Prayer Is the Work

As a pastor you think many times about your own prayer life, and how it compares to your work life. If you are like me, you will find that your centre of gravity in these two matters is way off centre. Some words of Eric Alexander often come to me from a sermon he preached when I was a student in Glasgow in the 1980s, where he said, “Prayer is the work of the gospel.” Like many such snippets, I can’t remember the sermon out of which it came, but I remember the statement. So, many years later I was delighted find that he had put that statement into writing and expanded on it in his book, Prayer: A Biblical Perspective, which I heartily recommend. Here is the relevant passage, where he is referencing the ministry of the apostles in Acts 6:3,4:

… prayer is the basic form of Christian service. Of course we are not saying prayer is the only form of Christian service, but that it is the basic one. Look at the language they [the apostles] use: ‘We will reserve our best energies—our very bodily resources—for prayer’ [Acts 6:4]. It was not that they were avoiding the hardest work in the church. They were actually choosing it, because it is a consistent theme in Scripture that prayer is work. Paul cries out in Romans 15:30: ‘Strive together with me in your prayers to God for me’, and he uses the word which really means ‘to agonise’.

In the Christian church over the years, we have turned the truth upside down, and commonly speak of ‘praying for the work’ – the implication being that prayer is an additional ingredient to our Christian service. The truth is that prayer is the real work, and apart from it all other work is in vain. The reason for that is quite simple. It is that essentially this work in which we are engaged is God’s work, not man’s. There are endless lists of things that men and women can do: we can intellectually convince people, we can emotionally move them and we can materially improve them. But only God can spiritually resurrect them out of death into life in Christ; only God can convict their conscience and convince them of their need of a Saviour; only God can open the eyes of the spiritually blind and give them sight; and only God can transform their character and recreate them into the image of Christ. And, my dear friends who read this book, that is the essence of the work in which we are engaged. So Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 3:6, ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who makes things grow.’ Now if the conversion of sinners is God’s work, the simple question we must ask and answer is, ‘To whom do we apply to have this work done?’ The only answer logically as well as theologically is ‘to God’. That is why prayer is fundamental rather than supplemental in all our service. That is why the primary evangelistic method is prayer.

Eric J. Alexander, Prayer (Banner of Truth, 2012), pp.39,40. (Emphasis his.)

There is much to do, but prayer is the real work. Let’s get the centre of gravity in the right place.

Prayer Is the Work

Encountering JWs!

The most effective heretics are Bible-quoting heretics.

I had a visit from some JWs today. I’m afraid I can’t resist entering into discussion with them and ended up spending 45 minutes discussing the nature of God’s grace that raises dead people to life (Ephesians 2).

Over the years I have noticed two biggies about JWs. The first is that they do not read the Bible (or even their Bible) very closely. They often quote verses, and usually they verbally misquote texts, and almost always take them out of context anyway. My strategy is therefore to get my Bible out and do a little Bible study with them: what’s the book about? who wrote it? who is it written to? then read a few verses before and after to get the context, then almost word for word get them to tell me what the words mean. It is only then I can try to get them to see that they are misreading, or reading into, the text. I hope it is helpful, but I have to say that their hearts are often blinded by the JW teaching and they cannot see the plain meaning of the text and how their own hearts are operating.

The other biggie is that they talk a lot. There are a couple of reasons for this, I think. One is that if you say you are a Christian, they will immediately start talking about the ills of the church (of England?), how it is full of hypocrites who do not live according to the commands of God, and criticise various dodgy practices. Most of that I agree with but I usually let them blow off their steam and then say, “Yup, I agree with most of that.” The other reason for talking a lot, is usually a relief mechanism from the detailed study I am forcing them to engage in in the first biggie above. To relieve the pressure they will start ranging over lots of other verses, most of them irrelevant to the discussion in hand. My job is to doggedly bring them back to the text we were looking at. But they are a bit like birds trying to escape danger.

There are a couple of takeaways for Christians that come out of these experiences.

One is to love the text of scripture. It is God’s word and if we love God, we will love his word. That means paying attention to it, by reading it, thinking about it, talking to other Christians about it, listening to good preachers explaining and applying it. In other words, learn how gracious God is, how deep and rich the gospel message is and how it is all over the pages of scripture. Then you are equipped to show people in love the wonders of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

The other takeaway, is to resist the temptation in evangelism to fill the air with the noise of your voice. Some Christians can be as bad as JWs! Much better to spend a significant chunk of time understanding who you are talking to – who they are, why they think the way they do. Then you are in a much better position to start where they are and lead them to Jesus Christ. It is damaging, and maybe offensive, to assume you know how a person thinks. Winsomeness means listening as well as speaking (though there must be some speaking!)

