Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

The Reformation and Liberty: Won, Lost(?) and Winnable Again!

[first published in the congregational “Notes” for November, 2015]

On the 31st October, 1517, an Augustinian monk placed a notice upon the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, identifying 95 “theses” [topics for discussion] which he wanted to be the subject of scholarly debate. There was nothing unusual in this, it was simply the normal academic practice of the day. The topics he posted concerned the doctrines of repentance and forgiveness: how can someone have their sins forgiven? Could the Church itself forgive sins upon the payment of money as some said it could? The real challenge was that Luther wanted answers to his questions from an authority beyond church teaching and tradition. The only source of such an authority was the Bible. There was no email, but word of mouth and the courier system was almost as fast! He wrote in Latin but they were soon translated into German and within two weeks the entire country had copies in their own language. Within two months, they had spread throughout Europe. The rest, as they say, is history. [If you want a good biography, Roland Bainton’s book Here I Stand is a good place to start.]

The most notable effect of Luther’s action was to draw attention to the lack of Biblical support for many church practices. People now had a choice when it came to knowing how to be free from sin. They could listen to a Church tradition or they could read the Word of God for themselves and learn from Him directly.

If they listened to God’s Word, they first heard what they already knew, viz that they and all mankind were under just condemnation and deserving His wrath. The Church had told them that. But then they also read what had become lost, the Good News that God had graciously provided a way whereby His wrath could be satisfied without the performance of religious acts or penance. This way was through Christ alone, and open to all who by faith confessed their sin and entrusted themselves to Him. This way had once been well known but over time had been replaced by a tradition which taught the burden of religious works and left men and women unsure of the Love of God. (That tradition made the Church secularly powerful but left its people spiritually weak.

They read that they did not need to confess their sins to a priest, as Jesus Christ was the True and only Priest. When they confessed to Him, He forgave and when He gave absolution, sin was forgiven, in full, forever! No purgatory! Not only that, those whom He forgave would be “born again” to a true hope, reckoned as righteous and adopted as sons and daughters of the Living God. These things set people free and the Law of God proved to be a Law of Liberty and not bondage. The future was bright and strong missionary activity served only to expand the blessing. Sadly, with the passage of time, the Church has become complacent and love for truth is again being lost.

At first the drift was slow but nowadays many reject outright the Bible as God’s Word. His Law is no longer seen as the ground of freedom but a cause of repression, and is to be treated with scorn! The blessings He gave are now attributed to human wisdom. The West may still be ‘religious’ in a social sense but it has returned to the rebellion from which Christ had freed it, and humanity has become its own idol. The Word of God is solemnly true; there is no liberty for idolaters who do not repent.

But all God’s promises are sure; the Gospel assures that Christ still receives repentant sinners! [So, dear reader, why would you delay?] Our calling is to remain faithful to Him despite this present declension and to pray that we will again see a great spirit of repentance across our land.

Government and the Gospel #2

[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for October, 2015.]

When we wrote about government last month, we little knew what great changes would so soon come to pass on our national political stage. No doubt, and depending on our different points of view, we could make many comments about the degree of self-government (or lack of) shown by all those involved! Yet despite all the intensity and passion of the moment, things have by and large settled down and life continues on. Many commentators have remarked upon the peaceful nature of the transition and given the turmoil in many other parts of our world, it is a great blessing. There were no riots, no soldiers on the streets, no mass civil disobediences. Whatever our preference, our “ordinary” daily life is as if it never happened!

We are told that this peaceful transition occurred because we have “democracy,” the highest and most humanitarian form of civil government; so much so that wars are fought around the world (!!) in order to install it. [e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.] Certainly democracy is the most representative form of government but if we are tempted to place our hope in it as a system for a better world, we must remember that it is still representative of sinners! Those elected to lead will only reflect the hopes and desires of sinners. The question in democracy will always be, “What are the majority of sinners hoping for? The honour and glory of God or the glory of man [i.e. self]?”

God is sovereign over ALL governmental systems, and can use any one of them to bless or chastise as He sees fit; the Old Testament makes that clear and He has not changed. If a nation’s leadership chooses those things which exalt His glory, then it is not surprising if God should grant long term stability as a blessing. Alternatively, if by majority vote a nation prefers to pursue the practice of a “base mind and improper conduct” (Rom 1:28), then it is hardly surprising if God should use our ballot box to give us over to the consequences as punishment—fragmentation and disarray. In this way, democracy can sometimes be a curse and not a blessing!

