As happens every so often, I have decided to move this blog to a new home. Where? … to Substack. Why? Well, for one thing everyone seems to be doing it. For another, it’s cheaper! That is, it is free for me.
And it’ll be free for you too if you want to continue to follow me.
If you have been following this blog for the last few years, you will have realised that I post very infrequently. My recent rate has been about once a year. So if that is too much for you, don’t sign up! 🙂 I’d like to think that my rate of writing on the substack will improve – rather like one’s enthusiasm for decorating a new house occupies the owner for a time. Maybe the same will happen here with my DIY – eventually the zeal dies away. Maybe not. It depends…
What will I write about? Mostly this and that about things that occur to me in the life of a minister of the gospel. Some Bible thoughts, ministry thoughts, news updates. A lot of it will be for a my own sanity and to organise some thoughts. If you are interested in that, then do sign up.
Willie Still points out how the task of a minister can be simply stated: he is a “feeder of souls by means of the Word of God”. However to be this, it involves the totality of the minister’s life. As I said, simply stated, yet profound in its implications. He goes on:
[We] must learn to live with our indwelling Saviour comfortably, happily and consistently, even if painfully. For if Christ, as far as we are concerned is only a cloak, or a robe which we put on when on duty but is not a life that we live with him in all the ordinariness of our daily lives (and ordinariness, let us not doubt, is something which Jesus loves very much) then something is far wrong. People will immediately see that and sense that the cloak does not quite fit and is sometimes discarded. In our public reading of the Word, for example, at best they will separate us from Christ and choose him: at worst, they may reject him as not having the ability to conquer and possess the preacher. They will assume that Christ is not worth having because he is not able to do a satisfactory work in or for the preacher. They will therefore turn away from the Lord, regarding him as but an empty name. – Dying to Live, William Still (CFP, 1991), p.134.
Hello! It has been over a year since I last wrote something. Ouch. It is an expression of the sense of busy-ness of life as a minister over 2022 that I see rarely feel I have the time or the inclination to writing anything. However, it is the end of the year and it seems necessary to post something!
One of the books I enjoyed reading in 2022 was Archibald A. Hodge’s “The Life of Charles Hodge” (Banner of Truth, 2010). Charles, as you may know, was Archibald’s father. For many years I used to get them mixed up in my mind. Undoubtedly A.A.’s account is affected by the love of a son for his father, though it was by no means a shiny hagiography. I was particularly taken by B. B. Warfield’s blunt assessment of Hodge’s exegetical skills, included near the end:
“…in questions of textual criticism he constantly went astray. Hence it was that often texts were quoted to support doctrines of which they did not treat; and a meaning was sometimes extracted from a passage which it was far from bearing. But this affected details only…” (p. 625)
I would have thought that the details were somewhat important. Nevertheless, the book was a joy to read and conveyed a sense of the goodness of Charles’s life and that of those early men who established Princeton Seminary in the first half of the 19th century.
I was particularly taken by a passage from Hodge’s sermon at the re-opening of the renovated chapel in 1874. There he reviewed some of the history of the seminary which was by then in its sixth decade. Speaking of Archibald Alexander and Samuel Miller, the founders, he said:
“They were in the first place eminently holy men. They exerted that indescribable but powerful influence which always emanates from those who live near to God. Their piety was uniform and serene; without taint of enthusiasm or fanaticism. It was also Biblical. Christ was as prominent in their religious experience, in their preaching, and in their writings, as he is in the Bible. Christ’s person, his glory, his righteousness, his love, his presence, his whole sphere of their religious life.
“… It is, in large measure, to this constant holding up of Christ, in the glory of his person and the all-sufficiency of his work, that the hallowed influence of the fathers of this Seminary is to be attributed.
“It often happens, however, that men are very pious without being very good. Their religion expends itself in devotional feelings and services, while the evil passions of their nature remain unsubdued. It was not so with our fathers. They were as good as they were pious. …” (pp586-587)
It is worth pondering that last paragraph which I personally found goes deep in its soul-searching, especially for a minister of the gospel. To be pious is one thing. Piety can do a lot that others see – preaching, evangelising, visiting, counselling, serving. It can be impressive. True goodness is another thing altogether. As Hodge points out, goodness comes when the evil passions are subdued. That can only come with closeness to Christ. Just read the quote again – it’s worth it.
