Friday, July 18, 2008

John Kennedy's Leper Isle

Another blog has published the whole of John Kennedy, Dingwall's Leper Isle. This is rather like John Bunyan's The Holy War or The Pilgrim's Progress except set at sea. It is called 'a waking dream'. It was reprinted by the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in 1967. There are various places in the world called Leper Isle.

This is part 1, part 2 and the key to the allegory.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Spiritual Decay

"It is fit,that professors of all sorts should be reminded of these things; for we may see not a few of them under visible decays, without any sincere endeavors after a recovery, who yet please themselves that the root of the matter is in them. It is so, if love of the world, conformity unto it, negligence in holy duties, and coldness in spiritual love, be an evidence of such decays. But let none deceive their own souls; wherever there is a saving principle of grace, it will be thriving and growing unto the end. And if it fall under obstructions, and thereby into decays for a season, it will give no rest or quietness unto the soul wherein it is, but will labor continually for a recovery. Peace in a spiritually-decaying condition, is a soul-ruining security; better be under terror on the account of surprisal into some sin, than be in peace under evident decays of spiritual life." John Owen

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The external and internal aspects of the Covenant of Grace

Obadiah Sedgewick (one of the Westminster divines) shows how there is an internal (absolute) and external (conditional) side to the Covenant of Grace. The former is what is graciously effected in the elect. The latter is what those within the visible Church are brought into. This is preached and offered in the Word and Sacraments.

Of the Covenant in special.

I shall now descend to something more special, to show unto you, what that Covenant which God makes between himself and his people.

There are those who distinguish of a twofold Covenant.

1. There is Foedus absolutum, which is such a promise of God, as takes in no stipulation or condition at all, that runs altogether upon absolute terms; such a Covenant was that which God made with Noah, that he would never down the world any more. Gen 9.11. and such a kind of Covenant is that, when God promises to give faith and perseverance unto his elect, Heb. 8.10, &c. Both these Covenants are absolute, and without any condition; there is nothing in them but what is folded up in the promises themselves.

2. Foedus Hypotheticum, which is a gracious promise on God’s part, with an obligation to duty; for although it be natural to God, to recompense any good, as it is to punish any evil; And although man does owe unto God whatsoever God covenants with him for; yet it so pleases his Divine Will thus to deal with us, that in binding of us to duty unto himself, he binds himself in reward unto us, and promises such and such a recompence, upon the condition of such and such a performance.

Obadiah Sedgwick, The Bowels of Tender Mercy Sealed in the Everlasting Covenant (Printed by Edmund Mottershed, for Adoniram Byfield, and are to be sold by Joseph Cranford, at the Sign of the Castle and Lyon in St. Pauls Church-yard, 1661), 6.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Fellowship Meeting

Another blog covers the fellowship meeting with helpful links - the meeting is a feature of Highland Communion seasons. Here is a good example of a fellowship meeting in recent memory.

It is important that the meeting is referred to as the fellowship meeting as well as the question (a more Gaelic reference). This is because it has this, not extempore exegesis or exposition, at its heart. It is about personal experience. These Fellowship Meetings probably began in Kiltearn in the 1650s. It began with a practical and experimental purpose and content. The great question concerns the marks of grace. It shows the responsibility and concern of the stronger for the weaker. Fellowship is one of the most abused and trivialised words in evangelicalism. The fellowship meeting points to the real meaning of fellowship which signifies a community sharing and participating in a common life.

Dr Kennedy, Dingwall defends and describes the fellowship meeting well in The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire as follows:

The great object of the fellowship meeting was the mutual comfort and edification of believers, with a special reference to the cases of such, as were exercised with fears as to their interest in Christ. And how was it conducted? At first, only communicants were present; but, latterly, admission became indiscriminate. The minister presides, and, after prayer, praise and the reading of a portion of Scripture, he calk on any one who is anxious to propose a question to the meeting, to do so. This call is responded to by some man who rises, mentions a passage of Scripture describing some feature of the Christian character, and expresses his desire to ascertain the marks of those whom the passage describes, and the various respects in which they may differ from merely nominal Christians. The scope of the passage of Scripture is then opened up by the minister, and the exact import of the question founded upon it is explained. He then calls by name, successively, on such as are of repute for piety, experience, and gifts to "speak to the question." One after another rises, as he is called, states briefly his view of the question, and without attempting either to expound Scripture, or to deliver an exhortation, or venturing to parade his own experience, speaks from the heart what he has felt, and feared, and enjoyed under the power of the truth. Thereafter, the minister sums up all that has been said, correcting, confirming, and expanding as may be necessary, and makes a practical improvement of the whole. The person, who proposed the question, is then usually called to engage in prayer, and, with praise and the benediction, the meeting is closed. Such was the fellowship meeting in the good days of the fathers in Ross-shire.

