Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Clarity and Courage of Disbelief?

It is the season of Lent and there is an inevitable increase in the religiosity of liberal churches.

I have to admire the clarity and the courage of one of the local ministers of the Church of Scotland who has penned the “View from the Pulpit” for our local Johnston Press paper, the Milngavie & Bearsden Herald. No kowtowing here to creedal orthodoxy or confessional conformity.  He knows what he doesn’t believe, and he proclaims it with confidence from the rooftops.

Let me quote in part from his diatribe of anti-biblical, anti-confessional invective:

“The Carpenter of Nazareth willingly laid down his life for the good of others. Or, did he?

Did Jesus really come to Jerusalem to die? I was certainly brought up to believe that his death was part of a plan; a human substitute stretched out on a scaffold on a Friday afternoon in order to satisfy God’s wrath. “He died for you,” I was told, “in order that your sins may be forgiven and your life saved for eternity.” 

No wonder that we dwell on suffering and sacrifice during Lent. If this is an accurate portrayal of the Gospel Story, then what does it say about the true character of God? A punitive being? An angry lawmaker, displeased by the fact that his laws have been violated? A blood-thirsty deity bent on ensuring that somebody pays the penalty. And who better than his own son nailed upon the tree!

It’s neat. But it is damning! Not just in relation to God , but also what it says about us. Fallen sinners, hopelessly lost; unable or rather incapable , of shaping our own destinies…”

No such nonsense is acceptable to this defender of liberalism. He does not believe that we are hopelessly lost sinners but rather that if we live the life that Christ lived, sharing the life of God generously and unconditionally, we will embrace a kind of living that “contains the seed of its own redemption.”

There is nothing new here; there is nothing Christian here!

The forthright rejection of biblical authority and Scriptural teaching, the distain for the  historic, orthodox, catholic doctrine or redemption, these are clearly and forthrightly stated. I admire his clarity and lack of equivocation.  

However, I do not necessarily think that it displays courage, though he might think it does. There is no risk in this rejection of the Scripture, at least in terms of denominational risk, for his denomination doesn’t do discipline!  

However, God does discipline:

“Let God's curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you.” (Galatians 1:8, NLT)

Friday, 20 February 2015

Why Should Churches Evangelise?

Mark Tooley has an interesting and lengthy article on the doctrinal decline, followed inevitably by the membership decline, of mainline liberal USA churches in general, and the United Methodist Church in particular.

He writes: "A 1967 survey found 60 percent of Methodist clergy, for example, disbelieving the Virgin Birth and 50 percent disbelieving the Resurrection.

The impact on Mainline membership was predictable. Absent the imperative for soul-saving and confidence in Christian doctrine, gaining new adherents became more of a sociological exercise or a bid for institutional preservation. Neither inspires great zeal.”

I am intrigued by the observation that, in the absence of the biblical Gospel, the attempt of Mainline liberal churches to gain members is nothing more than “a sociological exercise or a bid for institutional preservation.”

If the Gospel were not true I cannot see any appeal, especially for men, in the vague, woolly message of “Be nice, just like God”. As an individual what possible reason would there be for wanting to worship a God who is so nice that he doesn’t mind if I worship him or not?  If such a God existed, and everyone will be saved regardless, then most individuals would see no point in Sunday worship or commitment to a local church.  Similarly, if I were a member of such a church and believed that all men will be saved whatever their religion or absence of religion, then there would be little incentive for outreach.

Tooley puts his finger on the fact that such outreach as exists in liberal churches is for the preservation of the institution not the saving of men’s souls.

I am rarely ever in a liberal church,  (my blood pressure usually goes through the roof and it is wisest for me to avoid the gut reaction of spiritual distaste, anger, and, to be honest, at times pity that I feel for those who lead such churches.)  When I am in such places I cannot see any reason to be there, or any formidable argument for their continued existence. I have no sorrow when such churches decline or close, as they are not true churches. Such institutions do not deserve to be preserved.

The lessons are obvious: deny the truth of Scripture and you guarantee the eventual demise of the church. Conversely, living evangelism begins in part with a high view of Scripture and a faithful commitment to follow its teaching.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

New Directory for Public Worship (4)


Editor’s comment: The New Directory is very full in detailing public confession. It does so by giving both seed thoughts and examples of prayers under three headings: our sins against God, against our fellow men, and against the Gospel and the Holy Spirit.

I will modernise as far as possible and conform scriptural quotations to the ESV.

Confession of Sins against God.

1. Our ignorance of God.

We have not truly desired you or cared to know you :
nor sought for you as for hidden treasures :
nor meditated on your truth.

