Wednesday, 29 March 2017

What Should Presbyteries Do? (2)
Andrew Edgar in “"Old church life in Scotland : lectures on kirk-session and presbytery records" (1885) tells us about the spiritual conferences of the early presbyteries:
“The Exercise was a meeting of ministers and readers for the purpose of mutual instruction in Scripture and religion. There were two speakers previously appointed to expound and argue — the first "to exercise or prophesy" and the second "to add" — and in 1576 there were severe punishments ordained by the Assembly to be inflicted on all such as failed to fulfil these appointments. " It either of the two fail, for the first fault, they shall confess their offence upon their knees in presence of the brethren of the Exercise ; for the second, they shall make the like submission before the Synodal Assembly ; for the third, they shall be summoned before the General Assembly and receive discipline for their offence ; and for the fourth they shall be deprived of their offices and functions in the ministry."
After Presbyteries were erected, the Exercise continued to be regarded as something distinct from the Presbytery. In the General Assembly of 1582 there were several "articles" recorded as answers to certain doubts concerning Presbyteries, and from these we learn that ruling elders had seats in the Presbytery, but there is nothing said about their duty to attend the Exercise. Ministers, on the other hand, are declared to be subject to penalties if they do not resort to the Exercise and Presbytery. It was also thought meet that the day appointed for the Exercise be "in like manner the day of ecclesiastical processes," but if the brethren think it necessary they may appoint days and places for processes "by" or besides the day of the Exercise.
In 1610, the King and the Bishops, with the view of making the abolition of Presbyterial jurisdiction in the Church more easy, endeavoured to bring about the disuse of the word Presbytery, and for that unpleasant word the substitution of the phrase, " Brethren of the Exercise."
When Presbyterial government was restored in the Church in 1638 and 1639, Exercises and Presbyteries were held together on the same day and in the same place.
In the oldest extant records of the Presbytery of Ayr — those from 1642 to 1650 — we find that when there was to be an Exercise as well as a Presbytery held, it was commonly minuted, " The Exercise was established in the person of A. B., the first speaker, and of C. D., the second," or " C. D. to add."
While the Exercise was said to be established in the persons of only two speakers, there was an Act of Assembly, passed in 1598, that from its intrinsic reasonableness might be said to be of perpetual standing, which ordained "that every member of the Presbytery study the text whereupon the exercise is to be made." Another clause in the same Act ordained that "ane common head of religion be intreatit every moneth in ilk [each] Presbyterie, both by way of discourse and disputation," or by way of exercise and addition.

Additional Doxologies

I find that creative inspiration comes at strange times.  Our Presbytery last night began with the singing of psalm 23 from Sing Psalms, to the lovely traditional melody,Tarwathie.

For those who like myself would like to see a return to the traditional Scottish Reformed practice of concluding the psalms with a Trinitarian doxology – I like to do so with our opening psalm in public worship – there are not many doxologies in this metre.

Possible doxologies:

All glory to God, Father, Son, Spirit, three
In glorious unity, blessed Trinity,
As was, and is now, and for ever shall be.

Alternatively, adapting a doxology by R. Frederick Crider:

Lift praise to the Father, give thanks to the Son,
And sing to the Spirit in whom we are one,
In whom we are blessed for redemption is won.

What Should Presbyteries Do?

What Should Presbyteries Do?

Today presbyteries conduct business rather than engage in devotional conferences.  Their meetings are formal, governed by parliamentary rules or Robert’s Rules of Order.  Reports, motions, counter-motions, amendments, amendments to amendments are the normal diet at a Presbytery meeting. The business requires the method adopted; decisions are by majority votes rather than consensus.  Prayer is built into the opening devotional exercises or in response to particular reports highlighting specific needs.

