Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

Saying “YES” to Marriage by Voting “NO”

[first published in the monthly congregtional “Notes” for September, 2017.]

In just a few weeks after this editorial is published, Australian voters will know if the High Court will allow Australians the opportunity to express an opinion on changes to the law which would allow same-sex relationships to be regarded as “marriages”. If government comments are any guide, we will likely be asked for a simple “Yes” or “No” even though the matter is much more complicated than that. I will be voting “No” in line with the Biblical view of marriage as a fundamental Creation ordinance for the good of ALL of society, not just Christians, and in line with many statements on marriage and on homosexuality issued by the Presbyterian Church over the years. [More could be said, but this column has limits on space. As a beginning, see https://pcacan.org/index.php/current-issues/same-sex-marriage and the Moderator’s comments under https://www.presbyterian.org.au ]

Some who argue for a “yes” tell us that the changes will not affect existing marriages at all—it is merely changing a word. But it is naïve and untrue to see the change as nothing more than changing a word. Words have meaning. A circle cannot be called a square unless the basic definition of circle-ness is changed and the meaning of square-ness denied. Similarly with marriage: heterosexual and homosexual relation-ships cannot be declared identical unless difference is denied. With the change of definition will come social affirmation, so that there no-longer will be any public distinction allowable for Christians without threat of penalty. Such times may come anyway, but Christians should not willingly vote for a situation where the freedom to declare God’s word on an issue depends on the will of government!

Because of that, it is surprising to me, and sad, to read of Christians arguing that the best way forward for Gospel witness to our community is to vote “Yes”. No doubt the motive is a desire to be compassionate and loving, to keep relationships open and preserve social harmony in a secular society by living out the so-called Golden Rule. These hopes are good but can surely be present in those who advocate “No” as well! After all, the best, loving, compassionate good for our neighbour (& society generally) is always to urge them to follow God’s morality. And on this matter, the State is even asking our opinion, so of course we should tell them! Yes, God is sovereign, but gospel witness is never furthered by deliberately legitimizing sin.

Jesus himself re-affirmed marriage as a creation ordinance [Mk 10:6-9] and much, much more than “two people who love each other”, so sooner or later our evangelism will have to bite the bullet and say, “Well if you come to Jesus Christ, not only He will ask you not to treat your relationship as a marriage, but He will ask you to live without it!” What will we say when someone asks, “Then why did you vote to let me get into this mess?” How much more complicated will life and society be when such relationships have to be un-done! It is true that these problems already exist to some extent because under our law same-sex relationships have been already accorded a whole raft of rights and privileges [was the vote was quietly lost then?? I think so.] but we should not compound the problem.

Christians also know the deeper issue is the deliberate attempt to eradiate all reminders of God from society’s public space, even though many may not consciously be aware of it. Ever since Eden, and under the guise of human freedom (Rom 1) mankind has sought out ways to reject God’s right to decree morality, and the marriage issue is merely the current battle-front. Many who have adopted the glib line that marriage is simply a human right for “two people who love each other” do not see this wider spiritual connection and would be upset at the notion that they are being deceived. Nevertheless, we must lovingly remind them of what deep down, they know to be true: God does exist, and His law is right. Then, we must tell of his merciful forgiveness in Christ for the times that they, and we ourselves too, have transgressed.

So, Christian, be strong in your own understanding of marriage, whether that is a memory, your current state, or your aspiration. Find your model in Christ, and stay close to Him. And if the Law does change, fear not, because Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33)!

Praying for the Local Ministry

[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for August, 2017.]

It is accepted by all that those in Christian ministry should pray for those in their congregations. It is a function and privilege of the office and through their knowledge of the scriptures, ministers should be well aware of what should be asked from God. Through the recorded prayers in Scripture, God has provided rich examples for those in ministry to follow. But the Bible also calls upon congregations to pray for their ministers! Three times in the New Testament, members of local congregation are clearly called to pray for those ministering to them (see 1 Thess 5:25, 2 Thess 3:1-2, & Heb 13:18). It is as much a duty and privilege to pray for those in ministry as it is to pray for ourselves and our friends; as much a duty and privilege to pray for the local minister as it is to pray for the far away missionary whom we may never meet.

So what do those in the congregation seek when they pray for their ministers? From 1 Thess 5, and Heb 13:18, we see that growth in grace and sanctification must be a high priority. It would have been easy for those early congregations, caught up in the wonder of God’s grace, to forget that the apostles and gospel preachers were mere men. Perhaps they were inclined to put them on a pedestal and treat them as “super-saints” or “super-Christians”! Yes, they were enabled and gifted in extraordinary ways but as every apostle and preacher knew, this did not guarantee that they would be sinless or exempted from the pressures that affect every Christian. The devil hates all works of grace wherever they are but loves it when ministers fail and quite likely works more subtle and powerful temptations against ministers than others.

This makes our prayers easier. Where do we need help in our Christian life? What do we need victory in? How should sanctification have its increase? Pray that your minister has that help and victory too, and that he be preserved so as to better help you in times of your need. The mutuality in Church congregational life is most powerfully expressed in a willingness and a desire to pray for one another.

