The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘Lord’s supper

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

Sanctifying God’s name at the Lord’s supper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Jeremy Walker

Sunday 3 November 2019 at 09:30

“One swift glimpse of heavenly things”

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Hart’s  7 7. 7 7

One swift glimpse of heavenly things
Fills the soul with joy divine.
Think of Christ who reigns above;
Think: “By grace, this Christ is mine.”

One sweet taste of joys to come
Fills the mind and fires the heart.
Blood of Christ, so freely shed,
Washes sin from every part.

Glorious thoughts of heaven above
Rouse us to attain our goal.
Flesh of Christ, so freely given,
Wins God’s smile, and makes us whole.

Here we taste the wine and bread,
Symbols of the Christ we love.
Sweet they are, but sweeter still
Are those joys to come above.

When we reach our glorious home,
Bought by Christ’s atoning blood,
Clothed in righteousness divine,
We at last shall dwell with God.


Lord's supper

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Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 15 September 2009 at 09:00

An outline of the life of John Calvin #3 The man of Geneva

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(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)  (Listen here or a slightly developed version here)

This second period in Geneva lasted until Calvin’s death on 6 February 1564.  Most biographers and historians view it in terms of years of struggle (1541-1555) and years of triumph (1555-1564).  There is a Christlike and distinctly Christian pattern to his life in this respect.  In his life there was never success without sorrow; for every child of God there is never glory without grief, never a crown without a cross.

john-calvin-3In November 1541, Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances – his constitution setting out proposed church order – were accepted with some emendations by the Genevan authorities.  However, despite the political decree, there was no plain sailing.  The party opposed to Calvin was known as the Libertines, and their leader on the Council was Ami Perrin.  The opposition was private and public, political and personal: children referred to him as ‘Cain’ rather than ‘Calvin’; a good number of Geneva’s dogs answered to his name; he was publicly abused whenever he went out, and called the second-ranked devil in hell.  The Libertines declared that the “communion of the saints” allowed them to pursue sexual immorality and practice adultery with one another’s wives.

This wrestling with wickedness among the Genevan leaders eventually resulted in an open confrontation.  A prominent Libertine called Philibert Berthelier, secretary to the Council of the Two Hundred, and known for his sexual promiscuity, was excommunicated by the consistory of the Church of Geneva in 1551, but absolved by the Little Council on 2 September 1553.  The following day was Sunday, and communion was to be celebrated.  These scenes are variously described, and it is difficult to know precisely what took place.  In the most dramatic presentation – and bear in mind that this confrontation might have taken place more privately and before the Lord’s day in the presence of the Council – Calvin preached and at the close of the sermon declared that he would rather die on the spot than allow those who had been excommunicated to profane God’s ordinance.  Some suggest that the Libertines were present, armed and with Berthelier and Ami Perrin among them.  Calvin is said to have descended from the pulpit and stood before the table, and put his body between the people and the table: “These hands you may crush, these arms you may cut off, my life you may take, but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profane and dishonour the table of my God.”  There was a stunned silence.  Perrin ordered Berthelier not to approach the table.  The Libertines withdrew, and the Lord’s table was celebrated in silence and with awe and reverence.  Calvin stood for God before his and his Lord’s despisers: whether this occurred more in public or in private, this man of God put his life on the line for the purity of God’s worship.  Expecting to be exiled once more for his resistance, Calvin preached that Sunday afternoon from Acts 20.31-32: “Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.  So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”  But God spared his servants, though further struggles and threats of violence followed for many months.

