Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

150 Years of an Unchangeable Gospel for the Future

[first published in the monthly Notes, September 2014]

In the gospel history of Australia, 150 years is a relatively long time. It is even more significant in the history of Melbourne, which began to be formally settled in 1835 and gained its status as a city in 1847. Melbourne has changed a lot since then and no doubt there are debates over whether the changes have been for the better of for the worse. (The past always looks good!) Here as Christians we have to be careful. There can be a romance to the past as we look back, but there is no value for the Christian in living in the past. Yes, there may be aspects of yester-year that we might wistfully wish were still part of our time but returning to the past does not allow us the luxury of picking and choosing! The past is a complete package. Even if we only want to go back to the heady days of 1864 when our congregation began, we must embrace poorer roads, no cars, higher infant mortality, no refrigeration, painful dentistry, etc. etc. Perhaps after a great economic collapse those conditions could come again, but I am sure no-one is really hoping for that to happen.

However, while romanticising the past is unhelpful, it is an entirely different thing to look back so that we can learn what we might have lost along the way. When we do, we shall find that much of the quality of life that we romanticise was built on attitudes and values that did not depend on material or physical prosperity, but upon the recognition that there was a God, and that those who live are accountable to Him. Christians, understand this fully [or they should], but even that simple recognition constrains an unbeliever to act in different ways.

When our Presbyterian forebears determined to establish a congregation here in Hawthorn in 1864, they did so because they believed that “Jesus mattered”. They had been the beneficiaries of generations before them who believed and taught the gospel, and they realised their call to be a means of proclaiming Christ to their own and subsequent generations. Perhaps some were deficient in their understanding of the work of Christ, but nevertheless even these knew that “God” mattered and that Jesus had said things like “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength“ and “Love you neighbour as yourself” [Luke 10:27]. Society is very different when God is honoured, and inevitably degenerates when He is not.

So, if we want to bring something of the past back into our communities, the best way is to show them that “Jesus matters”—to us. We will do this by living in a way that shows others we have a relationship with Him that is not merely private (or even theoretical) but open, joyful and meaningful. We cannot hope to commend the gospel as an alternative to the prosperous and comfortable practical atheism of 21st century Australian life until we show that God is to be obeyed in His holiness at the same time as we love Him for His love. Too many people have come to think that the God who hates the sinfulness of the human heart and all its effects is a kill-joy.

Part of our witness must be in commending the community of our congregational life. Jesus cautions against the tendency to privatise our faith [Heb 10:25] by telling us to encourage one another, “not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some” but by living lives that are focused upon Christ and upon His return [Heb 10:25]. In an age where Jesus is considered irrelevant, the priority we give to living as Christians who delight to meet with others will automatically identify us as “different” and open up many opportunities to explain why that is.

This is “Evangelism 101” [or do we say “Evangelism 150”??] and it is for all of us.

The Intentional Sins of Abraham

[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for August 2014.]

We are taught by the New Testament to see in Abraham, the “father” of all who are justified by faith. In an extended argument in Romans 4 the apostle Paul shows how Abraham was not made right in God’s sight by any of good works he had done at any time. Rather, he received his righteousness by imputation: “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” [Rom 4:3 and Gen 15:6]. He was justified by faith, and by faith alone. Of course, to be justified by faith alone does not mean that that faith is “alone”; it inevitably produces evidences, just as Jesus said, a good tree bears good fruit. We are familiar with evidence of Abraham’s faith. He heard and obeyed the call of God to leave his land to go to the land God would show him. He allowed Lot to take what seemed the best of the land, and trustingly stayed in a less fruitful land where he nevertheless, grew and multiplied whereas Lot ended up with nothing. Yes, he struggled to see how God could do what he had promised, but in the end always returned to believing and trusting God. Then, when finally blessed with his son he was willing to surrender him on the altar, believing that he would be raised from the dead if needed; and the young man Isaac clearly concurred! So, Abraham had been careful to teach his household the great things of a saving God.

But what of Abraham’s sins? No doubt Abraham was a man like us and so sinned daily in all sorts of ways [1Jn 1:8]. Scripture does not usually dwell on these, apart from telling us that daily sacrifices were offered because daily sins also need to be forgiven. But we are told that he lied about his relationship with Sarah his wife, not once but twice! Both times were deliberate, very “intentional”. We may want to explain the first lie to Pharaoh as a wobble for one new in the faith [Gen 12:10-20] but then we read of a second, identical and very intentional deception some 24 yrs later [Gen 20]! “Oh Abraham, have you forgotten?” If this shocks us we then recall that between these two events we have another very intentional departure from the God’s ways in the conception of Ishmael through Hagar, his wife’s servant girl! “Oh Abraham, can God’s blessings come except by His way? What were you thinking? “

Therein lies the problem. In all three cases described above, Abraham was thinking very carefully and clearly. He was thinking about the future and his place in it; no doubt he wanted desperately to experience more of the blessings of God. His actions were deliberate, but they were deliberately wrong, simply because in every case he chose to act his way and not to trust God. It was not wrong to care for his wife, or to want his promised son, but, as the accounts make very clear, God was well able to do all that Abraham hoped for, and much more! The fault was a lack of trust.