"The men" seem, to some, to have been taken out of their proper place, when called to address a congregation, and to have assumed work properly and exclusively the minister's. They must be quite ignorant of "the men" and of their work with whom this objection can have any weight. If they were accustomed to expound, or if they attempted to preach, it might be said, that they were stepping out of their proper place, and invading the province of the minister: but they who were worthy of a place among "the men" never attempted to do so. They but spake to one another, of their mutual fears and trials, hopes and joys: and the position, as office-bearers, held by the most of them, and the gifts which the Lord had conferred on them all, entitled them to do so, in the more public position of the fellowship meeting. Never was a godly minister's office less endangered, than when he was countenancing and directing their service in "speaking to the question," and often has the time thus spent by him been, to his own soul, a season of refreshing.

There are many who think, that uneducated persons, such as "the men," could not possibly deliver addresses that might edify their hearers. Those who required "the excellency of speech and of wisdom in order to be pleased, would certainly not be gratified at the fellowship meeting, but those who "desired the sincere milk of the word that" they "might grow thereby," would as certainly be profited. Of such learning, as makes one proud, "the men" had none; but they knew their Bibles as few besides have known them. Their clear view of the Gospel system might bring a blush on the face of some professors of divinity if they heard and understood them; and some doctors, however learned, might sit at their feet, as they spake of the sorrows and the joys of the Christian's life. Some of them were men of distinguished talent, and all their mental vigour, untrammelled by learning, they brought to bear upon the things of God. Never, surely, is there a more attractive exercise of intellect than when, divested of all literary acquirements, it enters directly into "the mysteries of the kingdom," and comes forth in a panoply of Scripture truth. Light from heaven then irradiates all the gifts of the speaker. Traces of learning, mingled with the halo of this light, would be spots of darkness. Some of "the men" were able speakers. Orators they were, without attempting to be so, and utterly unconscious of their gift, who could powerfully affect the feelings of their hearers. Some of them gave utterance to sayings that could not be forgotten, and a few of which would earn a fame for genius in a more public sphere.

Of the question, "How far lay agency may be employed for the edification of the Church," the wisest practical solution has been furnished in the service of the fellowship meeting. It is surely desirable, that, if there are talented and godly men in a congregation, an opportunity should be afforded, for securing to others, the benefit of those gifts, with which the Lord has endowed them. If He has made them "apt to teach," an opportunity to teach should be given them by the church. This should be provided, so as not to invade the province of the ordained teacher, and so as to conserve and support the authority of his office. By no summary process ought a man to be converted into a preacher, however shining his gifts, and however eminent his godliness. But is he therefore to be kept silent? May no opportunity be given him to exhort his brethren, publicly as well as privately, so as to secure, to the Church at large, the benefit of his stores of Christian knowledge and experience? All these conditions have been met, in the service of the fellowship meeting. There an opportunity, to exercise their gifts, for the good of the Church, and without the least prejudice to the position and influence of the minister, was given to such as the Lord had qualified. How strange it is, that some, who neglect to avail them selves of such an arrangement, and who are disposed to frown upon it where it has been adopted, should not hesitate to exalt into the position, even of evangelists, neophytes, with crude views of the doctrines of the Gospel, owing subjection to no ecclesiastical authority, and furnishing no security whatever for the prudence and the purity of their doctrine and their life.

The service, in which "the men" were employed, was useful as a test. In the good days of the fathers, the discernment of the Church was keen, and very rarely could a man, who was a stranger to a life of godliness, be approved at the fellowship meeting. Satan required to do his utmost in making a passable hypocrite in these days. He sometimes, even then, succeeded in foisting a counterfeit on the confidence of the Church, but it was not often that he tried it. Usually, "of the rest durst no man join himself to them." Through this ordeal the eldership had to pass, ere they found a place in a session, over which a man of God presided. It would be well if this kind of trial were universal. The application of such a test might, in some cases, allow no session at all; but it may be fairly questioned whether this is a valid objection to its use. Now, and in some places, let a man's religion be all on the outside of him, if it is only a decent garb to look at from a distance, and if he is a man of influence, or of money, or of talent, this is quite enough to win for him an elder's place. An uneducated, but godly and praying elder, would be better than a host of such men as he; but better still, the man, in whom the gifts and the influence of the one were sanctified by the grace given to the other.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The offence of blasphemy

On 8 May 2008, the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 abolished the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in England and Wales, with effect from 8 July 2008. Parliament cannot abolish the 3rd Commandment so easily as they would think, however, and as 'the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain' so will he not hold guiltless those that have abused their delegated power to protect and reward the evil doer in this way.

