Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

The Deadly Temptation to Independence!

[first published in the monthly congregational Notes for October, 2017]

It is a mark of our time in many parts of the West, that “everyone does what is right in their own eyes” (as in Judges 21:25!!) and is encouraged to keep on doing so. We are told that to be really “mature” and “independent” we must break away from past values and choose our own boundaries. This, we are told, is truly “coming of age”. Independence of this sort eventually leads to social isolation and fragmentation, and one fears that unless we break away from this foolish notion, all that our civilisation has accumulated over the centuries will quickly be lost. One natural reaction is to clamp down on all expressions of independence in order to keep what we have, perhaps even to take away freedoms altogether, as happens in dictatorships (which is often the only way in which societies can hold together). But independence does not have to lead to fragmentation if we follow God’s model for society: the family.

The Bible tells parents to expect and facilitate a godly sense of “independence”. Children are to grow up expecting that in the normal course of events they can leave mother and father and cleave to husband or wife, forming another “independent unit” in the process (Gen 2:24). But this independence was never intended to be absolute (just as new branches on a tree are not separate from the branches before them) nor was it ever intended to facilitate the misuse of power and authority. We are all saddened at that “independence” which breaks families (and marriages) apart, even as we recognise that sometimes it is the only possible avenue for relief.

The Devil exercised a rebellious independence and was cast out of heaven and condemned. He hates all that is good, and therefore hates the family structure, and does all he can to pervert it. He did this in Eden when he persuaded Adam and Eve that the path to true maturity lay in disobeying God and acting on their own. He argued that their “dependence” was belittling, that they should assert themselves in order to show that they were truly created in the image of God. “Was God independent? Then it was only fitting that they should be so as well!” Sadly they were persuaded; deceived into adopting a false understanding of “independence” and that the forewarned consequence of disobedience (death) was an unfair restriction.

The temptations the Devil pressed upon Jesus were in temptations to be “independent”. He should rebel against the Spirit who compelled him to go into the desert, by feeding himself his own way (Matt 4:3). He should repudiate the way of the cross and conquer death miraculously (vv. 5-6). He should win the world in an instant without the aid of the Spirit by a single act of worship (v. 8). Thankfully, Jesus did not succumb. He understood that the Devil’s temptations to him in his humanity were dedicated to destroying his role as perfect man and saviour. Jesus did not need to repudiate the Father’s plan of redemption in order to validate himself. He did not need to reject the infilling of the Spirit in order to validate his identity. As God he did not fear that dependence on His Father’s will somehow lessened his deity or his co-equality!

Jesus demonstrated that depending upon God does not destroy true identity but affirms it. As God’s creation, our highest and best identity is found in being what we were created to be, but Adam’s independence has made that humanly unattainable. In Adam, all die—physically and eternally because independence from God is sin and the wages of sin is death. True life, eternal and spiritual is only possible through the free grace of God. By definition, grace is something we cannot merit and no-one can merit it for us except Jesus, because he has been appointed by the Father to be our substitute: His died for us, and his resurrected life is for us.

So, dear reader, when the Gospel calls you to surrender your independence and follow him, do not refuse it! You are being called to receive a new identity graciously given forever! And dear Christian reader, note too that Jesus has demonstrated that the only sure defence against all ongoing temptations to independence is faithful submission to the Word of God.

Saying “YES” to Marriage by Voting “NO”

[first published in the monthly congregtional “Notes” for September, 2017.]

