Those in the teaching profession might be interested to know that there is a CofE primary school in Crawley, West Sussex, called St Margaret’s, Ifield, that is in the process of seeking a new head teacher. I intend to draw attention to the advert when it is finalised and publicised, but perhaps you or someone you know might be interested. One reason for bringing this to attention through this blog is that we would be hopeful that the candidate will be a robust and faithful Christian in addition to being an excellent head teacher. If you are interested, or know someone who might be, please keep your eyes open through this blog or the usual channels. Oh, and there happens to be a fine Reformed or Particular Baptist church not too far away …
Hopefully there will be a couple of things from the Walker quill forthcoming this year – one longer work on the pilgrim life and one shorter booklet on the topic of repentance. I hope to offer more details soon, but I thought I might at least let you know.
It may have been ever thus, but there seem to be an increasing number of books – often from the fields of biblical or systematic theology – that present themselves as having discovered or provided the overarching theme of the Scriptures as a whole, the lens through which the whole should be read and interpreted. At other times, there is a supposed historical precedent which, we are informed, must govern the way in which we handle not only uninspired texts, but even the Scriptures themselves. Perhaps there is even an experimental approach: we have had such-and-such an experience, therefore it must be validated by the Word of God.
Every other theme or text is then shoehorned into the grand scheme, trimmed and hammered until the squarest of pegs slide into the roundest of holes. Sometimes, there is something that is compelling about such presentations, and much light is shed on the Word of God. One might still not accept the demand that this be the point at which we stand in order to change the world, while appreciating the help given in seeing this as a weighty theme or principle. At other times, I am concerned at how blunt or even crass that process is, with some shallow little epithet becoming the cookie cutter into which every text or doctrine must be forced. We end up reading our Bibles with a combination of myopia and tunnel vision, and not just those that come of being fallen creatures.
At the same time, most of us are probably accustomed to reading the Bible through a certain set of lenses. We come to the Word of God with certain notions, and these – consciously or unconsciously, possibly even subconsciously – inform our hermeneutics. This is largely inevitable. We open the Bible with certain presuppositions, a certain system influencing if not governing the way in which we read.
As a result, we tend to find in the Scriptures what accords with our own convictions. You might recall John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan’s attempt at self-definition: “I’m first a Christian, next a catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order.” I wonder if (with necessary adjustments and extensions, depending on our beliefs) we also read the Bible through those kinds of lenses, in more or less that order?
So the key question must be, who makes the lenses and sets them in the frames? Here is a great challenge for us if we are to be faithful and humble readers of the Scriptures. Prayerfully dependent on the Holy Spirit, we must adjust our lenses and our frames to ensure that the Scriptures come into focus as they are, and not adjust the Scriptures so that they can be read through our lenses and frames.
This, I think, is one of the particular things that I appreciate about the expositions of Calvin and some of the other older writers. Please understand that I am not seeking to set up a Calvin versus the Calvinists dichotomy, or necessarily trying to endorse the system that often goes by the name of Calvinism. Rather, I am talking about the way the man handles the Bible. And I think he handles the Bible humbly and faithfully. There is no doubt that he reads with certain presuppositions, as do we all. But when he reaches a given point in his handling of a text, and noticeably where it is something which pushes his system – starkly and mechanistically considered – out of shape, he does not start trying to kick the text into shape, but he takes off his shoes, for he is standing on holy ground. And that is something we all must do.
Spurgeon once said, “Brethren, we shall not adjust our Bible to the age; but before we have done with it, by God’s grace, we shall adjust the age to the Bible.” If we are to do that, we must also ensure that we do not adjust our Bible to the system, but the system to our Bible. As we read, we must allow every line to have its full and honest weight, to be interpreted historically and and linguistically and grammatically in accordance with righteous standards, and to submit to whatever we find. To be sure, we do not and cannot come nakedly to the Word of God, and it would be folly to suggest that we do and can. But let us be done with shoehorning the Bible, in the whole or in part, into a preordained system. If I find it in my Bible, I must believe it. If I do not, then I am not bound by it, and neither can I bind anyone else to it. We cannot use the Bible to legitimise what we have already decided must be true. If God’s Word declares it, I receive it and embrace it, even if – where reason fails, with all its powers – there faith prevails and love adores. We worship even when – perhaps especially when – we cannot fully comprehend. Let us make sure that – whatever we start with – we are continually adjusting our frames and refining our lenses to ensure that the fixed points of the Word of God inform everything else that we believe or do, and live and worship accordingly.