2. Our unfaithfulness to God and his truth.

We have not acknowledged you to be our God
not worshipped you in sincerity and in faithfulness  :
not submitted to your will ;
not followed in your way.
We have said we knew you, and yet denied you in our deeds :
had unworthy thoughts of your ways :
had rebellious thoughts of your dealings with us.

3. Our living without God.

We have forgotten you in the hour of prosperity :
not trusted you in danger, need :
not brought our burdens and fears to you :
marred our lives with anxiety, as if we had no Father in heaven,
with needless fears, as if all things did not work for good to those who loved you :
trusted more in man's help than in your help:
more in wealth than in righteousness :
in talent than in holy living :
in anger than in meekness.

Sometimes when we obeyed your law, we disliked it in our heart.
We have never fully trusted to overcome evil with good, or been able to accept wrong and injury and mockery in patience.

We have believed more in self-assertion than in self-sacrifice,
more in boasting than in humility.

We have loved our own way more than yours ;
our own opinion more than the peace of your people.
We have sought the glory of our own name,
even when we said we were seeking Thine.

4. Our want of love.

We are too easily turned from you by mockery or fear of earthly loss :
too easily turned aside by hopes of gain or praise.
We have little time for you because we are so busy with the world.
We find it hard to love one another, but hardest of all to love you.

We care more for the friendship of your enemies than the friendship of your Son.
We find time for conversation with anyone but you ; to read any book but yours.

5. Our want of zeal for God and his Kingdom.

We do little for Christ's cause and yet are content,
We have little sorrow over our meanness : worldliness ;
little interest in the saving of the world.
We are seldom grieved by the thought of others' sins.
We do little for the unbelievers abroad or at our doors.
We have wronged good causes by our indifference, suspicions, and by our cold and critical words.
Even when our zeal in your cause is kindled, we are unwise, rash, self-willed, blind :
We use unlawful means to accomplish your purpose :
trust in worldly methods more than in gentleness, mercy, lpatient endurance, etc.

6. Our want of joy in God's service.

Your service has often been a weariness.
We have been slow to enter on it, anxious for it to be over.
We have felt it a relief when prayer was over, that we might return to work, play, book.
Glad when godly conversation ceased.

7. Our unthankfulness for God's mercies.

We have neglected you in times of joy, success,
and murmured against you in times of distress, trial.
When we failed, we complained of you,
and when we succeeded we took the credit for ourselves.
We ascribed your good gifts to our own efforts, skill.
Even when we thanked Thee we have been grudging in our thanks.
Your good gifts do notlead us not to repentance, but to
pride, vanity, boasting.

8. Our impatience.

We can hardly trust you where we must trust you alone — where there are no signs of success.
We have fretted under little trials, crosses, and worries.
We are impatient under the cares of home, the difficulties of daily work, discipline of daily life.
We cannot believe that the Cross is the way of Victory, that trials are our opportunity of conquering our hearts.
We can scarcely forgive once.
We do not try to forgive others as we ask you to forgive us, every morning and every evening.

Our impatience in time of sickness, pain, sorrow, great loss.

9. Insincere worship.

We have served you that we might be seen by others :
served you, but not in spirit and truth :
with our lips, when our heart was far away :
in word, while our heart was with the world :
with that which cost us nothing - what was taken by robbery and what is lame or sick.

We have found your service a weariness, because our hearts were far from you.

We are not always thinking of you, the living God, in our songs of praise.

Circumstance of trivial importance detains us from your worship,

We are easily distracted in it.

10. Sins in Prayer.

We pray too often that we may persuade you to accept our way, desire ; and not that we conform to to yourholy and loving will.

We do not desire to conform our will that which we hear from you, so much as to hear from you  what we will.
We have often neglected to pray at all.
We omit it on a trivial pretext — because of our work, tiredness, even Christian duties.
We acknowledge our lack of thought during prayer, lack of attention, reverence.
We confess sin, yet without sorrow or shame.
We confess sin and then turn to it again.
We ask forgiveness, and refuse to forgive others.
We wrestle in prayer only when we are seeking earthly blessings or fearing earthly loss.
We pray because we are afraid not to pray.
We pray, and yet live as if we never expected an answer.

11. Sins in connection with God's Word and His House.

We neglect your Word — the Bibles of some unopened since last Lord’s Day.

We too often come to Church without a thought of meeting you :
not hungering after righteousness :
not caring to be humbler, meeker, holier :
not even desiring a better life.

We have sometimes come not to worship you,
or be taught by you, or be strengthened to obey Thee ; but merely to be pleased or interested, or from custom.

