Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

A Gospel with No Favouritism

[originally published in the Monthly Notes, December, 2012]

Last year, all of Australia participated in the national census. Though tedious at the time, the data gathered provided useful information for statisticians and planners from various government departments and industry. It also highlights the great variety [some say “inequality” but that is a loaded term] that exists among suburbs within the Greater Melbourne area. There are “expensive” suburbs, and “cheaper” ones; old, quiet, leafy ones and new subdivisions with hardly a tree in sight. Some suburbs have good social infrastructure; others leave people depressingly alone. Some suburbs are mono-cultural, whereas others are so diverse there seems to be no unifying element at all, while still others are in such a state of transition that no-one knows what they will be like in 10 years time. One of the great changes is the influx of people whose heritage is neither European, Ango-Saxon nor Celtic. In the midst of all this change, the Church is called to continue the witness to Jesus Christ.

Sometimes census data can be helpful. A study of demography can suggest to local congregations how they might prayerfully engage in evangelism. Sometimes it can be a hindrance: especially as some church growth theories encourage churches to niche-market themselves by identifying a particular group and to target them only. This might sound like good pragmatic advice until we remember that it is inherent in the gospel that social divisions are broken down, not reinforced. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). The context is clear; when it comes to our status in Christ, all human distinctions such as social class, nationality, wealth and sexuality should make no difference to us because they make no difference to God. Success in evangelism is never given on the basis of statistics or class. The Gospel’s power is in Christ, and Him alone. This is why the apostle James [2:1-9] spoke so severely against what he called “favouritism”. It was a basic denial of the sufficiency of Christ, and to show such favouritism was a serious sin — akin to breaking any and all of the 10 Commandments!

In one sense, it is inevitable that congregations take on something of the ethos of the suburbs in which they exist, or the ethos of the majority of attendees. Our task is to ensure that this ethos does not close out visitors but opens up to embrace them. As the gospel is for all nations, it is able to break down dividing walls created by culture, language, place, education, time, wealth, etc. This is what the early Church found so hard to accept. For centuries, Gentiles who came to faith in God had to commit themselves to becoming covenanted members of the nation of Israel. Once the work of Christ was finished, all these requirements were done away with [Acts 10-11] and Jews and Gentiles stood on an equal footing. All one in Christ Jesus! As a result, the Church should be the one place in a fallen world where the variety that our different backgrounds represent does not deliberately alienate others.

The suburbs which surround our Church buildings are changing rapidly, but the Gospel we have to bring does not. As we ponder our calling, let us never forget the wonder that the Son of God who was born in Bethlehem as a result of a census, is the One who gives us the basis to rise above every variation in background and culture that modern censuses show. As we have occasion to welcome others, we are to do so with great joy, even if doing so takes us out of our comfort zone. In receiving them it is as if we were receiving Jesus Christ Himself[Matt 25:40]!

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like … But are You a Part of it?

When Jesus spoke his parables, he did not do so to make his message easier to grasp at the time. This is a misunderstanding, based in part on modern assumptions that the intent of any “illustration” must surely have been to clarify, not to cause further curiosity. But as superficially appealing as this assumption might be, it simply ignores the straightforward testimony of the Biblical text. Jesus himself said that the purpose of parables was not to clarify, and to make that point, quoted some strong words from the prophet Isaiah [6:9-10] which implied that the purpose of a parable might even be to obscure! Even His disciples were puzzled. [See Matthew 13:10,36]

So, if not even Jesus’ disciples could understand the point of the parables without a special briefing session, what was the point of a parable? Why say something that was deliberately obscure, and then cry out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear?” How could someone be held to account for not comprehending something that needed more explanation? It sounds perverse.

All this has to be kept in its context. The parables were deliberately obtuse but this was not intended to be perverse, but tantalising! Those who heard the parables would know that they had heard something profound: they just did not have the right key to work out what it all meant. Jesus knew that. When the disciples came to Jesus and asked what they meant, he began to give them the keys they needed: the one who sows is the Son of Man, the seed is the Word of God, the enemy is the devil, there is a harvest at the end of the age, and so on. But even then, just as also in Isaiah’s day, Jesus knew that they needed more before His words would be understood. This ‘more’ he gave them after his resurrection as he explained to His disciples the whole thrust of the Old Testament, His identity as the Son of Man, and His place in the world-wide saving purposes of God.

We can know all this in advance as we come to a parable. We therefore have a great advantage over the original hearers: we know how “the story of Jesus” ends. We know of the cross, the resurrection, and Jesus’ subsequent ascension into heaven. We know that He is going to come back. We also know of the place of the Word of God and the wonderful work of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent in the fullness of time at Pentecost to be with every believer in a gracious and personal way. Now, and only now, can we return to the idea of a parable as a help to our understanding. Once we have the key, but not before, the central meaning of a parable becomes “obvious”. [So, if we share a parable with someone who does not know Jesus, we must also show how it is to be understood in His unique context.]

