Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

The Sin of Lighting and Fuelling “Fires”

[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for February, 2019.]

Here in the heat of a full Victorian summer with the ever present danger of bushfires, we have become used to days of total fire bans. We are well aware of the impact of just one spark. In the 1970’s, there was a popular Christian song that began with the lines, “It only takes a spark, to get a fire going, And soon all those around, can warm up to its glowing…” The song tried to capture the Christian’s desire to pass the love of God on to others and expressed the hope that just one “spark” of that love would be enough to stir a response that would lead them to embrace the love of God for themselves. Oh that it were so easy! But when dry hearts have been prepared by the Spirit of God, that certainly can happen in very short time. Revivals do spread like bushfires. More often than not, however, we will see the opposite: rumours, gossip and character assassination running wild and free.

The apostle James understood the effect of just one spark on dry tinder but was moved to apply the bushfire imagery to describe the awful consequences of a mischievous or malicious tongue. “See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity” [James 3:5b-6a]. He lived in an age without social media, but his words are so appropriate to describe the firestorms of confected rage that can erupt after just one anonymous “tweet” or a post on a fake Facebook page. Even respected news outlets can be misled. Something does not have to be true, it just has to be emotive enough and people will respond with knee-jerk reactions to things they think were said, and which they know nothing about. Whole reputations can be destroyed in a moment.

No Christian should be part of such a reaction, no matter how tempting it might be to jump in and be “relevant”, or how much of a witness we think our quick response might be. Instead (and it is not just James the first century church leader giving us his opinion but the Spirit of God Himself speaking for all time) we should be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (Jas 1:19). It is better to be right in the long run rather than immediate, partial and destructive. This is not always easy, especially when we may be pressed for “a Christian response” to the many issues that rightly raise our concerns, and when we may want to appear at the vanguard of social justice to show what we know to be true: that ultimately only Christianity is able to provide a strong and equitable social foundation without recourse to repression of one social class or another.

We must be very careful, which is hard in the midst of all our zeal, because James straight away cautions that “the wrath of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (1:20) which we may quite safely extend to apply to the indignation of man as well. “Surely it is a matter of common grace!” we say. Perhaps, or perhaps not. The indignation of man, especially that aroused suddenly and reactively, cannot take proper account of any context, and has no knowledge of the heart Worse still, it has no delight in the righteousness of God as a standard unless it furthers self-interest. Furthermore, it may well be that the mischief caused by an unbalanced reaction is worse than the original fault! That is why the Book of Proverbs also rebukes a perverse, lying or spiteful tongue (Prov 10:31, 17:4, 25:23b, 26:28) and praises the wise and truthful one.

This is not to say that God cannot use the angry & malicious in the providential ordering of history! Of course He does, and the events of the crucifixion show this without a doubt. But this still does not give us warrant to legitimise false witness or prioritise short term worldly acclaim while seeking to serve Him. The full approval of God is more important than having all men speak well of us! (Luke 6:26). We must no more sin with our lips or our pens and keyboards that grace may abound, than we would with our bodies.

Who Will “Prune” Your Life in 2019?

[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for January, 2019.]

There is something about the end of a calendar year that causes us to look back in review just as there is something about the prospect of a new year opening up before us that prompts us to look ahead with hope and new expectations. And it does not seem to matter how many times we have done this; each new year presents the same double sense of imperative. We may look back in order to see how far we have come, or where we have failed or where there is room for improvement. We look ahead firmly resolved not to make the same mistakes again. We may be surprised at what has been achieved when at the time so little seemed to be happening. Or we may look back with a heavy sense of sameness that (once again for the umpteenth year?) there seems to have been little of any value to our existence. We ask ourselves, “What have I really contributed to anyone?” More than likely, our individual retrospects will be a blend of more or less of each of these aspects. Whatever the case we must be careful to ensure that we do not allow our looking back to dampen our expectations for the future. While we are alive, we are not bound to be captive to the past: “Where there is life there is hope” the saying goes, and it expresses a general as well as Christian truth.

Christian grace, like a coin, has two sides. The grace that ties us to Christ comes with the grace that initiates a new and growing spiritual life. There is, as Jesus says, a new birth (“You must be born again,” John 3:3) which is designed to grow as it draws its food from the “milk” and then the “meat” of the Word. (1 Pet. 2:2 & Heb 5:14). But after the first flush of Christian joy, the world makes it very clear to us that the only growth it willingly tolerates in us (if we may change the metaphor to that of the tree in Psalm 1) is that which creates “Bonsai Christians”. You have seen Bonsai plants—they are alive and growing but all new fresh growth is carefully nipped out, branches are bent into decorative rather than fruit-bearing shapes and roots are restricted and pruned severely. Such plants can be quite “mature” but function only as ornaments.

No Christian in their right mind wants to be a Bonsai! We see how much the love of Christ has given us and we genuinely want to live for Him in response! That is how it should be. Yet I suspect that every one of us can find areas of our faith where we have let “the world the flesh and the devil” prune and trim it to the point where it is little more than ornamental. If there is any fruit it is mostly decorative and tolerated by the world for “art’s” sake. If that is our retrospect for 2018, it can be a depressing one, but it need not stay so in 2019. We simply need to be re-potted and re-pruned!

