raised expectations

For one reason or another I was recently revisiting Matthew Henry’s little book, The Communicant’s Companion. Talking about expecting a blessing from the Lord’s supper, Matthew Henry says this:

“Let us come to this ordinance with raised expectations. … The maker of the feast is God himself, who doth nothing little, nothing mean, but is able to do exceeding abundantly above what we are able to ask or think. When he gives, he gives like himself, gives like a king, gives like a God, all things richly to enjoy – considering not what it becomes such ungrateful wretches as we are to receive, but what it becomes such a bountiful benefactor as he is to give.”

The Lord’s Supper is a place where individual sin and unworthiness is brought into particular focus along with the undeserved mercy of the Lord: ungrateful and displeasing wretches receiving all sorts of riches of mercy.

But Henry’s line of argument can be extended to other areas of life too. If we only considered the messy horrible situations that exist all over the place – thinking particularly at the moment of the church itself, although it also applies to society at large and our individual circumstances – there would be nothing left apart from total depression and despair. But there is still help available, as long as we don’t expect it on account of the absence of problems on our side.

There’s no reason, in other words, to expect blessings for the church when it has all sorts of disasters and blots in its record. But other people have been in similar situations in the past, and they resorted to just this argument. “O my God, incline thine ear, and hear … for we do not present our supplications before thee for our righteousnesses, but for thy great mercy.” Dan 9:18.

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Keep your expectations low, incidentally, about how much activity you’ll see from me over the next several days. I’ll be parted from my laptop for even more extended periods than normal – E-Prime issues; be grateful if that doesn’t mean anything to you – and it’s going to be a busy week anyway.

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as moses said to hobab

Two Free Church ministers are already calling for Church of Scotland evangelicals to separate, after the General Assembly’s decision last Saturday. (Blogposts here and here.)

What Free Presbyterian ministers are saying on their blogs is unknown, as they don’t seem to have any, but in real life there has been about the same level of concern and prayer as is expressed by these FC bloggers, and there also seems to be a large measure of agreement that CoS evangelicals need to do something to overtly align themselves more closely with the orthodox confessional position which they would surely be much more at home in.

I’d doubt very much that a split in the CoS would be either practical or beneficial. I’d also take some convincing that a new denomination would be a good idea. Given current tastes and practices maybe the FC is the obvious place for a confessional CoS evangelical to turn, and it sounds like they’d get a welcome there. I suppose there’s only thing that holds me back from wholeheartedly hoping that that’s what would happen. That’s a small wishful thought that a welcome would be extended from the FPs to brothers and sisters in the CoS – issued in seriousness and charity and heard as real and well-meant. The FPism of popular caricature is surprisingly different from the actual reality, and surely we can at least invite people to come and find that out for themselves.

Meantime, Mr Meredith’s proposal, with the three caveats he carefully attaches, deserves some thoughtful consideration.

Numbers 10:29

still difficult

The following quotation comes courtesy of a reader, from the Bible Dictionary edited by Patrick Fairbairn. (To fill up what was lacking here.)

It’s an elaboration of what I think is the standard view of the nature of the unforgiveable sin in my/our Scottish presbyterian tradition (not that that gives it any more intrinsic worth, but just to put it in context).

“Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost was a sin of which our Lord pronounced those Jews guilty who saw his blessed miracles of love and mercy … and yet shut their minds against all conviction, and endeavoured to ruin his character among those whom they could influence, by alleging that he cast out devils by the prince of the devils.
There was to be noticed, in those who committed this sin, a resolute opposition, in the most obnoxious form, to the convincing work of the Holy Spirit; since they not only resisted the amazing evidence with which he pressed on their attention the divine claims of the Redeemer, but also maliciously and senselessly attributed to Satan the working of the good and gracious Spirit of God; and there was not only the deliberate searing of their own consciences, so that no impression could henceforth be made on them, but there was the desperate determination to involve others in their own intentional perversion of the truth of God in a matter which directly and immediately related to salvation. Hence our Lord declared their sin to be unpardonable, Mat 12:31 etc; Mark 3:28 etc.”

There are about five features in this description which, it would seem, have to co-occur before a person could be said to have committed the unforgiveable sin.

Unless you include the rulers of the Jews at the time of Christ who were so opposed (in this way) to him, as far as I know there aren’t any undisputed examples of people who have committed the unforgiveable sin. It’s sometimes even said that those who were humanly responsible for the crucifixion were later included among those who believed in him (he prayed on the cross, Father, forgive them, and for all we know from the narrative, some of them were converted under Peter’s sermon on Pentecost).

The article in Fairbairn’s dictionary concludes with the observation that “a mystery overhangs the whole of this fearful subject,” and says: “No one, perhaps, is in circumstances to know exactly what this sin is, who has not committed it; while he who has committed it is given over to a reprobate mind, so as never to have any qualms of conscience on account of it, nor any desire to bestow consideration upon it.”

In practical terms, therefore, the function of the report of the unforgiveable sin is to warn, and caution, and provoke those who hear about it to find mercy before it’s too late.

Perhaps it is a result of too-shallow understanding of the nature of sin in its apparently smallest forms, that hinders us from seeking salvation from our sin at the very first opportunity – even if we haven’t committed sins so heinous as to put us in danger of committing the unforgiveable sin, our apparently less serious sins are nevertheless infinitely offensive to the Lord and leave us in a state of condemnation for as long as we remain unforgiven. Why should he forgive any sin? And yet, he does. To persist to the end in an unforgiven state is ultimately just as serious and dreadful as having already committed the unforgiveable sin. Seek ye the Lord while he may be found – return to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. Don’t let the fearful mystery surrounding the possibility of unforgiveable sin feed a scepticism about the riches of God’s mercy towards unworthy sinners, or bolster any sneaking unbelief about the availability of pardon for anyone whose heart’s desire is to be reconciled to God in Christ.

I’ll admit that this is not a topic I would voluntarily have picked to discuss. It is not an easy question, either in terms of simply understanding the scriptural teaching, or in terms of being able to consider in an appropriately reverent manner, because who can value the preciousness of a soul and the magnitude of the loss when forgiveness has not been found. “If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared … Let Israel hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.”

in all the scriptures

Fascinating discussions ongoing on Christ in the Old Testament. Via Martin Downes, a discussion here of the Angel of the Lord as a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ (ie not as a created angel but as the Messenger of the covenant). Commenting there, someone whose blog I’ll most likely be reading regularly from now on – see here and here (he even quotes John Owen).

Reassuring too, as it fits in with what I’ve said here before, although in not a very tightly argued way (eg ‘OT believers were saved the same way’, or ‘What Peter knew about the Trinity’ perhaps the better of the two).

All those assignments I was going to mark tonight? It’ll have to be tomorrow now.

apropos not much

Thomas Watson says:

“Sin is the only thing God has an antipathy against. God does not hate a man because he poor, or despised in the world, as you do not despise your friend because he is sick; but that which draws forth the keenness of God’s hatred is sin: ‘this abominable thing that I hate’.”

Which makes it all the more amazing that he would devise a way of dealing with sin – putting it out of the way so that there could be reconciliation between himself and sinners. The God who hates sin saves sinners.

[Incidentally, I’m still intending to get back to the previous discussion, but can’t make any promises as to when. It’s coming up to that time of year again, so the blog will probably have to take a back seat for a while.]

busy week

Sorry folks, I do have things I want to say, but this week is going to be a bit tricky. Calvin, incidentally, I have it on good authority, didn’t follow Augustine on this question here – more to follow shortly I hope. Unless things get really tough, in which case it’ll be something apropos nothing in particular.