In our two-party-preferred system, not many people need change in order to swing a vote from 50.5/49.5 to 49.5/50.5 and with that, affect the whole country! We often see this in negative terms. We complain, “Why should just 1% of the people change our nation’s destiny?” While this is frustrating in times of great moral decline (and we fear its consequences) it can instead give us hope and spur us on to prayerful evangelism. If 1% of voters can lead us away from godliness, do just that 1% need to be converted, in order to take us back to past godliness? Live and pray for it! But we must not stop at that 1%, for if that is all we seek, our motives are still selfish, or in the language used earlier, “base and improper”! God has no obligation to prosper evangelism pursued for selfish reasons, though mercifully he may do so because He knows that even at our best, we are still sinners. [e.g. see Phil 1: 12-18 for Paul’s prayer when this happened.]

Isaiah declared that “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea,” and for good measure Habakkuk repeated the promise (Is 11:9, Hab 2:14)! That is why Christ’s great Commission to the Church is for the world and for all nations. The hope for the world is not a new form of government, democratic or otherwise, but the gospel, as it takes root in the lives of ordinary men and women like ourselves. Pray for it, live for it, give for it, for as that happens all systems will inevitably change, and all false faiths will lose their power. But, pray first of all, that that gospel change be surely worked in you so that you may glorify God.

Government and the Gospel

[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for September, 2015]

We live in days when it is all too common for us to look to “more government” as the solution to our problems. “The government should do …” and all will be well! Is more government the Christian’s hope? Think through this with me for a while.

We have been conditioned for may years to see civil government as the solution to all our problems. It collects our taxes, administers our schools and universities, regulates our employment and trade, and provides social services such as police, fire and health. It legislates for our superannuation, sets the pension age and sometimes even taxes what remains when we die! In return we are promised peace, security and a comfort level which is the envy of much of the rest of the world and (allegedly) the freedom to be ourselves. What more could we have? More government of course!! Sporting or recreational associations all have rules and conventions which govern how we are to behave and how others expect us to behave. Bodies corporate or landlords govern how tenants live, and Churches and families have government too. Elders are charged by God with special responsibilities; husband and wife submit to one another in their separate spheres, and together Mum and Dad rule in the home as servant-leaders and are to be honoured for it. So the whole of life involves the issue of “government.” In every case, when government breaks down some sort of anarchy or tyranny takes its place and this in turn leads to other serious personal and social problems and often death. For some, more government is the only answer!

The most important sphere of government is “self-government”. What rules will we follow within ourselves, especially when no-one is around to tell us what to do? Self-government lies at the heart of all other forms of government, for unless we govern ourselves well we will not govern others well nor will we willingly be governed by others for the common good. Selfishness (the un-governed self) will be unrestrained, social cohesion will fail and culture will degenerate. For some, a bigger more intrusive, coercive civil government is still the only answer! But is it? No! The answer is moral!

God alone is perfectly self-Governing so only He can govern perfectly. Within Himself the three Persons are perfectly relational and yet always infinitely good, just, loving, and holy. He rules all Creation righteously, consistently and never as a tyrant. He has also decreed that mankind will find all that is needed for human government in Him. Sadly, Adam and Eve failed the simple self-government test in Eden, “Will obey your God always?” so that now true self-government is impossible for humanity.

In His common kindness, God often restrains the results of human sin so that anarchy or tyranny do not thrive as they might. We are thankful for that, but He is not bound to keep doing so, especially if we increasingly reject His morality from our national public space. Stronger civil government will not help us; the solution is not political. According to Paul (Rom 1:18ff ), if we will not acknowledge God’s rule we will be left to govern ourselves as punishment. This will bring even more social disintegration.

Our prayer must be that our land will repent of its sinful, selfish, rebellion and turn to Christ before this surrender to godlessness goes too far. A large, intrusive, intolerant government will only make matters worse. In the meantime we must pray for strength and courage so that we and our children will be able to stand firm for righteousness even when it hurts. That will show the power of the gospel to produce godly “self-government” that is a blessing to any nation.

Loving the God Who Guarantees Good

[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for August 2015]

In Romans 8 the apostle Paul expands on the wonderful privileges that come to those who are “in Christ”. They shall not be condemned even though they deserve it, for God Himself has done all that is needed to satisfy the demands of His own justice. God wonderfully gives life to those who otherwise deserve death, and He effects this wonderful transformation by the secret working of the Holy Spirit who indwells, transforms, sets free and then assists. These privileges are forever, and change the way we see both the present and the future. So as we come to verse 28 we read these words: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” These few words encapsulate a truth that stretches our minds at the same time as it calms our fears and prompts a spirit of worship. This is no mere wish or hope that in the end there will be more good than bad, but a solemn and wonderful assurance that the majestic wisdom and power of God embraces all things, not just those things which we might see as good or helpful.

