Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

Boldness in Asking for Grace.

[First published in the congregational “Notes”, July 2013.]

Imagine for a moment if you will, a young boy “little Johnny’ (though it could just as easily be a “little Susan”) wandering through an old-fashioned lolly shop. There are beautiful sweets and mouth watering confections of all kinds crying out to be purchased. Johnny gazes at them all lovingly, savouring each one in an imaginary taste test for there is one problem: Johnny has no money, and neither does his poor mother. Indeed, there is no household money for rent or food of any sort, let alone something as luxurious as a sweet. Now imagine further, that the owner of the shop is a gracious man. Seeing our little Johnny, he is filled with compassion and offers freely an empty bag into which Johnny can place whatever he likes from any jar in the shop. Johnny fills his bag; his mother is in tears of gratitude and our hearts are touched by this kindness.

But, wait! Johnny has gone back to the shop owner and asked for another empty bag—for a friend! His mother now cries tears of embarrassment and shame! How could her son be so ungrateful, so rude, to ask for another? Even we might tut-tut about greed, manners and the younger generation! Then, from somewhere deep in the recesses of our soul, we hear the words of Psalm 67:1 “God, be gracious to us, and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us.” Aware that we must now question our indignation, we turn away to think deeply about the grace of God toward us.

Grace, as many Christians can tell you, is something undeserved. “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense,” someone will quickly say. Indeed. Grace is essential; no-one can be a Christian without it. But how much grace can we receive? Does it run out? Can we ever have too much? Can we do without it? If we do not pray for it, perhaps we think we can! In Psalm 67, those who already have received grace are told to ask for yet more grace, more of what was not deserved. In effect, we are told to do what Johnny did in our story: ask for another bag, and another, and another after that!

Why is God so generous with grace? Why does He overflow so lovingly toward all who come to Him? Why does He tell us to keep on asking for grace and even give us a song to remind us of it? It is not to create a sense of laziness or a “handout mentality”. Verse 2 puts it simply—more grace is given so that God’s salvation can be known by others: “others”, “them”, “not us”. Just who these others are is also made clear. They are “the nations”, the “peoples” who walk in darkness, but who have come to hear of Israel’s God and the Saviour promised long ago. What in the time of Psalm 67 was still of promise has now been fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

God’s grace is to change us; to make us outward and upward looking so that those who see grace in us may also seek the grace of God to repent and be forgiven. If God has graciously forgiven your sin and cleansed you from all unrighteousness, you have no real option if you are to be obedient ☺. Grace is not for being kept a secret any more than a candle is for being put under a basket [Matt 5:15].

So, as individuals and as a congregation, we pray for God to be ever gracious to us, but even as we do, we understand that our response to this Psalm has only begun! We must also look for the opportunities to make that grace known to and beyond our usual social and communal boundaries. And it is the nature of grace that we can believe that grace will have its effect! Over 100 years ago, Charles Spurgeon, wrote: Our prayer and labour should be, that the knowledge of salvation may become as universal as the light of the sun. Despite the gloomy notions of some, we cling to the belief that the kingdom of Christ will embrace the whole habitable globe, and that all flesh shall see the salvation of God: for this glorious consummation we agonize in prayer.
To which we can say — “Amen!”

Law and Gospel in the 10 Commandments.

[First published in the monthly Notes for June, 2013.]

It is sometimes said on the basis of John 1:17, though wrongly, that Law and Grace are somehow incompatible, and that they mark out different ways of living for God in different times. This is nonsense. Ever since Eden, God has been gracious to His people; promising a Saviour who would be the one to undo the mess of the first Adam. Even at Sinai, it is impossible to read the opening preamble to the 10 Commandments in any other way than as God declaring his Laws to Israel as a reminder to them that they are a people redeemed by grace and should live accordingly [Exod 20 1-21]. The whole context is one of salvation and grace. Let us eavesdrop, then, on a godly Israelite as he explains the essence of the Law to his family shortly after Mt Sinai.