“…in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,…” – 1 Peter 3:15

Encountering JWs!

Why We Pay Attention to Christmas

I want to briefly spell out why we at Solihull Presbyterian Church pay attention to Christmas, and have done every year since the church’s inception. There are three main reasons. 

Firstly, we give focussed attention to the doctrine of the incarnation. It is one of two doctrines I believe evangelical and reformed Christians understand poorly in our day. (The other is the Trinity.) It is a stupendous idea that the eternal Son of God, God the Son, should be united to human “flesh” (nature) in one person, “two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” (Definition of Chalcedon, A.D.451). It is a mystery which is hard for us to grasp, to be sure, but it is a doctrine for which the church has suffered because it is so important to the faith and to our salvation. So to give 4-8 sermons (out of over 150 teaching occasions in our church) each year, as we have, to such an important doctrine seems pretty important to me. 

Secondly, it helps Christians think about the right things when all around is madness. Yes, we live in a culture in the UK now which has turned the season into a commercial whirlwind, now habitually kicked off by “Black Friday” (why??) at the end of November. Add to that the constant advertising, the sentimentality of “love and family”, the weird liturgy of Christmas pop tunes wheeled out every year all conspiring to create a pseudo-atmosphere of “the Christmas spirit”, with a bit of Nativity sprinkled on top. Pastorally, as a church, what are we to do? Ignore it and plough on? That scenario makes me think of a school teacher who hasn’t noticed or doesn’t care that a bird has come in to the classroom through an open window and every student is distracted. Surely ploughing on is foolishness. Pastorally we need to address the matter in hand and teach our people about the incarnation, and do it well. Our ministry of the word must equip our people for living in the world they encounter day by day. 

Thirdly, it is an opportunity for evangelism. More than any other time of the year, this is a time when people are open to the idea of coming to church. That’s certainly our experience. Sure, they might come only because they like the idea of singing carols at this time of year. Christians do as well because they want to offer worship to God. Our neighbours may not have that desire and their motives fall far short of the desire for worship. But having arrived at a service, they are willing to listen to the gospel preached. They may not have heard it before; they may never hear it again. But the opportunity must not be missed. When our Master returns we do not want him to find that we have hidden what he has given us when it could have been used for him. 

There are some people who raise objections to Christians paying attention to Christmas, and I understand the disquiet some people feel. But I believe it to be unfounded. There are two objections I want to consider.

First, that “Christmas has its roots in a pagan festival.” It is true that the Romans celebrated Saturnalia from 17th to 23rd of December in the Julian calendar where offerings were made to Saturn and there was feasting, partying, gambling and all sorts of merrymaking. It is also true that the church started marking the nativity on the 25th of December some time in the 4th century, not because this was determined to be the date of Christ’s birth, but particularly because it helped Christians live an alternative lifestyle – in the world, not of it, concerned about God’s purposes in salvation, not in the world’s excesses. So it is false to say Christmas has its “roots” in a pagan festival. It has its roots in Scripture, and the desire to live a countercultural life in a pagan world. One could make the same argument today. 

The second objection is that “The Westminster Directory of Publick Worship rules it out.” To quote a line in the appendix to the DPW: “Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.” Seems like a killer blow to Christmas! I could duck this one and say that my denomination, the EPCEW, does not consider the DPW one of its subordinate standards, so I could ignore it. But that would be unfair. We should honour the divines of the past and listen carefully to what they say. However, we need to understand their context and think about our own. What were the Westminster divines against in this line? The excesses of the Roman Catholic Church. The church sanctioned many festival days through the year. These came to rival if not surpass the Lord’s Day in importance. They took people away from work for periods of time and encouraged Christians to indulge in excesses reminiscent of the pagan fastivals. The Westminster divines rightly stood against these things. And so do we. But in the Christmas period today, indulging in “festival days” is not the same as remembering the incarnation or even in having a worship service on Dec 25th (certainly not in SPC!). We are teaching and pastorally guiding believers, worshipping God with thankfulness for his gift and evangelising the lost. This Great Commission activity trumps any misapplication of a DPW prohibition.  

The doctrine of the incarnation is too good to miss! We should take the opportunity to meditate on its wonderful truth, take a stand against the world by marching to the tune of the gospel, and reach out to our neighbours with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Have a happy Christmas! 

Why We Pay Attention to Christmas

He Loved Us Even When He Hated Us

A couple of weeks ago in our mid-week Bible study we were wrestling with Jesus’ instruction in Mt 5:44 “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It needed to be said because of a misunderstanding and misapplication of Lev. 19:18 which includes the words, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself”. Reading the rest of that verse, and looking at it with squinty eyes, you can make it say, as the Pharisees and scribes did (wrongly), “love your neighbour and hate your enemies” (Mt 5:43).