In just a few weeks after this editorial is published, Australian voters will know if the High Court will allow Australians the opportunity to express an opinion on changes to the law which would allow same-sex relationships to be regarded as “marriages”. If government comments are any guide, we will likely be asked for a simple “Yes” or “No” even though the matter is much more complicated than that. I will be voting “No” in line with the Biblical view of marriage as a fundamental Creation ordinance for the good of ALL of society, not just Christians, and in line with many statements on marriage and on homosexuality issued by the Presbyterian Church over the years. [More could be said, but this column has limits on space. As a beginning, see https://pcacan.org/index.php/current-issues/same-sex-marriage and the Moderator’s comments under https://www.presbyterian.org.au ]

Some who argue for a “yes” tell us that the changes will not affect existing marriages at all—it is merely changing a word. But it is naïve and untrue to see the change as nothing more than changing a word. Words have meaning. A circle cannot be called a square unless the basic definition of circle-ness is changed and the meaning of square-ness denied. Similarly with marriage: heterosexual and homosexual relation-ships cannot be declared identical unless difference is denied. With the change of definition will come social affirmation, so that there no-longer will be any public distinction allowable for Christians without threat of penalty. Such times may come anyway, but Christians should not willingly vote for a situation where the freedom to declare God’s word on an issue depends on the will of government!

Because of that, it is surprising to me, and sad, to read of Christians arguing that the best way forward for Gospel witness to our community is to vote “Yes”. No doubt the motive is a desire to be compassionate and loving, to keep relationships open and preserve social harmony in a secular society by living out the so-called Golden Rule. These hopes are good but can surely be present in those who advocate “No” as well! After all, the best, loving, compassionate good for our neighbour (& society generally) is always to urge them to follow God’s morality. And on this matter, the State is even asking our opinion, so of course we should tell them! Yes, God is sovereign, but gospel witness is never furthered by deliberately legitimizing sin.

Jesus himself re-affirmed marriage as a creation ordinance [Mk 10:6-9] and much, much more than “two people who love each other”, so sooner or later our evangelism will have to bite the bullet and say, “Well if you come to Jesus Christ, not only He will ask you not to treat your relationship as a marriage, but He will ask you to live without it!” What will we say when someone asks, “Then why did you vote to let me get into this mess?” How much more complicated will life and society be when such relationships have to be un-done! It is true that these problems already exist to some extent because under our law same-sex relationships have been already accorded a whole raft of rights and privileges [was the vote was quietly lost then?? I think so.] but we should not compound the problem.

Christians also know the deeper issue is the deliberate attempt to eradiate all reminders of God from society’s public space, even though many may not consciously be aware of it. Ever since Eden, and under the guise of human freedom (Rom 1) mankind has sought out ways to reject God’s right to decree morality, and the marriage issue is merely the current battle-front. Many who have adopted the glib line that marriage is simply a human right for “two people who love each other” do not see this wider spiritual connection and would be upset at the notion that they are being deceived. Nevertheless, we must lovingly remind them of what deep down, they know to be true: God does exist, and His law is right. Then, we must tell of his merciful forgiveness in Christ for the times that they, and we ourselves too, have transgressed.

So, Christian, be strong in your own understanding of marriage, whether that is a memory, your current state, or your aspiration. Find your model in Christ, and stay close to Him. And if the Law does change, fear not, because Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33)!

Praying for the Local Ministry

[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for August, 2017.]

It is accepted by all that those in Christian ministry should pray for those in their congregations. It is a function and privilege of the office and through their knowledge of the scriptures, ministers should be well aware of what should be asked from God. Through the recorded prayers in Scripture, God has provided rich examples for those in ministry to follow. But the Bible also calls upon congregations to pray for their ministers! Three times in the New Testament, members of local congregation are clearly called to pray for those ministering to them (see 1 Thess 5:25, 2 Thess 3:1-2, & Heb 13:18). It is as much a duty and privilege to pray for those in ministry as it is to pray for ourselves and our friends; as much a duty and privilege to pray for the local minister as it is to pray for the far away missionary whom we may never meet.

So what do those in the congregation seek when they pray for their ministers? From 1 Thess 5, and Heb 13:18, we see that growth in grace and sanctification must be a high priority. It would have been easy for those early congregations, caught up in the wonder of God’s grace, to forget that the apostles and gospel preachers were mere men. Perhaps they were inclined to put them on a pedestal and treat them as “super-saints” or “super-Christians”! Yes, they were enabled and gifted in extraordinary ways but as every apostle and preacher knew, this did not guarantee that they would be sinless or exempted from the pressures that affect every Christian. The devil hates all works of grace wherever they are but loves it when ministers fail and quite likely works more subtle and powerful temptations against ministers than others.