God is very clear about the sins of His own—they grieve Him. He describes them to us so that we may see the same lack of trust [and the same sins] in ourselves. These recursions to the ‘old man’ remind us of what we have been delivered from, as well as that without His strength, no-one can or will trust Him properly. He highlights these sins to keep us from our pride, and to lead us to repentance. God also tells us something else: though sins are covered by His grace, consequences may not be removed. In Ishmael’s case, they continue to affect us after 3700 years.

Yes, God will surely triumph despite our lack of trust [Isaac was born and Ishmael received the sign of circumcision too!] but this does not diminish our error; grace is not licence. There is full forgiveness and release by the grace of God; King David learned this after his own intentional sins [Ps 32], but there were many tears before he was truly free [Ps 51]. That is always true [2 Cor 7:10]. God’s grace is so rich and so undeserved, it is worth submitting all, even our intentions, to know it.

Reading the Old Testament to Learn of Jesus

[first published in the congregational Notes for July 2014.]

When we want to read of Jesus, we naturally think of turning to the New Testament and rightly so. It is there that we will read of his birth, his life, his miracles, and of course his death, resurrection ascension and promise of his return one day. There we read of the wonderful call to repent and follow him, the well known promise of John 3:16 that “whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life,” and Jesus’ personal application of that promise to the dying thief to show that whenever anyone calls upon him in repentance and faith we shall be heard. Then, as we read from Acts onwards, we continue the testimony of all that Jesus began to do and teach as the Holy Spirit continued the testimony of Jesus through the apostles, leading them in mission and prompting them to write.

It is not surprising then that as people have sought to make Jesus known through-out the world, their first attention has been to translate the New Testament into local languages. Similarly, much Christian instruction is dedicated to expounding the New Testament. All this is very good. However, we occasionally find some who go on to claim that the Old Testament will be of little value for the Church today as it is only the historical and prophetic support for the real message. All we need, they say, is a knowledge of Jesus, and a desire to love one another. What is our answer?

We know that despite all their personal knowledge of Jesus, the apostles did not dismiss the Old Testament. Yes, they understood that the Old Testament gave them valid historic and prophetic background, but they also knew that it was an integral part of their message. They had with their own ears heard Jesus say that the Old Testament must be fulfilled and after the resurrection they had the benefit of learning just what this meant [Lk 24:44-48]. Jesus had come in fulfillment of divine promise [Gen 3:15] and His coming could not be properly understood without knowing that promise. They knew that the “good news” they were commissioned to preach could not be understood apart from the backdrop of God’s holy law and its declaration that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. They knew that this does not make sense without a doctrine of creation which gathered every-thing and all who live, under the sovereign rule and ownership of the Triune God.

They understood that the same Holy Spirit who was speaking through them as apostles, spoke authoritatively in olden times through the prophets [Eph 2: 20-22, 2 Pet 3:1-2, et al]. The message was the same, though the details were progressive. It was first of all a revelation of God and how He deals with people. He initiates, He makes covenant, He promises, He disciplines and rebukes, and He judges and He redeems. They understood that He did all this in time, though its purpose was, and ever is, eternal. Yes, some of the Old Testament was given as example, illustration and foreshadowing, which would pass with the coming of Jesus and his death and resurrection, but the message was fundamentally a single, harmonious one. They knew that the Old Testament was first of all not about people, but God.

So, when we read the Old Testament, we likewise should read it first of all to learn of the character of God. When we do, we shall quickly realise that not everything it records is described with approval! Israel (and we) must know that even the best “heroes” of the faith themselves need a Saviour, and such as only God can provide. This then is the message of the Old Testament and we will miss so much of the richness of the New and its testimony of the way God has shown His redeeming love in His only-begotten Son, if we willfully remain ignorant of its message.

Do You Look Where You are Going?

[First published in the Congregational Notes for June, 2014.]

The instructor’s first piece of advice to the new learner driver was simultaneously disarmingly simple and perceptively profound. “Remember, ‘Look where you are going!’ ” The point seems so obvious that our learner could have likely given that advice to others before even meeting the instructor! So what was the point?

Learner drivers are often troubled by the difficulty of preserving a smooth path for their vehicle. In one’s care to not keep so far to the left that one scrapes the kerb, it is all too easy to over-correct, and veer too far to the right! This in turn requires yet another swift correction to avoid oncoming traffic, which once again takes the car too far to the left—this time into space partially blocked by a parked car… !!! And so it goes down the street, with varying degrees of zig and zag snaking past cars, bins, unpredictable animals and other hazards on the one hand, and white or yellow lines and oncoming traffic and trams on the other. Suburban laneways with cars on either side are particularly problematic. Whereas an experienced driver may easily snake past all these, for the learner there is often little room to manoeuvre and excessive anxiety serves only to make the problem worse.

“Look where you are going.” The instructor’s advice referred to the simple fact that as a new driver practices looking ahead, there is an almost sub-conscious tendency for the arms and hands to coordinate with the eye and steer the car safely down the middle of the space ahead. The body learns to follow the eye. All that is needful is a considered awareness of the width of one’s own car, and a means of knowing just where the front of the vehicle is in relation to items on the road. Looking ahead in those circumstances [almost!] guarantees safe passage. There is in this a remarkable parallel to the Christian life. Consider for a moment.