One of the reasons it struck me at the time was that Hodge’s observation seemed so appropriate for our denomination, the EPCEW, at the moment. It is no secret that we have been facing a disciplinary case amongst our number. It has still to run its course, so I won’t comment further on the details. However, it struck me how easy it is for ministers and elders in churches and groups of churches to become so impressed with performance in the ministry. We can easily equate “success” with godliness – “God must be with him!”, we say. (In case of any doubt, I am not against “success”! May God bless!) However, the results, the giftedness, the progress all of that can cause us to take our eyes off what Hodge calls the “goodness” of the men who have high responsibilities before God.
I am not sure what the answer is to that. I guess it begins with the men presently in presbytery – developing a habit of self examination before Christ, developing better opportunities for fellowship within the local church leadership and across the denomination. Better focus on assessing the character of the men coming into the ministry. Regular review of ministers’ and elders’ spiritual health and progress. It is easy to make a list!
However, as we approach the end of the year and prepare for the new, may we all resolve to walk closer to Christ, not just so that we can be pious before others, but that step by step we grow in true goodness.
This is a question I get asked from time to time by visitors to our church or friends I have in other churches. It arises because it seems to me that such Christians are trying to read the times and are seeing things getting worse by the day in our western society. Christians are increasingly being pushed to the margins of national life with the effect that what the Bible calls good the world around us is calls evil and vice versa.
My answer to that question is usually a pretty simple one: yes. The questioner is confirmed in his or her own opinion! But then I say that the first century Christians thought so too, which causes a raised eyebrow or two. Unfortunately, that does not confirm the questioner’s opinion! Aren’t these days are worse than they have ever been – surely these present days are the “last days”?
A couple of observations about this kind of conversation. Firstly, people with a premillennial eschatology (both the dispensational and historic varieties) tend to be somewhat pessimistic about what is coming because the kingdom will be preceded by a relatively short time of intense tribulation. The natural inclination then is to interpret current “bad things” as signs that the tribulation is making an appearance and so these must be the “last days”. I am a little worried there is some “confirmation bias” going on where if you expect or want something to happen, you only consider evidence that confirms it and you discount the rest.
Secondly, people can be quite ignorant of the church’s historic experience in the midst of the all the many convulsions there have been in the world. For example, there are some present-day Christian writers and thinkers who advocate looking back to the first three centuries of the early church to get some pointers how we should be living in our post-Christian society today. Then, the church was a minority in a Roman pagan society that was going in the opposite direction morally, much like today. Knowing history might help get a better perspective on our current situation.
However, back to my answer to the “last days” question: are there biblical reasons for my answer? Let me try to show from three places. Firstly, there is Peter preaching on the day of Pentecost. In order to explain that he and the other apostles are not drunk but have in fact received the promised Holy Spirit he quotes from Joel, “in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh”. So on that day of Pentecost the prophecy was being fulfilled and so was one of the last days. That does not mean that there would not be another “last day” in the future. The apostles expected a future time when God would “send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus,whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” (Acts 3:21)
A second place to look is in Hebrews. The writer makes a striking start to the book by speaking about God’s revelation: “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:2). The last days of this final revelation are to be distinguished from the revelations of “long ago” (Hebrews 1:1). The difference between the two is that Jesus has come. His first coming marks the beginning of the “last days”. The first coming of Jesus is described as the “end of the ages” (Hebrews 9:26). In other words, the death and resurrection of Jesus marked a change in epoch – ages past had come to an end, a new age had started. But there is still a future event, where Jesus will “appear a second time” (Hebrews 9:28) to bring to complete salvation those who are eagerly waiting for him. The “last days” is one way of speaking about this new age and, it seems, are those days between Jesus’ first and his second coming.
Thirdly, Peter has something to say as well. He writes about the earlier appearing of Christ as the fulfilment of what was foreknown before the foundation of the world and he describes that coming as happening in “the last times“. (1 Peter 1:20). Not only that but a few verses earlier he looks to a future hope which all Christians possess. Christians are those “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:5). That “last time” is the last of the “last times” which began with Jesus’ first coming!
So, the picture that emerges from these verses is that Jesus Christ began a new age with his first coming, but it is not yet complete. That awaits his coming a second time when he will consummate all things. Meanwhile as Christians we live in the new age, but there is a sense in which we do not have all that we are promised. We have it, but in a sense we don’t have it yet. It is promised but has not yet come to us in its fulness. It is this already/not yet age that the Bible calls at times, “the last days” which was known both by the early church and by the church today.