This makes our prayers easier. Where do we need help in our Christian life? What do we need victory in? How should sanctification have its increase? Pray that your minister has that help and victory too, and that he be preserved so as to better help you in times of your need. The mutuality in Church congregational life is most powerfully expressed in a willingness and a desire to pray for one another.

Congregations should pray that their ministers know what to say and how to say it when speaking of Christ. Every Christian has this privilege as opportunity presents and should be asking God to open up times when it is ”just right” to speak to friends, colleagues, and family members. Congregations should also pray that many of these opportunities come their minister’s way (2 Thess 3:1). But it is easy to forget that the primary way in which the kingdom of God is built up, strengthened and extended is through regular preaching from the Scriptures week by week! As the Word of God is expounded and focused on our lives through Christ, both preacher and congregation are informed and faith made even stronger. As the Holy Spirit answers our prayers, the visitors we pray for will find that Christ is among us and marvel at how the Word of God also speaks to them. As Matthew Henry put so succinctly, “Ministers stand in need of their people’s prayers; and the more people pray for their ministers the more good ministers may have from God, and the more benefit people may receive by their ministry.”

Prayer has always been important because, as Paul says, “not all have faith.” In the past, those with no faith were content to ignore the Gospel, to “live and let live” as it were, but increasingly that absence of faith is showing itself in militant hostility toward Christ and his people. With that comes the strong temptation to soften the claims of Christ so as not to give offence and perhaps even to maximise a hearing! But a gospel that does not exalt Christ and Christ alone through his life, death and resurrection is no gospel at all and not worth hearing. So, pray for your minister(s), it will build you up in wonderful ways too.

The Blessedness of Christian Giving

first published in the monthly congregational Notes for July 2017

At this time of year, our minds are often engaged with taxation and superannuation questions: Did I pay too much tax? how much will I pay this year? What could I have done to pay less? How can I pay less to Caesar, and have more for … ? (for me?)”. We all know that we must be good stewards, right?

Money questions can challenge us because if we are not careful, our money will start to define us. It serves as a record of how others have valued our work and service in the past, it limits how we can face the present, and if we are fortunate and prudent to save, it gives us our security against an unknown future. Any number of financial calculators exist to tell us how long our money will last so that we can plan our life-style. Then there is the privilege of passing something on to our children. Looked at this way, it is understandable why money so easily becomes a god, the idol that defines our life, measures our hopes and gives us ultimate meaning. It is also why the Ten Commandments begin with, “You shall have no other gods” bedsides Me.

It is not surprising then, that the Bible takes time to put money in its place. It is to be a servant and never a master of the heart, for that privilege must be reserved for Jesus. It is He who gives meaning to everything (Col 1:17). Of course, earning, having and saving money is not wrong in itself; that will come with our priorities and allegiance! The easiest way to show that money is not the master of our life or the master of our affections is to give it away! The Christian can let go of money and possessions when called to do so because he or she knows that true riches are not found in anything we have achieved in life but in our relationship with Jesus Christ. This was something that the Rich Young Ruler simply could not see (Mark 10:22), and which Jesus again emphasised in His parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-20).

This is one reason why God delights to use Christian generosity to spread the gospel. Until we can let go of our possessions, we have not fully learned to trust God, and putting our faith in Christ for our eternal security is surely the supreme trust. So when we are told that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7), it is not because He is limited without our resources (everything is His anyway) but because He delights in the love of those who cheerfully trust Him to use what He has given them in gospel service without regret or complaint. Grace surely begets graciousness in us, just as selfishness suggests a lack of grace. Such giving becomes a heartfelt response to the love of Christ and not a reaction to particular needs. We give, even if there is no particular need at the time, confident that God will use what we have given when it pleases Him. And that may be years away – it is His call.