The Christian life is to have deep roots (Mark 4:6,17 & Ps 1:3) and wide branches. It is not pruned for form but for fruit (Jn 15:2 & Luke 13:8) and its beauty is in showing the re-shaping power of Christlikeness in every believer.

Sometimes it might seem that He has to cut away so much that there is nothing left! We panic!—we have heard of well-meaning gardeners who killed a plant by pruning it too much!! But Christ does not prune to kill but to kindle new growth, growth that will flourish and be totally re-shaped according to His design. But our life looks so bare! Perhaps for now, but we must remember that “Christ has not finished with us yet”. It has not yet been revealed to us what we shall be (1 Jn 3:2) but He has all that in mind and is pruning for eternity. Let Him prune your life in 2019. As a start, we would do well to read and pray in the qualities we find set forth in Col 3:1-4:6 and Titus 2:1-14.

Christmas: Light in the Darkness

[First published in the monthly Congregational “Notes” for December, 2018]

In July 1871, Rev. Samuel McFarlane, a member of the London Missionary Society and some indigenous Christian leaders from the South Sea Islands anchored off Darnley Island in the Torres Strait and landed on the beach. In defiance of their tribal law, a local elder made them welcome. And so in the providence of God the Gospel came to the Torres Strait. Each year, this event is celebrated with hymn singing, re-enactment and feasting. They call it The Coming of the Light—a singularly appropriate description! What today’s anthropologists might lament as “spoiling a culture”, yesterday’s Islanders understood as the Light of the World graciously beginning to shine among them to set them free from their bondage to old ways.

Light and darkness are polar opposites and the Bible has quite a few of these: truth and error, male and female, life and death, right and wrong, heaven and hell, clean and unclean, etc. Polar opposites are out of fashion these days because they are fixed; they do not allow compromise. Our age prefers the “grey” where something can be “true for you” but “not true for me”, where truth is relative and there is no external or absolute standard of right or wrong so no-one can be told that what they believe true is of less value than what anyone else believes. This relativism is applied quite inconsistently because it is still considered morally wrong to murder (unless it is a baby in the womb) and still wrong to steal (unless it is done by governments!!) but the excuses for these inconsistencies are themselves relative: “but it is good for me” or “but it is my right” or “but I did not know” or “but it is not fair.”

The coming of Jesus confirms the Old Testament’s declaration that there are absolutes defined by God who created everything and pronounced it Good. It reaffirms that Adam and Eve were foolish and rebellious when they chose to decide what would be “good and true for them” instead of listening to God’s word and that rejection of God’s absolutes is the root cause of all brokenness in creation and ultimately leads to death (Gen 3:1-24). It is a solemn message—no wonder people prefer all manner of “Christmas” frivolity and distraction! But closing the mind to the stark reality of our sinfulness also closes the mind to the truth that God is a God of love and grace as well as of holiness and justice. Relativism with respect to God is deadly.

Jesus’ birth fulfils what at first seems a strange promise given in Eden (Gen 3:15) and shows that even then God graciously chose not to leave mankind in sin but to open a way to turn back from perishing and into His everlasting life (Jn 3:16). Jesus knew He was that Promise. He knew He was (and is) “the Light of the World” (Jn 8:12). He knew that there are not multiple “lights” and that there are not “multiple ways to God”. He said that refusing Him is akin to preferring to walk in the darkness of death rather than the light of life. It sounds paradoxical but Jesus also said that closing the mind to Him simply confirms one’s ultimate need of Him! (Jn 3:17-21).

The Christian experiences the Light of Christ in a wonderful, transformative way. It is a light that is attractive because Christ Himself is attractive; a light that exposes sin but at the same time cleanses. Then because it is a light that has no fellowship with darkness it is light that stimulates further growth in godliness and good.

Dear reader, let the light of Christ shine on, in and through you this season, so that His beauty is seen in you. Seek to give Him the place of priority in a season which still bears His name! You may wish that you could shine more brightly in the darkness around you but by His grace, any simple, faithful testimony can be light enough for Him to use.

Why our Society is Crumbling

[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for November, 2018.]

“Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.” So begins an English translation of what ranks among the most influential Christian writing of the last 500 years, and one of the best single pieces of work to come from the Swiss Reformation. The words are from the beginning of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he first wrote in 1536 in order to demonstrate to the King of France that what was being called a new religion was not new at all but simply a clearer, Bible-based expression of what had always been Christian belief. Since that first small volume was published, it was expanded re-ordered into what is today still one of the best presentations of Christian doctrine and the lifestyle that should flow from that doctrine.

Calvin’s concern to systematise Christian doctrine was never purely academic but always to enhance and enrich true piety, which for him was expressed in Christian daily life. He wrote for the ordinary man, not the scholar. He wrote clearly, logically and Biblically. “For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by His Fatherly care, that He is the author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond Him, they will never yield Him willing service.” In other words, a true, structured knowledge of God is the first requirement for establishing a structured knowledge of man and how to live in community.

