Tuesday, October 27, 2009

the form and power of godliness

I have come recently to appreciate the writings of J.C.Philpot, the Strict Baptist. His 'Ears after Harvested Sheaves' is of the very best of daily readings. I have been unable to find expressly any Antinomian or Hypercalvinist error in it at all as yet. Philpot emphasises a high-toned experimental Christianity, and reading him does the soul much good. In the following extracts from a sermon on "Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away." —2 Tim 3:5 he distinguishes very carefully the true from the false.

By godliness he understands 'the whole of the Spirit's work upon the soul, the teachings of God in the heart, all that is generally conveyed by the expression, experimental religion, with all the fruits and consequences which flow out of that divine work. Thus godliness in this sense has a very comprehensive signification. It embraces the whole of experimental religion; it includes the whole work of grace from first to last, from the first teachings of the Spirit in the heart of the babe, up to the last hallelujahs of the expiring saint. And not only so, but it comprehends all the external fruits and manifestations of the work of grace upon the soul. Thus, in this sense, godliness has a very extensive signification; and therefore many spiritual branches will be found to grow out from this deep and broad stem'.

He speaks of how these graces of godliness are not always in high exercise so as we always experience the power of it to the same degree. 'If ever you have loved Jesus with a pure affection; if ever you have felt him near, dear, and precious to your soul, that love can never be lost out of your heart. It may lie dormant; it does lie dormant. It may not be sweetly felt in exercise; but there it is. "If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha" (1 Cor. vi. 22). You would be under this curse if the love of the Lord Jesus Christ were to die out of your hearts.

But this love is often sleeping. When the mother sometimes watches over the cradle, and looks upon her sleeping babe with unutterable affection, the infant knows not that the mother is watching its slumbers; but when it awakes, it is able to feel and return its mother's caresses. It is so with the soul sometimes when love in the heart is like a babe slumbering in the cradle. But as the babe opens its eyes, and sees the mother smiling upon it, it returns the smiles, and stretches forth its arms to embrace the bending cheek; so as to feel enmity against them? Nay, perhaps when we face of Jesus stooping to imprint a kiss of love, or drop some sweet word into the heart, and there is a flowing forth toward him of love and affection—"this is the power of love'.

He observes that it is easy to talk about and emphasise experimental religion but not actually exercise it. In distinguishing the power from the form he warns that 'when two things very nearly resemble each other, there lies the peril; lest the poison should be mistaken for the remedy.

Thus peril lies in the wide-spread profession of experimental truth, for it is that alone which deserves the name of "godliness," lest in the wide profession of experimental truth we should deceive ourselves, or others should deceive us, by the form without the power.

And this is perilous to the people of God lest they should be entangled by the wide-spread profession of experimental truth and the mere exterior of vital godliness, without the heart-felt possession of spiritual knowledge and enjoyment of it.

A form is something that comes very near, and yet is not the thing itself.

1. There is the form of repentance. A person may profess to be very sorry for, and to have great conviction of sin, talk about a law-work, and guilt on account of his transgressions; and yet not have that life-giving power of the Spirit upon his soul producing real contrition and true repentance. It may be only the workings of natural cons-science, and not that peculiar teaching of God the Spirit in the heart of a sinner whereby he is broken down into godly sorrow and deep penitence of heart before the Lord.

2. So with respect to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a natural faith in Christ as well as a spiritual faith. A man may have heard so much about Jesus Christ under ministers who extol him highly, speak of his Person, proclaim his blood, and dwell upon his justifying righteousness, that he may fancy he has faith in Christ, because he has heard so much of him with the outward ear; and yet be all the time without living, genuine faith. This special gift and work of God upon the soul may be still fatally wanting.

3. So with respect to love to the Lord Jesus Christ. There may be a natural love toward him. A man may have heard and read so much of his kindness to sinners, and such glowing descriptions of the beauty of his Person, that he may have fallen in love with him. Just as Roman Catholics have their crucifixes and paintings of Christ, and in admiring their crucifixes and adoring their paintings, feel the workings of fleshly love towards him whom they suppose to be there represented; so a man may have heard so much about the love of Christ, that he may have his fleshly affections roused up, and mistake them for that pure love which is shed abroad in the heart by the Holy Ghost.

4. So we may have something that draws us towards the Lord's people. We may feel that there is an amiableness about them; we may believe that they are the Lord's living family, and wish to be like them; to talk as they talk, and speak as they speak; and this we may mistake for love to the brethren; whilst all the time our heart may be completely destitute of that true love to the brethren, the fruit and effect of the Spirit's work upon the soul.

