian liberty. Not everyone will make all the same judgements at all the same points at all the same places. Some of our hypochondriac brethren may well already be living in a sealed unit with a lifetime supply of tinned goods and toilet paper, and have decided that the gathering of the saints is simply too dangerous for them and their families. I might not agree, but—as long as this is not taken to foolish extremes—I am unlikely to rebuke them for non-attendance under the circumstances, though I might counsel a little more robustness, in dependence on God. We do not honour God by blind panic, though we should by a loving caution. On the other hand, some who boast in God’s sovereignty might choose to display their confidence with a sort of bravado or abandon, turning convictions about providence into a sort of carefree or miserable fatalism. I might encourage them to use the means God has provided for their wellbeing, and that of others, and need to rebuke them if they are risking the sixth commandment. There may be many times when we simply give people the option and the opportunity, and leave them to judge in accordance with the light that they have, remembering that we are, in a real sense, a voluntary gathering. Liberty is also corporate. Some churches will take a different line to the one which you might take; they are free to do so, under God, so long as they do not violate clear principles of scriptural conduct.

Bear in mind, too, that current indications suggest that this will be a temporary measure. If the figures we know are to be believed, such restrictions might only last for a few weeks, perhaps a month or a little more. If the restrictions were maintained for longer with good reason, then we might need to consider again how we respond. If they were maintained without good reason, then we might more readily return to our more default positions.

In all this we do need to remember that there is a God in heaven, who does whatever he pleases, in accordance with his goodness, mercy, wisdom, and love. Bear in mind that you could take all precautions, and still fall sick, or even fall asleep in Jesus. You might take no precautions, and remain well. Believing in the sovereignty of God should not make us careless of the use of the means that God has appointed to accomplish certain ends. Even Hezekiah, promised a recovery from his deadly sickness, applied the poultice of figs which the Lord appointed the means to the ends of his recovery (Is 38:21). Neither mindless panic nor thoughtless bravado will honour the Lord. Stability and even serenity belong to those who trust in the Lord.

So, commit to doing all you can to obey God’s commands and embrace the privileges of the saints. Plan and prepare to make the most of every opportunity for this, now and under any future circumstances. As and when the wisdom either or the elders (in the ecclesiastic sphere) or the government (in the civil sphere) dictates, you may need, temporarily, to make the kinds of adjustments outlined above, seeking in all this to “honour all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king” (1Pt 2:17).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 12 March 2020 at 09:19

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

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 turn of the year

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The turn of the year is a good time to look back and to look ahead. In times past, many healthy Christians would use significant seasons – the new year, for example, or a birthday, or the anniversary of one’s conversion (if known) – to pause and to ponder the course of their lives. It was for them, and could be for us, a season of searching self-examination. It was a means of doing their souls much good. There are sermons and books by men like Stephen Charnock, Henry Scudder and Jonathan Edwards, designed to prompt and assist in this process.

It is unlikely that you will simply find the time to engage in such activity. You will have to make the time. You will need deliberately to think about your ways and turn your feet back to God’s testimonies (Ps 119.59). I would encourage you to make and take the time necessary, to invest the energy required, in such a season. The following outline might help.

To begin with, there must be review. Those who keep a diary or journal might find that flicking through the entries helps refresh the memory. For others, it might be as simple as looking back over a year of calendar entries. We ought to look beyond a mere record of activity, and think about the ebbs and flows of the year, the spiritual realities that underpin the outward engagement. Where was I? What was I doing? How was I doing? What battles did I fight? What defeats did I suffer or what victories did I win? In what service did I engage? But there are also plans for the future. What lies ahead? Perhaps more of a preview, this, or at least a review of your intentions and expectations. What are the opportunities before you? What distinct challenges or particular privileges do you anticipate? What battles must you fight? Where have you been beaten back but intend to forge ahead?

This element is not mere rehearsal. We must also reflect on our life. We must think over those questions. We must ponder carefully the manner and motives of our walking through this fallen world. What are the high points and the low points? Have we made progress? Are there patterns of sin that have been entrenched or besieged? Will you, in future days, assault such sins? If so, when and how? Are there habits of righteousness that have been strengthened or undermined? Will you, in the coming year, pursue such habits? If so, by what means and with what strength? Like John Newton, we have come through many dangers, toils and snares, and many more lie ahead. What has been and what will be the overall tenor of my life? How has the Lord dealt with me, and how have I dealt with the Lord? How could or should that change, from my side, in the days ahead. Consider that you are a year closer to death, and every day carries you closer to the giving of an account and, for the saints, a reward. Are you stepping, day by day, closer to glory?

With such substance in your heart, you will find much in which to rejoice. It is vitally important that you do so. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1Thes 5.16-18). Perhaps it has been a year of serious trials. If so, Christian, God has never left you or forsaken you. You have never been separated from him; you have not fallen out of his hands; he has made all things work together for good for you. Perhaps there have been painful chastisements. If so, believer, it is because God loves you and treats you like a son. If you have been wise, you will have learned God’s statutes through your affliction. No doubt there have been incalculable blessings, measured first against your true deservings. As creatures, you have been given life and breath and all things. As sinners, God has not removed his grace from us. As sons, he has lavished good things upon us in measures that the most generous earthly father cannot begin to match. How good God has been to us! What mercies has he shown to you? What blessings have been poured out? How much pain and sorrow has been withheld from you, how much of pleasure and profit has been dispensed? If you are not a believer, you have been spared death and hell, and – even by virtue of reading such an article as this – have been reminded that the Lord is patient and longsuffering, and now calls all men everywhere to repent, holding out Christ to the repenting sinner.