Well and good: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Go to it!

But what about verses like Psalm 139:21,22:

21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies.

Was David just wrong? Did he need to be corrected? Is this simply down to the fact that this is an Old Testament verse and we are New Testament Christians (i.e. we can safely ignore David)?

The answer is none of these. Our problem with these verses is a problem with us – a very modern problem. We think of love and hate as opposites and mutually exclusive. That is, one cannot both love and hate someone at the same time.

Really? Think of this example: a mother who is at her wits end because her teenage son has become an out of control nightmare to the family, to his school, and commits crimes against society. She hates what he has become. She even believes he needs to bear the due consequences under the law of his crimes. She hates what he has become – she hates him as he is. Yet she loves him with an undying mother’s love and wishes something much better for him.

This expresses something of how a Christian is to love his/her enemies. We may hate our enemies in the sense that we hate their lives, what they have become, what priorities they set for themselves, what really drives them. Yet we love them, because we want something better for them – we want them to know fellowship with God, which can only come through Jesus Christ. Therefore, we do them good, we serve them, we seek to share our lives and the gospel with them, we pray for them and their salvation.

If you think this is an odd thing to say, consider this: God both loved and hated at the same time.  A quotation from Augustine:

God’s love is incomprehensible and unchangeable. For it was not after we were reconciled to him through the blood of his Son that he began to love us. Rather, he has loved us before the world was created, that we also might be his sons along with his only-begotten Son—before we became anything at all.

The fact that we were reconciled through Christ’s death must not be understood as if his Son reconciled us to him that he might now begin to love those whom he had hated. Rather, we have already been reconciled to him who loves us, with whom we were enemies on account of sin. The apostle will testify whether I am speaking the truth: ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ [Rom. 5:8]. Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness.

Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.

Augustine on John’s Gospel, quoted in Calvin’s Institutes II.xvi.4 (emphasis mine)

Love and hate are complicated things! We live in a cultural moment where love and hate are considered mutually exclusive: #lovewins, ‘love not hate’ etc. The concepts are truncated and superficial in our society. Society will not benefit from those. We must not imbibe such thinking. Instead Christians need to plumb the depths of rich biblical teaching and understand the mind of God. In that way Christian society (should I say, fellowship?) will be richer, and the world will benefit from our presence as we love it and tell of his grace in Christ.

He Loved Us Even When He Hated Us

The Riches of God’s Word

The insignificance of the amount of gold, silver, and clothing which that people took away with it from Egypt, in comparison with the wealth that it later attained in Jerusalem, as shown particularly in the reign of Solomon, is the measure of the insignificance of all knowledge, I mean useful knowledge, that is collected from pagan books, when compared with the knowledge contained in the divine scriptures. For what a person learns independently of scripture is condemned there if it is harmful, but found there if it is useful. And when one has found there all the useful knowledge that can be learnt anywhere else, one will also find there, in much greater abundance, things which are learnt nowhere else at all, but solely in the remarkable sublimity and the remarkable humility of the scriptures.

On Christian Teaching, Augustine, last para of Book 2.

Augustine recognised that there is a lot of good to gained from knowledge from the writings of the ‘pagans’. This is of course rooted in the doctrine of God’s creation and his common grace. So Christians should learn what they can. Of course there is a lot of nonsense out there and stuff that is downright evil, but with discernment there is much to be gained.

However, Christians need to have the right perspective, and seeing clearly is one of our problems. If we see the Scripture as another ‘subject’, a kind of add-on to all that other knowledge, then we have the wrong perspective. We have not got the right prescription for our knowledge glasses.

Augustine helps us get the right perspective by using an analogy drawn from the biblical story. He notes that when the Israelites finally left Egypt, they were able to take with them much gold, silver and fine cloth that belonged to the Egyptians – things of this world but which furnished them with the materials necessary for making the Tabernacle. But it was nothing compared to the splendour of the kingdom under Solomon, by the grace of God.

It is just an analogy, but it helps us vividly see that whatever we gain from the world’s knowledge, it is small compared to the benefit to be obtained from knowing and plumbing the depths of God’s word. For many of us, that is hard to see. We don’t have this perspective. That’s why we need writers like Augustine, godly friends and faithful preachers, who can help us get the perspective we need so that we can see more and more clearly the riches found in scripture.

The Riches of God’s Word

Call to Me

Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.
— Jeremiah 33:3

I have very much enjoyed reading Andrew Bonar’s Diary and Life over the last few weeks. Some friends gave it to me when I was about 20 years old and I remember devouring it then (well, as best as a slow-reading scientist could). It had a big effect on me – one of those books that shapes you. I even remember starting a diary, just like Bonar. Maybe even the style was like Bonar. What fools we can be when we are young!