So, how shall we use the parables for ourselves? The way Jesus intended! They are to stir up questions, as we ponder on how a particular illustration fits the kingdom of heaven and our place in it. They send us to other part of the Bible. They ask us questions as well as give answers; e.g. which soil do our lives parallel [Matt 13:18-23] and are we properly dressed [Matt 22:12]? They increase our faith when we “don’t seem to see any results” after all our evangelism. They increase our patience, but at the same time stir our zeal.

One thing is clear. So many parables warn of separation, rejection & darkness that we cannot miss the point: a false faith is of no value now or on Judgment Day. It is as useful as a weed! So, when Jesus celebrates His great Supper [another parable] at the end of history, make sure you are there on His terms! [Matt 22:1-14]

Who Do You Trust?

[Taken from the October edition of the church Notes.]

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 points for discussion on the Cathedral Door he did not expect to set Europe [and subsequently the world] ablaze with a totally new faith. Rather, he simply hoped to set in train a series of debates which would examine accepted Church teaching in the light of Scripture. As he read what God had said in His Word about the wonderful grace of sins forgiven, he began to see a great dichotomy between what he was taught by God, and required to teach by the Church. The question became one of authority: who should be believed, and why. Should he believe ‘the Church’ and all its many apparent “representatives”? Should he believe his own reason? Or should he believe God where God had clearly spoken?

One way or another, this question continues right down to the present day. Who do we trust for our forgiveness and for our reconciliation? You would not trust a one-year-old to design the system that your life depended on; the very idea is absurd. Well, it is the same thing with the way in which we are reconciled to God. We are all infants before God when it comes to knowledge of divine and eternal things, so we dare not trust in human wisdom. We do not know the depths of our sin, and so we certainly cannot know how sin can be redeemed. In other words, we cannot be our own Saviour.

If we cannot trust ourselves, then listen to the great 19th century Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, as he expanded on the simple words “Who do you trust?

Reader, this is an important question. Listen to the Christian’s answer and see if it is yours. “On whom dost thou trust?” “I trust,” says the Christian, “in a Triune God. I trust the Father, believing that He has chosen me from before the foundation of the world; I trust Him to provide for me in providence, to teach me, to guide me, to correct me if need be, and to bring me home to His own house where the many mansions are. I trust the Son. Very God of very God is He; the man Christ Jesus. I trust in Him to take away all my sins by His own sacrifice, and to adorn me with His perfect righteousness. I trust Him to be my Intercessor, to present my prayers and desires before His Father’s throne, and I trust Him to be my Advocate at the last great day, to plead my cause, and to justify me. I trust Him for what He is, for what He has done, and for what He has promised yet to do. And I trust the Holy Spirit—He has begun to save me from my inbred sins; I trust Him to drive them all out; I trust Him to curb my temper, to subdue my will, to enlighten my understanding, to check my passions, to comfort my despondency, to help my weakness, to illuminate my darkness; I trust Him to dwell in me as my life, to reign in me as my King, to sanctify me wholly, spirit, soul, and body, and then to take me up to dwell with the saints in light for ever.” Oh, blessed trust! To trust Him whose power will never be exhausted, whose love will never wane, whose kindness will never change, whose faithfulness will never fail, whose wisdom will never be nonplussed, and whose perfect goodness can never know a diminution! Happy art thou, reader, if this trust is thine! So trusting, thou shalt enjoy sweet peace now, and glory hereafter, and the foundation of thy trust shall never be removed.

There is no place for trusting anyone, or any institution. You cannot save yourself. No fellow Christian can save you. No Church can save you. Rather, both Church and fellow Christian can only do one thing: point you to the God who saves. His word is utterly faithful, and He will always do what he has promised.

Grace and “father” Noah

[Taken from the September edition of the Church Notes]

Right from the beginning, the Bible is about fathers. “Naturally enough,” you say, given that there is no “be[ing] fruitful and multiplying” without them! Fatherhood is thus a creation ordinance, structured into the very foundation of society, and it is a fundamental and rebellious denial of this creation order to claim that fatherhood is somehow dispensable, or indistinguishable from motherhood. When Adam was created, he was created to be a father, and had he not sinned, he would have been the prefect husband and father, rearing perfect sons, who would have grown up with the blessing of prefect mothers and enjoying the interaction with perfect sisters. (Ah, bliss! But we cannot live on what might have been!) Instead, within a generation we find such brokenness throughout the family and social structure that results in jealousy, deceit and murder, and all in the context of supposedly offering up acceptable worship! (Here is all history, both Church and social, in a nutshell!!).

Yet despite this first sin of Adam & Eve with all its consequences, God did not destroy all that he had made, but rather provided a way of redemption. Grace was promised even as the covenant curses were pronounced. One day, God promised, there would be a son born who would triumph over all this brokenness and undo the effects of the curse. We know that One to be our Lord Jesus Christ.

