Nearly four months ago we had another baby boy. He is at least partly responsible for the lack of activity on this blog, but we love him all the same.
Nearly four months ago we had another baby boy. He is at least partly responsible for the lack of activity on this blog, but we love him all the same.
A new collection of sermons by Donald MacLean is now available from Reformation Press.
Seeking A Better Country works systematically through the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 from Abel to Joseph. The focus is on the necessity of faith, and the necessity for faith to be active in laying hold of Christ in the promises of God’s Word.
You can get it in:
Donald MacLean (1915-2010) was minister of the St Jude’s (Glasgow) congregation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland for forty years, from 1960 to his retirement in 2000. His preaching ministry is remembered for his clear and authoritative declaration of the doctrines of Scripture, his ability to trace out the spiritual experiences of those who are effectually called, and his compassionate directness in appealing to sinners to believe in Christ for salvation.
Reformation Press has already published a previous volume of Donald MacLean’s sermons, Unsearchable Riches.
Religious experience is necessary for salvation. If religion isn’t something that arrests us personally and brings about a personal change, it’s pretty worthless as far as salvation is concerned. We have to be clear that salvation and the experience of salvation goes beyond participating in ritual and/or intellectual acquaintance with doctrine.
There is a problem, however, when we focus only on experience, or when we place such a high premium on experience that other weighty matters of the truth are treated in only a cursory way.
That is because experience is not a standalone thing. If you talk about experience, it raises two questions.
The first is, experience of what? Christian experience, the experience of salvation, does not occur in a vacuum. ‘Genuine religious experience,’ says Archibald Alexander, is ‘the impression of divine truth on the mind by the energy of the Holy Spirit.’
Whether it’s a miserable experience of feeling guilty and ashamed, or an uplifting experience of feeling peace and comfort, the experience as such doesn’t count as genuine unless it is an effect of the truth of Scripture (applied by the Holy Spirit). Unless it’s God’s own Word that induces us to feel ashamed or that grants us a sense of comfort, our experience is only on the same level as something that can be shared by any non-Christian. Atheists, heretics, and adherents of false religions all testify to deep, intense feelings, both profoundly bleak and wonderfully comforting.
What distinguishes Christian experience, or makes it qualify as Christian at all, is that it is a response to the truth.* Clearly, for example, it’s only real Christians who know what conviction of sin is, or a sense of pardon and acceptance with God. But a Christian’s conviction of sin and a Christian’s sense of pardon don’t occur in a vacuum. These experiences can only come from the Holy Spirit’s application of the truth of Scripture. Only from Scripture do we know what sin is defined as, and how sinful sin is. Only from Scripture do we know that God forgives sinners and how he blots out their transgressions. Only when the Holy Spirit applies the truth of God’s Word to my own individual personal case can I therefore really experience what real Christians experience. There has to be the authority of God speaking in his Word behind the exposure I painfully feel of my sin and the administration I sweetly feel of forgiveness, otherwise both the pain and the sweetness remain sub-Christian experiences. Deep inner turmoil and fervent emotions of any sort are not at all unique to Christians, and are therefore barely relevant when evaluating the reality or the wellbeing of our Christianity – unless these experiences are demonstrably a response to the threatenings or promises of God’s Word.
* (This of course means something more than simply a response to providence. Circumstances and life events prompt all sorts of people to consider their frailties and flaws and to make their peace with themselves and their situation. Even acknowledging that it’s God’s providence and not just random chance doesn’t in and of itself turn the anxiety or the calmness we feel when viewing our situation into a Christian experience. Providence happens to everyone, and believers and unbelievers alike can tell amazing stories of astonishing chains of events with remarkable twists and turns. Obviously it’s a good thing to recognise that God is managing it all in every detail, but if I only have that recognition without also knowing God as the one who saves sinners, it doesn’t count as a Christian response.)
