Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

“Noblesse Oblige”, Christianity, and the Importance of Family

[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, August 2016]

Noblesse oblige is a French phrase that came over directly into the English language in the 19th century, but the meaning it carries is far older than that. Literally it can be translated as “nobility obliges”, and the term denotes the social idea that those who have privilege or position arising from wealth or birth are obliged to use their status for the good of society as a whole and especially for the good of those less fortunate.

The idea of noblesse oblige is sometimes vigorously opposed, and not just by those who are selfish and don’t want to share. Surprisingly this opposition often comes from people who might benefit from the generosity that noblesse oblige inspires. Why? It is a philosophical issue. They argue that it implicitly sanctions the inequality out of which the ‘obligation’ flows. They fear that someone may say, “My privileges give me social duties, therefore my privileges are valid. I am ‘born to rule’.” This is anathema to them because the idea of ‘nobility’, especially inherited nobility, denies their view of equality and must be penalised out of existence. (We strongly suspect that the real root of this hostility is a deep, sinful, hostility to grace.)

Societies will always have inequalities, and not only as a consequence of sin. In fact, some are inherently necessary, (a reality which upsets many today), though in saying that we certainly agree that sin can, and does, turn even these ‘good’ inequalities into something oppressive and perverse. It is an undeniable fact of history that those with power, privilege and a twisted sense of ‘nobility’ have used this to oppress others, but the abuse of privilege is never a sufficient argument against it.

But who ‘enforces’ such an obligation? The answer is, “No-one!” As man is created, this sense of noblesse oblige grows out of the blend of voluntarism and obligation stamped deeply by God on man at creation in the notion of family. The ‘noble’ privilege of parenting brings an obligation towards our dependant children, who benefit and grow, and begin to return wider benefits to all. It is not unique to Christian societies; Christianity simply brings a redeemed sense of ‘nobility’ and a new purpose to this ‘obligation.’ Christians are of the noblest descent possible; they are adopted sons and daughters of the King of Kings! They have an inheritance that exceeds all the treasure of the world and bear an honour that can never be taken away. Christians also have the greatest of all obligations—an ‘obligation’ born of a response to love. They are to go into all the world to declare & commend the Good News of what God has done through His Son; to be salt, light, and a city on a hill to where all who seek to be forgiven may go; to assure that all who repent and trust in Christ will be made new and have hope.

But there is one element which sets this noblesse apart. It is not by natural birth but all of grace. It is entirely undeserved, gives no reason to boast, and must never be used as a vehicle for control or oppression. Jesus knew how radical this was. His ‘nobility’ was not in power or earthly wealth but in being one who was born to serve, and that this ‘nobility’ should also be the mark of those who follow Him (see Luke 22:24-27).

Through the regenerating and enlightening work of the Holy Spirit, Christians are set free from the errors of a worldly notions of power and influence, of the need for self-aggrandisement and praise for service. They also know that family is the place where the noble and necessary balance of honour, privilege, duty, and servant-hood is to be taught at its most foundational level. This is why it is so important for Christian homes to model more than a privatized faith; to model the true noblesse oblige of the Christian life lived in response to Divine grace. But it is also why those who hate or deny God and His grace, work so hard to eradicate His plan for families.

On Confession of Sin

[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for July, 2016]

Confessing our sins is most necessary; we will not begin to repent of them until we acknowledge that we are sinners by nature [we naturally want to sin] and in action [we automatically do sinful things]. But what is confession? The word “confess” simply means to acknowledge openly and freely from the heart, so that in the Bible the same word is used of those who “acknowledge” Jesus as the true and only Saviour and Lord [e.g. Matt 10:32, Rom 10:9, 1 Jn 4:15 etc.] This breadth of meaning helps us understand the words in James 5:16, where we read, “Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another that you might be healed.” Some take this verse to teach that Christians should so share their lives that they must always confess all their sins to one another. We disagree. Some cite the Westminster Confession of Faith [15:6] which says that as an evidence of true repentance, we must be wiling to make public and or private confession as part of reconciliation. We agree, but is there any guidance on whether we must always confess our sins to others as a regular practice?

The English Puritan, Thomas Manton, wrote the Introduction for the Westminster Confession of Faith. He also wrote a commentary on the Book of James so it is safe to assume that he will give us insight into the Puritan mind on this text. There are, he says, times when public and private confession may be necessary, and times when it will be wisest to bring our faults only to Christ. Public confession may involve the whole Church in times of deep humiliation for sin, as in Nehemiah 9. But as well as confession by the church, it may be necessary to have confession to the church. This may be before admission to the church when people solemnly disavow the sins of a past life and profess to walk in godliness, or it may come after admission to the church if there are public scandals which cannot be dealt with privately; public sin requires public confession.