[#1] So, we are commanded not to have anything else as our god, because all the gods of the nations are idols anyway, and because there is no-one else who could have led us out of such slavery as we experienced in Egypt, and all that it represents. [#2] Also, we are not to make any visual representations of God’s being, even to help us worship Him. He is so far above all that He created, that anything we make will be “less” than what is appropriate, even if we think it makes him look strong and powerful. So, when Aaron made the “golden calf” it was an offense to the God we could hear but not see. [#3] We must not dishonour God’s name by treating it irreverently, because He is holy. It is a great dishonour when any who carry God’s name do other than what He commands. [#4] We must remember that our God is a God of time who created the world in six days, then rested. All our days are his. Our parents in Eden should have marked their days by obeying God; but they chose to disobey. We who know God’s grace should keep our Sabbaths holy to God and that will remind us to obey Him on every other day of our week.

But we are special to Him and called by His name, so we must live godly lives as well. So, [#5] it must be a mark of God’s people that we all honour father and mother, for God is our “Father” and is graciously redeeming the whole notion of family. Even after Adam and Eve sinned, God was gracious and promised a Seed to crush the serpent. [#6] The sad thing was that Cain became murderous and angry when God told him that grace did not allow him to live and worship his own way. Unlike Cain we must not murder. Death was the penalty in Eden for breaking God’s law. If we exalt murder and hate, we are replacing God’s law with a law of our own. [#7] The definition of marriage was instituted in Eden and still stands, despite the entry of sin. Do not commit adultery, but keep marriage honourable because God has tied Himself in a “marriage” covenant to us. [#8] Do not steal – that is what Adam and Eve did in the garden when they took what was not theirs, simple as that. It does not matter that they maybe thought that God was “unfair” by having something they did not, because they were not God’s equals. [#9] We must be a people who love truth, and do not pervert it because to do otherwise is to live like the Serpent who lied about God’s word. Finally, [#10] we must also remember not to covet. Coveting was one of the root causes of our parents’ sin; they wanted what they did not have but thought they should, and what they did have — all the other trees in the garden—was not enough. Coveting takes away the contentment that flows from looking to God to be our sufficiency. He has led us this far, and He will not leave us or forsake us if we keep on following Him.

We return to the present, and realize that what our godly Israelite said to his house, he could say just as earnestly to us! He also would see no clash with our testimony that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” but embrace his Saviour promised to him in Eden, and we’d rejoice in grace together as true children of Abraham, heirs together of the redeeming love of God.

On Dying Well

[First published in the congregational Notes, May, 2013.]

The picture of King Saul dying on the battlefield at the end of his life is tragic — a death in fear of what might otherwise be if he should live even for a few hours, and a death to [futilely] escape the consequences of a life lived with a conscious desire to ignore the revealed will of God despite the many religious trappings of state which served daily to remind him to repent and seek the grace of God for his life. By his actions, Saul no doubt thought to salvage what dignity might yet remain in the face of his defeat, yet there can be little dignity in a “life of practical atheism.” In this he epitomizes the approach to death held by so many in our own day: “I will be master of my own fate and I will end it on my own terms.”

How different the death of those who die with a faith grounded in the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ. Even when beset by events we would wish were otherwise, we can rest in deep peace. How blessed we are to see in the Beloved Son, a sacrifice full enough and pure enough to cover the just penalty for all our sins and failings. How blessed we are to have the regenerating work of the Spirit of God Himself making our dead soul live and bringing saving light and truth to sin-deadened eyes and ears. Truly, there is no better condition in which to end our days or to hope for a future, and humanly speaking, no more powerful testimony of Christ to others.