5. So with respect to the gift of prayer. It may seem to ourselves, and those who hear us, so simple, so fervent, so earnest, so humbly expressed, that surely it must be a spiritual prayer. And yet, we may often mistake a mere natural gift for that special grace of God whereby we are enabled to pour out our heart before him.

6. So we may be able by what we have felt under the convictions of natural conscience to live a life of separation from the world, to overcome sin when not very strong, to walk in the commandments and ordinances of God blameless; and yet be destitute of the vital power of the Spirit's teachings and operations, without which all these things are but as the convulsive twitchings of a dead body under the action of an electric battery. Like Herod, a man may do many things, and yet be absolutely devoid of the vital power of godliness brought into the heart by the Spirit of God.

'Well,' some may say, 'if this be the case, how may I know that I am not deceived altogether?' 'If a man may go so near, and yet not be a real character, what evidence have I,' says some poor tempted child of God, 'that I am not deceived?' Now what is said of these characters? They deny the power. Have you done that?

But what is it to "deny the power?" The power may be denied in various ways.

1. It is denied by some publicly and openly. There are some preachers professing the doctrines of truth, who cut down all experience, and say, it is nothing but frames and feelings.' This is to deny the power of godliness. If we have no frames, if we have no feelings, I am very sure the Spirit of God has not made our bodies his temple. If we have never had frames of sweet meditation, a frame of living faith, a frame of divine love, a frame of spiritual-mindedness, a frame of heavenly affections, I am very sure the Spirit of God has never blessed our soul. Again, if I am without feelings—"a feeling of sorrow for sin, a feeling of faith towards Jesus, a feeling of love towards his name, a feeling of love towards the brethren; if we are without these gracious feelings, we are dead as stones as to any possession of the life of God. So that, to cut down experience, and say, 'it is nothing but a parcel of frames and feelings,' is to deny the "power of godliness."

You will observe these men do not deny godliness; they dare not do that; but they deny the power of it in the heart of a saint, under the operation of the Spirit. Every jeer and sneer, every taunting speech thrown out against frames and feelings just manifests what a man's heart is; it is opening a door through which you can look indeed into the secrets of his bosom, and there see the serpent coiled up and hissing enmity against God's truth and against his living people.

2. Others deny it by their life and conversation. If a man walk in the lusts of the flesh; if he wallow in uncleanness or drunkenness; if he be altogether given up to the power of pride and covetousness, he denies the power of godliness by his actions as much as the preceding deny it by their words.

Both these characters deny the power of godliness out-wardly—"the one in word, the other in deed.

3. Others, having more regard to conscience, cannot go that length of outward enmity; yet they too deny it inwardly. For instance, are there not those who secretly think there is no absolute need for the soul to be emptied and stripped, and to have a revelation of Christ; and that they can be saved without such an experience of the bitter and the sweet, the sorrows and the joys that the Lord's people speak of? And are not these secret thoughts much strengthened and fostered by those ministers who profess to preach Christ as distinct from, and far superior to experience? What more common than such language as this from the pulpit: 'I cannot bear to hear people talk of their castings down and liftings up; they dwell and pore so much upon self; why do they not go out of self, and look to a precious Jesus?'

I want to know if this is not inwardly denying the power? They dare not say there is no such thing; but they speak of looking out of self to Christ, as if there were no inward experience of Christ, no visitations of his presence and love; and as if all religion consisted in a dry, speculative knowledge, without one inward grain of life and feeling. Their talk of looking to Christ is very plausible and subtle; but its real aim and drift is to deny the power of vital godliness in the heart of a saint.

4. But there are others who deny it virtually and actually by the non-possession of it. For instance, there are many who say they approve of, and that there is nothing like experimental preaching; they will crowd and cram a chapel to hear the experience of God's people traced out; and yet all the while they virtually and actually deny the power of it by the non-possession of it in their hearts. They have imbibed such a knowledge of the plan of experience from constantly hearing it preached, and they are so certain that it is the truth, that they will hear nothing else, and yet the vital power has never reached their conscience.

Now, what testimony have we who desire to fear God's name that we have anything more than a "form of godliness?" We have a form; that is very clear. But have we any living testimony in our conscience that we have something more than the form? Have we ever felt the power? We have no testimony that we are possessors of godliness unless we have felt its power.

