a not very presbyterian utopia

I was intrigued this morning to read an article on how the yes and no camps will be reconciled after the independence referendum in September. (Less than 70 days to go, btw.) For various reasons though I’m hobbled somewhat in terms of being able to comment at the moment.

Happily though, I’ve had some correspondence on the issue from an old friend, Jessie Morag, who offers some thoughts.

Jessie Morag writes:


Hi a’ ghraidh!

Today I only opened the paper and found an article on the referendum debate in Lewis! Did you see it yourself? You’ll have realised anyway the guy they’re calling Andrew is actually my second cousin twice removed on my mother’s side.

He makes some great points! In fact it was just the other day I was mentioning to Andrew it’s such a pity the way nobody is speaking out about identity. Some of us find it hard enough to be Scottish sometimes, the way the Lowlanders carry on! Would Central Belt rule any better for them up in the Islands than London rule? maybe it’s a silly question but that’s what they’re asking themselves and my cousin up in Muir of Ord would tell you the same.

But typical Sassenach journo! Didn’t Andrew just use the phrase ‘milk and honey’ and of course the journo starts dreaming up all sorts of allusions to religion. Did you see the bit where it says: “The yes campaign is an act of faith in the promised land, it resonates with a utopian language of Scotland’s Presbyterian history.”

I mean, what will they come up with next!

Don’t they know that More’s utopia is a bit different from the Millennium? Certainly the nationalist utopia is! Actually most presbyterians I know are a bit apprehensive about the kind of independence on offer. I was hearing from my sister in law’s cousin at the time when they set up the Scottish Parliament how they had to fight to even have prayers in the parliament because they wanted it to be secular. It’s as if they want to airbrush the Reformation out of our history altogether.

They definitely don’t respect the Bible when they’re making new laws anyway. Remember the so called consultation about gay marriage? They’re perfectly happy trampling underfoot what’s left of society’s conscience when they want to push through their liberal agenda, or progressive if that’s what they want to call it. As Uncle Angus was saying on the phone the other day: If these are the kind of values we have to look forward to after independence, we certainly can’t be voting yes. By the way, Uncle Angus was telling me the Continuings have put out a paper on the referendum, I’m sure you’ll have seen it. He says it’s awfully long, but after all we were disappointed with the Free Church papers, which were half for and half against, the very definition of swithering.

Well, the church is in a sorry state and you can’t help thinking there’s an element of judgment in it all. They say a nation gets the rulers it deserves and certainly there hasn’t been a clear voice from the church on all these moral issues in the past few decades.

When you think of the Reformers and the Covenanters and the Disruption worthies, and look where we are now. The sacrifices our forefathers made to give us the heritage we have in terms of our civil and religious liberties, and the best utopia they can offer us now is all this materialistic talk about oil and pensions! Plus a state guardian for every child in Scotland! I bet you Andrew is mortified, I would be!!

Well, I better not keep you my dear!

Cheerie an drasda and toodle pip!

Jessie M xx


(For anyone interested, the Free Church papers on independence are here, and the Free Church Continuing paper is here (pdf).)

Jessie Morag’s people are from Ballantrushal, although she now stays in the Central Belt. She prefers when you pronounce it ‘Jessie’ instead of ‘Chessie.’


boring is fine but it has to be real

johnmurrayThere’s a post newly appeared on Old Life on the topic of conversion. It includes a suggestion (in the middle of a lengthy quotation) that rather than being a moment of crisis, ‘it could just as likely be the case that the movement from spiritual death to spiritual life is gradual and life-long.’

Since some nasty gremlin seems to be thwarting my recent attempts to post comments on Old Life, here’s a quick blog post instead.

Two things to agree with in general.

1) It’s okay not to have a testimony. It’s doctrinally wrong and pastorally unhelpful to ‘insist upon experiences and encounters and restrictions and insights’ to prove whether someone is a believer or not.

2) It’s important not to confuse the work of the Spirit with gushes of emotion. We’re saved by faith, not by feeling – by faith in Christ’s work for us, not by sensing the Spirit’s work in us. (Or as a comment on the post so aptly puts it, ‘the important thing about “faith” is not the “experience” but the object of faith.’)

But two cautions deserve a mention too.

1) It’s unhelpful to use the term ‘conversion’ to refer to the whole course of someone’s career as a believer. Our confession and catechisms distinguish between effectual calling, regeneration and sanctification. Both effectual calling and sanctification (can) take place over a period of time. But regeneration is instantaneous. It happens in a moment, a specific point in time. Whether or not it is subjectively experienced as a crisis, it is nevertheless objectively a one-off event. We can be ‘converted to God little by little’ if by conversion there you mean effectual calling. We can be ‘converted to God little by little’ if by conversion there you mean sanctification. But it is a faithful saying, unworthy of all sarcastic tone, that ‘a person is either alive or dead, and to go from the wretched state of the latter to the exalted state of the former requires a monumental form of divine intervention.’ That divine intervention is what we otherwise call regeneration, and regeneration does not happen ‘little by little, by stages.’

2) Boring is fine. Conversions don’t have to be dramatic. But conversion does have to happen. Otherwise you won’t be saved.

Many people may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved (WCF 10.3). Contrary to what is asserted in the quoted article, it has never been the case that ‘affirmative answers to questions commonly asked at a public affirmation of faith were a sufficient gauge to a man or woman’s standing before God.’ Giving the right answers is a sufficient gauge to someone’s standing within the visible church – sure. That’s right and proper, but that’s not the same as their standing before God, which is presumably what ultimately matters.

Effectual calling, as the work of God the Spirit, involves convincing us of our sin and misery, in a way different from the expedient ‘I have sinned’ of a pharaoh or the compulsive trembling of a Felix. It involves enlightening the mind spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God – which is something other than understanding the technicalities on only a theoretical level. It involves renewing the will, in such a way that the natural choice stops being sin and is instead Christ. All of this might quite likely happen ‘little by little, and by stages,’ and the point when it culminates in being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit might not be discernible either to the person being called or anyone else, but it is all qualitatively and supernaturally different both from what they themselves were like before the Spirit began to work and from anyone who the Spirit does not work in.

Whether the switchover is experienced as some awful crisis or barely perceived at all, its necessary outcome is spiritual reality in the mind, will, and affections – a renewed nature which should embrace the church, clergy, creeds, and liturgy, but which is not the product of the most reformed of creed or liturgy.

The bottom line

* The fact that Calvin uttered the words ‘we are converted to God little by little, and by stages’ does not warrant today’s Calvinists blurring the distinction between the instantaneousness of regeneration and the extended-in-time-ness of effectual calling and sanctification.

* The fact that some people misguidedly insist on dramatic conversion narratives and intense religious experiences does not warrant blurring the distinction between being unconverted and being converted, blaming some ‘revivalist impulse’ of the eighteenth century, when the teaching of our pre-existing confessional documents is so clear.