I’m recovering from some surgery last week and I have been given some time off from ministry to recover. It leaves me at a loose end, I have to admit. So here comes a blog post!
As I sometimes do when I have the time, I try to catch up on all the unread blog and news articles I wanted to read but didn’t on the Pocket app. It’s an eclectic bunch of good and bad. Some of it I clearly never got round to for a long time. I found one article from 2013 in there.
Today I read a blog post from Rod Dreher (author of Live Not By Lies). Dreher is pretty prolific, so you have to be committed to keep up. (I am not – a dipper inner and outer.) The blog post was about the decline of a diocese of the Roman Catholic Church somewhere in the US. As one who professes faith (Dreher is Eastern Orthodox and former Roman Catholic) he has an interest in the spiritual state of the West and comments on the church’s decline. He is concerned that the church (generally speaking, including evangelicals) is not ready for the trouble that is coming (hence his book Live Not By Lies).
One of his concerns is that professing Christians are not willing to suffer today. But it is worse than not being willing to suffer. It is not being willing to be inconvenienced. The church today is threaded through with moralistic therapeutic deism. Or a do good, feel good, acknowledge-a-god-up-there-somewhere faith (my interpretation). It comes with a “serve me” attitude, rather like one has going to McDonald’s. But Dreher makes this point:
If you show up at church with that attitude, you will be immune to grace.
Now, Dreher undoubtedly has a different theological framework in which he thinks about God’s grace. I believe God acts graciously sovereignly. In other words, when God determines to be gracious nothing will stop him – it does not depend on the person on the receiving end meeting some standard before getting it. Even bad attitudes can be overcome by divine grace. Praise God that that is true! Otherwise no one could be saved.
However, Dreher’s quote does poke a finger into the ribs a little and I think it applies to us in the Reformed/Presbyterian world. Is there a deep-seated attitude problem amongst us? One that does not want to be inconvenienced by the disciplines of the Christian life, disciplines that have been learned through the fires of adversity or even slight inconvenience?
Because of my situation, we had a visiting preacher last Sunday, a Reformed Baptist brother, no less! As one does, we were chatting about the state of things in the church. While there is much to be encouraged by in our church, one obvious feature of it, like many of similar convictions, is that usually less than half of the morning congregation returns for the evening service. Even when you strip out legitimate concerns – illness, emergencies, some with little children find it difficult, works of mercy and necessity etc – it is still baffling that there is little hunger to return later in the day. It points, it seems to me, to a deep-seated attitude problem, where feelings rule and inconvenience dominates over conviction.
A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking to a Presbyterian pastor from Colorado visiting the UK for a few days. We got to talking about discipleship in the church. His church has 500 members, ~10x ours. It was seeking to develop a discipleship culture. They had spent the last few years hacking away at activities in the church that did not contribute to it. I asked him what that looked like. His answer was simple – commitment to three things: worship, praying together, serving. It was beautiful in its simplicity.
Commit to worshipping together. Turn up with hearts ready.
Commit to praying together. Yes, together.
Commit to serving. Put yourself on rotas. Look for unspoken needs. Do something. Contribute don’t just consume.
The church proclaims a gospel of grace that produces serious people, serious about living a disciplined, committed life. It calls us to a life of inconvenience. Some Christians might think, “Are you serious?” but I would bounce the question back at you and say, “Are you serious?”
As a young lad growing up in the west of Scotland, I became familiar with the local parish church. The minister would be a regular visitor to my primary school and at the end of every academic year, the school would walk in procession to the local parish church for an end of year thanksgiving service. So because the parish church was a “fixture” of life, while I didn’t much like church, it was safe. I’m not sure I knew about any other kind of church, except the ones my mother was suspicious and critical of, for which she would substitute the word “cult”.
When I was converted as a teenager and student in Glasgow, I came to understand that the Christian church was much bigger – full of Baptists, and Brethren and Pentecostals. They had a high regard for the Bible which I had come to love. They were not parish churches – just churches. Sadly I had come to see a parish church as synonymous with a not-Bible-believing church – liberal, moralistic, dull, ageing. “Parish” was a bad word.
Being a church-of-Scotland-y type, I was delighted to find that there was a Bible believing parish church in the city centre of Glasgow, and most of my Christian friends went there. So I did too. As a city centre church, it was almost entirely a gathered church, with people coming from all over the city morning and evening. It was nominally a parish church, but that was largely irrelevant as the parish at the time had less than 50 residents and consisted of shops and businesses. The church membership was nudging 1000 people, of which only a handful at most lived in the parish.