At the same time, one of the darkest acts of Calvin’s Geneva was hovering over the Reformer.  A brilliant Spaniard called Michael Servetus had long caused trouble to all religious authorities, being a constitutionally unconventional thinker and aggressive blasphemer and heretic.  He denied the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ.  Condemned to death elsewhere by the Roman Catholics, he made his way to Geneva – one wonders why – where he was recognised.  In 1553 he had attempted to answer Calvin’s Institutes with his own Restitutes (i.e. a restitution or restoration of Christianity), and he and Calvin had previously corresponded, and Calvin had given him some forthright warnings.  Servetus was defended by the Libertines – they made him a champion of sorts against Calvin – and the heretic was himself appalled when the Little Council nevertheless confirmed a sentence of death by burning.  This was not Calvin’s decision, and he in fact protested the harshness of the sentence.  He did not deny that Servetus should die – that was a common enough punishment for heretics in every country – but he did resist the notion of burning, suggesting a swifter and more merciful death.  Servetus, having previously rejected offers to be exiled, and after a temporary plunge into despair, resisted with a highhanded arrogance all efforts to have him recant.  Servetus was burned in October of 1553.  Even while we abhor the errors of Servetus, we do not defend the response of Geneva.  What we must do is accept Calvin’s role as a man of his time (in which the sword of the magistrate and the sword of God’s word were too often confused and interchanged), and yet defend his honour against those who make of this something that it was not, and gleefully read into the political acts of the civil authority the designs and desires of Calvin himself.

Slowly, day by grinding day, Calvin and his associates pressed for the application of God’s word to the life of the church and to society at large.  We cannot detail all the struggles, seen and unseen, known to men and known only to God, of these hard years.  However, by 1555 the political opposition of the Libertines was essentially ended, and the consistory’s right to excommunicate conceded.  This was the beginning of Calvin’s triumphant period, in which – it must be noted – he did not lord it as a despot in Geneva, but lived as simply, humbly, and diligently as before.

Here again, we are constrained as to how much detail can be provided, but there are several noteworthy spheres of labour which we must identify.

First of all, there is Calvin’s preaching.  Not only during the years of struggle but also in the time of more complete success, Calvin was essentially, even primarily, a preacher of God’s word.  On his return to Geneva from Strasbourg, he preached twice every Sunday, and then on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Later he preached only every second week (by which stage there were Tuesday and Thursday sermons also).  The New Testament was his text on Sundays, the Old on weekdays, with the Psalms sometimes on a Sunday afternoon.  This preaching effected a massive moral change in Geneva.  We do not suggest that there was no mere social pressure, but the very nature of the change suggests that it was fundamentally a spiritual change as the church and then society found the Word of God brought to bear unflinchingly upon them.  We have two thousand sermons still available, of perhaps more than four thousand preached.

His literary labours were immense.  Perhaps most prominent in terms of his own production was the final edition, in 1559, of The Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Continually revised since its first appearance, the 1559 edition is Calvin’s magnum opus, and ought to be read in its entirety by far more so-called Calvinists than it has been.  Grounded in certain declarations of the Apostle’s Creed, this magisterial treatment of the knowledge of God the Creator of heaven and earth; God the Redeemer, in Christ; the way in which we receive the grace of Christ; and, the external means or aids by which God invites us into the society of Christ, is a sweeping examination and systematisation of the Word of God.  It is, fundamentally, an attempt to hear what the living God says to man, to see the revelation of God in Christ Jesus, to let God be God.  At the same time, Calvin was writing commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, three catechisms, and theological treatises against all manner of errors and heresies.  There are also 4271 letters (many of them lengthy) which have been collected.  All this is in addition to the sermons, which a man called Denis Raguenier began taking down in his own private shorthand.  This meticulously accurate scribe was soon employed to record and transcribe each one-hour, six-thousand-word sermon.  Calvin, though, had no time to edit them.  1553 saw the publishing of the Geneva Bible, which became a blueprint for Protestant Europe – the English language editions with their explanatory notes were a founding text of the British reformation, and the seedbed of British Puritanism.

His international influence was vast, not only by means of correspondence, but also visitors.  Exiles came from France, England and Scotland; refugees fled to Geneva from Germany and Italy – they came seeking both safety and instruction.  Among them was John Knox, who declared the church which Calvin was reforming in Geneva as “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles.”[1] In 1559 Calvin founded the Geneva Academy, the first Protestant ‘university’, if you like.  Calvin was its professor of theology, and more than a thousand students from across Europe sat to hear him and Theodore Beza declare God’s truth.  Again, we cannot list all the students who went on to give Calvin’s Biblicism increasingly rich and effective form.  These men were often nothing less than missionaries.  Many returned to France and martyrdom.  Many exiles came and went as Christ’s kingdom in their own nations made its often slow and painful progress.  The Academy was known as “Calvin’s school of death” because so many of its alumni were put to death as a result of their witness for Christ.