And we must repent. The finest saint you know is a mass of corruption. Whatever progress you have made this year, you have not attained perfection. Far from it! Your reflective review, if honest, must reveal a host of sins of omission and a horde of sins of commission. By the first, we refer to all those things that you should have done but have failed to do. By the second, we mean all those things you ought not to have done but nevertheless have done. What a fearful catalogue of transgression is the best life! Now is a time to heap up all your sins and iniquities and transgressions and come again to the fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness, to the cleansing flood which makes the foulest clean. We must come to the God who says that though our sins are scarlet, he can make them as white as snow. It is the blood of Jesus Christ which cleanses us from all trangression. Now is a good time for deep and honest soul-searching, to examine ourselves in the mirror of the Word and come humbly and honestly before the Lord, seeking mercy and forgiveness. Such a spirit is itself a test of our spiritual state: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1Jn 1.8–10)

It is also a good season to reorient ourselves. We are fools if we imagine that our sense of eternity is not constantly being eroded in a world which lives for the here and now. A flood of distractions and diversions constantly demands our attention, and we lose sight of the things which are eternal. We hear, each day, countless carnal sermons. The world is badgering us to think, speak and act in a way acceptable to the unconverted crowd. Now is a good time to draw back a little from that rushing tide, to slip into an eddy and ask about the direction of our lives. What principles guide us? What precepts govern us? What patterns do we follow? Again, the psalmist thought about his ways and turned his feet back to God’s testimonies. There was a sense not only that he had, at points, departed from the way, but that he intended to get back into the way. Have you been listening to much to the voices that charm but deceive? By what standards will you now judge and by what system will you now travel?

Then, with all this in mind, resolve to walk with God and work for God. This cannot be a matter of mere human strength. It must be a dependent determination. Think again of how often the poet of Psalm 119 weaves together his absolute dependence on God and his absolute determination in God. Consider some sample statements: “With my whole heart I have sought You; oh, let me not wander from Your commandments!” (v10); “I will run the course of Your commandments, for You shall enlarge my heart” (v32); “Revive me according to Your lovingkindness, so that I may keep the testimony of Your mouth” (v88). Will you blend such elements in your heart and life? Will you cry out to the Lord to make his Word a lamp to your feet and a light to your path (v105), and commit to restrain your feet from every evil way, that you may keep his word (v101)? Too many will enter upon the new year with vague desires that perhaps the Lord will make things better. Many are marked by a pietistic passivity that wishes to be holy but will not work for holiness. The true child of God recognises that without Christ he can do nothing, but that he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him. We must abide in Christ to bear fruit. We must seek the fruit of the Spirit as we abide in Christ.

You can see that such a process is not the matter of a moment. We need to set aside time for such an engagement, to review from our Bibles our way in and through this world. We must wrestle to look at time – past, present and future – through the lens of eternity. We must be rigorously honest, however painful such honesty might be. We must be profoundly humble, however troubling such humility might be. We must turn again to God in Christ, and gaze upon him until we see things as they are, and not as we or others might wish them to be. If we do this, we should not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2Cor 4.16-18). With such a perspective, we can sing with the old poet, Augustus Toplady,

Kind Author, and Ground of my hope,
Thee, Thee, for my God I avow;
My glad Ebenezer set up,
And own Thou hast helped me till now.
I muse on the years that are past,
Wherein my defence Thou hast proved;
Nor wilt Thou relinquish at last
A sinner so signally loved!

Written by Jeremy Walker

Sunday 31 December 2017 at 09:43

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The social means of grace

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John Ashworth on the blessing of the various gatherings of the saints of God, not least the midweek meetings:

In all churches a love for the social means of grace is one sign of spiritual health in either rich or poor; and those that are the most anxious to increase their spiritual strength will esteem these most highly. When we try to find arguments against class meetings, church meetings, prayer meetings, &c., it is an indication that we are not very fast growing in grace: we need these helps by the way. The world daily rolls in uponus, and we need a strong arm to roll it back, to keep it in its proper place. Means are required, and the week-day means are often a powerful check.

So, will you make a happy priority of church attendance tomorrow?

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 12 August 2017 at 18:31

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Your own self

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In a sermon on 1 Peter 2.24, focused on the fact that Christ “his own self” bore our sins, Spurgeon makes this potent application. Having made clear at first that the death of Christ is not just an example, he is not slow to emphasize that it is also an example. We too should take personal responsibilty for what is given into our hands. We would do well to consider Spurgeon’s words:

Let me remind you of our text: “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree” There is a poor Christian woman lying bedridden; she very seldom has a visitor, do you know her? “Yes, I know her, and I got a city missionary to call upon her.” But the text says, “Who his own self bare our sins.” Poor Mary is in great need. “Yes, I know, sir, and I asked somebody to give me something to give to her.” Listen: “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree.” There is your sister, who is unconverted. “Yes, air, I know it; and I—I—I have asked Mrs. So-and-so to speak to her.” “Who his own self bare our sins.” Can you not get to that point, and do something your own self? “But I might do it badly.” Have you ever tried to do it at all? I do believe that personal service for Christ, even when it is far from perfect, is generally much more efficient than that sort of substituted service which so many prefer. Oh, if we could but get all those who are members of our churches personally to serve the Lord Jesus Christ, what a powerful church we should have! Would not the whole South of London soon feel the power of this church of more than 5,000 members, if you all went to this holy war,—each man, each woman, by himself or herself? But it is not so; many of you just talk about it, or propose to do something, or try to get other people to do something. “Well, but really, sir,” says one, “what could I do?” My dear friend, I do not know exactly what you could do, but I know that you could do something. “Oh, but I have no abilities; I could not do anything!” Now, suppose I were to call to see you, and, meeting you in your parlour, I were to say, “Now, my dear friend, you are no good to us; you have no abilities; you cannot do anything.” I am afraid that you would be offended with me, do you not think that you would? Now, it is not true, is it? You can do something; there never yet was a Christian who had not some niche to occupy,—at least one talent to lay out in his Master’s service. You young people, who have lately joined the church,—little more than boys and girls,—begin personally to serve Christ while you are yet young, or else I am afraid that we shall not be able to get you into harness in after life. And even those who are encumbered with large families and great businesses, or with old age and infirmities, yet say, nevertheless, “We must not sit still; we must not be idle, we must do something for our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, we must serve him who, his own self, bore our sins in his own body on the tree.” In the spirit of this text, go forth, and, even before you go to bed, do something to prove your love to Jesus; and unto his name be glory for ever and ever! Amen and Amen.

C. H. Spurgeon, “Our Lord’s Substitution,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 48 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1902), 370–371.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 26 November 2016 at 14:20

Rutherford’s regrets

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In a letter to John Fleming, Bailie of Leith, Samuel Rutherford lists a number of concerns about his attitudes and actions:

I have been much challenged,

1. For not referring all to God, as the last end:that I do not eat, drink, sleep, journey, speak and think for God.

2. That I have not benefited by good company; and that I left not some word of conviction, even upon natural and wicked men, as by reproving swearing in them; or because of being a silent witness to their loose carriage; and because I intended not in all companies to do good.