Charles Spurgeon, in his devotional book Evening by Evening, [I commend it to you; find a copy in a bookshop or download a free one from the internet] draws out a simple meditation from Heb 11:13 on the clause “these all died in faith.” This text refers to those who died before Christ came, but if they died securely, “in faith” in what God was yet to do in salvation, though they only had shadows of revelation, how much more securely and comfortably can we be who have the knowledge of Jesus by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures? He writes:

… It matters nothing how else they died, whether of old age, or by violent means; this one point, in which they all agree, is the most worthy of record, “they all died in faith.” In faith they lived—it was their comfort, their guide, their motive and their support; and in the same spiritual grace they died, ending their life-song in the sweet strain in which they had so long continued. They did not die resting in the flesh or upon their own attainments; they made no advance [i.e. did not move away, GN.] from their first way of acceptance with God, but held to the way of faith to the end. Faith is as precious to die by as to live by. Dying in faith has distinct reference to the past. They believed the promises which had gone before, and were assured that their sins were blotted out through the mercy of God. Dying in faith has to do with the present. These saints were confident of their acceptance with God, they enjoyed the beams of His love, and rested in His faithfulness. Dying in faith looks into the future. They fell asleep, affirming that the Messiah would surely come, and that when He would in the last days appear upon the earth, they would rise from their graves to behold Him. To them the pains of death were but the birth-pangs of a better state. Take courage, my soul, as you read this epitaph. Your course, through grace, is one of faith, and sight seldom cheers you; this has also been the pathway of the brightest and the best. … Look anew to-night to Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith, and thank Him for giving you like precious faith with souls now in glory.

“Dying well” should be the mark of every Christian, whenever that might be. Seek the grace therefore, to live your life in such fellowship with Christ that He will be your closest Friend when the time comes for you to lean on Him in death.

The Sacrifice of Jesus and the forgiveness of Our Sins

[Originally published in the monthly congregational Notes, April, 2013.]

In Leviticus chapters 4 and 5 God expressly provided a series of offerings for those sins committed unintentionally, or by mistake. The series seems unnecessarily repetitive at first, until we realise that by writing as he did, Moses is emphasising that God is declaring that He will treat each sinner in any of the given categories [whether priest, ordinary person, leader, or even the whole nation] as if they were unique and that He would provide for every penitent a forgiveness and restoration sufficient for every circumstance. How wonderful the grace of God!

But what of those sins we meant at the time, to commit? Doubtless we did not set out into the day with any deliberate intent to sin and perhaps even until 5 minutes beforehand we had no thought of doing so, and had successful resisted many temptations and passed up many occasions to sin. But then somehow all our early assumptions of obedience went out the window. Temptation came, fear threatened or pleasure beckoned, and in a moment our earlier resolve vanished and we very deliberately embraced what previously we never expected we would embrace. For that instant, sin seemed so good, perhaps even necessary, until we realised our folly, shame flooded in, and guilt threatened to crush us all over again. Can there be grace in those circumstances and on what terms? We all know we need to know!

In 1 John 1:9 we have what surely should be one of the most encouraging verses in the whole of the Bible: “If we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Even though we often quote these words on Sunday mornings following one of our main prayers, we do well to pause to listen anew to what God says to us. Perhaps many years ago you learned these words by rote along with a list of other verses as part of a Sunday School test; well, let them take on a new freshness. Your reward will be far more satisfying than any sticker or book prize [which you have probably lost by now anyway!] Perhaps you have never before heard of such things as this verse speaks; well, read on. You will find that this verse speaks of something more precious even than gold.

There are three things emphasised in this text: our part, God’s part, and the extent of the matter. Our part is to confess. Yes, if we have particular sins, they should be confessed particularly, but the nature of the human condition is that we will always have general confession to make because sin is committed not only in what we do but also in what we do not do, and there is much of that! God’s part is to be faithful to his promise never to refuse those who come to him with a repentant heart and to be just by accepting the payment covenanted by His Son as sufficient satisfaction for remission of our sin’s just penalty, our guilt, and for effecting true reconciliation. He does not punish twice. Now, how far does all this go? What is the extent of divine forgiveness? Our text insists, quite emphatically, that ALL sins are forgiven, and forgiven totally, not partially or provisionally! All sin! All unrighteousness! In effect, we are told that if we are truly repentant for all our sin, even that sin we are unaware of having committed, there will be no sin so great that it can bring damnation upon us.