I was a member for nine years and it was a great time for me to be there and to grow under some of the best preaching in the English-speaking world. It was riveting and life-transforming. And it shaped my thinking about what a good church looked like.
And it was good. I feel richly privileged to have been part of it, and for it to have been part of my experience. I am ever grateful to God for those formative years.
There is a downside, however, which I have come to realise still influences me now. It is that the notion of a good, God-blessed church should essentially be a preaching station to which people gather to hear the word. I understand that there is a place for such ministries, such as in town and city centres. But I wonder now whether that city centre, preaching station model has been a help or a hindrance to me as I have sought to lead a church in a suburban setting.
I wonder if I am one of many people who have gone through and will go through theological and ministry training with this model in mind, that somehow it is the goal to develop such a ministry. We are all aware of the great preachers – C H Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, James Mongomery Boice and many current living men with large churches and extensive internet presence. We would love to see and be part of great ministries like these! So that becomes the focus and method of our ministry – set up a preaching station and hope that people will hear about it and come from far and wide and be blessed!
I think that is how we started at Solihull and it is certainly how I have tended to continue. I remember in the early (desperate) days trying to gather a core group and through a generous donor we were able to blanket advertise our existence across the West Midlands conurbation. The strategy as I remember it was, “surely there are some reformed people amongst that 2.6 million population who would jump at the chance of attending a reformed, presbyterian church!” Well, one couple came – once.
That is pretty much how it has been ever since. The Lord has been good. He has added to our numbers and we have grown slowly but surely. However, the phenomenon that has emerged is that we are a scattered church. We have some who travel an hour to get to us, many more who travel at least half an hour. And some locals. They are wonderful people, I miss them when I am not at preaching at home or on holiday, I would not exchange any of them – the Lord is good, and is doing his work.
But I am acutely aware of the need on our doorstep. There are 200,000 people in the borough of Solihull. There are few churches. There are many fewer Bible-believing, gospel-preaching churches. The population needs to be evangelised. How can that be done? The gathered-church model simply is not reaching those masses – that is our experience here in Solihull.
That is why more recently I have begun to think some more about the word “parish”. I wonder if we/I have lost something by associating it with liberal, moralistic, dull, ageing churches. You see, the notion of a parish was that it was a defined geographical area, with a population of a manageable size, that would be the focus of a local church’s mission. The fact that many if not most “parish” churches have lost sight of their mission and become distracted does not mean that the notion of a parish is wrong. I wonder if the evangelical, non-conformist church in the UK has missed a trick and as a result is significantly less effective in its mission to the urban and suburban areas.
I have been reading some of the Thomas Chalmers work of the 19th century. I know – how can he be relevant to the 21st century? Well, wait and see. In my next post I plan to describe what Chalmers did and then I want to consider why it might be extremely relevant to the present time.
Last Sunday was a major step for our church as we met for the first time in-person as a congregation in the open air. We currently have a difficulty in that during lockdown we lost our regular meeting place and so that we have had to improvise for the time being. There were some hoops to jump through and practical arrangements to be made, but in the end it worked well and I was thankful to God for the joy of seeing our people once again. It was a taste of heaven.
We had to seek the approval of the local council who have been very helpful in the process. They wanted a risk assessment, which is usual for such ‘events’, but examined all the more closely in light of the covid-19 crisis. The only point to be resolved in our minds is the issue of numbers. As we read it the UK Government advice is that open air gatherings of more than 30 are permissible when organised by a charitable institution, which our church is. However, the council asked us to keep it to 30. We complied this time, but it is not clear yet why there should be a local restriction. It’s an ongoing discussion.
Practically we had to do the following:
keep a pre-booking register of those who wanted to come. This was done with a spreadsheet.
on site we marked off an area 15 squares (5 wide, 3 deep), each 3m square, with cones. Individuals, families or ‘bubbles’ could sit there.
people brought their own seating, waterproofs, Bibles.
set up a greetings table with sanitiser bottles, and a notice of the web address for an online order of service worked up on Dropbox Paper for people to access on their phones.
we recommended people bring masks, but there was no requirement as we were keeping 2m apart. Some people put them on after the service during the brief post-service chit chat.