So why does Calvin tie together theology and anthropology, especially as nowadays almost all our universities would reject the connection? Simply because that is what the Bible does. (In fact, if they are interested in theology at all, most universities would reduce to simply a minor sub-branch of anthropology; an example of primitive man’s desire for security in a vast, impersonal evolutionary universe.) But, Calvin said, where people are honest, it is impossible for them to consider the wonder of what it is to be human without thinking of God, “because it is perfectly obvious that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.” And, to complete the circle, understanding the attributes and character of God will help lift mankind up to its proper dignity and save from the folly of self-confidence. “So long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue; we address ourselves in the most flattering terms, and seem only less than demigods,” and “[S]ince we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself.”

It is not surprising then that where Calvin’s Institutes were read and understood, society took on a distinctively Christian ethos quite different from that furthered by Medieval Catholicism. There was a balance between liberty and authority which preserved from the poles of tyranny and anarchy and which encouraged individual liberty and social responsibility. Those were “Protestant” lands. They are also the lands which have been responsible for so much of the social stability and prosperity of “the West” for the last 300 years. As the West now rapidly and foolishly turns away from its Biblical and Calvinist heritage, it will lose that which has made it distinctive, and the world will lose something very special. Instead of real blessing we will be left with the illusion of wisdom and a “semblance of righteousness” where anyone who stands for God will likely be considered a trouble-maker and a nuisance.

Blessings come from God and when He withdraws them no amount of human activity can make up for what is lost. When we eventually realize this, the only solution, as the Prodigal Son in the parable discovered, is to confess our sin and return to our Heavenly Father. If we do that, we shall find, as did the prodigal son in the parable, open arms and great rejoicing. And what is more, we will find what the Prodigal did not, a Welcoming Older Brother, Jesus Christ.

Do You have a Good Conscience?

[First published in the monthly congregational Notes for October, 2018]

Anyone watching Australia over the past few months would doubtless conclude that we are a nation in crisis, and not only politically! It is not hard to find many examples where things are far worse than they once were, and the older we are the easier it is to find them!! So, what do we do about it? One common response is to look to the government, to push for new laws which (we are promised!!) will surely correct the situation. But new laws can only be a lasting solution if the problem was bad law to begin with. Another response is to call for changed school curricula to better educate our young, as if the problems are just of ignorance and a lack of resources. But knowledge on its own is no guarantee that it will be used properly. “Well then let us pass a law making it so,” and around we go again. It seems clear to us that the problem lies far deeper than political inaction or poor budgetary priorities. Ultimately it is one of conscience: no law constrains the will unless the will wills to be constrained!

Conscience is an integral part of our being human that flows from being made in the image of God. It is a tool for life, a God-given inner testimony to the fact that we all have a sense of right and wrong which is independent of oneself. A true conscience reminds us that we are not the makers of our own law or the crafters of our own ethic but are created to love and serve a righteous, holy God. It will warn us not to pursue wrong and when we have done wrong, will by evoking a sense of guilt, remind us of justice and the need for forgiveness and reconciliation And so the New Testament declares that a functioning conscience serves as a reminder of what we already know deep down, even if we cannot always express it (Rom 1:19-32; 2:14-15)! So to have a conscience is to have a very great blessing but as with all God’s blessings (as with all tools) there comes an accountability for its proper stewardship. We are to keep it from becoming weak (1 Cor 8:7ff) and to make sure that its witness to us is good and clean (1 Tim 1:5; 3:9) and properly directed towards God (1 Pet 2:19).

It should not surprise us that one of the marks of our sinful condition is a perverse desire to re-calibrate the conscience according to an alternate set of right and wrong so that our guilt goes away—or at least becomes explainable without acknowledging God! Such a conscience is like a deliberately falsified compass: completely useless as a guide to anything. Instead of serving to restrain from sin, a perverted conscience will happily justify us in our wrong (1 Tim 4:2; Titus 1:15) and give false comfort that humanity by its own efforts can improve (Heb 9:14; 10:22). A perverted conscience is a serious thing because once that happens it can never improve itself but must rely on the gracious intervention of the Holy Spirit in light of Jesus Christ (Rom 9:1).

All this means that when a nation’s collective conscience has been persuaded away from God’s Moral Law, no amount of laws or education alone will turn it around. In fact, apart from either some gracious God-given restraint exercised through His general providence, or some great national repentance these “remedies” will only make things worse in the long run because they come from the same perverted spring.

It also means that the Christian who lives and acts according to a Christ-restored conscience, will stick out like the proverbial sore thumb! It cannot be otherwise, for one of the fruits of the Spirit is Self-Control in which the conscience plays an integral part. Our challenge is to show that only when hearts are submitted to Jesus Christ and His Law, will our society return to what we had, and make it even better. For this we must certainly pray, and for this we must certainly live.

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