Calvin called his own bodily condition “a constant death struggle”: from his early thirties he had begun to suffer physically, and bore numerous afflictions during this whole period.  He had become a chronic sufferer from ague, catarrh (inflammation of the mucous membrane in the nose which caused his nose to run continually), asthma, indigestion, and migraine headaches which sometimes kept him awake all night.  In 1558 he suffered at length from quartan fever (an intermittent malarial fever) from which he never fully recovered.  He also suffered from close-to-crippling arthritis, gout, kidney stones, ulcerated haemorrhoids, gum disease, chronic indigestion, and pleurisy that finally led to malignant pulmonary tuberculosis.  For years, so afflicted, Calvin had often coughed up blood on account of his public speaking.

This constant pain – together with the fact that he was so often far beyond his more limited contemporaries, and the weight of work which he faced – was probably a source of much of the irritability of which he was sometimes accused.  Beza writes:

His temperament was naturally choleric, and his active public life had tended greatly to increase this failing; but the Spirit of God had so taught him to moderate his anger, that no word ever escaped him unworthy of a righteous man.  Still less did he ever commit aught unjust towards others.  It was then only, indeed, when the question concerned religion, and when he had to contend against hardened sinners, that he allowed himself to be moved and excited beyond the bounds of moderation.

He was naturally timid, even fearful, which makes his courage all the more amazing.  He was an affectionate and faithful friend, an intense man of deep feeling and penetrating thought.  Worn out by his labours, Calvin preached his last sermon in Geneva on 6 February 1564.  On Easter Sunday he went to church for the last time, singing with the rest of the congregation at the conclusion, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace . . . for my eyes have seen your salvation.”  On 25 April he dictated his last will and testimony, which included the following declarations:

In the name of God, I, John Calvin, servant of the Word of God in the Church of Geneva, weakened by many illnesses . . . thank God that he has shown not only mercy toward me, his poor creature, and . . . has suffered me in all sins and weaknesses, but what is much more, that he has made me a partaker of his grace to serve him through my work . . . I confess to live and die in this faith which he has given me, inasmuch as I have no other hope or refuge than his predestination upon which my entire salvation is grounded.  I embrace the grace which he has offered me in our Lord Jesus Christ and accept the merits of his suffering and dying, that through them all my sins are buried; and I humbly beg him to wash me and cleanse me with the blood of our great Redeemer, as it was shed for all poor sinners so that I, when I shall appear before his face, may bear his likeness.  Moreover, I declare that I endeavoured to teach his Word undefiled and to expound Holy Scripture faithfully according to the measure of grace which he has given me.  In all the disputations which I led against the enemies of the truth, I employed no cunning or any sophistry, but have fought his cause honestly.  But, oh, my will, my zeal were so cold and sluggish that I know myself guilty in every respect; without his infinite goodness, all my passionate striving would only be smoke, indeed the grace itself which he gave me would make me even more guilty; thus my only confidence is that he is the Father of mercy who as such desires to reveal himself to such a miserable sinner.

On 28 April, he summoned the ministers of Geneva for a farewell address which well captures both the pungency of his personality and the tenor of his life:

When I first came to this church, I found almost nothing in it.  There was preaching and that was all.  They would look out for idols it is true, and they burned them.  But there was no reformation.  Everything was in disorder . . . I have lived here amid continual bickering.  I have been from derision saluted of an evening before my door with forty or fifty shots of an arquebuse [musket]. . .  . They set the dogs at my heels, crying, Here! here! and these snapped at my gown and legs. . . . though I am nothing, yet know I well that I have prevented three thousand tumults that would have broken out in Geneva.  But take courage and fortify yourselves, for God will make use of this church and will maintain it, and assures you that he will protect it.[2]

But he also said:

I have had many faults that you have had to tolerate, and all that I accomplished was of little significance.  The evil-minded will take advantage of this confession, but I repeat that all that I have done is of little significance, and I am a poor creature.  My faults have always displeased me and the root of the fear of the Lord has always been in my heart.  As for my doctrine, I have taught faithfully, and God has given me grace to write, which I have done faithfully as I could; and I have not corrupted [mutilated] one single passage of Scripture nor twisted it as far as I know; and when in a position to arrive at an artificial meaning through subtlety, I have put all that under my feet, and have always aimed at being simple.  I have written nothing out of hatred against anyone, but have always set before me what I thought was for the glory of God.[3]

He entered his rest and reward on 27 May, being 54 years old.  It is suggested that his last discernible words were, “How long, O Lord?”  His body was buried with the normal ceremony of the church in a simple coffin at the common cemetery on Sunday 28 May, in accordance with his wishes.  His grave was unmarked, and remains unknown.  Thus the life and thus the death of John Calvin of Geneva.

We have no space for an extended evaluation of the man, except to warn against the very abuses that Calvin sought to avoid in his own dying days.  There are those today who would venerate him, affording him the same sort of demi-divine status as can be seen in the Roman communion for the church fathers, putting his words on a par with Scripture.  I say this not to denigrate Calvin but to defend him.  No-one was more conscious of his imperfections and shortcomings than he was himself.  We marvel at his life as a man of God, but he would have us marvel at the one who made him a man of God.  We tend to point at him, but we should look and see him pointing away from himself to Jesus Christ.  We bend our ears and minds to listen to him; we should hear him shout, “Listen to God!”  John Calvin would not have had recommended that you unthinkingly and uncritically follow a mere man: it would have been repugnant to this eminently gifted and godly saint, utterly persuaded that he was what he was by the grace of God.  He would call you to a noble-minded embrace of God’s truth and its rule of faith and life.  If you would honour Calvin, honour his God and Saviour.  If you would esteem Calvin, esteem Christ and his Word.  His legacy is of a man subject to God in all his majesty, and constrained to live and die for his glory.  His life and work reveal a man kneeling before God, subject to his Word, determined to know and to do his will, whatever the cost.  The best response to Calvin, the greatest tribute you can pay the man, is to cultivate the same disposition and attitude to his God and ours.  He was a Christlike man, and he would have had you see Jesus: imitate him, then, but only and just as he imitated Christ.

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)  (Listen here or a slightly developed version here)

[1] Quoted by Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Peabody, MA: Hendriksen, 1996), 8:518.
[2] Quoted by David Steinmetz, Calvin in Context (Oxford: OUP, 1995), 20.
[3] Quoted by Robert Reymond, John Calvin: His Life and Influence (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2004), 129.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 21 January 2009 at 08:00

Serving schools and saints

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It has been a busy few days, with various opportunities around a load of catching up and administrative bits and pieces.

The first particular opportunity was last Tuesday.  Every so often we host several classes from the local Junior School who, as part of their Religious Education lessons (I think) visit local ‘faith communities’ in order to learn about who they are, what they believe and how they live.  They visit, I believe, a high Anglican building, a mosque, perhaps other places, and ourselves.  We have the advantage of being three minutes’ walk from their school, so we at least have the virtue of convenience.  We have developed a reputation with the teachers – more or less happy, depending upon with whom that reputation resides – of giving straight answers to straight questions.  Once or twice a teacher or parent has got a little steamed up with us, but that’s OK.  Lots of people get steamed up because they don’t like the truth.  However, we have a very good relationship with the key teacher in the system.

On this occasion we had two groups of perhaps 60 to 70 children each, with a few teachers and parents to herd them.  We have about 45 minutes to an hour to do our bit.  The children come with lots of questions, often to do with the differences of appearance and equipment between what they have seen elsewhere and what they see in our church building.  We open the baptistry and put out the plate and cup for the Lord’s supper.  Then, I have ten or fifteen minutes to explain what they are seeing.  I normally explain the pulpit, placed centrally with a Bible on it, declaring the primacy of the Word preached, declaring Jesus Christ.  Then, the baptistry, where all those who – having heard – have believed are baptised as a public testimony to their identification with the crucified but risen Jesus.  Finally, there is the Lord’s supper, where – in remembrance of his atoning death – those who have heard, believed, and been baptised as a means of entry to Christ’s church, gather to feast by faith upon him.  I emphasise the centrality of Christ to all that is important about our life as a church, explaining briefly who our Lord is and what he has done.  It’s a brief sermon with three points and one application.  We always invite the children and adults to attend our services and to see and hear ‘for real’ the people of God gathered to worship.