3. That the woes and calamities of the kirk, and particular professors, have not moved me.

4. That in reading the life of David, Paul, and the like, when it humbled me, I, coming so far short of their holiness, laboured not to imitate them, afar off at least, according to the measure of God’s grace.

5. That unrepented sins of youth were not looked to and lamented for.

6. That sudden stirrings of pride, lust, revenge, love of honours, were not resisted and mourned for

7. That my charity was cold.

8. That the experience I had of God’s hearing me,in this and the other particular, being gathered, yet in a new trouble I had always (once at least) my faith to seek, as if I were to begin at A, B, C, again.

9. That I have not more boldly contradicted the enemies speaking against the truth, either in public church-meetings, or at tables, or ordinary conference.

10. That in great troubles, I have received false reports of Christ’s love, and misbelieved Him in His chastening; whereas the event hath said that all was in mercy.

11. Nothing more moveth me, and burdeneth my soul, than that I could never, in my prosperity, so wrestle in prayer with God, nor be so dead to the world, so hungry and sick of love for Christ, so heavenly-minded, as when ten stoneweight of a heavy cross was upon me.

12. That the cross extorted vows of new obedience, which ease hath blown away, as chaff before the wind.

13. That practice was so short and narrow, and light so long and broad.

14. That death hath not been often meditated upon.

15. That I have not been careful of gaining others to Christ.

16. That my grace and gifts bring forth little or no thankfulness.

It is a shame that we ourselves are not more sensitive to our sins and shortcomings.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 21 November 2016 at 15:55

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Sinful speech and the Holy Spirit

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Sound words from John Eadie in his commentary on Ephesians (355):

If Christians shall persist in falsehood and deviation from the truth — if they shall indulge in fitful rage, or cherish sullen and malignant dislikes — if they shall be characterized by dishonesty, or insipid and corrupt language, then do they grieve the Holy Spirit of God; for all this perverse insubordination is in utter antagonism to the essence and operations of Him who is the Spirit of truth; and inspires the love of it; who assumed, as a fitting symbol, the form of a dove, and creates meekness and forbearance; and who, as the Spirit of holiness, leads to the appreciation of all that is just in action, noble in sentiment, and healthful and edifying in speech. What can be more grieving to the Holy Ghost than our thwarting the very purpose for which He dwells within us, and contravening all the promptings and suggestions with which He warns and instructs us?

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 19 August 2016 at 15:10

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Picking and choosing

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Studying out some of the verses from Ephesians 4, I came across the following from Paul Bayne, calling upon the saints to appreciate the diversity of Christ’s present gifts to the church. He speaks against the kind of pickiness that demands or critiques a certain kind of minister in accordance with one’s taste and choosing, rather than receives different kinds of ministers in accordance with Christ’s gracious giving. The language is more than a little archaic, but the point is clear. Bayne says that a

consideration of diversity of gifts doth reprove those that will take mislike at this or that kind, because it is not as they would have. If one speak treatably and stilly, though he lay down the truth soundly, if he apply not forcibly, he is nobody, as if every one should be an Elijah, or a son of thunder. If others, on some plain ground, belabour the conscience, Tush, he is not for them; he doth not go to the depth of his text. They could themselves, at first sight, observe as much; as if every barque that sailed did draw a like depth, yet all sorts carry their passengers safe to their haven. So in ministers, every one hath not a like insight into doctrine, yet all be God’s instruments to thy salvation. This is a malapert, itching humour, which, if you will be Christians indeed, you must lay aside. (Bayne on Ephesians, 258-259).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 23 April 2016 at 11:21

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In everything give thanks

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I have a dear old godly friend. He will be 89 this year, if the Lord preserves him. I spent a couple of hours with him this morning in the sheltered accommodation where he lives, not far from the church building. He’s not a member of the church I serve, but a man who delights in God and in his word. He’s suffering from a chest infection at the moment, which adds to woes from a stroke of some sort last year, when he lost quite a lot of memory capacity and speech facility (especially on days when he is tired, as he is at present, because of his illness). One of his particular joys before all these afflictions was his singing, a joy of which he has now been robbed until Christ restores his body at the resurrection. All in all, you would say he is having quite a rough ride.

I sat with him and we read and talked through Psalm 1. How his eyes gleamed with joy when we talked about what it meant to be planted by rivers of water! How he wept when he thought of some of the other residents who are like the chaff, which the wind blows away! How he urged me to wait on and see if there would be an opportunity to speak with them later on! We talked about our love and prayers and words to those for whom we are concerned.

As we spoke and wept and prayed together, he told me that he was very thankful for the illnesses he has suffered. He was really struggling with his speech this morning, so I was not sure that I had got quite the right message. I checked. He insisted. He was grateful for what he had been through. I probably looked at him quizzically. He explained. He patted his Bible, his eyes gleaming once more.

“If it had not been for my illness last year,” he said, “I would not have been given the opportunity to learn this book all over again.”

Blessed indeed is the man whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and in which law he meditates day and night. It makes us truly thankful, genuinely and lastingly happy, even in the midst of great affliction.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 9 March 2016 at 16:03

Christian greatness

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J. C. Ryle, as so often, has the knack of speaking plainly, even painfully, to our hearts, in these comments on Luke’s Gospel, chapter 22, verses 24-30:

Usefulness in the world and the Christian church, a humble readiness to do anything, a cheerful willingness to fill any post, however lowly, are the true tests of Christian greatness. The hero in Christ’s army is not the man who has rank and title and dignity and chariots and horsemen and fifty men to run before him. It is the man who is not concerned about himself but about other people. It is the man who is kind to everyone, tender to everyone, thoughtful toward everyone, ever helpful and sympathetic. It is the man who spends his time binding up the brokenhearted, befriending the friendless, comforting the sorrowful, and enlightening the ignorant. This is the truly great man in God’s sight. The world may ridicule his efforts and deny the sincerity of his motives, but while the world is sneering, God is pleased. This is the man who is walking most closely in the steps of Christ.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 7 March 2016 at 18:42

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Sentiment and principle

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There has been an outpouring of grief and shame following the horrific pictures of a Syrian child lying drowned on the shore of the Mediterranean. If you think those photographs are painful, read the account of the father who tried to fight his way through the surf to the beach, losing his wife and then his two sons to the waves, one by one. It is truly agonising. Many have agonised.