The Blasphemy Act 1698 declared it illegal for any person, educated in or having made profession of the Christian religion, by writing, preaching, teaching or advised speaking, to state the following:

- a denial that the members of the Holy Trinity were God.
- an assertion that there is more than one god.
- a denial of the truth of the Christian religion to be true.
- a denial of the Holy Scriptures to be of divine authority.

Those denying the Trinity were already deprived of the benefit of the Act of Toleration by an act of 1688. The first offence resulted in being rendered incapable of holding any office or place of trust. The second offense resulted in being rendered incapable of bringing any action, of being guardian or executor, or of taking a legacy or deed of gift, and three years imprisonment without bail.

It was rarely applied: an excessively short statute of limitations allowed for a very short time after the offense for lodging a formal complaint; a similar limitation applied to bringing the case to trial. It followed from February 1698 when a committee of the house of Commons requested William III to suppress 'all pernicious books and pamphlets which contain in them impious doctrines'. By the law of Scotland, as it originally stood, the punishment of blasphemy was death, a penalty imposed on Thomas Aikenhead in Edinburgh in 1697. By an act of 1825, amended in 1837, blasphemy was made punishable by fine or imprisonment or both. The last prosecution for blasphemy in Scotland was in 1843 but technically the law remains in force in Scotland.

The English act (exactly 310 years old) was directed against apostates at the beginning of the deist movement in England, particularly after the 1696 publication of John Toland's book, "Christianity Not Mysterious." "The reasonableness of Christianity" by John Locke was also in view. Both books were burnt by the public hangman. It was said that Toland's book took out all the mystery and left no Christianity at all. Momentum for action had been building since the 'Proposals for a National Reformation of Manners in 1694 'All men agree that atheism and prophaneness never got such an high ascendant as at this day. A thick gloominess hath overspread our horizon, and our light looks like the everining of the world.'

Daniel Defoe commented on the climate of skepticism: 'No age since the founding and forming of the Christian Church was ever like, in open avowed Atheism, blasphemies and heresies to the age we now live in'. One deist wrote that if Jesus Christ was responsible for founding churches 'I think the old Romans did him right in punishing him with the death of a slave'.

Francis Atterbury gave a similarly gloomy assessment:
'Heresies of all kinds, scepticisim, deism ahd atheism itself over-run us like a deluge...the Triinity has been...openly denied...a,ll mysteries in religion have been decried as impositions on men's understandings, and nothing is admitted as an article of faith but what we can fully and perfectly comprehend'

Another assessment shows the similarity of our age to the latter end of the 17th century 'we are fallen into those dregs of time wherein atheism and irreligion,seidition and debauchery seem to divide the world between them'. How much more is this the case now, and how much more proportionately do we need a blasphemy act to be retained.

The Criminal Law Act 1967 abolished the offences of the Blasphemy Act 1698,
and blasphemy became a purely common law matter. Lord Denning said 'we
all thought it was obsolescent'. In 1976 Mary Whitehouse, started a private prosecution of a blasphemous homosexual poem. During the House of Lords appeal Lord Scarman said that "I do not subscribe to the view that the common law offence of blasphemous libel serves no useful purpose in modern law. (...) The offence belongs to a group of criminal offences designed to safeguard the internal tranquillity of the kingdom." The conviction was followed by a endeavours to abolish the crime of blasphemy.

We ought to take special note of the reasons that are annexed to the third commandment. The Larger Catechism identifies these as:
'these words, The Lord thy God, and, For the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain, are, because he is the Lord and our God, therefore his name is not to be profaned, or any way abused by us; especially because he will be so far from acquitting and sparing the transgressors of this commandment, as that he will not suffer them to escape his righteous judgment; albeit many such escape the censures and punishments of men'. The last two clauses should be clearly emphasised in the light of current events.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Are evangelicals becoming liberal?

A recent Time Magazine Article reports on the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life which last year surveyed 35,000 Americans, and found that 70% of respondents agreed with the statement "Many religions can lead to eternal life." Even more remarkable was the fact that 57% of Evangelical Christians were willing to accept that theirs might not be the only path to salvation, since most Christians historically have embraced the words of Jesus, in the Gospel of John, that "no one comes to the Father except through me." Even as mainline churches had become more tolerant, the exclusivity of Christianity's path to heaven has long been one of the Evangelicals' fundamental tenets.

This shows how far evangelicalism is from a sound bedrock of confessional truth drawn from Scripture. The Westminster Confession states:

…men, not professing the Christian religion, [cannot] be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the laws of that religion they do profess. And, to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested [Westminster Confession of Faith, 10.4]

Robert Reymond writes against religious inclusivism here.

J.G. Vos was a good observer of other religions in "A Christian Introduction to Religions of the World" - he is very perceptive on Islam. He also has a good article on the Good Elements in False Religions. But we must remember that the counterfeit requires to have some resemblance to the truth to be successful. Here is a good article on the exclusivity of Christianity.