Experience divorced from the truth, or experience abstracted from the context of God’s revelation of salvation in his Word, is not only valueless but risky – it leaves us prone to mysticism and superstition. As Alexander further said, ‘a knowledge of the truth is essential to genuine piety.’ If it’s not the truth that’s informing our feelings and emotions, we’re left to the mercy of our own imagination or the wrongheaded expectations of other people. We’re familiar with the saying that any amount of head knowledge won’t save us without heart knowledge, and this is perfectly true. But what’s also true is that any amount of heart turmoil won’t save us without head knowledge. We need head knowledge. We need doctrine. The Holy Spirit reaches into the heart via the mind – if we’re hazy on what Scripture teaches (about God, sin, salvation…) then our experience cannot fail to be defective.
The other question is: given experience, so what? The experience of salvation is not an end in itself. It is meant to lead on to other things, and specifically, a holy life.
The experience of conviction of sin, for example, is not intended to leave us wallowing in a puddle of despair and self-loathing. It meant to show us our need of God’s appointed Saviour in such a way that we entrust ourselves to him for salvation from our sin and ourselves.
The experience of forgiveness, meanwhile, is not intended to grant us some relief and otherwise consign us to a lifetime of chasing renewed emotional confirmations that we’re saved. It is supposed to have practical effects – to make us thankful and worshipful towards God, and keen to act with integrity towards everyone we encounter, from family and friends and colleagues and neighbours onwards. ‘What shall I render to the Lord for all his gifts to me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord.’ ‘The half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.’ If hungering and thirsting after righteousness is a mark of grace, let’s focus more on the objective righteousness we’re supposed to pursue (both imputed and infused) than on our subjective sensations of hungering and thirsting. If the grace of God has indeed appeared to us, personally, in our experience, then the main thing we should learn is to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world.
It is a mistake to pursue experiences for their own sake – as if the only good a sermon (for example) will do us is if it brings us to weep tears of penitence or joy, or makes us feel we’ve been turned inside out, or sends us into transports of delight as we recall some blessed experience we had in the past. If these are really our experiences, it’s only to prompt us to keep moving in the Christian life – to bless the Lord more comprehensively, to devote ourselves more entirely to honouring him, to make it evident by our commitment to loving God and our neighbour that the truth of God actually matters to us.
There’s even a sense in which, instead of such dramatic inner exercises being a sign of a better Christian, it’s almost reason to be slightly disappointed with ourselves that we need to be so thoroughly emotionally shaken before we’ll listen to God’s Word and act on it. Why are we such slow learners? Why won’t we just take a telling? The Christian life is a life of faith, not a life of sense – we need to believe that God is true, whatever we feel, and believe that God doesn’t abandon his people, whatever we feel, and that God is always working things together for the good of his people, whatever we feel. Needing constant reassurance in the form of emotional upheavals is a form of putting our confidence in something other than God’s bare Word – saying in effect that while of course we know the Bible is true we also need something on top of that before we can rest easy about the safety of our souls – something for individual me, as I won’t be satisfied with what God has put on public record until I get something special for myself. (God does, of course, grant seals to confirm the truth of his Word, but they come primarily in the form of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper, and only secondarily in the form of subjective religious experiences.)
Far more important than experience as such is the fruit of what we experience. The fruit of the Spirit is not merely emotional, but must also manifest itself in the practical outworkings of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If we find ourselves trembling and astonished when God reveals himself to us, the obvious response is, ‘Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?’ If a poor man cries and the Lord hears and delivers him, the appropriate response is, ‘Depart from evil, and do good, seek peace, and pursue it.’
So, to summarise: if my experience is really worth anything (if it’s saving experience), it must come from somewhere and it must lead to something. Christian experience is just one component of a healthy faith. It is the pivot between the truth we need to believe and the holiness we need to evidence, but its critical, pivotal importance can only be grasped if we also understand that truth of Scripture and the imperative to live that holy life.
It only remains to observe the constancy of Christ’s intercession. He is continually employed in this work. His oblation was the work of comparatively a short period, but his intercession never ceases.