Well, that takes us to the first three chapters of the Bible. Only 1186 to go! We must expect, therefore, that the rest of the Bible will say lots of things about fatherhood, both godly and ungodly, as it unfolds. So while godliness is never genetic or passed on biologically, we are heartened to see that Genesis goes on to describe a line of godly descendents even as it bluntly describes sin’s descent into further sin.

Noah must have been an extraordinary father and must have had an extraordinarily powerful relationship with his sons. What pressures there must have been through all their growing and grown years to conform to the ungodliness of this world. Yet what a model of practical righteousness they must have seen in their father; a sense of the free presence and grace of God such that Noah and the Lord God communed directly. They would know that Noah, as a result of his knowing and loving God, would have such implicit confidence in the command of God that he would build the ark as directed, and so they also knew that it was right to take his side over the far more popular side of their in-laws [who never made it into the ark] and build with him. Their wives, likewise, must have seen in their father-in-law, something that held them to a living trust in God even though their own fathers refused to go into the ark with them. Godly fathers have influence way beyond their expectations.

Our world is obsessed with the opportunity for individuals to have a “meaningful life” i.e. to find a measure of purpose in life that gives satisfaction to one’s existence. That meaningfulness is suggested in all sorts of ways, but unless that meaningfulness is found in Christ, all such hopes are ultimately doomed to fail. So, fathers, pursue godliness and true holiness. Live as “men of the Book.” Pray for your households, and give them a good example. Model godliness so that sons may copy and improve upon it, and daughters will know what traits they should seek in a husband. All that is impossible without first loving one’s wife as Christ loved the Church, so this is the first step for all husbands, even where there are no children.

No father is perfect and if we could see into the heart as God sees, we would expect that even those who may be held up to us as models of godly fatherhood do [or did] grieve daily for their faults and long for grace to master their sins. And this is precisely the point: grace. The Bible is brutally honest about the failures of godly men, including Noah, not so that we can hold them up to ridicule, but so that we too may learn from them to seek the same grace that redeems and sanctifies, and model it in our daily lives, whether we are fathers or not.

Arthur Pink on The Sovereignty of God

Taken from the Monthly Notes, for August, 2012.

Why is it that so many in our day are content to live without any thought of God? The answer to that question is complex, but one of the contributors must surely be that Christianity has lost sight of the grandeur of God. Listen to the thoughts of Arthur Pink, taken from his book titled The Sovereignty of God.

The Sovereignty of God is an expression that once was generally understood. It was a phrase commonly used in religious literature … a theme frequently expounded in the pulpit. It was a truth which brought comfort to many hearts, and gave virility and stability to Christian character. But, today, to make mention of God’s Sovereignty is, in many quarters, to speak in an unknown tongue.

The Sovereignty of God. What do we mean by this … ? We mean the supremacy of God, the kingship of God… To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that God is God… to declare that He is the Most High, doing according to His will in the army of Heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth, so that none can stay His hand or say unto Him what doest Thou? (Dan. 4:35)… to declare that He is the Almighty, the Possessor of all power in Heaven and earth so that none can defeat His counsels, thwart His purpose, or resist His will (Psa. 115:3)… to declare that He is “The Governor among the nations” (Psa. 22:28), setting up kingdoms, overthrowing empires, and determining the course of dynasties as pleases Him best. To say that God is Sovereign is to declare that He is the “Only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15). Such is the God of the Bible.

How different is the God of the Bible from the God of modern Christendom! The conception of Deity which prevails most widely today, even among those who profess to give heed to the Scriptures, is a miserable caricature, a blasphemous travesty of the Truth. The God of the twentieth century is a helpless, effeminate being who commands the respect of no really thoughtful man … the creation of maudlin sentimentality. The God of many a present-day pulpit is an object of pity rather than of awe-inspiring reverence. … To argue that God is “trying His best” to save all mankind, but that the majority of men will not let Him save them, is to insist that the will of the Creator is impotent, and that the will of the creature is omnipotent. To throw the blame, as many do, upon the Devil, does not remove the difficulty, for if Satan is defeating the purpose of God, then, Satan is Almighty and God is no longer the Supreme Being.

To declare that the Creator’s original plan has been frustrated by sin, is to dethrone God. To suggest that God was taken by surprise in Eden and that He is now attempting to remedy an unforeseen calamity, is to degrade the Most High to the level of a finite, erring mortal. To argue that man is a free moral agent and the determiner of his own destiny, and that therefore he has the power to checkmate his Maker, is to strip God of the attribute of Omnipotence. To say that the creature has burst the bounds assigned by his Creator, and that God is now practically a helpless Spectator before the sin and suffering entailed by Adam’s fall, is to repudiate the express declaration of Holy Writ, namely, “Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee: …” (Psa. 76:10). [T]o deny the Sovereignty of God is to enter upon a path which, if followed to its logical terminus, is to arrive at blank atheism.

Sovereignty characterises the whole Being of God, … evidenced on every page of Scripture.

If Pink is correct, the question we must all ask is this: “Does my life as a Christian show that I really believe that God is sovereign, or am I simply confirming atheists in their hardness of heart and in their disbelief? Over to us.

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