[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. …
[First published in the congregational “Notes”, April 2014.]
It is said that the English Anglican Puritan, Richard Rogers, of Wethersfield was criticised by a respectable gentleman who objected, “I like you, and your company very well, Mr Rogers. My problem is that you are too precise.” In reply, Rogers, is quoted as saying, “Sir, I serve a precise God.” If Mr Rogers could somehow cross the centuries to our own, no doubt many would make the same complaint against him still. The sad thing is that we suspect that many who identify as Christians would agree with that complaint. We live in an age that prefers vagaries to truth.
Nothing has changed. God is still a precise God, and if we are at all concerned to hear Him, we must accept that we have to be precise in our hearing. After all, He has given us a book of words, not pictures, and contrary to the post-modern nonsense of some, those words are intended to convey things that are true, whether or not anyone believes them. We must therefore listen to what God says and accept it, and not look for ways to blur His meaning so that it becomes what we would prefer Him to have said, or, worse still, something which means the very opposite.
For example, He gives us a precise statement regarding the origin of the Universe: “In the beginning, God … and God said, … and it was so…and behold it was very good.” This does not and cannot mean that it all started by itself. Then too, the 10 Commandments are precise imperative statements, not just wise suggestions, and still less merely discussion starters to help us explore an ethical life.
As we come to the Easter season, with its reminder of the historical cross and empty tomb, we must not forget that God has given us a precise salvation. Paul summed it up very clearly: “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures and that he was buried, and that He rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures. (1st Corinthians 15:3-4). This is a precise statement, which depends on earlier precise words (the Old Testament) and gives rise to other precise statements as the Holy Spirit, through the apostles, explained just what this meant and why. Who is this Christ who died? He is the eternal “Son of the Living God” (Matt 16:18), the Son in whom the Father is “well pleased” (Matt 3:17; 12:18, 17:5). But he is also, and at the same time, fully human (Gal 4:4; Heb 2:14, 17). What did his death effect? Not a vague possibility, but the actual payment for sin for a specific multitude. Who are they? All who repent of their sin and trust in Christ to be their substitute!
Why did the Father send His Son and why did the Son come? Because they loved—and loved in particular! (Eph 5:2; 2 Thess. 2:16; 1 John 4:10; Rev 1:5). You see, love is also precise. There is a simplistic notion that thinks that precision and the love of God are somehow incompatible. A moment’s reflection shows that of course this is nonsense. Love is always deliberate. Marriage is a very precise condition; one man and one woman enter into a very precise relationship “to the exclusion of all others” (as the old vows put it) so that human love can flourish. This is but one example and illustrates precisely how Christ loves the Church (Eph 5:25-26).
So when was this precise, saving, love determined? The apostles learned that just as Jesus was ordained from before the foundation of the world, (1 Pet 1:20) so also was the number and identity of those He came to save (Eph 1:4, Rev 13:8 & 17:8). The conclusion is inescapable. O Christian Reader, you have been loved from eternity, with a love designed for eternity! So how will you respond to such a deliberate love? Pray for grace to love deliberately in return! Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” That’s a good place to begin.
[first published in the congregational Notes for March, 2014.]
It was the great Baptist missionary, William Carey, who gave us the quote, “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” That motto undergirded his extraordinary achievements, the social effects of which are still being felt in Indian society today, even if much of his gospel emphasis has been lost. But what of the many other godly Christian men and women in Carey’s day? Were they guilty of avoiding the hard issues in their own lives? Did they “expect great thing from God?” Did they “attempt great things for God” by staying home and continuing to go about their ordinary daily lives? It is a fair question. Some are very quick to say, “No, they did not. They should have gone as well. They lacked faith and obedience.” Well, that might have been true of some, but we cannot say it of all.
It seems to me that there is often a great pressure on Christians these days to do “great things for God.” Perhaps you too have felt that pressure, and are wondering what it really is that you should do for God so that HE would count it as great service? All that you have seems so small and insignificant! But we must be careful in our definition of “great things” and we need to be instructed by God, and not by the world or by our own pride-prone hearts. So consider for a moment the gospel greatness that you already have. Listen to the great list in the book of Ephesians.
You already have every spiritual blessing in Christ. You already have obtained the promise of an inheritance to the praise of His glory, and your life is marked by the particular love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in beautiful, regenerating harmony. That, by definition, is extra-ordinary! You have a new perspective on eternal things. You are blessed to be the focus of the prayers of others. You have been lovingly and willingly gathered into the membership of His Church, a body that transcends nationality, language, culture and time. [see chapters 1-3]
So what now? Surely there could be no greater set of blessings that all this! Nothing could prepare us more for achieving “great things!” But what instructions are given in chapters 4 to 6? What “great things” does the Lord Jesus ask of all Christians?
The list is extraordinary in its ordinariness! The Christian life is to prioritize living with one another in humility and patience, letting love for the other govern actions and more importantly, reactions. It must love truth, and resist false teaching and all forms of ungodly speech. It seeks honest work and opportunities for generosity. It is marked by contentment. It says no to sexual immorality and seeks to encourage one another in love and in godly callings, recognizing that while all are called to the same goal of Christian maturity, not everyone is called to the same areas of service. It exalts marriage and all honourable human relationships, and seeks to pass on the same understanding of grace and blessing to the generations rising up under it. It looks only to God for its defence and vindication, even in extreme temptation.