It has prompted a spurt of sympathy for the flood of refugees pressing into Europe from various points east. News footage pummels us with insights into the horrific sufferings of their previous lives and their often-incredible journeys. We are stirred by video of them arriving in ‘free Europe’ to the acclaim of cheering crowds who pour out their affection verbally and practically. Nations are – to use the dry rhetoric of government – increasing their refugee quota, spurred on by the feeling of the populace and their knee-jerk reaction to what they have seen.

This is not a comment on the appropriateness, or otherwise, of offering refuge to some or all of these men, women and children. It is not a question about whether or not the flood of refugees contains a trickle of terrorists. It is not in any way an attempt to dismiss the gut-wrenching misery suffered by people made in the image of God, or the gut-wrenching grief we feel as those made in the image of God when we see that suffering before us. It is not a comment on compassion fatigue or our almost voyeuristic fascination with suffering.

But I wonder how long such a response will last, and what kind of investment it will sustain? It won’t be long before those refugees, if they are permitted to stay, are no longer wrapped in the warm embrace of liberal sentiment, but facing the cold reality of life in foreign countries which will not prove to be the Promised Land. They will quite likely be living in enclaves where either they are banding together for security, or among – even surrounded by – others who quite possibly resent them and will manifest their resentment. Even many of those moved to tears by their sorrows and sufferings will find those tears drying up as the realities of life bite and time passes. The tears will be stimulated again by fresh atrocities but the old ones will quickly drift away. Many will feel much and do nothing.

I wonder if the same thing has happened or is happening with the Planned Parenthood videos. Remember those? Yes, just a few weeks ago many were up in arms because of the footage of those who work for Planned Parenthood negotiating the transfer for gain of the body parts of murdered children. Even many of those for whom abortion per se is no issue were stirred by the graphic nature of some of the pictures and the callous nature of the conversations. But again, the consequence has not been the sustained mobilisation of a great mass of committed humanity against the murder of the unborn. Rather, we are troubled by the gross appearance of the thing. Doubtless, if it can be tidied up and carried out in a ‘humane’ way – because there’s nothing like a properly humane murder to assuage the conscience – then we shall go on quite content with the fact of abortion. Sentiment will be assuaged, and life can go on as normal.

I wonder if we could go back even to the slave trade. There is, it seems, little doubt that the primary opponents of the slave trade used powerfully emotive arguments to raise the profile of their cause and enforce their principles. The appalling testimonies of ex-slaves, the diagrams of human beings packed like sardines into the squalid interiors of slaving vessels, the protestations of ex-slavers, some of them converted – all of these served to further the cause. But the cause itself did not advance because of this, nor was it eventually won because of this. It was advanced and won, under God, by men and women who were moved by more than sentiment. It was carried forward by those who were governed by principle.

Reasonable sentiment need not in itself be sinful, but it is not always substantial. Sentiment can be swayed, one way or the other. Sentiment in one direction can be turned back by an opposing sentiment that seems equally reasonably. Sentiment tends to be reactive; it is rarely proactive. It bubbles up in a moment and melts away just as quickly. The sentiment that wishes to find a home for poor refugees might be overcome by a different sentiment when they move in next door. Principle – especially Christian principle – should be grounded in enduring truth. It is anchored in such a way that tides of sentiment or waves of feeling (whether that be weariness in pursuing principle or opposition to the principled) will not carry it away. Principle stands against pressure. Principle identifies and reacts to the fundamental issue, not the peripheral and perhaps unpleasant phenomena surrounding the issue. Righteous principle takes full account of misery, but it is moved by a regard for fundamental reality – matters of truth, mercy, justice, peace, righteousness. Righteous principle acts proactively out of allegiance to God in Christ. Christians need to be a people of principle.

Mere sentiment can be dangerous. In the unprincipled – and, once we have abandoned any notion of enduring, fixed, eternal truth, truth grounded outside of our experience and feelings, we have no real basis for true principle – sentiment can move individuals and groups far and fast. It can even leave them horrified by what they accomplished under the influence of sentiment and in the absence of principle. Principle can also be dangerous if it is the wild-eyed conviction about things that are foul and vile. Then unrighteous zeal can drive a person or group to truly terrifying extremes. But principle grounded in divine truth, with appropriate sentiment yoked behind, can and should accomplish much.

So, we will, in this fallen world, hear or see many things that horrify us. Many of them should horrify us. But they do not properly and persistently move us because principle is lacking. Perhaps we also hear and see things that ought to horrify us and move us, but do not because principle is lacking. How many vile things do we see – perhaps even enjoy – without a proper feeling reaction? Principle is not unfeeling; it actuates and directs feeling in proper channels. When faced with a moral challenge, we would do well to ask not only, “What do I feel?” but “What should I feel and what should I then do?” We must dig down to and stir up righteous principle. Reasonable sentiment might galvanise and stir us, but only righteous principle will guide and sustain us.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 9 September 2015 at 13:11

John Fletcher’s self-examination

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The Wesleyan preacher and theologian John Fletcher of Madeley drew up a series of questions for self-examination. I found them a helpful stimulus.

  • Did I awake spiritual, and did I keep my mind from wandering?
  • Have I got nearer God this day in times of prayer, or have I given way to a lazy idle spirit?
  • Has my faith been weakened or strengthened this day?
  • Have I this day walked by faith?
  • Have I denied myself in all unkind words and thoughts?
  • Have I made the most of my precious time, as far as I was able to?
  • Have I kept my heart pure?
  • What have I done for God’s people?
  • Have I spent money on myself when I might have used it for the cause of God?
  • Have I governed well my tongue this day?
  • In how many instances have I denied myself?
  • Do my life and conversation adorn the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 24 August 2015 at 08:18

“Only One Life”

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I quoted a couple of lines of this poem by C. T. Studd, a missionary, in our Sunday morning sermon. The whole poem is worth pondering. It usually goes by the title, “Only One Life.”

