Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

Owning the Gospel — In Every Generation (and in East Timor!)

[First published in the monthly Notes for October]

It is sometimes said that every age is only ever one generation away from serious decline. At first, this might seem to be a bit alarmist, especially if applied to the whole of history, but a moment’s thought will show how true it is for our own day. We have become so reliant on technologies which go beyond the ordinary citizen’s competence that if all of a sudden those with specialist skills were removed, our ordinary way of life would seriously suffer. [To see how the absence of even a most basic technology created serious cultural and social problems, see 1 Samuel 13:20.]

What is true of technology is even truer in the realms of liberty, freedom and of the gospel. If we do not make the effort to understand and keep what we have, we shall surely lose it because, as the philosopher George Santayana wrote early in the 20th century, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We must therefore, each one, always hold in our minds a little bit of history and a little bit of theology if we are to move forward and build properly upon our past. But history and theology are the very disciplines that technology often displaces, and that many in times of material prosperity will happily ignore as useless.

The medieval world was highly religious and theological but over time its doctrine of life and salvation departed from the wonderful message of God’s grace and became a depressing message of salvation by works; depressing because unless a sinner could somehow personally accumulate [or buy] enough credit, no salvation was possible. The impetus of the Reformation was to bring back the Bible to the centre of theology and with that its wonderful message of hope: God had provided a Saviour to effect what no person could ever do [John 3:16; Rom. 5:6-8]. Life was transformed—and nations too! As the Bible came back into the public space within many nations, Catechisms were written so that sound doctrine might enter into every home and be passed on to every new generation. The hope was that in this way the theological advances of the Reformation would not be forgotten. The Heidelberg, Westminster Larger and Westminster Shorter Catechisms and others which we still have today, were all written with this trans-generational aim.

For many years, truth was faithfully passed on, answering questions such as, What is your only comfort in life? [Heidelberg], What is Justification? What is God? What is Prayer? and the well known: What is the chief end of man? the answer to which still resonates: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Sadly much of that transmission slowly became formal and traditional so that what the preface to the Westminster Confession of Faith lamented as a past declension, viz. “…most men take up their religion upon no better account than … because it is the religion of the times and places wherein they live, and what they take up thus slightly, they lay down as easily…” became true once more. Those growing up in Christian homes and schools lost sight of why those doctrines were important and how to explain them. As the use of Catechisms declined, both Church and then culture lost their way.

The first question and answer of the Shorter Catechism in the Tetun language is as follows: Q. Saida mak ema nia objetivu prinsipal? A. Ema nia objetivu prinsipal mak foti aas Maromak i senti Maromak nia diak iha nia moris tinan ba tinan.

Our 2013 Thanksgiving Offering makes it possible that new generations of East Timorese and their children will have occasion to learn this wonderful truth and delight in the God of Grace who makes their living worthwhile and gives purpose to them as they rebuild their nation to glorify Him.

Jesus Healing the “Bent Woman” — And You?

First published in the monthly congregational Notes for September, 2013.

When we read of the different healings Jesus performed it is easy to overlook some of the emphases in each. After all, isn’t one healing just like another? Let us ponder the healing the woman bent over for 18 years, in Luke 13:10-17. As with all of Jesus’ actions, this was no accident, but a deliberate act of self-revelation. So, it was no accident that it occurred on a Sabbath day in a Synagogue, and no accident that He repeated an act which the first time around [see Mark 3:1-6] had resulted in a plan to destroy him. There are multiple focal points in this story.

Consider Jesus first. Somehow he had been invited [again] to read and teach in the Synagogue. Whether out of politeness, an attempt to expose him as a fraud, or as a result of genuine interest in what he might say, we don’t really know. Once there, He completely rose above any negativity and took control. It was all His initiative. He looked at her, not with the stare of curiosity but with a look that went beyond her physical appearance and condition to her true need. He called her out from her place in the synagogue, (probably up the back and almost out of sight) and in doing so probably broke a lot of gender taboos. He then healed the woman without her permission or request, and on His own authority. When challenged, he called the synagogue leader a hypocrite and effectively accused him of considering the lady as less than an animal. In all this, he deliberately broke, and therefore rejected, all the traditions that had been added to the 4th Commandment. Then to cap it all off, he commended her faith as that found in a true “daughter of Abraham.”