But I was clearly too young to appreciate many things he wrote about. It is hard for a 20 year old, who hasn’t experienced very much of anything, to appreciate the trials of various phases of life, the longings of the heart, the frustrations with one’s own limitations, the jolting tragedies of lost loved ones. So my reading of the book again, some 35 years later, with over 30 years of marriage under my belt, and a few years of ministry, it was like reading a new book.

It struck me with great power, Bonar’s sense of loss at the death of his wife in his mid-50s. It seemed he did not share his suffering with many people. He wrote about Isabella with great tenderness in the diary. In the first few years afterwards he constantly reflected on her departing. Everything else seemed to recede into the background.

However what emerged in his later years, it seems to me, is a more real, deeper trust in the Lord. His longing for heaven and for Christ grew stronger. He sought to devote more time to prayer and meditation. It was a tough discipline in the face of many distractions as a city minister, but he constantly wrote about it.

One of the verses that Bonar came back to again and again in latter years was the one quoted above from Jeremiah. It comes after the tough disciplines of Jeremiah 32 (Jeremiah has been imprisoned), but after the promise of future blessings and the everlasting covenant promise “they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (Jer 32:38).

It seems to me it is a command for the New Covenant time, as well as for Jeremiah. Bonar thought so. In light of his great creative power, “call to me”  is a is a command yet a warm invitation from the LORD to pray. Such an invitation is all over the Bible, yet it seems to be one of the most difficult ones for Christians to heed. We rest on our own native abilities to fix things in life and in the church, even when they don’t seem to get fixed (“but surely I can make things better this time!”). Yet all the time God says, “call to me”.

The promise is wonderful: “I will answer you”. Yes, we know it is according to his will, in his own time, etc etc. But he will answer. Is that not what we want to know? That God will speak to us and has spoken to us? Yes, his means is through the written word. But there is reading the Bible and there is reading the Bible. There is hearing the word preached and there is hearing the word preached. One is words on the page or words in the air. The other is God by his Spirit showing us Christ and laying out before us his plans and purposes.

“I will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.” Whatever we think we have known of the the Lord, there is more to be found, the hidden things. We mustn’t be satisfied with a superficial reading or merely attending church. Rather, we need to be on our knees, heeding the warm invitation to “call to me” eagerly desiring everything the Lord has for us.

Call to Me

Sluggard

The author of Hebrews 5:11-14 warns his readers and hearers about them being “dull of hearing”. Not that their physical auditory apparatus is not working, but spiritually speaking they are hearing but not understanding (cf. Mark 4:12). In my experience it is a problem one sees in the preaching ministry, that those listening do not seem to pick up the thrust of what is being preached. There may be a problem with the preacher, and that is a concern I always have, but there is this other problem of the “dullness” of the hearer.

The greek word for “dull” is also translated in the ESV as “sluggish” in Hebrews 6:12 (or lazy in the NIV, slothful in the AV).  This rendering fills out the meaning of this problem of dullness of hearing. It got me thinking about the “sluggard” verses of Proverbs. Examination of those shows some of the problems that arise, especially as it applies to the problem of hearing and applying God’s word amongst professing church members.

Sluggards are dreamers who don’t do anything

Proverbs 13:4 – The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.

I have met some people like this in my time. They are full of great ideas and big dreams, whether for serving the Lord in their family or church or career. But they never seem to  get round to doing anything about it.  They can’t keep focus long enough to be disciplined and diligent.

Sluggards always face problems of their own making

Proverbs 15:9 – The way of a sluggard is like a hedge of thorns, but the path of the upright is a level highway.

Some people seem to face a continual sequence of difficulties which could be avoided if they weren’t so lazy. For a sluggard so many matters in life become problems and can always fill you in on a personal tale of woe.

Sluggards are filled with fears and worries.

Proverbs 22:13 – The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!”

Sluggards are inside, safe and secure in their inactivity. Such people fear that the worst could happen to them if they stepped outside. So they don’t take the risk.

Sluggards don’t see things through to the end.

26:15 – The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth.

I remember as a young Christian laughing at this the first time I read it. It is such a pathetic image of weariness in doing ordinary things. But some people are like this with the Christian life. The means of grace to believers are ordinary. But sluggards can’t be bothered fully participating.

Sluggards wonder what’s wrong with everyone else.

26:16 – The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly.

The lazy people cannot see just how dull of hearing and sluggish they are but instead think they are incredibly wise and clever. The effect of dullness is to cocoon such people in little self-made world of self-wisdom where “I” becomes everything.  They have an answer for every weakness, every failure, every stupid act, every lazy non-act. To the sluggard it all seems so reasonable. The trouble is that all everyone else can see is foolishness.

 

Sluggard