Two little lines I heard one day,
Travelling along life’s busy way;
Bringing conviction to my heart,
And from my mind would not depart;
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Only one life, yes only one,
Soon will its fleeting hours be done;
Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet,
And stand before His Judgement seat;
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Only one life, the still small voice,
Gently pleads for a better choice
Bidding me selfish aims to leave,
And to God’s holy will to cleave;
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Only one life, a few brief years,
Each with its burdens, hopes, and fears;
Each with its clays I must fulfil,
Living for self or in His will;
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

When this bright world would tempt me sore,
When Satan would a victory score;
When self would seek to have its way,
Then help me Lord with joy to say;
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Give me, Father, a purpose deep,
In joy or sorrow Thy word to keep;
Faithful and true what e’er the strife,
Pleasing Thee in my daily life;
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Oh let my love with fervour burn,
And from the world now let me turn;
Living for Thee, and Thee alone,
Bringing Thee pleasure on Thy throne;
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Only one life, yes only one,
Now let me say, “Thy will be done”;
And when at last I’ll hear the call,
I know I’ll say ’twas worth it all;
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

— extra stanza —
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
And when I am dying, how happy I’ll be,
If the lamp of my life has been burned out for Thee.

C. T. Studd

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 28 July 2015 at 20:01

“Respect the Authorities”: Specific Counsels 5 and 6

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Manage the expectations and approach the throne

With all this in mind, we must manage the expectations. Those who rule on the earth do not have the answers; they are not our saviors. There seems to be a constant temptation for the people of God to believe that if only we can marshal enough rich and important people, if only we can obtain enough celebrity endorsements, if only we can generate a big enough wave of public opinion, then we can help the church out of its troubles. But such men and women, however well meaning, cannot sustain or prosper the church in the world. Again, it is to look for apples on an orange tree.

Earthly authorities and celebrities are not the answer to the needs and pursuits of the church, any more than the world is its home and destiny. There are certain things that we can and should expect of civil governments, and there may be certain times when the church, through appropriate spokespeople given appropriate opportunities, might remind government of its obligations to God. But human authority and power are not the solution to the church’s problems. The kingdom of God is not yoked to any nation, party, policy, platform, coalition, or organization and will not rise or fall with any kingdom of the earth:

Through the rise and fall of nations
One sure faith yet standeth fast:
God abides, His Word unchanging,
God alone the first and last.

Or, singing of the providence of God:

The kingdoms of this world
Lie in its hand;
See how they rise or fall
At its command!
Through sorrow and distress,
Tempestuous storms that rage,
God’s kingdom yet endures
From age to age.

As we wrestle with these things, we need to remember that God does know what He is doing. Even those things that men mean for evil He has intended for good. Kings and kingdoms rise and fall by His divine and all-wise appointment. Even the individual activities of rulers are not outside his control:

The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD,
Like the rivers of water;
He turns it wherever He wishes. (Prov. 21:1)

We may look at some of those who have risen to prominence or power, who have abused that platform horribly, and wonder how this can be securing the glory of God or the good of men. Often the answer will simply be that we do not know, and we may never know. Perhaps heaven itself will not make plain the answers to all the questions we may now have.

But we must bow before God. Our hopes for the kingdom of Christ—whether the advance of the gospel or the health of the church itself—hang upon the divine King and not upon mortal men. Ultimately, we are waiting upon Him and waiting for Him.

That being the case, we should approach the throne. Prayer ought to be our first port of call as the church—whether institutionally or individually—in dealing with the civil magistrates. We should pray and give thanks for the rulers and authorities themselves, seeking “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (1 Tim. 2:2), able to live as saints without unnecessary difficulties or distractions. We should pray to God for His appointments, that His glory and our peace might be secured. We should pray concerning the Lord’s kingdom, that all God’s purposes would be accomplished for the ingathering of the elect and the building of His church. We should pray for the equipping of the church in all her circumstances, whether at peace or persecuted, not looking to worldly powers nor relying upon worldly means to accomplish kingdom ends. We should pray that the Lord would fill us with His Spirit and give us bold speech, enabling the saints to be witnesses for Christ in every circumstance that we face, not looking to or relying upon worldly means (Acts 4:8, 31). We do not trust in legislation, adjudication, or intimidation to obtain the things we desire for the glory of God and the good of men, but on the proclamation of the truth as it is in Jesus with power from on high. To that end we should remember who is on the throne and call upon Him. We pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

We remember that there is One who sits enthroned above the earth, and He is our God and our King.

 

Excerpted from the book Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness (Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com or Westminster Bookstore or RHB).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 10 July 2015 at 08:29

“Respect the Authorities”: Specific Counsels 5 and 6

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Pay the dues and address the government

We must not forget to pay the dues. We must offer the civil authorities what is theirs by right of divine appointment, whether inwardly or outwardly. We do it because the civil magistrate bears the sword and because God has put it in his hands. This is not a call to pander to every whim of careless and thoughtless governments. It is not encouraging mindless quiescence of the most abject sort. It is not the suggestion that there is virtue in constituting yourself some craven holy doormat. It is the simple fact that—not just because of wrath but also because of conscience—we are to render to Caesar whatever belongs to Caesar. Whether it is a financial obligation (such as in the matter of taxes), a matter of legal recognition (obeying the laws of the land), or simply the expression of our outlook in speech and behavior, it ought to be clear from our attitudes and actions that we offer the civil authorities the support and the reverence to which they are entitled as those whom God has appointed.

We are also free to address the government. We must realize that it is not the task of the church to dictate policy nor to dabble in politics. That, again, is to confuse the spheres in which we operate: “Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.” The church is to declare the gospel to all, but she is also to make clear the duty of all to God, both as a prompt to true repentance and as a help to true obedience.

Gospel ministers have duties in several respects. First, God’s servants are—as occasion provides—to preach to authorities concerning their duties as men and ministers of temporal justice, accountable to the God who has put them in their place. It is, of course, perfectly appropriate for a Christian pastor to make clear the responsibilities of governing authorities, but that is not the same as preaching to the authorities. There may be legitimate opportunities to do this. Some legislatures or executives invite the preaching of the word of God in some measure. Perhaps there are those in authority in a congregation, and to them the word of God must be addressed as part of the regular ministry, publicly and privately, in accordance with their calling in the world. It may be that a preacher, in his capacity as a private citizen as well as a preacher, might address his local or national representatives, if he has them. Perhaps if a Christian is dragged before authorities, he might take the opportunity to declare the truth of God. But all this is very different from railing at rulers from the pulpit or in the street when they are not present. For example, you might hear hotheaded pulpiteers or throaty street preachers attacking some local or national policy that they consider unchristian, tearing into the legislators or executive powers even though they are not present to hear. To whom are they preaching? Certainly not to the people in front of them. They are on their soapbox, aiming high and wide of the souls before them who—though they might applaud or deplore what they are hearing—are hardly involved in the matter. If there were representatives of the authority present, perhaps even then it is not mere official failure (in which the individual may or may not have a personal stake), but real, personal sin that ought to be the core concern.