On the matter of private confession, he says that this is only necessary in some cases. First, to a wronged neighbour after giving offense (e.g. Luke 17:4 & Matt 5:24) “God will accept no service or worship from us until we have confessed the wrong done to others.” Secondly, this confession may be made to people with whom we have consented in sinning—for example in theft, adultery etc., and in doing so we lovingly invite those who have shared with us in sin to share also in repentance. Thirdly, there may be times when our conscience troubles us so much that we will open our sin to a godly minister or to a wise Christian friend who will then be more able to give us gospel counsel and can better pray for us. It is one of our faults as Christians, Manton says, that we are not more open with spiritual friends when we cannot escape our doubts and troubles. But this confession must be voluntary, because “requiring such a precise and accurate [list]of their sins, with all the details” makes this verse into an unbearable burden and only gives occasion for consciences to torture us further. We do not need to dig up what Christ has buried. Furthermore, he says, the context of this verse suggests it applies first of all to those sins which lead to needing healing.

So how much ought we confess? How much do we need to hear? Here we will need wisdom; there are many things we do not need to know. However what a blessing we have One to whom we can confess all our sins, who will always believe our contrition and never misunderstand our grief. What a blessing to point others to Him. As the apostle John affirms, if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Christians and the Privilege of Voting

First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for June 2016

Once again we are to be given the responsibility of electing our federal parliament and it is a responsibility we must take seriously, especially as Christians. Perhaps there will come a time in Australia when that privilege will be taken away, perhaps not, but until then we have to give it our best attention. It is a matter of stewardship.

So, how shall we choose? If we are honest, the easy response is simply to vote as we might always have done. In the past “I am a Labor/Liberal man or woman” has often been an acceptable response but in times of potential social change this is not enough. We must look at ideas and principles. There have always been important issues at stake but it seems to us that this time there are deep foundational challenges to be considered. The underlying consensus that generally united our country’s values for its first 100 years despite political divides is very weak and there are some who are working for that consensus to disappear altogether. Where once a Biblical position would have been treated with respect, it is now often an excuse for scorn and rejected without debate. Anyone who stands against this new way is tagged as “-phoboic” even though there may be many good reasons drawn from “natural law” as well as from Biblical statements to support “the old ways”. Sadly this change is affecting all sides of our Parliament, so it is not simply a matter of switching our vote from one side to the other. We shall have to think carefully. It will not be easy.

Some would say that there are no solutions other than to pray for those who govern us [yes!] and then live gospel focused Biblically obedient lives [yes!]; everything else is “worldly” [no!]. They may even tell us that we should not vote at all [no!]. While we have opportunity to be heard through the ballot-box, we should pursue it and it would be wrong to say that this is a waste of time. God works through human means and we must not despise them. We must rise above the temptation to vote for the party that promises to give ME most and go behind all the slogans to understand what is at stake. We must seek to vote for those who are willing to stand publicly for Biblical distinctions [because they will always be good for all societies] even though they may not fully understand why they are doing so, and stand by them when they are elected. And if no-one of that calibre is standing, our system allows us to vote for a least-worst candidate for the House of Representatives and to seek for a further check in the Senate. Here we shall find many smaller parties that offer to stand for Biblical values. A vote for them is not wasted, so long as you use your preferences wisely.

Sadly, those who love evil have often proved to be more patient and more committed than those who love good and we are seeing now the maturing fruit of a steady and committed hostility to Jesus as Lord and Creator which has been at work for a long time in our land (and the West generally). As part of His judgment on such rebellion, God often withholds the restraining blessing of His Spirit and allows evil a freer hand.

If such harder times come to Australia, living through them will not be easy, but He will give the strength to stand faithfully and to keep on praying for evil’s demise. We know that ultimately, and regardless of all ballots, the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus will prevail! That kingdom is not built by politicians but through the work of the Spirit and the faithful witness to Jesus by men, women and children. So, be faithful it will never be wasted, and do all you can to vote for those who will work to restrain evil.

Washing Feet and Serving Society

[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for April, 2016.]

It was Passover time, something that all Jesus’ disciples had observed or participated in since they could remember. They all knew that every Passover ever celebrated for over 1400 years had the Exodus from Egypt as its focus; the great act of deliverance whereby God set his people free. But this one would be different in ways no-one would have ever dared to imagine. Jesus would shortly say, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” In one simple pronoun, He claimed the right to a higher and more meaningful remembrance than the entire Exodus event! He also made it clear that this was a permanent change “As often as you do it…” But before Jesus made His great claim to superior remembrance, He did something else which was equally profound. Jesus, the recognised leader and teacher, washed His disciples feet. (See John 13:1-17).

According to the 19th century scholar Alfred Edersheim, there was a point early in the Passover ceremony when the head of table would rise and wash His hands, so those present might have expected Jesus to leave His place at the table in order to do just that. Instead He confounded them all! He stripped off His robe and tunic, picked up the hitherto unused towel, wrapped it round His waist and took the place of the lowest servant, washing feet that should have been done as soon as each had arrived. No wonder Peter protested. Jesus was reversing all the accepted social rules he knew!