We come with our minds full of business.

We have been tempted to change your Word into a the object of laughter.

We have forgot you as soon as the hour of the service was over.

We do not use the power of your fellowship with us in Church for the work of the week.

12. Irreverence.

We do not always speak of  you with godly fear.
We do not think of you as the Almighty God,
as the awe inspiring and righteous Judge,
as the Father of the Holy Jesus Christ.
We have often spoken lightly of divine things :
of noble things, pure, worthy, commendable :
of humble persons, gentle, brave, patient :
of persons deformed by your act, afflicted through no sin of their own, marred by your hand.

13. Sins in connection with Vows and Resolutions.

We have made vows that were unworthy, unchristian.
We have broken vows that were good.
We have pledged ourselves in frivolous mood.
We have taken oaths that were unlawful, and so have sinned :
we have fulfilled them, and have sinned the more.

14. Blasphemy.

We have mocked you ways in the lives of other men :
scorned your methods when they were hard :
reviled your people for deeds that were God-like, for their patience, meekness, self-sacrifice :
opposed yourway when taken by those we disliked, hated, were jealous of.

Editor’s Comment:  These are seed thoughts to guide us.  It would be a foolish man who sought to include them all in one prayer! They might, however, be used a few at a time each Lord’s Day to prompt our public prayer. They certainly go beyond the formulaic, “Lord we have sinned against you…”

The Marks of the True Church

John Knox, the great Scottish Reformer, gives us the marks of the true church in the Scots Confession, 1560:

“The notes, signs, and assured tokens whereby the immaculate spouse of Christ Jesus is known from the horrible harlot, the Kirk malignant, we affirm are neither antiquity, title usurped, lineal descent, place appointed, nor multitude of men approving one error.

The notes, therefore, of the true Kirk of God we believe, confess, and avow to be:

First, the true preaching of the word of God, in the which God has revealed Himself to us. . 
. .
Secondly, the right administration of the Sacraments, which must be annexed to the word and promise of God, to seal and confirm the same in our hearts.

Thirdly,ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God's word prescribed, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished.

Wheresoever, then, these notes are seen, and of any time continue, be the number of the persons never so few above two or three, there, without all doubt, is the true Kirk of Christ, who, according to His promise, is in the midst of them.”  (Chap, xviii.)

As Binnie points out in his excellent “Handbook for Bibleclasses – The Church “ :

“While thus far keeping close by the earlier Confessions, the Scots Confession differs from them in making faithful church discipline a third note of the true Church. Curiously enough, this was done also, about the same time, in the 28th of the Homilies, printed by public authority to be preached in the English Church.”

The words of the Anglican Homily 28, to which Binnie refers, are, “The true Church is an universal congregation or fellowship of God’s faithful and elect people, built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the head corner stone (Ephesians 2.20). And it hath always three notes or marks whereby it is known. Pure and sound doctrine, the Sacraments ministered according to Christ’s holy institution, and the right use of Ecclesiastical discipline. This description of the Church is agreeable both to the Scriptures of God, and also to the doctrine of the ancient fathers, so that none may justly find fault therewith.”

This past week I was reading a blog which made reference to the birth of PCA, the largest conservative Reformed denomination in the United States. The PCA came into being on December 4, 1973, when delegates from 260 congregations who had left the liberal PCUSA met together to constitutes the new denomination that would be “faithful to the Scriptures, true to the reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.”

They had been driven out of the PCUSA by the denomination’s continuing failure to exercise biblical discipline against those who denied basic tenets of the faith and biblical ethics.

The newly formed denomination, initially calling itself the Continuing Presbyterian Church and then the National Presbyterian Church before settling on the Presbyterian Church of America, penned a letter to other churches explaining the reasons for their stand:


“Change in the Presbyterian Church in the United States came as a gradual thing, and its ascendancy in the denomination, over a long period of time. We confess that it should not have been permitted. Views and practices that undermine and supplant the system of doctrine or polity of a confessional Church ought never to be tolerated. A Church that will not exercise discipline will not long be able to maintain pure doctrine or godly practice.

When a denomination will not exercise discipline and its courts have become heterodox or disposed to tolerate error, the minority finds itself in the anomalous position of being submissive to a tolerant and erring majority. In order to proclaim the truth and to practice the discipline which they believe obedience to Christ requires, it then becomes necessary for them to separate. This is the exercise of discipline in reverse. It is how we view our separation.