Equipment brought by various people in the congregation:
gazebo. This was not much practical use, though it gave a point of focus for the gathering. (Actually it was a bit of a liability on a breezy day!)
folding table and lectern.
amplification (head mic + amp + speaker). I think I could have got away without but it would be been much more a strain.
audio recording to my phone with a lapel mic.
video recording camera.
my notes, notebook, Bible (as you might expect)
All in all a fairly low level of organisation required for the event.
There is nothing like public worship. Even in the midst of trials (while taking into account the public health concerns) Christians are to keep meeting together (Hebrews 10:24,25). Our assembling is a manifestation of that great truth that “we have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God” (Hebrews 12:22). We are thankful too that there were some passers-by who stopped.
Please pray for us as we continue meeting this way through to the end of August.
Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly! – Psalm 149:1
For those who are interested, here is the sermon I preached. Try not to get distracted by the footballers:
I have known about the Crieff Fellowship for decades but I only found out recently that there was a website with many of the past addresses. For those of you in ministry, and to whet your appetite, listen to Eric Alexander in 1980 on “God’s Fellow Workers” from 1 Corinthians 3. Find it at the bottom of this page.
For those who hanker after the supposedly greener grass of some other field of ministry, here’s a quote in Alexander’s introduction:
“There is no ideal spot in which to serve God or to minister the word except for the one where he has set you down. That’s the ideal place in the world for you to minister.”
Go forage. There are many other treasures to be dug up.
Last Sunday at Solihull Presbyterian Church we were looking at Matthew 10:1-15. In this passage Matthew lists the names of the apostles and then describes how he sent out them with his authority to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven, heal afflictions and cast out demons. It is the first time the apostles step into this role and marks the expansion of the mission beyond Jesus himself. Later, Jesus commissions them to go to the nations and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Ultimately the task is passed on to the church – Peter says in 1 Peter 2:19:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.“
The highlighted “you” is plural. It doesn’t merely signify a collection of separate individuals – i.e. we are not all to be preachers as such – but the context indicates that proclamation is a responsibility of the collective body, with each member of the body contributing in various appropriate ways. That does not exclude the need for each Christian to be ready to personally speak about Christ. Peter says as much in 1 Peter 3:15 – each needs to be ready to “make a defence” to those who ask.
After the sermon, someone came back to me with a question, asking what practical advice I would give to people who want to share the gospel. It is great to get that question and I often wish there was more interest in evangelism in church life. Here is a slightly expanded version of what I wrote:
The first thing I would say is that you need to be in a gospel-preaching church. In other words, in a church that values the whole Bible, sees the point of it to lead people to Christ, and preaching with that goal in mind. Preaching the word to it’s congregation is central to any true church’s ministry and church members need to have confidence that when they bring people to listen, they will hear the words of God.
Secondly, Christians should volunteer to help with any plans the church has for outreach. That may mean organising a prayer meeting of friends, doing some of the “legwork” of preparation, getting involved in visitation, being willing to lead a discussion, maybe even preaching. Of course, people must be suitably qualified and gifted for each task, but ministers and elders who care about Christ’s mission love to have people who have this encouraging attitude of “getting stuck in”.
Thirdly, be well prepared to give answers (1 Peter 3:15). Understand the Bible – read it, meditate on it, study it, listen hard to sermons. Think about the cross and the Saviour who died on it, what it means, why it matters to us today. Read good books about evangelism and answering objections (one I read recently was The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist by Andy Bannister). Know how to explain the essence of the gospel in a couple of minutes e.g. I learned “The Bridge Illustration” when I was a young Christian and have used it many times since.
Fourthly, pray for opportunities to witness and boldness to take them. We become comfortable in our inactivity and we can bewail to others our lack of opportunity but Paul asked others to pray that for him in his ministry – see Colossians 4:3,4 and Ephesians 6:19. My experience is that prayer and boldness go together. It is a Holy Spirit thing. Somehow, in answer to a genuine request to God, opportunities come, we become alert to them and we are that bit bolder!
Fifthly, practice hospitality. In other words, open up your home and invite people in. And not just Christian friends, but non-Christians too. Have neighbours round for dinner, for coffee, that summer BBQ, hold a games night – use your imagination! Perhaps plan this with Christian friends. You see, people need to see the gospel in action in people’s lives as well as hear it preached (see e.g. 1 Thessalonians 2:8). Beauty and Truth go together. Try hospitality and see what happens!
Well, there are a few ideas. There are probably more and better thoughts about this. But may the Lord bless us and the nations as we proclaim his excellencies!