But there are children of God (there may be some here present this morning) who are now, and have been for weeks, or even months, without the feeling power; and they are perhaps writing bitter things against themselves because they are not under those lively feelings that they once enjoyed. But since you have once felt it, have you ever denied the power, or with all your darkness and deadness, do you deny it now? Is not this rather the feeling of your soul? "O that I were as in months past, as in the days when God preserved me; when his candle shined upon my head, and when by his light I walked through darkness" (Job xxix. 2, 3). Is not this rather the language of your heart, 'O that the Lord would bless me indeed! would revive his work upon my heart, and give me life and power, to enable me to believe in his name! O that he would visit my soul with some discovery of his love, and bring me out of that gloomy and dark state in which I am so sadly sunk!'

These are the feelings of a living soul. But those who have but the "form of godliness," deny all these exercises. They want no revivings; they are sighing after no manifestations; they never plead with the Lord to look down upon them and bless them; they are satisfied with an outside religion; they are contented with the mere form. If they can deceive themselves and one another, it is enough. But the living soul, who has the fear of God alive in his bosom, is not so satisfied; he wants living manifestations of God's presence, sweet communications of God's mercy, and the blessed overshadowings of the Spirit upon his heart. If he has not them, he feels he has nothing.

Thus, while this text cuts to a thousand pieces those who have but the form, it does not wound the poor mourning child of God who is sighing and crying after the power. Every sigh, cry, and groan that he has on account of his dark, dead, gloomy state are so many living evidences of that power. Whence arise your sighs? What makes you mourn upon your bed? Whence spring those breathings in your soul as you sit by your fire-side after the Lord's presence—"that he would speak to your soul, and manifest himself to you? Why, they spring from this conviction deeply wrought in your heart, that nothing but the power of God can reach your soul. All short of that is stamped upon your conscience as nothing.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Why do the elders interview intending communicants?

Elders must interview intending communicants if they are to discharge their responsibilities faithfully. The individual has their responsibility "Let a man examine himself". The Lord's Supper is not an individual activity but a communion, however, with the communicant membership of a particular congregation amongst others. The Lord's Supper is a seal of the covenant of grace and a seal of church membership and of church privileges. It is a pledge of the fullest communion in God’s visible covenant society upon earth. The elders of that congregation have a duty both to Christ as head of the Church and to the souls of those over which they have oversight. 2 Tim. 4:2 "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all long-suffering and doctrine. Titus 2:15 'These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee. 1 Cor. 5:12 'For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? Heb. 13:17 'Obey them that nave the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account; that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you'.

Elders have been set in the Church together with minister for the purpose of the edification of the body and to bring all to a maturity of faith (Eph 4:11-13). Ministers are elders (Titus 1:7, 1 Cor 4:1-2) are called 'the steward of God', particularly stewards of the mysteries of God, who are required to be found faithful.

The elders are to watch over the Church "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood." There is a duty to be strictly attentive, active and cautious in this responsibility [Acts 20:17, 28-31]. The elders must only admit those who publicly profess faith in Christ and who live in conformity to that profession (Titus 1:16, Matthew 7:21). They are like the porters under the Old Testament, (2 Chron. 23:19) 'And he set the porters at the gates of the house of the Lord, that none which was unclean in any thing should enter in'.

Christ has given to these officers the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:19; 18:17-18; Jn. 20:21-23; 2 Cor. 2:6-8). "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven." [Matt. 18.18], note that this is addressed in the plural (ye, you). The Westminster Confession asserts that elders exercise the keys of the kingdom: “To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof they have power respectively to retain and remit sins, to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the word and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel, and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require".

I Cor 5:1-8 shows that the Lord's Supper is the New Testament Passover and that the Church is to purged of the 'leaven' of hypocrisy in order to maintain the true witness and profession of the Church. As they sit at the Lord's table they are to "keep the feast", the feast in the New Testament sense, purely and in sincerity "not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth". Paul condemned them in verse 2 for keeping the man in its fellowship and allowing him to come to the communion table. [1 Cor. 5:2].

With a view to celebrating the Lord’s Supper properly, the Kirk Session at Corinth was to constitute itself into a court of Christ's Church, in the name and by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, and "purge out the old leaven", so that they might partake of this holy sacrament in an acceptable manner. "Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:" [1 Corinthians 5:6-7]. Other relevant portions are:
2 Cor. 10. 8. "Our authority which the Lord hath given us for edification".
1 Thess 5. 21. "Prove all things: Hold fast that which is good."