The PCA were acutely aware that not all evangelicals had joined them.  They addressed those who remained within the liberal denomination:

“Some of our brethren have felt that the present circumstances do not yet call for such a remedy. They remain in the Presbyterian Church in the United States. We trust they will continue to contend for the faith, though our departure makes their position more difficult. We express to them our hope that God will bless their efforts, and that there may come a genuine spiritual awakening in the Presbyterian Church in the United States.”

The reality was far from the hope! The PCUSA continued in its downward spiral, denying foundational truths of redemption and culminating in 2013 with the presbyteries ratified the General Assembly's 2012 vote to allow the ordination of openly gay persons to the ministry and in 2014 the General Assembly voted to amend the church's constitution to define marriage as the union of "two persons" instead of the union of a man and woman.

110 congregations left the liberal PCUSA in 2012 in order to join other more biblical denominations; in 2011, the reported number was only 21.

Knox said that a mark of a true church is biblical discipline. The chaotic decline of the PCUSA into apostasy shows that rarely, if ever, does a church that renounces the authority of Scripture and the exercise of biblical discipline turn itself around by biblical reformation. The PCA embraced the necessity of biblical discipline. It has grown from the initial 260 congregations in 1973 to the 2013 figure of 1,808 congregations  with 367,033 members served by 4,416 ordained ministers.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Some Down to Earth Thoughts on Levitation

This is weird. A friend told me of a report concerning a claim by a Scottish Charismatic that he has levitated. Certainly not a claim we come across every week.

The report, like Chinese whispers, may have grown in the telling and become somewhat exaggerated in the process of transmission from individual to individual. Perhaps the leader in question may have innocently said, after a particularly fine prayer meeting, “I feel quite high…” This in turn became “I floated quite high.” Who knows!

Anyway, let us assume that the transmission was more or less accurate and that there was an actual claim to levitation. Can Presbyterians levitate? Is this of the esse of being Presbyterian, or merely of the bene esse?

There are three possibilities:
·        He did not levitate.
·        He did levitate.
·        He seriously believed that he had levitated.

The first possibility suggests that it did not really happen, but, for whatever reason, was simply made up. Although I doubt the wisdom of Presbyterian Charismatics (they are charismatic), I would not necessarily assume that they are frauds and liars (they are presbyterian). Personally I do not believe in levitation, whether Catholic, Charismatic, Hindu or Buddhist.  There are certain scientific conditions under which levitation can occur, involving electo-magnetic repulsion. I know of no solid, controlled scientific experiments confirming levitation through prayer or meditation.  We will, however, assume that this particular report is not based on a deliberate lie.

The second possibility is that it did happen. I for one would take some convincing – scientific verification under controlled conditions. But let us assume for the moment that it did happen; what is the evidential value of such an event? Miracles, (events contrary to the normal rules of nature), do not of themselves necessarily carry evidential power. If God can perform miracles, so can the Devil. “Lying wonders” are a possibility – “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false…” (2 Thess 5:9)  Therefore if a charismatic levitates and a Hindu yogi levitates, whose truth system triumphs?

The third possibility is self-deception, or even Satanic deception. It did not happen but the individual genuinely believes it did.

I have often levitated. Unfortunately, (or fortunately), this has only been in my dreams! I once had a minor surgical procedure that involved anaesthesia and this produced what I might call body-mind disassociation.  I also understand that certain hallucinogenic drugs can produce a similar effect. Hyperventilation may also produce light-headedness and feelings of “floating”. Altered states of consciousness, as sought by mystics and gurus , may also disassociate the mind from the body and produce feelings akin to levitation.

But let us return to the second possibility and assume again that this did happen – that this individual physically rose from the ground and floated. Let us assume, as claimed by some charismatics, that this experience is a demonstration of a spiritual gift, directly empowered by the Holy Spirit. What purpose would there be in this “gift”?

As one of my fellow elders rightly pointed out, spiritual gifts are given for the building up of the church and the sanctifying of the saints, given “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (Eph 4)  How does it help the grieving widow, the parent with a terminally ill child, the young person struggling with sexual temptation, for the minister to announce, "Take heart; I have the gift of levitation." Does his levitation build up the body of Christ? 

This self-indulgent quest for spectacular gifts has nothing to do with ministering to the needs of the flock of Christ.  “Look at me – I can levitate!” is the opposite of “Look to Christ, he can lift you up out of the miry pit.” The quest for illegitimate religious experience is contrary to biblical faith and Reformed piety.

The good news is that I can say with a measure of confidence that the Free Church of Scotland has no levitating ministers or whirling Calvinistic dervishes. We prefer the quiet, powerful, expository preaching of the Word of God, which can truly minister to the saints in need. 

Next week – how to turn amalgam fillings into gold fillings; compatible with the Westminster Confession of Faith?