John wrote so that his readers might have joy, and an ongoing sense of fellowship with himself, and that they all together might enjoy fellowship with God the Father and His beloved Son, Jesus Christ. [1:3-4]. He wrote to those who had sought past forgiveness [2:12] and who had already known some victory over the evil one [2:13-14] but who might despair at their continuing sin. He wrote, because they like us were prone to forget the little word all. ALL! ALL! Think on that! In Christ, every one who repents is seen by the Father to be as clean as His Beloved & Sinless Son!

Grace, and the Call to Labour in the Vineyard

[Taken from the monthly Notes, March, 2013]

The parable of the workers in the vineyard [Matthew 20:1-16] is surely designed to evoke a reaction from readers in every age. The details are simple enough. A head of house seeks workers for a day, and hires them ‘early in the morning,’ offering a very fair and entirely just, “fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”; a denarius being just that (v. 2). There would be nothing remarkable in the parable were it not that the master continued hiring throughout the day, even to as late as 5.00 pm, hiring on faith that he’d pay what was ‘right’. Then came the kicker: all labourers received the same—a denarius—a full day’s pay! What generosity! What kindness! The early workers were seriously aggrieved, no doubt arguing that if the master graciously was paying such an exorbitant rate for as little as an hour’s work, then surely he ought to be more gracious still and pay them considerably more than what they themselves had initially agreed was entirely proper. The master simply reminded them that he had been unjust to no-one and that it was his prerogative to show grace as he chose. And there the parable stopped, hanging, leaving Jesus’ hearers to make sense of it as best they could: a master who continues to call workers into his vineyard and who is at the same time just and generous, and workers, some of them anyway, who thought this grossly unfair. (No doubt the rest were overjoyed!!)

The kingdom of heaven is like this, Jesus said. His hearers would quickly associate the “vineyard” with that of Israel, God’s “special planting” of the Old Testament [e.g. see Isaiah 5:1-7]. The vineyard owner thus quickly identifies as God, so that obeying Him and working faithfully in order to seek a promised [read ‘covenanted’] reward was also reasonable enough. But the point of the parable was about grace, not works; grace that is free and overwhelming, and yet at the same time a grace that does not contradict the Owner’s promised word; grace that is independent of one’s works; grace that treats all alike however long the day in the vineyard has lasted; grace for all who come by faith in response to the summons to come; grace that is not to be grumbled against or begrudged to others; grace that draws our attention away from ourselves and always unto the magnanimity of the giver.

The Kingdom of heaven is like this, Jesus said; and it is, even as we realise that no one parable can exhaust all there is to know about the wonderful relationship God initiates with sinners, none of whom deserve, in any way, any good thing at all. As we come up to the Easter season, with its annual reminder of the historicity of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, we focus on something vitally important. We realise that if we want God to reward us on our merits and the quality of our obedience, then we shall have nothing. In our sin we have “done what we ought not to have done and left undone what we ought to have done,” as the old prayer put it. As we let the parable speak, none of us have ‘worked a full day’; none of us have fulfilled the Father’s stated requirements. If we are to receive anything good; it is all because of grace; grace which credits to us the same righteous reward that Jesus has merited. He alone is the faithful 6.00 o’clock worker!

How different is Jesus from the 6.00 am workers in the parable! They begrudged grace to those perceived as less worthy than themselves, whereas He delights to share His good things completely in eternal praise of the Father’s grace! He satisfies divine justice totally AND He makes divine grace possible in prefect harmony with that justice, so that no accusation against it can stand. Our reward is in Him!

Our calling is to acknowledge that grace and declare it to others, calling upon them to repent of their sin, come, and take a place in the vineyard before the day ends.

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