With our limited minds we struggle to work out how this can possibly be true and in our struggle we sometimes misread the verse. We protest, “Surely some things are not good! Surely it was not good that David should commit adultery and murder as he pursued Bathsheba!” Of course these things were not good, and many, many other things in this fallen world are not good either, even things in the Church! But in every case God’s response is to assure us that all things, even those that seem utterly devoid of any explanation at the time, work together in such a way that eventually, God will produce Good in ways that otherwise He would not have done. Of course, His Good includes His judgment as well as His grace and mercy, so sin is never excused even when Good eventuates. Yes, this is high doctrine, but as supreme proof the apostle Peter turned to the Cross, declaring simultaneously that Christ’s death was the result of godless men doing godless things, but all within the embrace of a predetermined purpose, known and decreed from eternity past. [Acts 2:22-24]

This verse tells us a good deal about the character of God. A God who knows the end from the beginning, and how best to achieve that end through all the complexities of the universe must be all knowing, not just in each moment but at all times and for all time. He must also possess all power and authority to ensure that His will is done in every place and to assure every decreed consequence and outcome. Finally He must be Good and Just in Himself absolutely, so as to guarantee that each appointed end will eventually and deliberately result only in Good. A God like that should be loved, listened to and obeyed!

But, dear reader, not everyone will see this Good. Will you? You will never love such a God until you hear and respond to His call to turn away from yourself and your sin to Him and to embrace His beloved Son. Even then you may often be unable straight away to see anything good in the circumstances which surround you but you are still called to love the One who has led you into these circumstances. Love Him in faith because to love Him is to love the One who is always Good! And as you love Him you find that such a love is actually self-perpetuating—you begin to see more of His ways, which makes you love Him all the more! And as you love, you will begin to understand something of what the apostle John meant when he said, “Perfect love casts out fear.”

When People Disagree on Mission [and maybe More]

[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for July, 2015]

The New Testament metaphors for the Church highlight the fact that the Church has both individual and collective aspects. The Church is at once a collection of individual sheep, stones and body parts, as well as a flock, a complete house, and a body. As Paul illustrates so well, an eye is not a foot, and neither is an ear, yet all are integral parts of the body. Christ has one flock through all history, yet there are many “little flocks” scattered throughout the world. There is one Church Universal body, and yet surely each congregation functions as a body as well as it can. There is simultaneously a One-ness and Many-ness to the Church that always needs balance. Unity does not swamp individuality and individuality does not trump unity. But what happens when that balance seems to fail in something as basic as our vision for the Church or of mission?

In Acts 15:36-41 the two great stalwarts of the early Church’s mission outreach, Paul and Barnabas could not agree on who should accompany them on their second trip. Barnabas, that great encourager [Acts 4:36] who himself had been instrumental in mentoring Paul after his conversion [9:27] and who had arranged Paul’s first ministry appointment [11:25-26] wanted to take with them his nephew, John Mark, but Paul disagreed. Remembering how Mark had crumbled under the rigors of their first trip he did not want to risk giving Mark a second failure. Who was right? Should Mark go or not? Yes, or No? Simple! But, great and godly as Paul and Barnabas were, they were unable to come to a resolution. Barnabas kept wanting Mark, and Paul kept insisting that Mark not go! There was such a sharp disagreement [a paroxysm of opinions] that the working partnership of some years was broken! [15:39]

It is tempting from wisdom of some 1965 years to draw pious conclusions as to who was right and who as wrong, or how the disagreement ought to have been settled. But that is not what the Holy Spirit has given us, and we must not be wiser than He. For every bit of “evidence” that affirms Paul, we may find another to support Barnabas. No doubt both parties prayed fervently seeking God’s will but no answer came. No doubt both appealed to Christian love and wisdom and wrestled with the theology of the Church yet neither was able to convince the other. No doubt each was grieved at the intransigence of the other. No doubt some sided with Barnabas and some with Paul and some probably looked for a middle way! Perhaps some wanted to make a “doctrinal” issue out of it, but in the end Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus where the first mission had begun and where Mark had been useful [13:5] and Paul and Silas commenced at the point where Mark had departed. “Surely someone must be right??” Perhaps this the wrong question to ask lest we use the answer for self-justification!!

We are given no answer other than that the end was a nett doubling of mission effort! We do not read that either disparaged the other, prayed publicly that the other change their mind, or lobbied the Church to take sides. The work just went on and God owned it; One-ness and Many-ness triumphed. The Church as a whole did not split and many more churches were blessed. Years later Paul expressed high regard for Mark and a deep desire that he come and assist him [2 Tim 4:11]. What changed his mind? Had he written to Mark to encourage him? God does not tell us! God does tell us that throughout it all, Paul upheld Barnabas as worthy of mission giving[1 Cor 9:6].

Christian mission is vital but clearly it is not important that everyone does it “my” way. Sometimes, we might have to quietly move on and leave other things to the Lord.

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