Human benevolence may become languid, may intermit for a time, or may finally die away altogether. But not so the benevolence which prompts the petitions of our Advocate. He can never become languid from ignorance of his people’s wants, for he is omniscient; nor from want of affection, for his love is abiding; nor from want of merit, for his sacrifice is of unfailing virtue; nor from fatigue, for he is the almighty and immutable God. Nothing can ever occasion a suspension. A moment’s intermission would prove fatal to the eternal interests of all the elect. But, while attending to the case of one, he has no need to suspend attention to that of another. Innumerable as are his applicants, he attends to the wants of each as if there were not another that needed his care. Multiplicity cannot bewilder, variety cannot divide, importance cannot oppress his thoughts. To him the care of millions is no burden. Ten thousand claims meet with the same attention as if there were but one. His understanding, his love, his merit, his power, are all infinite; and we must beware of measuring him by the low standard of our own limited capacities.
Nor can his intercession ever come to an end. There will be need for it forever. So long as his people sin, he will plead for pardon; so long as they are tempted, he will procure them strength to resist; so long as they continue to perform services, he will continue to give them acceptance; so long as they are in the wilderness, he will procure them guidance and safety; nay, so long as the blessings of heaven are enjoyed, will he plead his merits as the ground on which they are bestowed. Through eternity will he continue to plead on behalf of his people. Never shall they cease to be the objects of his care; never shall their names be erased from his breast; never shall their cause be taken from his lips; never shall the odour-breathing censer drop from his hand; nor shall his blessed merits ever cease to rise up in a cloud of fragrant incense before the Lord. He ever liveth to make intercession for them.
William Symington, On the Atonement and Intercession of Jesus Christ. First published 1847.
David Randall’s account of how he eventually found it imperative to leave the Church of Scotland makes for sad reading. Randall’s point is that once the CoS formally rejected the Word of God as its ultimate authority, it ceased to identify as the church, and that this formal rejection was made unequivocally in 2014. The specific controversy which prompted this crisis is of course less relevant than the underlying problem in the CoS which it brought to prominence – that when the choice was between retaining status in the sight of people who couldn’t care less about what Scripture says versus maintaining obedience to God’s clear Word, the biblical requirements became too awkward for the church as a body to live up to.
Some quick reflections.
David J Randall, A Sad Departure: Why we could not stay in the Church of Scotland (Banner of Truth, 2015)
I want to say this is a book I read recently, but on reflection it was probably over a year ago. So here are some highlights that have remained in my memory since then.
Gordon J Wenham. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Baker Academic, 2012
This is a fascinating treatment of the Book of Psalms from the perspective of what the psalms teach us about how to live our lives. Whereas the contrast in books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes is between the wise and the foolish, the contrast in the book of Psalms is between the righteous and the unrighteous (that’s the ‘ethics’ of the subtitle).
Wenham discusses several stimulating topics. One is how closely you involve yourself in the ethics of the Psalms when you pray them or (better) sing them. He doesn’t write from an exclusive psalmody position, but he does clearly wish that people made more use of the psalms for singing in individual and public (corporate) worship. But the Psalms very plainly align you (the singer) with the godly and against the ungodly. This serves on the one hand to encourage you, if you are actually one of the godly, by giving you ways shared with the Lord’s people in all times and places to express your allegiance to the Lord and your willingness to live in obedience to him. On the other hand, it exposes your hypocrisy and dissimulation, if you are not one of the godly, when you not only listen to God’s Word read and preached but yourself use the very words of God to call for his vindication of the righteous and overthrow of the wicked. This provides a sobering reminder of how seriously we should consider the words we use in worship.
Another aspect of the Book of Psalms which Wenham brings out is the significance of its internal structure. After the introductory psalms 1 and 2, the book consists of five mini-books:
Each of the books ends with a doxology (41:13, 72:18-19, 89:52, 106:48, and 146-150), and psalms on the topic of the covenant made with David are placed at the ‘seams’ of the books. Within these books are of course the groups of psalms which are more familiar and obvious from their titles or themes (eg 146-150). So the arrangement of the psalms in their order isn’t haphazard but deliberate and instructive.