Here is your starter for ten …
You may be in the sad condition of not really knowing what you are missing by not knowing Fuller. One way to get a taste of the man as a preacher is a selection from his sermons providing a thirty day devotional. It may be a little late for the start the year, but I would like to think it would provide a real blessing to your daily spiritual routine at some point over the next twelve months. It’s dirt cheap, seems to be only available on Kindle, and you can grab it at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
Would you allow me to draw your attention to a book? It is my father’s work, and concerns a man that you may not know, a seventeenth century Baptist called Benjamin Keach. Keach was one of the movers and shakers of the century, a prominent London Baptist who faced fierce persecution but also saw sweet blessings. He was a pastor of the church which can be traced to the one meeting today at the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
Might I also say that it is not just a tale for Baptists or historians, though both would find it delightful. His example as a man who wrestled toward truth, stood fast in accordance with his convictions, was prepared to suffer for the cause of Christ, and served the Lord and his people faithfully and fruitfully, makes him a worthy study for any Christian, perhaps especially any pastor.
This is a revised second edition of what is now the standard work on the life of this Baptist pastor and preacher, taking account of research conducted since the original publication. It can be found at the publisher’s website, and it is available in hardback (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) and paperback (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) and now has the virtue of an index, making it more useful to scholars. I strongly recommend it.
Several years ago I had the privilege of preaching in Denmark at the Reformation-Resurrection Conference. The invitation came out of the blue, hanging upon the absence of another brother whose health prevented him from serving. I went a little tentatively, not knowing what I would find, not least because Denmark is hardly known as an epicentre of biblical faith and life.
You can imagine my delight when I discovered a conference organised by a small but vigorous Reformed Baptist church, gathering together saints of like mind – many of them in far-from-ideal spiritual circumstances themselves – for a week of concentrated scriptural Bible teaching and warm fellowship among believers of the same spirit. People had gathered not only from Denmark but also from Norway, Sweden, Germany and even further afield to worship God together and enjoy a time of spiritual refreshment. Unfortunately, when they all arrived they discovered that the man they had hoped to hear was absent, and yours truly was the sorry substitute. Nevertheless, the Lord undertook for us, and it was his truth that went forth to the glory of his name.
All of which to say that the brothers in Denmark have been kind enough to invite me back again this summer when, God willing, my topic will be The Christian Family: God’s Grace in the Heart and in the Home. The conference is due to be held in mid-July at a school in Mariager, between Aarhus and Aalborg in the north of Denmark. They have asked me to draw this to the attention of interested friends, who can find out more at the conference website (Danish/English). Perhaps I will see you there?
[The introductory paragraph was originally posted in an unfinished form. Mea culpa. I have not changed the sentiment and substance, but have adapted and I hope improved the tone and the direction. I do not have the original piece, but what follows is close to the original intention. Other clarifications are here.]
At this time of year, we may see provided a variety of what I shall call scripted prayers. Some of them are entirely personal productions and some are woven together from other sources. Some are occasional pieces and some are habitual constructions. Such offerings and collections may have some value, when used and not abused. I stand pretty much with Bunyan on the matter of formally scripted and read prayers. I consider them close to an abomination. I appreciate the personal reading of thoughtful and careful prayers that were offered extemporaneously and recorded as they came (such as Spurgeon’s pulpit prayers [e.g. Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Westminster] or those which conclude many of Calvin’s sermons [e.g. Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Westminster]). I value prayers that were written as part of a longer project and were not intended to be recited as some kind of intercessory ritual, but into the spirit of which we might enter as a means of priming the pump of the soul (e.g. The Valley of Vision [Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Westminster]). But such reading does not and cannot replace our own praying. The idea of taking those words, reciting the script, and calling it heart prayer is not something I can countenance. I do not doubt the sincerity of some who pursue such a course, but the thing is so dangerous in its practice (inviting us to a mere performance) and deadly in its tendency (replacing the form for the substance) that I would advise anyone to steer well clear (and I am fully aware that more extemporaneous prayer can fall into the same traps, but I do not think it has the same measure of inherent weakness at this point). Do not misunderstand me, it is a rare privilege to listen – either really or at a distance – to a true man of God pleading with his heavenly Father, and there is much to learn from so doing. But the mere recitation or repetition of such words – even if they are our own – is not, in itself, prayer. Carefully used, such examples can be, in measure, spiritual springboards. Carelessly abused, they become spiritual shackles and militate against a true spirit of prayer.