He was also pricking their consciences! Luke tells us that the disciples had disputed again over who was most important. It may be a guess, but perhaps it was over who would sit where! (As we know, views of self-importance have the nasty habit of intruding where they should not.) How quietly pointed then Jesus’ actions must have been! How rebuking! Here was One who had healed the sick, raised the dead, calmed the storm, confounded the subtleties of Pharisee and Sadducee now acting as a lowly hired help, declaring also that this was an example to be followed by his disciples.

Jesus modelled a humility that only one fully secure in self-understanding can show. He did not fear anyone’s disapproval to be confident in who He was. He is the Eternal Son come from the Father and going back to the Father. If the Father called Him to be a servant then a servant He would willingly be and all without any loss of face. The Christian has this same assurance. We are the Lord’s, no matter what others think. But Jesus had a higher purpose than just modelling humility. He was pointing to their need to be clean. His words to Peter and the others, not understood at the time, would become clearer as the next few days and weeks unfolded. They would realise that He was really saying, “Peter, if you cannot accept my humility in washing your feet, how will you ever accept that I have humbled myself to wash away the filth of your soul?”

Ultimately, real humility can only spring from a life transformed by the gospel. Only the Spirit can give us the self-understanding we need to serve, and nurture an attitude that does not draw its motive or endurance, however subtly, from pride. When there is no glory for self, false humility will quickly grow weary and give up. It should not surprise us therefore, to see that as Christianity is increasingly pushed to the margins of our society, we lose the general social willingness to volunteer and serve that has contributed so much in the past. It should not be so with Christians. We are salt!

Dear reader, if Jesus has washed your sins, then you can joyfully serve others and be a real blessing, even if it seems you are only ever given the lowliest of tasks to perform.

Grace: The Only Way to Live

[first published in the March 2016 Congregational Notes.]

It is a basic and unmistakable truth of the whole of Scripture that “the soul that sins shall die.” It was declared to Adam and Eve in Eden, affirmed by all the priests and prophets, demonstrated at the Cross, and repeated in the New Testament letters even after Jesus rose again. As the Shorter Catechism states in Answer 84, “Every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come.”

By this rule the prophet Jonah certainly deserved to die. He deliberately disobeyed a very clear command and provoked God by his rebellion. So God sent a storm from which there was no escape. All hope was lost, until finally Jonah confessed his sin and his folly. The sailors, hearing that he was a prophet of the God who sent the storm, asked him what to do. (Wisely, they sought the mind of God!) Jonah, speaking as a prophet, asked to be thrown into the sea. In effect, he told them, “The soul that sins, must die.” They obeyed and discovered that they lived! And Jonah? He was swallowed by a fish! Doubtless he expected to die and the sailors surely believed he was dead but he did not die! God sent a great fish. And so we find him in Chapter 2 praying to the very One whose word it was that he be cast into the sea, i.e. into the sentence of ‘death’. God had decreed his death and ordained his life. He must pray! Here wonderfully, amazingly, is the grace of God at work.

We know how the story continues but when Jonah prayed, he did not know how it would end. He only knew that God had ordained that he should live and that this was from His mercy alone (v.9). He made no bargains. He did not even promise to go to Nineveh if he was freed from the fish, because he did not presume that all would be just as it was before. Sin has consequences. But despite this, there is in his prayer a sense, a real hope, that there would still be a calling for him and a testimony to give to others even if it were only to be in the temple in Jerusalem (see vv 4 & 9). He understood that he lived by the grace of God and that in some way God would still use him. The mind of one who has been given life instead of death is daily amazed at His saving mercy and is happy to accept any area of service, however humble.

O non-Christian, this Easter season, do not ignore why Jesus died! Do not forget that you are under condemnation for your sin and that it is only by the mercy of God that you live at all! Realize too that even if you know only a little of what there is to know of Jesus, you at least know something! Even if you only know what Sunday School told you years ago, you are accountable for that. Will you act on it or not? If reading this is the first time that you hear it, know that Christians say there is hope in Him “in this life and that which is to come.” To do nothing is to despise his merciful slowness and to dare him to harden your heart further. How much more earnestly than Jonah should you pray? God declares that your sin deserves death! If Christ died to bear punishment for sins, but not for yours, then you know what you still deserve!

Likewise O Christian, this Easter season, do not forget to say with loving awe, ”I do not deserve the life that I have now or that life which is to come, and the life that I do now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” You owe him everything. So how will you live for Him? What can you do? What gifts, however small you consider them, do you have? He “owns” them so do not despise them. If you are willing to bring them to Him, He will surely use them for His glory in ways that you have never expected.

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