Further, God’s servants ought to instruct the church and her members—both as saints and as private citizens, as a matter of Christian witness and testimony—in their relations to the state in her specific roles. Preachers might also, publicly or privately, offer counsel and guidance in particular matters in which the saints as private and concerned citizens might speak. So, for example, there are issues with which the church as a church is not politically concerned. However, as a spiritual force for truth and righteousness, she might act for the good of those involved, and the members of the church might need particular instruction as to how they should engage. Think, to take one example, of the matter of abortion. Preachers might and should proclaim the sanctity of life and the crime of murder as it is appropriate. They might encourage and equip individual Christians to represent these truths. It would not be wrong for the church to draw attention to legitimate ways and means by which the feelings of believers might be communicated. A church might seek a particular opportunity to minister in various ways to women who face pressures to abort (perhaps because of social or economic demands) or who are wracked with guilt on account of their sin. A church might encourage Christians to consider adoption as a means of caring for unwanted children. But should the church be spearheading and organizing political campaigns, with pastors lobbying politicians and influencers on behalf of their congregations? I fear that this might distract from the work that the Lord has primarily given them to do.

We have already noted that in Acts 4 there may have been present Christian men and women who might have had some, even significant, opportunities to serve Christ in the world at large. As a church, though, they prayed. I am not suggesting that they returned to their homes and their employments, suspended their Christian convictions, and watched blithely or participated readily as the church was put under the hammer of persecution or as natural law was flouted and trampled upon. But there is a difference between how they acted as a church and how they might have acted as private individuals. We can and should discharge our responsibilities as Christians who have been placed in a particular time and place, living in certain nation-states by God’s appointment. We can write and speak and visit and engage with those who are in authority, but this is not the business of the church as a church. We must, then, both recognize the boundaries and discern the overlaps—those points at which our Christianity has a necessary impact on the way we relate to governments and authorities on particular issues.

I do not offer these counsels lightly. Every child of God, every church, must sincerely seek to discern—in the light of God’s written truth—where such boundaries lie. We need to work out where responsibilities as the citizens of heaven’s kingdom and members of earth’s societies touch and overlap.

Excerpted from the book Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness (Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com or Westminster Bookstore or RHB).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 9 July 2015 at 19:10

“Respect the Authorities”: Specific Counsels 3 and 4

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Appreciate the protection and use the freedoms

Then we should appreciate the protection. Paul was not ashamed to appeal to Caesar when threatened with unjust judgments and unlawful imprisonment. He relied upon the protections afforded by the rule of law under Nero (Acts 25:11), the man who was becoming the great enemy of the Christian church. Even oppressive and persecuting governments may provide a measure of control against open sin, a measure of legitimate protection against lawlessness. I travelled some time ago to a country that had for many years lain behind the Iron Curtain. It was interesting to hear even younger people, including Christians, reminisce about the perceived benefits of the days of communism when their parents had work and homes, when they had little to eat but were thankful when it came, when they could play outside in safety until all hours of the night. They recognized the privations and oppressions that communism involved. They valued their newfound liberty, and in some cases had labored long and hard to obtain it. Many had waited years for such freedoms and suffered much in seeking them. But they also suggested that they could now buy everything and afford nothing, and that a materialistic spirit was increasingly evident in society. They found that the church too had lost something of its edge, its sense of community and its expressions of loving sacrifice in the face of difficulty and opposition. Neither were they nor am I offering some kind of apologetic for any form of totalitarianism with all its typical abuses and cruelties. Nevertheless, there was a tacit recognition that even this oppressive form of government, with all its evils, afforded them something valuable and appreciated. Despite the iniquities of totalitarianism, life under that system still offered a measure of protection in society at large, but also put an edge upon their sense of belonging to another kingdom. In a more developed liberal democracy, we ought to be properly thankful for the rule of law as it provides us with a measure of peace and stability and freedom, even if we might bemoan the spiritual flabbiness of the church under the circumstances.

There is an exegetical tradition that interprets the restraint of the man of sin—the man of lawlessness—in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 as the rule of law. The suggestion is that the man of sin himself will thrive in and arise out of an environment of undiluted and aggressive self-determination, unrestrained by strong and just government. Whether or not one accepts this interpretation, it at least underlines that we ought to be more thankful than perhaps we are for what we presently have. How many freedoms do we enjoy of which countless thousands past and present have been and are deprived? Many Christians ought to be slower to complain and quicker to express gratitude for the rulers and authorities over us.

This being so, we ought to use the freedoms we are presently afforded, wherever we might be. While we have the opportunity to live undisturbed and pursue our mission as the people of God, we ought to get on with the job. Many readers of this book still live in an environment of almost unprecedented civil liberty, and we ought to seize the day, pursuing open, frank, and full obedience to our Sovereign, carrying out our happy duty as the church of Christ in relative peace and safety. One of the tragedies is that we often use our freedoms not to labor but to relax and take our ease. We have scope to live righteously, to worship faithfully, and to preach truthfully. We should readily walk, worship, and witness as unashamed Christians while God provides us a safe environment in which to do so. We should pray that these blessings may long abide and labor as private citizens of our particular nations to preserve them.

We should remember that it is a relatively rare thing, historically and geographically, for believers to enjoy such freedoms as these. The kind of honor that has been afforded to Christian truth in much of the Western world in recent centuries is not the norm, and we might have come to assume too much. We are probably returning to the real historical norm of persecution, and we should be the more thankful for our relative freedoms while we have them, remembering those who do not as if we suffered with them (Heb. 13:3).

Excerpted from the book Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness (Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com or Westminster Bookstore or RHB).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 7 July 2015 at 06:55

“Respect the Authorities”: Summary Thoughts

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Summary Thoughts

Passing-3DIn relation to the civil magistrates whom God has appointed, the Lord’s pilgrim people live in the space between our Christ’s declaration that His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) and His command that we are to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s (Matt. 22:21). There is a divinely appointed and righteous tension at this point. We are of the kingdom of Christ, and that situates us finally and ultimately in and of Christ in the heavenlies. While we are here, that allegiance must be reflected in our giving to God’s appointed authorities what is their rightful due as well as rendering to the Lord that which belongs to Him alone.