Then it is over to the children for questions.  Sometimes they are more tame – as they were on this occasion: why don’t you have a bell/stained glass windows/a crucifix or cross?  What is a pastor?  What’s that (organ, offerings box, hymn board, internal CCTV camera)?  Why do you do . . .?  However, often – and this is where things get crunchy – the kids suddenly twig that I will answer any question they ask, and I always try to do so from the Bible.  This can often get pretty wild.  The closest we got this time was when one girl asked, “So, why did Jesus die?”  Naturally, that got the plainest gospel answer I could give in the time I had available.  In the past, we have had some of the following questions:

  • Who made God?
  • What does God look like?
  • What does it mean that God is a spirit?
  • Where does God live?
  • How is God everywhere?
  • Is God the air?  Is God nature?
  • How can we know God if we can’t see him?
  • How can God see everything?
  • Where did the world come from?  Did God make it?
  • Why are some people different to others?  Why did God make them that way?
  • Did God make space?  Why did God make black holes?
  • Did God get baptised?
  • What is a pastor/vicar?
  • Where does the word “pastor” come from?
  • What does a pastor do?
  • How much do you earn?
  • Can ladies be pastors?
  • Must a preacher/pastor/vicar be a Christian?
  • What is a disciple?
  • When you become a Christian, do you have to do what the Bible says?
  • Do you have to be a Christian to come to church?
  • If you belong to another religion, can you become a Christian? [and vice versa]
  • Does God love people who aren’t Christians?
  • What happens when you become a Christian?
  • Is the baptistry a birth bath?  A swimming pool?  A bath?
  • Can you go for a swim after you’ve been baptised?
  • What do you wear to be baptised?  Can you wear goggles?
  • Is there something special about the water in the pool?
  • If baptism uses ordinary water, why is it so important?
  • What does baptism mean?
  • Can children be baptised?  Can girls/ladies be baptised?
  • What’s the difference between christening and baptism?
  • Is baptism safe?
  • What is the church?
  • If the church is people, why do you need a building?
  • Why don’t you have stained glass/statues/pictures?
  • What happens when we die?
  • What is the difference between burials and cremation?
  • Why don’t you have a graveyard?
  • Why are other churches different?
  • Can disabled people be baptised?
  • Can you worship God outdoors?
  • How can deaf people hear sermons?
  • When is the church open?  How often do you meet?
  • How long has the church been here?
  • If you stop being a Christian, do you get “unbaptised”?
  • Why does the Bible talk about “drinking the cup”?  You can’t drink cups.
  • How do you know that the Bible is true?
  • How do you know that Jesus is real?
  • If God is good and in control of everything, why do we have tidal waves and earthquakes?
  • What is sin?
  • If you have sinned, can you still get to heaven?
  • How do I escape from hell?
  • Doesn’t God give you a second chance?

Needless to say, this is a great opportunity to explain the truth as it is in Jesus in a variety of different ways to a captive audience, from a variety of different backgrounds.  Often the teachers and parents get involved.  One once took me to task for our Christian ‘exclusivism’ which gave me an opportunity to declare Christ as the one Saviour of sinners, but also to explain that anyone who comes to him will be saved.  He didn’t seem happy, but they come on our turf on our terms to hear what we believe and practice.  After two or three hours of this, I am usually pretty whacked out, but we hope that it lays a foundation for further opportunities with the children both within and without the school, and we have in the past had several of them come to services afterward.  As yet, grievously, we are not aware of any conversions.

Then yesterday I was preaching at Grace Baptist Church, Portsmouth.  They are a delightful and warm-hearted people with whom I have a very pleasant relationship.  They are themselves seeking a pastor, and pray earnestly for God to send the right man.  They are situated right in the middle of a housing estate, so they are well situated for gospel ministry and – despite their limited numbers and resources – they labour hard to preach the good news.