Christian giving also extends our vision of God’s salvation beyond our small horizon. The church in Philippi was a blessing to Paul while he was in prison (Phil 4:14-20). They wanted to make sure that his needs were met, but he saw it as proof that they had come to see the Church as God’s saving work reaching out far beyond Philippi.

There is still a world out there from which God is calling men and women to be our brothers and sisters in Christ. They become our family: distant now perhaps but co-inheritors of eternity and it is our privilege to be a small part in their calling. As we are generous in gospel work we are quietly reminding ourselves, and others, that eternal things are infinitely more important that anything in the here and now, and that grace has worked savingly in us. The idolatry of the self has been overcome.

Pentecost and Mission

[first published in the monthly congregational Note for June, 2017]

The events of the first Pentecost must have been truly remarkable, and I am sure the disciples never forgot the impact of that extra-ordinary day; a day which most likely began with another prayer meeting as they waited, wondering what would be next. It was clear that something had to happen. Jesus had taught them many exciting new things of the Kingdom of God from the Scriptures, but He could hardly walk around Jerusalem again as if he had not died at all!! And now He was gone! Two angels had said he would come again (Acts 1:11) so perhaps that was what he meant by waiting! It seems clear that they assumed the next step was to be a restoration of the kingdom to Israel with the risen Jesus as the perfect anointed Davidic King (Acts 1:5-8). It seemed so reasonable, even prophetic. Now with no warning, strange, flames of fire settled on each of them, burning but not burning, just like the bush in the desert that burned with the presence of God for Moses (Exod 3). And with the fire there was the sound of a strong wind and the miraculous ability to speak and be heard in other languages!

With the coming of the Spirit (Acts 2), something else came: a new way to understand the presence of Jesus with His people; a new way of seeing the Kingdom of God. Peter’s impromptu sermon and his discussion afterwards shows that the disciples quickly understood that in one sense they had been 100% correct. The risen, ascended Jesus is King! He rules from the right hand of the Father, not just over Israel but over the whole earth. There is coming a time when He will be recognised as the Universal King: loved & revered by those He has redeemed; hated and feared by all those who have no part in Him (v.35. see also Phil 2:10-11 & Rev 6:14-17). BUT this coming will be “not yet”. Previously they had not factored much time between Jesus’ ascension and bodily return, now they must. This “time between” was the time for which they had been chosen and prepared, and now filled with the Holy Spirit.

The kingdom of God would be built, not through Babel’s vision of human might or wisdom, but the “foolishness” of words: Spirit-given, Spirit-filled words about the One whose name is Word! At Pentecost, God affirmed there could be a unity for the whole earth, but it must be a unity of righteousness, grace, repentance & forgiveness.

Pentecost still calls us to mission. We also live in the time between. We know Christ will return, we just don’t know when. The “delay” simply gives us the certainty that God has not finished yet. No doubt the charter first given to the apostles to go and disciple the nations seemed impossible—until Pentecost! Afterwards its failure was the impossibility, and that is the mindset we must ask God to confirm in us day by day; “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven…”

The early Church did not look for repeated Pentecosts. They saw that God gave lesser confirmations to Samaritans (8:14ff) to Gentiles (ch 10) and to followers of John the Baptist who had not heard of Jesus (19:1ff) but for the rest, there was the “hard” task of praying, trusting, sending, going and telling, for how will people call on Christ if they have not heard (of) Him? Those tasks remain, to which we might add: and if necessary, the hard work of first learning other languages and cultures! So, as we are able, we must pray for, support and equip those who go, for theirs is a noble calling. But there is another aspect to Pentecost. God may send the nations to us.

We who stay must also be open to the hard work of embracing all that is needed to share the gospel at home. In this way, even without you going anywhere, many afar off might repent and believe. Pray therefore that Christ, by His Spirit, will use your testimony.

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