Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

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.

Advance Australia, Where?

[First Published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for February, 2016]

Every year at the end of January, discussions about the appropriateness of Jan 26th as Australia Day are raised. Some do it with good intent, some out of naiveté, and still others with a desire to stir up mischief, so it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference. Some even suggest a change of name to Invasion Day as if that somehow would make things better. Amidst all the chatter, it is important that Christians have a measured response. Simply decrying “the past” as if somehow it is uniformly bad is not the way to go, just as trying to claim that the past was all good will not hold. The issues are complex and the historian’s caution is apt when looking back to the written record; deeds which “disturbed” the human sensibilities of the day are more likely to have been recorded and the more “normal” deeds of humanity overlooked. Wrongs were done, perhaps even in the name of the Church, and it is understandable that there will be the desire to pass on to future generations all the unresolved hurts and hatreds of the past. In some cases, sadly, it even becomes a mark of identity.

Much of the present attitude to our nation’s past is also hostile to Christianity, so that Christians must be careful; it is too easy just to “join the chorus.” The issue goes way beyond human rights for if we can paraphrase Jesus, “what shall it profit a man if he gains all human rights but loses his own soul?” Where old sinful attitudes remain they must be rebuked, but the Christian must also point out that any corrective which still discriminates, affirms aboriginal culture in its old mythology, or builds an integrated Australia where Christianity is sidelined, is equally sinful in the eyes of God. So the Christian critiques all ‘sides’ in the debate, even when it’s politically incorrect to do so.

History gives us many examples where hurts and hates are passed down through the generations, but it also tells us that this never facilitates reconciliation. Along with the acknowledgement of wrongs, there must be a letting go and a recognition that not all consequences of past actions can be undone. Calls for reparation are easy to make but that alone will not solve the problem and may well make it worse if later generations are forced to make reparation or carry the penalty for actions they did not commit.

The Christian’s interest in noting past sins is not to re-live them or re-assign the guilt for them to future generations. Rather it is at a higher level and looks to see what God has done. As with all sins, it draws attention to them in order to highlight the holiness and law of God which weighs every culture and every person in its balances and finds all wanting. “There is none righteous, no not one.” In Acts 2 & 3 Peter accused his hearers of the great sin of putting Messiah to death. His message was simple: let those who were guilty repent of this sin and seek His mercy, just as others were to repent of other sins. Their descendants would not be guilty unless they too continued to hate and reject Jesus as the promised Saviour. Peter’s point was not to perpetuate guilt or to perpetuate the hostility between Jew and non-Jew but to affirm the wonder that God had evangelized both groups through and despite the actions of sinful men!

The same Bible which critiques sin in every age reveals the only hope for our future: God’s grace in Jesus, in Whom there is forgiveness and full satisfaction for all sin, not just those injustices that hurt us or our ancestors. Only in Jesus can the past really be let go, and a new future be embraced by even the most down-trodden. This is the radical way that Christ set for his followers: “love your enemies” and “do good to those who hate you.” It transformed the Roman world, it can transform Australia’s.

“Running”[or Plodding] Steadily Forwards through 2016

[First published in the congregational “Notes” for January 2016]

Many of us are familiar with some of Aesop’s Fables, in which the antics of animals become the vehicle for wry observations about human nature. One of the most well known tales is the “Tortoise and the Hare” in which a tortoise, tired of the hare’s boasting, challenges the hare to a race. The hare is convinced that the tortoise is a fool, and races off thinking this will be no contest, leaving the plodding tortoise far behind. But the hare soon tires and decides that, because the race was so easy, there is enough time for a rest. The hare lies down for a sleep, but over-sleeps and during that time the tortoise creeps slowly past and crosses the finish line first. The moral of the story as Aesop told it? “Slow and steady wins the race”.