If the elders have received the keys from Christ they must be very careful to open the door of admission only to those whom Christ would have them admit. They are to look for an accredited profession of faith. There are three dimensions to Christian profession: doctrine, duty and experience. These dimensions are also necessary to communion with Christ JN 14:21 "He that hath my commandments [doctrine], and keepeth them [duty], he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him [experience]." These are those "that join themselves to the LORD, to serve him, and to love the name of the LORD" IS56:6. This faith, love and obedience needs to be tested in an objective manner however, if a court of the church is to admit individuals to the privilege of this sacrament. They cannot, however, know the secret state of anyone's soul and they can only assess the evidence of the outward profession and consistent conduct of the person applying to be received as a communicant (Acts 19:18).

Why do sessions interview candidates and not just issue a verbal warning from the pulpit?
[1] Reliance on the word of warning from the pulpit alone fails because it introduces a more stringent standard for admission to baptism than the Lord's Supper. Before a person is allowed to present himself, or his children, for baptism, he must satisfy the Session as to his profession and life. If there is only a verbal warning in the case of the Lord's Supper, however, the candidate is only asked to examine himself before he is allowed to come to the Lord’s Table - this is inconsistent.
[2] If we rely upon a word of warning from the pulpit alone, we are dangerously assuming sufficient competence to judge spiritual matters on the part of those who may be complete strangers. Sessions must assume the opposite, unless-and until-they have obtained adequate information. Many people who say that they are Christians are profoundly ignorant of what that really means.
[3] A mere verbal warning does not deal with the problem of those who are under discipline from other churches if it is left up to the individual to judge his own case. It does not do justice to the sinful propensities of men, or to the seriousness of church censures.
[4] There is such a thing as corporate responsibility. Many people belong to Churches that will not submit to the Word of God but rather reject it. There are also Churches that do not administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in His Word, but add to and take from them. They do not emphasise the need for holy living according to the Word of God. These individuals think that this has nothing to do with their own personal faith. This needs to be vitally addressed. Only examination by elders will achieve this.
[5] People need their errors pointed out - it is no kindness to ignore them.
[6] In the best days of the Church admission to the table was viewed as proper only when the elders had sufficient knowledge of the communicants to judge them to be worthy receivers. If persons are admitted of whom the Session know nothing it cannot be reconciled with the clearly stated requirement of the Westminster Confession which says:
...ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with [Christ], so are they unworthy of the Lord’s table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto. [Note that people must be admitted they cannot admit themselves]
Larger Catechism Answer [WLC 173] 'May any who profess the faith, and desire to come to the Lord's supper, be kept from it?'
'Such as are found to be ignorant or scandalous, notwithstanding their profession of the faith, and desire to come to the Lord's Supper, may and ought to be kept from that sacrament, by the power which Christ has left in his church, until they receive instruction, and manifest their reformation'.
[7] Examination by the elders means that people are brought to face the seriousness of what it means to partake of the Lord’s table.
[8] The table was fenced in this way in the Early Church:
Justin [c.150 AD]:
And this food is called among us [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. [Apology I LXVI]
The requirements of the church of 150 AD were 1] believe the teachings of the church [2] baptism and [3] godly life. The Didache Didache [c.120AD?] also says "But let not any one who hath a quarrel with his companion join with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be polluted". [14:2]
[9] It was also fenced from the Reformation onwards. Knox's Book of Common Order, adopted in Scotland in 1564: "The administration of the Table ought never to be without examination pass before, especially of those whose knowledge is suspect. We think that none are apt to be admitted to that Mystery, who cannot formally say the Lord's Prayer, The Articles of the Belief, and declare the sum of the Law." Knox goes on to say: "And therefore of necessity we judge it, that every year at least, public examination be had by the Ministers and Elders of the knowledge of every person within the church; to wit, that every master and mistress of household come to maturity, before the Ministers and Elders, to give confession of their faith, and to answer such chief points of Religion as the Ministers shall demand"
[10] As in all things in the Church, cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord negligently. The elders must not follow convenience but the injunction: "Let all things be done decently and in order" [1 Cor. 14:40].