It is precisely because Jesus Christ’s kingdom is not of this world that we obtain perspective on the world and its authorities. It is because we serve the eternal King, being citizens of heaven, that we are the best citizens on earth, measured by divine standards. I remember the story of a pastor called before a communist dictator in Eastern Europe before the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The autocrat upbraided the man of God for being subversive and rebellious. “Not at all,” answered the pastor humbly. “We Christians respect our leaders. We are faithful citizens, and we pray for you every day.” What if we were brought before men like Claudius Caesar or Nero Caesar, men like Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Ceausescu, and others who may yet be raised up in our nations, perhaps superintending and even directing what we are persuaded is a moral decline and advancing wickedness? Would we be able to say with a clear conscience, “Sir, I am one of your best citizens. I hear what you say even when I cannot heed it, and I pray to my God for you every day”?

As citizens of heaven we recognize that we are sojourners here and that our convictions, character, and conduct should reflect our true homeland and bring honor to our true King. Part of our duty as we make our way through the world is to regard and respect rulers and authorities as God’s appointed temporal vicegerents in the civil sphere to promote righteousness and to prevent wickedness. At their best, they provide a peaceful environment in which the church can go about its gospel business in peace, simply being what God has called us to be. At their worst, the civil authorities make themselves the agitators and architects of all that is most vicious and violent about opposition to the church, employing all the machinery of government in an attempt to crush the people of God.

If the influence of the authorities is benign, we should be genuinely thankful and express that thanks to God, but we should not make the mistake of yoking our hopes for Christ’s heavenly kingdom to the vehicles of political, social, or economic power or renewal. Our confidence does not lie in the politics and parties and pressure groups of any culture. If the rulers over us are malign, we should not orchestrate campaigns of civil resistance or rebellion nor despair of the kingdom of God because that does not rise or fall depending on the state of any nation or nations. In one sense, the progress of God’s kingdom has nothing to do with the civil authorities. Christ is our king, and His kingdom is not of this world.

Even if we face explicit opposition, even if a government should forbid what God commands or command what God forbids, even if we reach the point of confessing that “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), the Christian’s noncompliance should reflect his supreme commitment to the God who governs all and who will one day subdue all. As such, his demeanor, behavior, and speech should all communicate an acknowledgment of the subordinate authority, even as he obeys the higher one.

The Christian’s spirit is to be one of cheerful, willing, comprehensive submission as required of him by God. We are to offer legitimate support and reverence wherever we are able to the rulers appointed over us by our sovereign Lord, and to pray for them and for ourselves, that the gospel may readily advance as the church pursues the mission entrusted to her by her Redeemer.

Excerpted from the book Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness (Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com or Westminster Bookstore or RHB).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 4 July 2015 at 06:15

“Respect the Authorities”: Scriptural Framework #5 ~ Our Heavenly Hope

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Our Heavenly Hope

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved. (Phil. 3:20–4:1)

The governing power of the saints is a heavenly one. The church takes her identity, her sense of privilege and priority, her direction for behavior, and her enduring hope from her heavenly King and the realities of citizenship in His kingdom. This conditions all our relationships with the authorities here. The men of the world set their minds on earthly things, but the citizens of Zion set their minds on heavenly things. The saints operate here as belonging there. Our character, conduct, and convictions are conditioned by the world to come rather than by the world that is passing away. Paul is probably quite deliberately employing the language that would be used of Caesar to ascribe to him semidivine functions in order to emphasize that the saints have a Savior and a Lord who is most certainly not Caesar. Caesar is a lord and a deliverer by the Lord and Deliverer’s appointment. Commentator G. Walter Hansen explains: “Their hope for the future is not fixed on Caesar, the savior and Lord of the Roman Empire, but on Jesus Christ, the heavenly Lord and Savior…. The power of earthly tyrants to humiliate the followers of Christ will be overcome by Christ when he subjects all things to himself and transforms our bodies of humiliation to be like his glorious body” [The Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 270, 275].

Not only will the saints themselves be transformed at the coming of Christ but all things will be subdued under Him—all things, including all those who stand over and against the church, which is His body. Our home is heaven, and we are here only for a little while. All too often our problem is that we are reaching into the future and trying to bring our hopes and expectations into this world rather than anticipating them in the next. We try to build our empires here. We see things in terms of time, and we lose sight of eternity. But we are Christ’s heavenly kingdom, and our citizenship is in heaven. Our King is in heaven.

This ought to be a transforming realization. If my hope is heavenly, then I know who and what I am in relation to the things of this passing world. I show proper honor to my earthly rulers but am not bound to this world as if it were the only thing that matters. With this confidence, the church is able to stand fast in the Lord. Her convictions, character, and conduct are conditioned by her relationship with her heavenly King establishing a heavenly citizenship and providing a heavenly hope.

Excerpted from the book Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness (Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com or Westminster Bookstore or RHB).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 3 July 2015 at 10:40

“Respect the Authorities”: Scriptural Framework #4 ~ Respond Prayerfully

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Respond Prayerfully

So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said:

‘Why did the nations rage,
And the people plot vain things?
The kings of the earth took their stand,
And the rulers were gathered together
Against the LORD and against His Christ.’

For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done. Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:24–31)

Here Luke depicts the response of the righteous when the God-appointed authorities set out to play God. The context is one that goes well beyond background antagonism—it is one of outright opposition and persecution. The Sanhedrin “called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard’” (Acts 4:18–20). Again, as in Acts 5:29, God’s authority is ultimate, man’s authority is subordinate, and the church is now facing a human civil and religious authority that is requiring her to disobey God.

In the verses that follow we see the response of the church as a church, the people of God gathered together in a particular place. It may be that some of them in this place were converted priests, perhaps Roman soldiers or officials, members of Herod’s or Caesar’s households, or women with extensive circles of contacts or the wives of men with particular influence. There may have been some or many who might have had personal opportunities to do good in the circumstances. Doubtless such sincere believers, given the chance in the days following, might have used whatever legitimate influence they had or whatever means lay lawfully at their disposal to protect the apostles or to divert the march of persecution. But notice what the saints do as a church: They do not begin to organize and orchestrate a plan of civic resistance. They do not plan marches and establish alliances and coalitions and institutes to carry their voices to the upper echelons of society. They do not reach out to other oppressed and concerned parties to establish campaigns of co-belligerency. They do not make contact with lobbyists nor print leaflets and redesign their websites, working up a more effective advertising campaign. They do not draw up petitions, design banners with catchy titles, print T-shirts with telling slogans, and work up posters with vivid images. They do not conclude that they need to engage the world on the world’s terms. They do not seek to obtain a voice on the political and cultural stage. They do not pursue larger numbers, greater prominence, cutting-edge websites, pithier sound bites, all the while whipping up publicity campaigns to sweep the floor with the opposition. None of that is remotely what you find in Jerusalem (allowing for a little modernization).