However, there is another pattern possible.  This involves not the abandonment of formal business but supplementing it with shared prayer, pastoral care and concern, biblical study and education.  This is a radical idea, but not a novel idea. From the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 1639:

Anent the keeping of Presbyteriall meetings, it is thought fit that they be weekly, both in sommer and winter, except in places farre distant, who, during the winter season, (that is, between the first of October and the first of April,) shall be dispensed with for meeting once in the fourteen dayes, and that all absents be censured, especially those who should exercise and adde, according to the act of Assembly 1582, at St. Andrews, April 24, Sess. 12, and that some controverted head of doctrine bee handled in the Presbyterie publickly, and disputed among the brethren every first Presbyterie of the moneth, according to the act of Assembly holden at Dundie, 1598, Sess. 12.

Smaller presbyteries with fewer churches, more frequent meeting, more biblical exploration, more pastoral support – truly radical !

Thursday, 23 March 2017



Aids to introduce the psalms sung in worship.

John Brown of Haddington, 18th century Scottish theologian.

Behold here, (1.) David, tempted by his timorous friends to escape to some mountain, and hide himself from the fury of Saul, or of Absalom, as if that were his only safe course now when his enemies were exerting themselves to the uttermost, and all things were in disorder and confusion, ver. 1-3. (2.) David baffling the temptation by a resolute profession of his trust in God, as the observer of all men; as the holy and righteous punisher of the wicked, and friend of the godly, ver. 4-7.

Let no temptation decoy me from my duty. Let no danger deter me from it. While Jehovah, my reconciled God and Father, manageth and judgeth the world, my safest course is to commit myself to him in well-doing. Let the just vengeance of God upon sinners deter my heart from sinning, and his kindness to his people encourage me to holiness in all manner of conversation.

John Cumming, 19th century Scottish Presbyterian.

The Psalmist, under the pressure of outward distress and inward trial, overcomes his invitations and tendency to seek refuge in any thing below, and resolves to trust entirely on his God.

David reasons with his own heart, in verse 3, and sets forth the worst possible state of things in which the people of God may be placed ; and yet he finds consolation and confidence in the great truth, that the righteous are not only, at all times and under all circumstances, seen, but favoured and protected of God, and destined to triumph in the end. He remembers the destiny of Sodom and Gomorrah, once wealthy and flourishing, but now burned up and destroyed ; and then the destiny of Lot, for a season in trouble, but now in heaven. 

Trust in God is the surest refuge in trouble.

William King Tweedie, 19th century Free Church of Scotland. See:,William King

In times of calamity to the Church and people of God, this psalm may be sung to encourage the soul in seeking and expecting deliverance from God.

Ver. 1–5 The believer’s safety amid assaults - the Lord is his defence.  Ver. 6-7 The portion of the wicked – divine favour for the upright.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

J P Lilley on the Lord’s Supper

J P Lilley on the Lord’s Supper

Usually after I have preached on a theme or topic, or even on a particular passage, I follow up after the sermon by reading some new material that has not been part of my preparation.  Too often when we read in preparation we are mining for ideas, quotes and illustrations to use in our sermons and we actually fail to benefit fully from what we are reading. 

It is also good to read widely on theological issues and that does not necessarily mean only reading the latest and most cutting edge writings. Too many pastors think that they know a topic when they have merely read a recently published, watered down and popular book or a couple of books on that issue. Far better to return to an issue frequently, to return to the seminal and classical works on that topic and to see this as part of a life-long process of learning and maturing our understanding. This is not the same as “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” (2 Tim 3:7) It means building on a commitment to truth and in my case building on a confessional commitment to Reformed orthodoxy.

So after preaching last Lord’s Day at communion on Matthew 26:27-28 I refreshed myself by turning to a work by an author that I had never previously read. 

James Philip Lilley (1845-1931) was pastor at the (United) Free Church of Scotland, Knox Church, Arbroath, 1874-1918. A ministry that length was not without its trials and early in his ministry (1880) there was an acrimonious divorce from his wife.  Lilley was exonerated by his presbytery and continued to faithfully serve the congregation for a total of 44 years, producing a number of excellent evangelical theological works and translations. These publications included: The Gospel of God; The Lord’s Supper; The Lord’s Day and the Lord’s Servants; The Principles of Protestantism;Your Comforter: Chapters for the Young on the Work of the Holy Spirit;The Pathway of Light; The Pastoral Epistles; and various translations from the Dutch of several of Andrew Murray’s Works.