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

the glories of Christianity

Sabbath day, Jan. 20. At night. The last week I was sunk so low, that I fear it will be a long time before I am recovered. I fell exceedingly low in the weekly account. I find my heart so deceitful, that I am almost discouraged from making any more resolutions.—Wherein have I been negligent in the week past; and how could I have done better, to help the dreadful low estate in which I am sunk?
Monday, Jan. 21 Before sunrise, answered the preceding questions thus: I ought to have spent my time in bewailing my sins, and in singing psalms—especially psalms or hymns of penitence; these duties being most suited to the frame I was in. I do not spend time enough in endeavouring to affect myself with the glories of Christianity.—Fell short in the monthly account. It seems to me, that I am fallen from my former sense of the pleasantness of religion.
Tuesday, Feb. 5. At night. I have thought that this being so exceedingly careful, and so particularly anxious, to force myself to think of religion at all times, has exceedingly distracted my mind, and made me altogether unfit for that and every thing else. I have thought that this caused the dreadful low con-dition I was in on the 15th of January. I think that I stretched myself further than I could bear, and so broke.—But now it seems to me, though I know not why, that I do not do enough to prepare for another world. I do not seem to press forward, to fight and wrestle, as the apostles used to speak. I do not seem so greatly and constantly to mortify and deny myself, as the mortification of which they speak represents. Therefore, wherein ought I to do more in this way?—I answer: I am again grown too careless about eating, drinking, and sleeping—not careful enough about evil-speaking.
Saturday, Feb. 16. I do certainly know that I love holiness, such as the gospel prescribes.—At night. For the time past of my life, I have been negli-gent, in that I have not sufficiently kept up that part of divine worship, singing the praise of God in secret and with company.—I have been negligent this month past, in these three things: I have not been watchful enough over my appetites, in eating and drinking; in rising too late in the morning; and in not applying myself with sufficient application to the duty of secret prayer.

"I do not spend enough time endeavouring to affect myself with the glories of Christianity." 
- Jonathan Edwards (Diary entry for January 21, 1723, age 20) 
Edwards took steps to make sure that this would not be his epitaph, do you and I?
'I have written to him the great things of my law, but they were counted as a strange thing'. Hosea 8:12

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Soul of Life

This was published in the September issue of the FP Magazine.

The Soul of Life: The Piety of John Calvin, edited and introduced by Joel R Beeke, published by Reformation Heritage Books in their Profiles in Reformed Spirituality series, paperback, 220 pages, £6.95 from the F P Bookroom.

In John Calvin’s five-hundredth anniversary year, there is no shortage of books being published about his life and work. This book is undoubtedly among the most edifying of them. It provides a useful outline of Calvin’s life and then the aspects of the biblical piety that he emphasised. Calvin defined piety as “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of His benefits induces”. Dr Beeke explains the theological dimensions of Calvin’s piety: (1) Its root: mystical union, (2) Its double bond: the Spirit and faith, and (3) Its double cleansing: justification and sanctification. He then refers to the practical exercise of this piety in the means of grace, including the Word, sacraments, prayer and psalm-singing. Other practical dimensions include repentance, cross-bearing, obedience and heavenly-mindedness.

The bulk of the book consists of 45 short selections from Calvin’s writings which are arranged under the headings mentioned above. Calvin writes warmly, clearly and attractively and this volume provides a very helpful introduction to his works. These selections are brief enough to read one per day and one might well choose to follow the example of the Puritan John Cotton who said, “I love to sweeten my mouth with a piece of Calvin before I go to sleep”. It is a well-illustrated pocket-size book, in what is becoming an interesting and helpful series.

The Christian needs every such help in his “faint, yet pursuing” endeavours after godliness. “We ought to apply ourselves altogether to piety alone, because when we have once attained it, God asks nothing more from us.” “It is this, indeed, that through the whole course of life we seek and follow. But we shall attain it only when we have cast off the weakness of the body and are received into full fellowship with Him.”

Saturday, October 10, 2009

sin seeps in

A poem by Francis Quarles compares various kinds of sin to various types of wet weather by which we become soaked.  

On several Sins.

Gross Sin. 
Is like a Show'r, which ere we can get in  
Into our Conscience, wets us to the skin:  

Sin of Infirmity. 
Is like the falling of an April Shower;  
'Tis often Rain, and Sun-shine, in an hour.  

Sin of Custom. 
Is a long Shower, beginning with the Light  
Oft-times continuing till the Dead of Night.  

Sin of Ignorance.
It is a hideous Mist, that wets amain,  
Though it appear not in the form of Rain.  

Crying Sin.
It is a sudden Shower, that tears in sunder  
The Cope of Heav'n, & alway comes with Thunder.  

Sin of Delight. 
Is like a feathered Shower of Snow, not felt,  
But soaks to th' very skin, when ere it melt:  

Sin of Presumption. 
Does like a Shower of Hail, both wet and wound  
With sudden Death: or strikes us to the Ground.  

The Sin of Sins. 
It is a sulph'rous Shower, such as fell  
On Sodom, strikes, and strikes to th' Pit of Hell.