When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.
G K Chesterton, quoted in The Man Who Was Orthodox edited by A L Maycock
I came across this Chesterton quote yesterday. It is only a line in a collection of items of his pithy prose. Apparently it originally appeared in a Daily News article in 1905, but the original article has been lost, so it is hard to know what he meant without the context.
It rang a bell because I recently heard one theologian say something similar about the Ten Commandments in relation to the state of western society. When you substitute “big laws” with “ten commandments” in the quote above you can perhaps see the point: if a society ignores the 10 commandments then in order to have some order the state has to introduce a myriad of sundry small laws.
Is that true? It’s plausible from experience. It seems to me that our legislators are continually busy trying to fix evils that emerge as a result of unhitching from those God-given “Words”. The trouble is we are left with a malleable and drifting set of underlying principles that guide lawmaking which results in many, many small laws.
I had an interesting experience yesterday. I was wondering whether my original blog was still online somewhere, and I found it – here. Actually, all the posts have been migrated to this blog but I had forgotten about them. There was a strange pleasure in rereading some of my posts.
I started the “Doggie’s Breakfast” blog back in 2004. I was a student at what was then ETCW, now Union School of Theology. Blogging was just becoming a “thing” and some of my fellow-students were blogging and encouraged me to write as well. I planned it as a smorgasbord of things – commentary, thoughts, reflections on my studies, nonsense. Most of all it was to be fun.
It was an interesting time. The so-called emergent church movement was gathering pace, and a kind of young, restless and Reformed version of it was appearing which coalesced into organisations like Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition. There was plenty to think and talk about. There was a lot of interaction between bloggers – commenting, responding to blog posts with more blog posts.
I don’t know what happened, but blogging became professionalised and probably monetised. Platforms like Patheos and The Gospel Coalition and Reformation21, to name a few, began hosting celebrated writers. It all became very serious. Grass roots blogging seemed to fall out of fashion. It wasn’t helped by the rise of Facebook and Twitter. Now these are somewhat passé unless you are an activist. For fun go to Instagram or Tik Tok. The visual has taken over.
This blog has been on life support for years now. I think my last post was 5 months ago. The one before that was five months before that. A little over two blog posts a year.
However, in my foray into old posts I was sufficiently energised to reconsider this enterprise and perhaps return to its roots. To write about this and that, hopefully with a wiser head than 16 years ago, sometimes writing serious things. Sometimes not. Times have changed since I started. The issues in our society have changed profoundly. But let’s have a go and see what happens.
The present pandemic has been a shock to the system of every church in the country as public meetings have been banned for the time being. Church ministers and elders have scrambled to work out how to keep ministering the word to their people in such straitened times, with varying degrees of success.
In the providence of God the church has been presented with new opportunities for witness and evangelism, and for this we give thanks. Parallel to that, the Lord in his wisdom has withdrawn the freedom for his church to meet to worship. It is not inappropriate to look on this as a chastisement on the church generally for reasons, perhaps, that we have still to work out. These are certainly extraordinary times. But one way to seek the Lord in this is to fast and pray.
Last Wednesday our presbytery (EPCEW) called our people and others to a day of prayer and fasting. It was hastily arranged and at short notice. Most of us ministers have never or rarely taught on the ins and outs of fasting as a spiritual discipline. We were certainly chastened to realise that!
In a ZOOM meeting of Presbytery last Friday we encouraged each other to consider doing so again this coming Wednesday (tomorrow), though this time not issue a general call. One of our number recommended reading in advance Wilhelmus A’Brakel on fasting. The chapter is the first in Volume 4 of his “A Christian’s Reasonable Service“, which you can find in PDF form at monergism.com.
To help us, I thought it might be helpful to produce a quick summary of A’Brakel’s chapter. (It helped me!) He obviously says much more in explanation – for that you need to look at the linked page above – but here’s my summary:
What is fasting?
Fasting is a special religious exercise in which a believer deprives himself for a day from all that invigorates the body, humbling himself in body and soul before God as a means to obtain what he desires.
Some notes on this definition:
it is a religious exercise – poverty, avarice, illness, health reasons , prevention because of business are not applicable here.
it is a special exercise – It is not a daily activity such as prayer, reading, thanksgiving, and singing. Rather, it is practiced at special seasons of need.
it is a depriving one’s self of all that invigorates the body – to bring the body for that given day into a condition of withdrawal, distress, pliableness, and weakness.
it is the deprivation of food
deprivation of external ornamentation [i.e. the proverbial sackcloth and ashes]
deprivation of entertainment
refrain from the labours of our calling
refrain from sleep
guard against the commission of sins
it is a humbling of ourselves of body and soul
soul and body are intimately related, so humbling the body humbles the soul.