I ministered in the morning from Romans 8.34 on the Christian’s uncondemnability in Christ, grounded in his death, resurrection, session and intercession.  It is a truth in which I delight, and I have enjoyed encouraging and challenging God’s saints in two or three places with this material.  My family and I had a delightful afternoon’s fellowship with several of the members, and then in the evening I preached from Colossians 2.6 on the Christian’s abiding relationship with Christ: the past experience of receiving him in all his saving fullness, the present activity of walking in him (growing in our likeness to him and deriving all grace and strength from him), and the permanent connection between the two, as we cling to Christ as urgently, readily and entirely now as we did when first we came.  It was a good day, in which I believe the Lord helped in all our worship, and not least in the preaching and hearing.  For various reasons they were a little down in number, but it seemed that the most important guest was present.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 29 September 2008 at 11:12

Gospel ministry and gospel confidence

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My father and fellow-pastor was away this past Lord’s day, taking a well-deserved holiday. As a result, I had the privilege of all three ministries.

In the Sunday School hour, we continued to consider the distinctive roles of men and women. As we completed our consideration of the role of women, we paused at the point of transfer to studying out the role of men to look at the various abuses of male headship and female submission to which we are prone. Because the distinctive roles of men and women are grounded upon their essential equality (in terms of created dignity, native depravity and redemptive reality), there ought to be no sense of inferiority or superiority engendered by considering what man is as man, and woman as woman, and what they are in relation to each other. However, men – in the exercise of loving leadership – should not err either by abdication nor tyranny, and women – in the pursuit of positive submission – should not err either by way of domination nor effacement. In considering this, I basically employed material from my friend and mentor Alan Dunn, drawing from his excellent and insightful if occasionally technical little volume, Headship in Marriage (in the Light of Creation and the Fall).

Then, in our morning worship, I continued a long-standing series in Colossians. We are now in the last two verses of the first chapter. Here, we see Paul as a fellow-labourer with God. As one would expect from such a man, there exists a full and precise correspondence between Paul’s activity and God’s stated purposes.

In Colossians 1.28-29, Paul identifies the gospel minister’s tools, task, and toil. The first sermon was on The gospel minister’s tools, which he uses constantly, comprehensively and specifically. The first tool is proclamation. This is the authoritative declaration of Jesus Christ, his glorious person and saving work.
This mighty river contains two currents, two subsidiary tools: admonition and instruction. The first is putting something in the mind of men, getting something laid to their hearts, driving into the will and affections, to awaken and arouse, stimulating reflection and promoting action. The second works on the understanding, definite truth and clear direction being imparted to the inquiring mind, guiding sinners to Christ and directing the child of God in faith and life to the glory of Christ. I hope to go on to consider the task and the toil in due course.

Then, in the evening, we celebrated the Lord’s supper. With the aim of preparing our minds and hearts, I preached on Romans 8.34, under the title, Uncondemnable! We set out the four pillars of Christian confidence, upon which a Christian can stand and ask heaven and earth and hell, “Who is he who condemns? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul offers four answers, any of which is sufficient, all of which together are simply unassailable: it is Christ who died; it is Christ who furthermore is also risen; it is Christ who is even at the right hand of God; it is Christ who also makes intercession for us. It was, I trust, a good day in the house of God, with the morning’s message more of a challenge, and the evening’s more of a consolation.

One particular pleasure in the evening was to have Andy and Sallyann Owen visiting with us. Apparently, my parents had been God’s means of doing good to Sallyann before she was married, and they had hoped to catch up with her. Andy heads up a ministry to the Deaf at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Andy has also authored three books assisting in this work: Signs of Life, Not Hearers Only, and Jesus Used Sign Language (all of which can be ordered through the Tabernacle Bookshop). Having recently taught through Christ’s healing of a deaf and mute man in Mark 7 at our Stepping Stones bible study, having had a substantially deaf father, and having had the privilege of being interpreted for the Deaf by a man with whom I subsequently have had fascinating conversations, it was a delight to speak with Andy and to gain some of his wisdom and insight into this challenging yet rewarding sphere of ministry.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 5 May 2008 at 20:39

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