So, by all means use some of these examples, but do not abuse them. Employ them, if need be, to prime the pump. And then, pray! The new year provides one of those natural turning points that gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect. The instinct to pray is entirely right and proper, but we must ourselves bow the knee and engage the heart, however carefully we ponder and prepare beforehand. With that in mind, let me suggest that we should pray in four directions.
Pray back. As you ponder where you have come from, remember who has brought you to where you are. Every child of God, whatever the gloom that seems presently to surround us, has the gospel light shining in our soul. Whatever your heavenly Father has seen fit to give you, it is as your Father in heaven that he gave it. Wherever the good Shepherd has led you, it is as the Shepherd that he led you there and through there. If you are Christ’s, and Christ is yours, then all things are yours. Every step of the past year, let alone every day of every year of your life, have been governed by divine love and gracious compassion. All has been intended to bring you to God and keep you with God, and to develop likeness to Christ in you, in accordance with God’s design. So look back, and lift up your Ebenezer, for till now, the Lord has helped us (1Sam 7:12).
Pray around. Remember your present circumstances and blessings, frailties and responsibilities. On the one hand, the Christian is the most privileged and the richest person on earth:
“All things are ours;” the gift of God,
And purchas’d with our Saviour’s blood;
While the good Spirit shows us how
To use and to improve them too.
Like the Kingswood colliers of whom Wesley wrote, on all the kings of earth, with pity we look down, and claim – in virtue of our birth – a never-fading crown. We are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, and for that we should sing with joy and gladness. We stand in grace, and yet the world moves on around us. Week by week I prepare a sheet for the church where I serve, each one numbered as the year turns. It is often very unsettling to see the speed at which the weeks pass by, those days swifter than a weaver’s shuttle. It is not morbid or maudlin to consider that we do not know how many more of those days we shall be granted, to remember that you may not see another new year, that you are a creature of the dust, and to assess how we shall live in the days allotted to us. So we look around, and pray, asking the Lord to “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12). It is what we need for every moment as we wrestle with the demands of this day, and then the next, each day having enough trouble of its own, and supplies of grace to meet every trouble that comes.
Pray forwards. There are before each one of God’s children countless opportunities and responsibilities, many of which we have not yet seen. They may come with minutes or it may take months. For the days to come we need wisdom, and it is wisdom which the Lord himself has undertaken to provide, and commanded us to seek: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (Jas 1:5). This, and every other good thing, is promised to those who ask, seek and knock. It is the Father’s delight to provide those needful things for kingdom life that his beloved children request. We never need to be ashamed of our asking, if we are asking in accordance with his will and our character as trusting children. We do not need to twist his arm, bargain with him, or fear a harsh response. He is ready to provide every needful blessing, through his Spirit, that we need to secure his certain glory and enjoy his promised good.
And so, pray upwards. Every prayer must be directed to heaven. The greatest abominations in prayer are those self-referential or performed prayers that have more regard for the approval of men than concern to be heard by God. Far too many prayers are like damp fireworks; they may splutter a little with a few sparks, but they barely get off the ground. True prayer is, in essence, an expression of dependence upon God. If we do not pray, it is a practical atheism. But the saints pray to the Lord for what we can only receive from the Lord. We look to him, and – anxious for nothing – in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, we let our requests be made known to God. Thus the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Phil 3.6-7). May the new year, in its beginning, continuing and ending, prove that so.