So what of the woman? We cannot be sure what her affliction was, other than that it meant that she could not stand upright and that in some way it was as a result of a particular Satanic activity. [There is NO implication that it was because of any sin on her part and we should always remember that Satan can only act by permission.] We don’t know if she understood all this, or whether her presence in the synagogue was regular or whether this was a one-off because she had heard that Jesus was there. Her attendance on any day would have involved major effort. Whatever the case, it is clear that on this Sabbath she did not let the burden of 18 years of her affliction keep her away from worshipping the Creating, Saving, Rest-giving God to whom the Sabbath pointed. And what grace she received! What praise she gave!

The crowd of regular worshippers also rejoiced! Yes, there is in their joy a contrast with the official’s dismay, but many of them also had begun to see that whoever He was, Jesus stood for stripping away all the heavy burdens their religious tradition had added to God’s law. God had said nothing that forbade healing on a Sabbath!

As readers, we are quick to criticize a system that had turned the 4th Commandment into a hateful burden rather than a blessing. We cringe at a theology that coldly demanded she get healed on a non-Sabbath before coming to worship, a theology that completely missed the point of grace and had degenerated into moralism. Such views still live on with the idea that people must be “decent” before coming to Jesus.

Infinitely worse than a bent body is a spiritually bent mind; an affliction we all have in Adam by nature. We are unable to walk in righteousness at all until Jesus sets us free. Like the woman we need to hear and heed the healing, releasing words of Jesus: Come unto Me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest. We must reject as Devilish lies all religious traditions which demand that we must seek healing before we come to Jesus, for they will keep us prisoner.

Dear reader, if you hear Him calling you to come and be healed from your sin, come. Do not delay, and don’t try to heal yourself first.

Jesus Christ and the True Knowledge of God

[Taken from the monthly congregational Notes, August, 2013.]

Chapter 2 of the Westminster Confession of Faith is titled, Of God and the Holy Trinity, and gives what must surely be one of the most compact yet comprehensive statements about God ever written. The whole character and perfection of God is summed up in just 311 words, yet the exposition of what those 311 words say has taken the highest Christian minds to the limits of human comprehension for centuries. Of all these sublime words, reactions to the 55 in section 3 have ranged from the most heart-searching and humbling devotion through serious debates and then on to overt hostility within the record of Church history. That section reads:

In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

The doctrine of the Trinity is easy to state but the mere recitation of words, however focused on God they might be, is of no value to anyone. Christianity is not a faith of mantras or spells. Words are to convey meaning not magic. Yet here is the great dilemma: how can the human mind embrace and absorb all that is true of God? How can there be, for example, three Persons of one substance …? To put it in the words of the past, finitas non capax infinitas or “the finite cannot grasp the infinite.”

If that were absolutely true in every respect, our desire to possess any knowledge of God would be hopeless. We would be like the proverbial four blind men trying to describe an elephant, each groping in the theological dark and captive to our impressions of what we think God might be like, but unable to know anything of Him definitively. Some in our day insist that this is indeed the case, that it is not possible to know truth of any sort, let alone truth about God.

But it is the clear and consistent testimony of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments that God has NOT left us in the dark to grope around theologically and scratch out dogmas which can only ever be uncertain. No. It is the clear testimony of the Bible that humanity is made in the image of God; not by accident, but by divine command. Because of this important fact, we are capable of recognizing and understanding the words He speaks to us. In Eden, communication was free and open until Adam and Eve chose to disobey and were expelled. Yet even after that, God in His grace continued to speak, repeating the promise of a redeemer through prophets and typifying his work through priestly sacrifices in tabernacle & temple.

In the fullness of time, that communication climaxed in the coming of Jesus Christ: in his human nature, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of Mary; in His Divine nature the Eternal Word. It is in “the Word made flesh”, the “Light of the World”, the “Way, the Truth and the Life” that the fullest knowledge of God is brought to us, so it is in understanding the Biblical testimony to Him that the doctrine of the Trinity is at once necessary and apparent. Without Him, it should not surprise us to find that the doctrine remains incomprehensible. Here is the reason why cults and non-believers stumble at this point: they simply do not know Jesus Christ.

Reader, Do you know Jesus Christ? You must if you would have any sure, personal knowledge of God, even if only as creator, let alone as redeemer. Begin, then, with Him. Learn who He is, and let Him show you the Father, and promise the presence of the Holy Spirit to warm your soul. In Him, the finite can grasp the Infinite!

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.

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