Surely these are ‘great things’. But someone will say, “What about mission or great social programs that will last for generations?” Yes, you must always be obedient to the callings God clearly places before you wherever they might be, but it is one of Satan’s lies that your regular Christian life at the office water-cooler or the lounge-room at home is somehow less than extra-ordinary and therefore nothing special. Remember, an obedient, faithful, Christian life is extra-ordinary wherever it is lived! God’s ordinary way of working is to show His strength through human weakness. Those who stayed behind and prayed and gave partnered with Carey in what he did. They also expected great things, but the success was all of God! Extraordinary!
[First published in the monthly congregational Notes, for February, 2014]
In part of the Alice in Wonderland story, Alice comes to a crossroad, without any sign or clue as to where each road led. Looking round for anything that might help, she noticed a smile, which then materialised into the body of the Cheshire cat. Alice asked the cat where she should go. The cat replied, ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.’ The dialog continues: ‘I don’t much care where—’ said Alice. ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the cat. … And that is true.
Evolutionists tell us that the universe has no meaning in its existence, and is not moving towards any determined goal. If that is so, then there is no meaning for “me”, and “I” am just a random self-conscious element in a random universe. In that case, desiring some overall direction or purpose in life is ultimately pointless; the old adage “Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” [1 Cor 15:32] is enough. But despite the confidence of our materialist friends, there is something deep in the psyche of what it is to be human that insists on seeking meaning and purpose in life, and despairs when it cannot be found. To the evolutionist, this is just a quirk of human development, but those who take the Genesis record seriously understand this drive as part of what it means to be made in the image of God, and that this image, though broken by sin, still makes its presence felt in every person.
It is the clear testimony of God’s Word that the universe is not meaningless, and that despite the fact that billions of people make choices every day, the flow of history is not random or uncertain. God has appointed a day when He will hold all persons who have ever lived to account, and He will judge sin, and bring His adopted sons and daughters into His eternal glory. This is the way in which all of history is going. We may not know how God will weave together our small contribution to the sum of events in all of history, but we can be assured that what we do is meaningful.
But while we accept that our lives are meaningful, there is often a desire to know more; to know how they are meaningful in every detail. Precisely because there are so many choices, we want to know “which road to take” in every situation in case we miss out on something very important. But will we always know the significance of every detail? Well, consider Abraham. He was called by God and commanded to go “to a land that I will show you” [Gen 12:1]. So he travelled, not knowing precisely where, [Heb 11:8] and it was not until he arrived in Canaan that he was told, “This is the place” [Gen 12:7]. It must have been hard explaining to his household that they were still moving on; that he did not know where the journey would end, but that despite this ignorance it would, in the providence of God, most assuredly end somewhere good and at the right time. That is part of what it is to walk by faith. And so for us. We do not always know every implication of every choice we have to make, but we know they cannot take us out of His will.
So we go forward in life without fear and at peace, because God has shown us that He controls the flow of history even through the free actions of sinful men [Acts 12:22-2, 36], and if He can incorporate the actions of the deliberately ungodly, surely He will gather up the actions of His beloved children within His purposes. This is a wonderful freedom—not to go and sin recklessly, but to seek to honour God in all we do. To do that, we are simply asked to be obedient to what we know of God in every case, and to trust Him when we have to step out in patient faith.
[First published in the congregational Notes for January, 2014.]
One of the great privileges we have as Christians is the real sense of belonging that comes from knowing that we have been gathered up as “the children of God” [Jn. 1:12], the number of which is so great that it can be likened to “the grains of sand on the seashore” and the number of the stars in the sky [Gen 15:6 & 22:17]. Also, as His adopted children we are precious in a particular sense as we have been redeemed with a price personally paid by the Son Himself, and applied to us by the mighty work of the Holy Spirit. We are part of history’s “great crowd” [Rev. 7:9]. Someone may point out from life’s sad experience that we can still be lonely and lost in a crowd even as we acknowledge that we have a lot in common with everyone else in the crowd. While that can be true here on earth, I dare say that no-one will be lonely in heaven’s eternity where our fellowship with God and one another will be perfect. But this possibility of earthly loneliness is surely one reason why God has ordained that Christians see themselves as part of a body; interconnected and inter-dependent. This is the simple message of Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12: a body simply cannot function if each part insists on staying aloof from other parts and both the body and the part will suffer.
Our age is showing the unhelpful consequences of a few centuries of growing individualism. There are other reasons, to be sure, but an affluence unheard of in past generations and advances in portable technology have combined to reduce our day by day need to interact with others. We can shop, bank, study, communicate, play games and even travel [vicariously] all from behind a single small screen and all alone. These things are not inherently wrong and sometimes they are extremely helpful. For all our challenges, who would really want to live even 150 years ago without but unless we take opportunity to redress this imbalance, particularly in our attitude to the Church, we will be the poorer for it. Listen as the Spirit of God instructs us from the books of Romans: “… so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another [Romans 12:5]. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honour giving preference to one another [12:10]; Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion[12:16]. Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law[13:8]. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way [14:13]. Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus [15:5], Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God [15:7]. Now I myself am confident concerning you, my brethren, that you also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another [15:14] . Greet one another with a holy kiss. …[16:16].”
We cannot miss the point: congregational life has a communal aspect that cannot be filled from the privacy and isolation of our lounge room. Nor will it come naturally so we must seek it deliberately and prayerfully. We will be blessed by the flow of life from Christ our Head as we do. However we must always ensure that our “one another-ness” is not something which excludes the stranger or the visitor. If they are Christ’s we must show them that they are already one-another with us because He is the only lasting basis of our unity. If not, we pray that they sense something which the Spirit will use to draw them to love Jesus and His Church.