Aesop was not the only ancient to teach morals of behaviour using events in the animal world (many are found in the book of Proverbs) and we should not be surprised that God has ordained that we should find ways in His creation to illustrate the follies, quirks or wisdom of human nature . The apostles themselves used the idea of a race as a illustration for the Christian life, (1 Cor 9:24; Heb 12:1, et al.) so it is not surprising that we might find parallels with The Tortoise and the Hare.

A few years ago, American pastor Kevin deYoung wrote a blog post called “The Glory of Plodding” in which he lamented the tendency to despise the perceived ordinariness of Church life and to prefer flashier, shorter-term alternatives for growth. Zeal for the kingdom of God is a good thing, but the kingdom of God is not built on human strength, and both experience and wisdom tell us that Christian progress is more like a marathon than a sprint. Unless we recognise this, what starts out with the flash and fanfare of the hare can often end in a whimper of exhaustion where congregations lie down and stop altogether. And stopping completely is just what the devil wants.

DeYoung’s title is appropriate for much of the Christian life; it is a glorious tortoise-like plodding! Like the first century Athenians (Acts 17:21), our age is constantly after something new—and faster! Christians are not immune to cultural pressures and can be deceived subtly into thinking that modified Gospel presentations which are “fast”, “spectacular” or “flashy” will succeed in building the Church where steady, faithful presentations have failed. But if the truth be told, there are no shortcuts, and God has ordained that it is often the steadily unspectacular which bears most fruit for Christ, because there is far less room for us to take glory for ourselves (1 Cor 2:4-5).

Recently I had occasion to look at the 160 or so editorials written for these Notes over almost 13 years. Not surprisingly, there were common themes for most of our New Year editions: faith, trust, learning from God’s past faithfulness, looking long-term for our future eternity, God’s right to change our plans, our resolve to walk in greater godliness and prayerfulness, etc … So, what new things can be said at the beginning of this year? Not a lot! Nor should there be much that is radically new, as all these same things are the stuff of living for Christ ever day, and if anything, we know that we all need to be reminded of them far more often than once a year!

It is this very sense of sameness that can foster discouragement, especially if we think there has not been much advance in our life over the years. But if your eyes are fixed on Jesus and your desire is to follow Him according to His word, then your faith will have been strengthened. Perhaps what you see as lack of progress is just His keeping you in the right place so that you will be best able to serve other “plodders.”

Christmas and the Brand New that lasts Forever!

[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes”, December, 2015]

If there was ever proof that our age is caught up in the idolatry of materialism, it is seen in the way in which our celebration days have been captured by the tradition that they must be accompanied by giving a gift. We may even subtly be encouraged to make others feel guilty if they have not done so for us! And the advertisers tell us that our gifts must be new, and preferably expensive—nothing second hand! Astute manufacturers, aware of our passion for the new, carefully plan obsolescence, limited product life and upgrades so that we will become dissatisfied with what we have and keep on desiring something “new” even though we know from experience that the joy of the new will still surely fade away. We are so captive to this behaviour, that the health of our national economy often hinges on a good Christmas trading period!

In a world where everything declines, is there necessarily anything wrong in desiring something new? Like many other desires, so much depends on our motives. Right towards the end of the New Testament, the Scriptures reveal that Jesus Christ Himself also desires new things. He desires a whole, new, sinless creation! We read, “And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said … Write: for these words are true and faithful.” [Rev. 21:5] This is the One who in the beginning saw all that He had made and declared it to be ‘Very Good.’ So why does something made by God and declared ‘Very Good’ need to be made new? Does the work of God fade? Does God, like us, get bored? Certainly not! Clearly something happened to spoil the work and to make the “New” necessary and desirable to Jesus.

That “something” was of course, the entrance of human sin through the disobedience of one representative man, Adam. He rebelled against the authority of God and as a consequence, all human existence ever since has been under judgment of decline and death. It was not always so and it will not always be so, but it is our lot now. And as decline and death are penalties for sin it is natural that mankind looks for ways to post-pone their effects—everyone will put off judgment day if they can! But despite all our wonderful science, judgment cannot be put off forever. There will come a time when at the very least our bodies will wear out like old clothes, and in death we will stand before the pure Holiness of God. Only the sinless will be able to remain, all others cast away forever. What will you do then? More importantly, what are you doing now? You cannot make yourself new yet to remain on that day you must be made new! You must be ‘born again’ with an eternal life. Who can do it?