“Sorrow over the deficiency of the soul engenders sorrow about that which the body is lacking, and a deficiency in the body engenders sorrow over the deficiency of the soul.“
humbling consists in:
The confession of sin, accompanied with grief and shame.
Declaring ourselves to be worthy of judgment and a subscribing to justice if the Lord were to execute those merited judgments upon us.
A supplicating for grace, frequently accompanied with weeping.
A renewal of the covenant with the wholehearted intent to forsake former sins and to live a godly life.
The giving of alms.
for a 24-hour period.
We are not called to follow Jesus in his 40 days in the wilderness.
In the 7-day fasts in scripture , something was eaten in the evening.
The following qualification applies for those who are weak: “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6)
Public and Private Fasting
when the government calls it because of national need;
when a synod, classis, or elders of a particular congregation designate a day of fasting for the church under their supervision, doing so due to an extraordinary need in the church.
when some individual friends agree to set apart a day;
when a father institutes a day of fasting for his family;
when an individual sets apart a day for himself.
Exhortation to fasting
Hasn’t God commanded it?
Have not the church and the saints of all ages practiced this and left us an example to be followed?
If a public fast has been proclaimed, conduct yourself well in doing so. God’s eye will be upon you in a special manner.
If some of the godly have agreed to set apart a day, endeavor to join them, and stir up some other godly person to do likewise. The Lord will most certainly be among you; He will come to you and bless you. It will engender a sweet bond of mutual love. The Lord will manifest that this is pleasing to Him.
remove obstacles beforehand
confess your aversion for such a day of prayer as a sin before the Lord, and ask that you may be fit to conduct yourself well on this day of prayer.
Rejoice in the evening that you have food to eat, since you are not worthy of one bite of bread.
Thank the Lord that He gives it to you in His favour—as having been purchased with the blood of Christ.
Give close attention as to how God responds to your day of prayer, for God will respond to it.
I read a John Le Carré novel recently, my first. I really enjoyed The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Set in the 1960s Cold War, it drags you into the great spy “game”.
One character, Liz, is a British communist sympathiser. Through one thing and another she gets the opportunity to attend a meeting of the communist party in East Germany. It was a great disappointment to her. Le Carré writes:
It was like the meetings in Bayswater; it was like mid-week evensong when she used to go to church – the same dutiful little group of lost faces, the same fussy self-consciousness, the same feeling of a great idea in the hands of little people.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John Le Carré
It got me thinking about church life. “A great idea in the hands of little people”? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
It could be either.
Obviously, Le Carré has in view the utopian ideals of communism which feed the imagination of many and in that sense are “great”. But it presents a false hope because it does not take into account the depth of the human condition and, as history teaches us, tends to offer up human, flawed saviours who end up as tyrants. On the other hand, the gospel takes the human condition into account, addressing it directly. We Christians are little people, small before our omnipotent God, powerless in the face of our sin and evil, desperately in need of a Someone to save and renew us. Out triune God is that Someone. The Father has planned our salvation in Christ, the Son, Jesus Christ, has come and effected it through his death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit has applied it to us in our experience of saving grace. The sense of helplessness and constant dependency upon God never changes. Any greatness is all his. We will forever remain a little people who benefit from God’s “great idea”.
But in ongoing church life, there is a way in which we can become a “little people” that is profoundly unhelpful, indeed sinful. Le Carré’s idea of “little people” are those who have “lost faces” and develop a “fussy self-consciousness”. I think I know what he means.
I remember once being part of a church that ran along congregational lines. Church meetings (eventually I chaired some of them) took hours because we had to deal with everything – including agreeing whether or not to pay the utility bills. Absurd. We had to deal with all sorts of things, and there was always at least one who thought their item was really important. Except that none of it was about the gospel or the Great Commission. The church was dying but there was a fussy self-consciousness about it all, where people took satisfaction in “making a point”, “making their voice heard” and “having influence”. In that sense the people were “little”, who every week had in their hands the Great Idea of the Bible, and yet their worldview was fundamentally egocentric. To be “little” in this sense is not to be taken up with the wonder of the gospel and the joy of fellowship with our great God and with one another in Christ. Instead it is to be taken up with self.
I think this can happen to evangelical Christians and, dare I say it, reformed Christians. Yes, assent to the doctrinal position of the church, stand for the truth! But in reality to be taken up with the mundane, looking after our little needs, with little thought for one’s part in the Kingdom’s progress and giving glory to God.
The quote has got me thinking. What is my heart really interested in? Is my work in the world permeated with a desire for the glory of God? that I have access to this “great idea”? Is that what I want my family to know? Has attending Sunday worship become routine – and alternative activity amongst many other possibles? What does it mean to grow in holiness? to be knit together in love (Col 2:2, ESV)? What does it mean to taken up by God’s great idea of the gospel and not be “little people” in the bad sense?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.