”If you love me you will keep my commandments,” Jesus said, and so as Christians we dutifully set out to do so. But in a fallen world, there are many distractions, obstacles and potholes along life’s pathway. As we concentrate hard on avoiding one pitfall, we inadvertently veer off into an opposite, unseen error, only to lurch away somewhat shamefaced when we realize what we are doing. Our concern to “do the right thing next time” makes us increasingly anxious and the words “turn not to the right nor to the left” become an accusing refrain that seems only to make matters worse! Our best life soon seems to be a hopeless series of zig-zags and crashes from one set of crises or temptations or close scrapes, to another.

But then we remember that Jesus did not merely say “keep My commandments.” He also said “Follow Me.” He leads by going ahead, not by complaining from the rear. All at once we see that he wants us to “look where we are going” in life by fix-ing our eyes on Him. He is, after all, the Way, and His Way is perfect! As we look to Jesus, we are amazed at how well his path weaves in and around all those obstacles and worries that beforehand made us so stressed and anxious. As we keep our eye fixed on him, not just hands and arms but the whole of our life becomes more and more coordinated behind Him! The potholes are still there but He leads so perfectly that they soon do not trouble us as they did, and we learn to avoid new ones.

Dear reader, how do you navigate your life? Try as you might, without Jesus it will prove to be ultimately impossible! Yes, you may find what seems to be a smooth, easy way, but it leads ultimately to destruction! Yes, you may start out on a narrow way, but if He does not lead you in it, it will be impossible for you to traverse it to its end. If He does lead and you follow it will lead to eternal glory! So, Look & Live!

What Does it Cost to be a True Christian?

[The editorial published in the May edition of the monthly congregational “Notes” comes from the book Holiness written by J.C. Ryle.]

I grant freely that it costs little to be a mere outward Christian. A man has only got to attend a place of worship twice on Sunday, and to be tolerably moral during the week, and he has gone as far as thousands around him ever go in religion — All this is cheap and easy work: it entails no self-denial or self-sacrifice. If this is saving Christianity, and will take us to heaven when we die, we must alter the description of the way of life, and write, “Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to heaven!” But it does cost something to be a real Christian, according to the standard of the Bible. There are enemies to be overcome, battles to be fought, sacrifices to be made, an Egypt to be forsaken, a wilderness to be [crosses], a cross to be carried, a race to be run. Conversion is not putting a man in an armchair and taking him easily to heaven. It is the beginning of a mighty conflict, in which it costs much to win the victory. Hence arises the unspeakable importance of “counting the cost.” …

1) It will cost him his self-righteousness. He must cast away all pride and high thoughts, and conceit of his own goodness. He must be content to go to heaven as a poor sinner saved only by free grace, and owing all to the merit and righteousness of another. He must be willing to give up all trust in his own morality, respectability, praying, Bible-reading, Church-going, and sacrament-receiving, and trust in nothing but Jesus Christ…

2) It will cost a man his sins. He must be willing to give up every habit and practice which is wrong in God’s sight. He must set his face against it, quarrel with it, break off from it, fight with it, crucify it, and labour to keep it under, whatever the world around him may say or think. He must do this honestly and fairly. There must be no… truce with any special sin which he loves. He must count all sins as his deadly enemies, and hate every false way. …

3) It will cost a man his love of ease. … He must daily watch and stand his guard, like a soldier on enemy’s ground. He must take heed to his behaviour every hour of the day, in every company, and in every place, in public as well as in private, among strangers as well as at home. He must be careful over his time, his tongue, his temper, his thoughts, his imaginations, his motives, his conduct in every relation of life. He must be diligent about his prayers, his Bible-reading, and his use of Sundays, with all their means of grace. … We secretly wish …we could be good by proxy, and have everything done for us. Anything that requires exertion and labour is entirely against the grain of our hearts. But the soul can have no gains without pains. …

4) It will cost a man the favour of the world. … He must count it no strange thing to be mocked, ridiculed, slandered, persecuted, and even hated. He must not be surprised to find his opinions and practices … despised and held up to scorn. He [will … be thought by many a fool, an enthusiast, and a fanatic, [&] have his words perverted and his actions misrepresented. In fact, he must not marvel if some call him mad. I dare say this also sounds hard. … We … wish to have the good opinion of our neighbours. It is always unpleasant to be spoken against, and forsaken, and lied about, and to stand alone. But …[t]he cup which our Master drank must be drunk by His disciples. They must be ‘despised and rejected of men’ (Isaiah 53:3)…

I grant it costs much to be a true Christian. But who…can doubt that it is worth any cost to have the soul saved? When the ship is in danger of sinking, the crew think nothing of casting overboard the precious cargo. When a limb is [dead], a man will submit to any severe operation, and even to amputation, to save life. … A religion that costs nothing is worth nothing! A cheap Christianity, without a cross, will prove in the end a useless Christianity, without a crown. …

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