Rather, they get on their faces before God Most High and pour out their hearts to the One who governs, appoints, ordains, and judges—the Lord to whom all in heaven and earth are ultimately accountable. They raise their voices not to men but to God. This is most assuredly not mere mindless quiescence or fawning, grovelling submission to human authorities. If you read their prayer, you will see that they first recognized the divine authority and government, ascribing honor to God as the King enthroned over all, the Creator of all things, the Governor of all things, and the Revealer of Himself to men. They also reckoned with the human opposition as it really was, fierce and united against the Christ and all those who named His name. Natural enemies found a common cause in opposing Christ and His kingdom. Like Hezekiah reading Sennacherib’s letter (Isa. 37:14–20), they spread the whole matter out before the Lord. Therefore, faced with such a challenge, they requested divine equipment from God’s hands. But note the specific requests. They do not pray against the government, but rather for the gospel. They do not ask to be made able to avoid the threat, but rather to be given grace to meet it as true and steadfast believers: “In the face of opposition, make us yet more distinctive as those who live for and proclaim Jesus the Christ. Take away our fear, and give us courage to declare the truth.” And so they received specific answers to their prayers, being filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking the word of God with boldness.

The church’s response to the assaults made on her is not a rallying cry to civic resistance or even civic engagement, but to get on her knees before the living Lord and to seek His face, crying for heavenly power to declare divine truth faithfully and fruitfully even in the face of opposition and persecution.

Excerpted from the book Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness (Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com or Westminster Bookstore or RHB).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 2 July 2015 at 07:09

“Respect the Authorities”: Scriptural Framework #3 ~ A Godly Life

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A Godly Life

Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11–12)

At the core of Peter’s exhortation is the principle that a godly life—honorable conduct—provides a measure of defense to strangers and pilgrims in this hostile environment. The saints are given instructions that have to do more with the inward life: “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul.” There follows the evidence of those working principles in the outward life: “having your conduct honourable among the Gentiles.” The saints, conscious of the eye of the world upon them, ought to cultivate attractive and blameless lives. Our interactions with those around us ought to be truly righteous. This is so that when our religious convictions bring a measure of reproach or persecution, those who speak evil of the children of God will be obliged to acknowledge the practical and generally beneficial godliness of the saints.

As they see your righteous living they will be caught between their rejection of the Christ whom you follow and the undeniable difference that your following of Christ makes in your treatment of those around you. They must acknowledge that your life is exemplary; that your Christian convictions raise you above the aggressive and bestial living that increasingly characterizes our societies; that our fundamental neighborliness is on open but unostentatious display (Luke 10:36). Such good works of the church will ultimately lead these critics to “glorify God in the day of visitation.” This is a difficult phrase that some suggest refers to a personal and searching encounter with the Lord, perhaps prompted by or certainly driven home by the testimony of the believers in the world. There may come a day when God deals with the souls of our friends, neighbors, and colleagues who may presently pour scorn on our convictions, dismiss our religion, or deride us as mere do-gooders. In that day the honorable conduct of the saints may be one of the means that the Lord uses to press home the realities of His salvation in Jesus Christ. The following verses spell out what this looks like with regard to the state:

Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men—as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king. (1 Peter 2:13–17)

You will notice that Peter establishes absolutes that are similar to those which Paul makes clear in Romans 13. Peter explains that if the saints are to suffer, at least it ought to be for the right reasons and not because of their rebellion against God’s appointed authorities. What is particularly interesting is the way in which Peter connects lawlessness and rebellion in relation both to God and to men. As with Paul, rebellion against the authority that the Lord has appointed is de facto rebellion against the Lord who appointed it. Rebellion against one authority often reflects an ill disposition to authority in general, including divine authority. It is no surprise that a generation in which sinners very willingly and eagerly enthrone themselves as the only authority worth heeding tend to disregard both the laws of men and the laws of God. Verse 17 provides a potent summary of what Peter has been addressing: “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17).

Excerpted from the book Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness (Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com or Westminster Bookstore or RHB).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 1 July 2015 at 06:58

“Respect the Authorities”: Scriptural Framework #2 ~ The Prayers of the Saints

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Having introduced the topic of respect for God-constituted authorities, and considered a proper subjection, we move on to account for the prayers of the saints.

The Prayers of the Saints

I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. (1 Tim. 2:1–2)

Paul calls Timothy to fulfill his appointed role with fidelity. Part of that requires Timothy to be truly and righteously publicly minded. We may be separate from the world, but we do not cut ourselves off from those around us, from the world in which we live. One of the ways in which we show our engagement with the world is by prayer.

Here is a command that all kinds of prayers be offered for all kinds of men, including and especially kings and all who are in authority. Paul speaks of various approaches made to the Lord God: seeking to obtain needful things, making requests, having close dealings with God on behalf of ourselves and others, also giving thanks to God for His goodness bestowed on others and on ourselves. Why does Timothy need to pray in this way? The desired consequences are not to obtain wealth, power, influence, or prominence in society or among its rulers, but simply to be able to get on with the job of beingthe saints of God without interference or oppression. God’s people wish simply to conduct themselves in godliness and reverence, discharging the duties we have toward God and men. The commentator Patrick Fairbairn says that these are prayers that we “may be allowed freely to enjoy our privileges, and maintain the pious and orderly course which becomes us as Christians, without the molestation, the troubles, and the unseemly shifts which are the natural consequence of inequitable government and abused power.” [1 & 2 Timothy and Titus (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 112.] Up to a point, we wish merely to be left alone to get on with the life that God has called us to lead.

Here is a new covenant echo of the prayer that the exiles of Jeremiah’s day had commended to them: “Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace” (Jer. 29:7). We do not wish to suffer from rapid shifts of power, from abuses of authority, or from threats to civil order. Pray, then, that the Lord would guide those in authority so that you may have peace to pursue righteousness. Paul goes on to say to Timothy that such a disposition to pray and such a righteous expectation is pleasing to the Lord God.

Excerpted from the book Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness (Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com or Westminster Bookstore or RHB).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 30 June 2015 at 07:00

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