Enter Jesus! And enter He did, in the wonder of His incarnation. Out of His free love for sinners, the Eternal Son of God took on a true humanity through his miraculous conception. He was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth and taught throughout Palestine. He was crucified and buried in Jerusalem only to rise victoriously (and bodily) three days later. In so doing He paid sin’s penalty in full for all who repent of their sin, seek His grace and trust in Him. Death and its preambles now carry nothing penal. If we die in Him, we enter eternity. He alone can make us “brand new”.

This is the Christian message; the only “reason for the season” and the only reason behind the angels’ song of “peace on earth” and the shepherd’s joy. The Newness Jesus brings comes as a gift. It can be asked for, but never be earned or deserved. And unlike all other Christmas gifts it will never break, fail, go become obsolete or lose its power to delight. Is your “reason for the season” that Christ is making YOU new?

The Reformation and Liberty: Won, Lost(?) and Winnable Again!

[first published in the congregational “Notes” for November, 2015]

On the 31st October, 1517, an Augustinian monk placed a notice upon the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, identifying 95 “theses” [topics for discussion] which he wanted to be the subject of scholarly debate. There was nothing unusual in this, it was simply the normal academic practice of the day. The topics he posted concerned the doctrines of repentance and forgiveness: how can someone have their sins forgiven? Could the Church itself forgive sins upon the payment of money as some said it could? The real challenge was that Luther wanted answers to his questions from an authority beyond church teaching and tradition. The only source of such an authority was the Bible. There was no email, but word of mouth and the courier system was almost as fast! He wrote in Latin but they were soon translated into German and within two weeks the entire country had copies in their own language. Within two months, they had spread throughout Europe. The rest, as they say, is history. [If you want a good biography, Roland Bainton’s book Here I Stand is a good place to start.]

The most notable effect of Luther’s action was to draw attention to the lack of Biblical support for many church practices. People now had a choice when it came to knowing how to be free from sin. They could listen to a Church tradition or they could read the Word of God for themselves and learn from Him directly.

If they listened to God’s Word, they first heard what they already knew, viz that they and all mankind were under just condemnation and deserving His wrath. The Church had told them that. But then they also read what had become lost, the Good News that God had graciously provided a way whereby His wrath could be satisfied without the performance of religious acts or penance. This way was through Christ alone, and open to all who by faith confessed their sin and entrusted themselves to Him. This way had once been well known but over time had been replaced by a tradition which taught the burden of religious works and left men and women unsure of the Love of God. (That tradition made the Church secularly powerful but left its people spiritually weak.

They read that they did not need to confess their sins to a priest, as Jesus Christ was the True and only Priest. When they confessed to Him, He forgave and when He gave absolution, sin was forgiven, in full, forever! No purgatory! Not only that, those whom He forgave would be “born again” to a true hope, reckoned as righteous and adopted as sons and daughters of the Living God. These things set people free and the Law of God proved to be a Law of Liberty and not bondage. The future was bright and strong missionary activity served only to expand the blessing. Sadly, with the passage of time, the Church has become complacent and love for truth is again being lost.

At first the drift was slow but nowadays many reject outright the Bible as God’s Word. His Law is no longer seen as the ground of freedom but a cause of repression, and is to be treated with scorn! The blessings He gave are now attributed to human wisdom. The West may still be ‘religious’ in a social sense but it has returned to the rebellion from which Christ had freed it, and humanity has become its own idol. The Word of God is solemnly true; there is no liberty for idolaters who do not repent.

But all God’s promises are sure; the Gospel assures that Christ still receives repentant sinners! [So, dear reader, why would you delay?] Our calling is to remain faithful to Him despite this present declension and to pray that we will again see a great spirit of repentance across our land.

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