Congregations should pray that their ministers know what to say and how to say it when speaking of Christ. Every Christian has this privilege as opportunity presents and should be asking God to open up times when it is ”just right” to speak to friends, colleagues, and family members. Congregations should also pray that many of these opportunities come their minister’s way (2 Thess 3:1). But it is easy to forget that the primary way in which the kingdom of God is built up, strengthened and extended is through regular preaching from the Scriptures week by week! As the Word of God is expounded and focused on our lives through Christ, both preacher and congregation are informed and faith made even stronger. As the Holy Spirit answers our prayers, the visitors we pray for will find that Christ is among us and marvel at how the Word of God also speaks to them. As Matthew Henry put so succinctly, “Ministers stand in need of their people’s prayers; and the more people pray for their ministers the more good ministers may have from God, and the more benefit people may receive by their ministry.”

Prayer has always been important because, as Paul says, “not all have faith.” In the past, those with no faith were content to ignore the Gospel, to “live and let live” as it were, but increasingly that absence of faith is showing itself in militant hostility toward Christ and his people. With that comes the strong temptation to soften the claims of Christ so as not to give offence and perhaps even to maximise a hearing! But a gospel that does not exalt Christ and Christ alone through his life, death and resurrection is no gospel at all and not worth hearing. So, pray for your minister(s), it will build you up in wonderful ways too.

The Blessedness of Christian Giving

first published in the monthly congregational Notes for July 2017

At this time of year, our minds are often engaged with taxation and superannuation questions: Did I pay too much tax? how much will I pay this year? What could I have done to pay less? How can I pay less to Caesar, and have more for … ? (for me?)”. We all know that we must be good stewards, right?

Money questions can challenge us because if we are not careful, our money will start to define us. It serves as a record of how others have valued our work and service in the past, it limits how we can face the present, and if we are fortunate and prudent to save, it gives us our security against an unknown future. Any number of financial calculators exist to tell us how long our money will last so that we can plan our life-style. Then there is the privilege of passing something on to our children. Looked at this way, it is understandable why money so easily becomes a god, the idol that defines our life, measures our hopes and gives us ultimate meaning. It is also why the Ten Commandments begin with, “You shall have no other gods” bedsides Me.

It is not surprising then, that the Bible takes time to put money in its place. It is to be a servant and never a master of the heart, for that privilege must be reserved for Jesus. It is He who gives meaning to everything (Col 1:17). Of course, earning, having and saving money is not wrong in itself; that will come with our priorities and allegiance! The easiest way to show that money is not the master of our life or the master of our affections is to give it away! The Christian can let go of money and possessions when called to do so because he or she knows that true riches are not found in anything we have achieved in life but in our relationship with Jesus Christ. This was something that the Rich Young Ruler simply could not see (Mark 10:22), and which Jesus again emphasised in His parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-20).

This is one reason why God delights to use Christian generosity to spread the gospel. Until we can let go of our possessions, we have not fully learned to trust God, and putting our faith in Christ for our eternal security is surely the supreme trust. So when we are told that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7), it is not because He is limited without our resources (everything is His anyway) but because He delights in the love of those who cheerfully trust Him to use what He has given them in gospel service without regret or complaint. Grace surely begets graciousness in us, just as selfishness suggests a lack of grace. Such giving becomes a heartfelt response to the love of Christ and not a reaction to particular needs. We give, even if there is no particular need at the time, confident that God will use what we have given when it pleases Him. And that may be years away – it is His call.

Christian giving also extends our vision of God’s salvation beyond our small horizon. The church in Philippi was a blessing to Paul while he was in prison (Phil 4:14-20). They wanted to make sure that his needs were met, but he saw it as proof that they had come to see the Church as God’s saving work reaching out far beyond Philippi.

There is still a world out there from which God is calling men and women to be our brothers and sisters in Christ. They become our family: distant now perhaps but co-inheritors of eternity and it is our privilege to be a small part in their calling. As we are generous in gospel work we are quietly reminding ourselves, and others, that eternal things are infinitely more important that anything in the here and now, and that grace has worked savingly in us. The idolatry of the self has been overcome.

Pentecost and Mission

[first published in the monthly congregational Note for June, 2017]

The events of the first Pentecost must have been truly remarkable, and I am sure the disciples never forgot the impact of that extra-ordinary day; a day which most likely began with another prayer meeting as they waited, wondering what would be next. It was clear that something had to happen. Jesus had taught them many exciting new things of the Kingdom of God from the Scriptures, but He could hardly walk around Jerusalem again as if he had not died at all!! And now He was gone! Two angels had said he would come again (Acts 1:11) so perhaps that was what he meant by waiting! It seems clear that they assumed the next step was to be a restoration of the kingdom to Israel with the risen Jesus as the perfect anointed Davidic King (Acts 1:5-8). It seemed so reasonable, even prophetic. Now with no warning, strange, flames of fire settled on each of them, burning but not burning, just like the bush in the desert that burned with the presence of God for Moses (Exod 3). And with the fire there was the sound of a strong wind and the miraculous ability to speak and be heard in other languages!