This arrangement is one of the things (along with their poetical form and the musical accompaniment) which Wenham argues makes the psalms easier to memorise and supports the idea that they are actually intended to be memorised. Memorising something is a way of both making it your own and opening yourself to being shaped and mastered by it. By memorising the psalms you appropriate their perspective on right and wrong, and you submit to the view they present of what God approves and what God condemns.
And the structure makes the law of God a key feature of the Psalms. Its composition in five books echoes the five books of the Pentateuch. Then Psalm 1, which extols God’s law, sets the scene for the whole of the Book of Psalms and its view of the righteous vs the ungodly/sinners/scorners. Psalm 19 (‘the law of the Lord is perfect…’) is placed at the midpoint of Book 1, and Psalm 119 (the longest psalm and a beautifully and elaborately formed one, all about the law of God) is located at the centre of Book 5. So that the prominent place given to God’s law, and its definition of good and evil, in the way the psalms are arranged reinforces how important the law of God should be to us and how keen we should be to reflect this in our worship and in our lives.
The final thing that sticks in my mind is how Wenham handles the imprecatory psalms (Psalm 35, 109, etc). He mentions various points to remind us how these psalms are thoroughly consistent with the virtues of the righteous which everyone admires and which are extolled in plenty other psalms (kindness, honesty, etc).
By using the imprecatory psalms, worshippers (1) express sympathy with the fear and pain of those who suffer unjustly, (2) bring the needs of the poor and the oppressed to God, in the conviction that God is concerned about injustice and will eventually deliver justice for his own name’s sake, and (3) are forced to reflect on their own possible complicity in violence and oppression (if God cares about unjust suffering, so should we).
All in all, this was a most enlightening and worthwhile read. Although it makes an academic contribution to the scholarly study of Old Testament ethics, it isn’t beyond the reach of the lay reader – it’s accessible and informative, and opens up some very valuable reflections on how we can use and benefit from this important part of Scripture.
(Wenham has also written another book on the Psalms which is directly aimed at a general readership, and which provides an overview of this and other topics in the Book of Psalms. It too is worth the read – The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms (Crossway, 2013).)
John Owen on the Lord’s Supper:
Christ here [in the sacrament] hath given us a more eminent and clear representation of himself. I will name but two things:
– a representation of himself, as he is the food of our souls
– a representation of himself, as he suffered for our sins.
These are the two great ways whereby Christ is represented as the food of our souls in the matter of the ordinance; and Christ as suffering for our sins is represented in the manner of the ordinance; both by his own appointment.
There are two things in it:- there is the weak part, that is Christ’s; there is the nourishing part, that is given to us. The Lord Christ hath chosen by this ordinance to represent himself by these things that are the staff of our lives; they comprise the whole nourishment and sustenance of our bodies. He hath so chosen to represent them by breaking and pouring out, that they shall signify his sufferings. Here are both. As the bread is broken, and as the wine is poured out, there is the representation of the travail of the soul of Christ to us; as bread is received, and the cup, which is the means of the nourishment of man’s life, here is the fruit of Christ’s death exhibited unto us, and his sufferings.
From Owen’s discourses on the Lord’s Supper, gathered into one volume by Jon D Payne (John Owen on the Lord’s Supper, Banner of Truth, 2004). About a third of this volume is taken up with chapters by Payne on John Owen and his theology of the sacrament. These are useful and on their own virtually justify the volume. Then Owen’s discourses themselves are very helpful. They are brief and meaty. Instead of setting out to be ‘devotional’ in the sense of working directly on the emotions, they are primarily instructive and doctrinal, with the inevitable effect of increasing devotion. This approach (I find, anyway) can be at least as helpful as the other when you’re due to take part in the Lord’s Supper and looking for something to focus on.