I turned to “The Lord's Supper; a Biblical Exposition of its Origin, Nature, and Use” (1891). What a rich source of inspirational teaching from a book that I personally have never seen mentioned or recommended.  A forgotten gem! Of course Dr Lilley uses the rather florid language if the 19th century, but the core content is excellent, thought provoking and challenging. Setting forward a Calvinistic and richly experiential perspective on the Lord’s Supper, it well repays the reading.

What is interesting is that although I did not read it as preparation for preaching, it nevertheless made me want to preach its contents and share its insights.

The book is available free for download:

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Lord’s Supper: Re-enactment or Representation?

Lord’s Supper: Re-enactment or Representation?

What we do when we come to the Lord’s Supper is not a re-enactment of the Last Supper. A re-enactment is an acting out of a past event.  Police stage a re-enactment of a crime, with someone of the same race and gender, height and hair colour, following the exact route of a victim in the hope that this will stimulate memories and bring forward possible witnesses.  Those who stage battle re-enactments dress up in the period costumes of the armies and use replica weapons of that age to refight a particular battle.

But we do not need to re-enact the Lord’s Supper.  We do not need to replicate the time, (evening), the place, (an upper room), the cup, (with or without handles, wooden, clay or metal?), the seating, (reclining at a low table), the kind of wine, ( what was its ABV, from what kind of grape was it made?)

We do not re-enact the Last Supper but we seek to represent the Last Supper, and the N.T. practice of the Lord’s Supper, in biblical simplicity.  We strip back the non-essentials to focus on what is vital, the bread and wine given to God’s people as a means of grace.

This emphasis on biblical simplicity means that a Roman Catholic High Mass fails in its representation of what Jesus instituted, adding as it does its vestments, its bells, its incense,  and its semi-magical incantations.

But we should also ask whether the traditional Scottish communion season equally fails to represent the Lord’s Supper in biblical simplicity, with its infrequency, its protracted five days of services, its fast day, its visiting minister presiding at the table, its numerous visitors who in the past could number hundreds and swamp the local fellowship, its “tickets” or communion tokens allowing a believer to participate, and its thanksgiving service following the day of communion. Even in its present somewhat abbreviated form this does not present the Lord’s Supper in biblical simplicity.

Both the High Mass and the Presbyterian communion season depart from biblical simplicity, but they are wrong in different ways. 

The High Mass is essentially wrong; the various additions are unbiblical and can never be justified in any circumstances.  It is wrong in essence as it turns a memorial into a sacrifice.

The Presbyterian communion season is circumstantially wrong; the various aspects of the communion season are not wrong in themselves, but they are unnecessary and perhaps detrimental to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. 

It is not wrong to have a day of fasting and spiritual introspection, but it is not necessary to do so before communion.  It is not wrong to have visiting preachers and if they preach to have them preside at the Lord’s Supper, but it is not either necessary or beneficial to replace the regular pastor with visiting ministers at the Supper.  It is not wrong to bring vast numbers together from various churches to hear the Word, (Christian conferences), but it detracts from the celebration of unity in Christ of the local fellowship. It is never wrong to have a service of thanksgiving, but it is not a necessary conclusion to the Lord’s Supper to do so on the day following.

This is not to deny that these communion seasons could be accompanied with blessing, after all despite the additions, the Word and Sacrament, both means of grace, were set forth.  It is however to raise the question of whether our traditional additions were an unfortunate example of us being wiser than God and thinking that we somehow needed to supplement the simple celebration of the Lord’s Supper for “real” blessing to occur.

The Scottish communion season is now passing.  Fewer churches see the need or the benefit of these biannual or quarterly celebrations.  There is a movement for more frequent and simpler celebrations of the Lord’s Supper.  Who knows, we eventually may return to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as a weekly aspect of our normal service, following the pattern that Calvin wished to see in the churches of Geneva: whenever the Word is preached, the Lord’s Supper is celebrated.  In this way the centrality of the cross, Christ’s work of atonement received by faith alone, our union with Christ and with his people, and the anticipation of his coming again will be constantly kept before the people of God.