With the coming of the Spirit (Acts 2), something else came: a new way to understand the presence of Jesus with His people; a new way of seeing the Kingdom of God. Peter’s impromptu sermon and his discussion afterwards shows that the disciples quickly understood that in one sense they had been 100% correct. The risen, ascended Jesus is King! He rules from the right hand of the Father, not just over Israel but over the whole earth. There is coming a time when He will be recognised as the Universal King: loved & revered by those He has redeemed; hated and feared by all those who have no part in Him (v.35. see also Phil 2:10-11 & Rev 6:14-17). BUT this coming will be “not yet”. Previously they had not factored much time between Jesus’ ascension and bodily return, now they must. This “time between” was the time for which they had been chosen and prepared, and now filled with the Holy Spirit.

The kingdom of God would be built, not through Babel’s vision of human might or wisdom, but the “foolishness” of words: Spirit-given, Spirit-filled words about the One whose name is Word! At Pentecost, God affirmed there could be a unity for the whole earth, but it must be a unity of righteousness, grace, repentance & forgiveness.

Pentecost still calls us to mission. We also live in the time between. We know Christ will return, we just don’t know when. The “delay” simply gives us the certainty that God has not finished yet. No doubt the charter first given to the apostles to go and disciple the nations seemed impossible—until Pentecost! Afterwards its failure was the impossibility, and that is the mindset we must ask God to confirm in us day by day; “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven…”

The early Church did not look for repeated Pentecosts. They saw that God gave lesser confirmations to Samaritans (8:14ff) to Gentiles (ch 10) and to followers of John the Baptist who had not heard of Jesus (19:1ff) but for the rest, there was the “hard” task of praying, trusting, sending, going and telling, for how will people call on Christ if they have not heard (of) Him? Those tasks remain, to which we might add: and if necessary, the hard work of first learning other languages and cultures! So, as we are able, we must pray for, support and equip those who go, for theirs is a noble calling. But there is another aspect to Pentecost. God may send the nations to us.

We who stay must also be open to the hard work of embracing all that is needed to share the gospel at home. In this way, even without you going anywhere, many afar off might repent and believe. Pray therefore that Christ, by His Spirit, will use your testimony.

“An Exhortation to Grow”

[First published in the monthly congregational Notes, May, 2017]

Our editorial this month comes from a sermon preached by Charles Spurgeon on the text John 16:13 in 1855, when he was only 21 years old! Despite the passage of time, his observations into the human condition and the Divine remedy are still valid.

One of the diseases of the present generation of mankind, is their secret but deep-seated godlessness, by which they have so far departed from the knowledge of God. Science has discovered to us second causes; and hence many have too much forgotten the first Great Cause, the Author of all: they have been able to pry so far into secrets, that the great axiom of the existence of a God, has been too much neglected. Even among professing Christians, while there is a great amount of religion, there is too little godliness:… external formalism but too little inward acknowledgment of God, too little living on God, living with God, and relying upon God. Hence arises the sad fact that when you enter many of our places of worship you will certainly hear the name of God mentioned; but except in the benediction, you would scarcely know there was a Trinity. In many places dedicated to Jehovah the name of Jesus is too often kept in the background; the Holy Spirit is almost entirely neglected; and very little is said concerning his sacred influence

We know that some think doctrinal knowledge to be of little importance and of no practical use. We do not think so. We believe the “science” of Christ crucified and a judgment of the teachings of Scripture to be exceedingly valuable, … that the Christian ministry should not only be arousing but instructing; not only awakening, but enlightening: that it should appeal not only to the passions but to the under-standing. We are far from thinking doctrinal knowledge to be of secondary importance; we believe it to be one of the first things in the Christian life, to know the truth, and then to practice it

A knowledge of all truth is very essential for our comfort. Many persons have been distressed half their lives from the fact that they had not clear views of truth. Many poor souls, for instance, under conviction, abide three or four times as long in sorrow of mind as they would require to do if they had some one to instruct them in the great matter of justification. So there are believers who are often troubling themselves about falling away; but if they knew in their soul the great consolation that we are kept by the grace of God through faith unto salvation, they would be no more troubled about it. I found some distressed about the unpardonable sin; but if God instructs us in that doctrine, and shows us that no conscience that is really awakened ever can commit that sin, but that when it is committed God gives us up to a scared conscience so that we never fear or tremble afterwards, all that distress would be alleviated. Depend on this, the more you know of God’s truth—all things else being equal—the more comfortable you will be as a Christian.

Nothing can give a greater light on your path than a clear understanding of divine things. It is a mangled gospel which causes the downcast faces of Christians. …[Y]ou will often see melancholy congregations whose faces are not much different from the bitter countenance of poor creatures swallowing medicine because the word spoken terrifies them by its legality, instead of comforting them by its grace. We love a cheerful gospel, and we think “all the truth” will tend to comfort the Christian. No doctrine is so designed to preserve from sin as the doctrine of the grace of God

That is good counsel but it did not originate with Spurgeon! The Holy Spirit moved the apostle Peter to urge his readers to grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ for exactly the same reasons. (2 Peter 3:18).

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