How Do I Know if My Repentance is Genuine?
Matthew Vogan is the General Manager at Reformation Scotland Trust. He has written various books including volumes about Samuel Rutherford and Alexander Shields.
Did I mean it? How sorry was I? Do I really want to change? Many have nagging doubts over their repentance. That’s often valid. Paul tells us that there is true and false repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). Paul also makes clear that repentance isn’t just sorrow; that can also be genuine or false. Repentance involves our feelings. But if we only ever assess it by our feelings our conclusions about whether it is genuine will always be subjective. How do we get beyond this?
It’s important to have a serious attitude about this. If we aren’t confessing our sin, what are we saying? That we have no sins? That we haven’t sinned? Then we are making God a liar (1 John 1:8). It would also mean neglecting the blood of Jesus Christ that continually cleanses us from all sin. We need to keep coming in repentance because we keep sinning. If we keep sinning without repenting we harden ourselves in it and cannot have true fellowship with God.
It helps to establish first what we mean by repentance. James Durham gives a helpful definition. Repentance is a work of sanctifying grace, arising from the sense of sin forgiven and hope of future mercy. It makes the heart both indignant against past sin and warmed with desire and love towards the mercy they expect. This repentance goes along with faith, which acts to attain the hoped for forgiveness with a thorough impression of the freeness of forgiveness alongside the person’s felt sinfulness. This is the godly sorrow which is spoken of in 2 Corinthians 7:11 and in other places where repentance is required in order sin to be forgiven. It also involves turning from sin and seeking to obey God.
In the following updated extract, Durham goes on to speak about how we can identify genuine repentance. It isn’t simply about what kind of feelings we have and to what extent they are experienced. There are more objective ways to identify whether repentance is the real thing or not.
1. Genuine Repentance is Not a Particular Degree
The Lord does not require some categorical degree of repentance, but He does require sincere repentance together with the fruits that naturally accompany it.
2. Genuine Repentance is Not a Particular Emotion
You cannot judge the sincerity of your repentance only by the sorrow, horror or grief that sometimes accompanies it. Nor can you judge it by how long you continue in such emotions while repenting. Repentance can be genuine even when there is little sense of these things. Experience demonstrates this. Repentance may be unsound when there is a great deal of felt sorrow, even over a long period of time.
3. Genuine Repentance has the Right Causes and Effects
The best way to judge the sincerity of repentance is by its causes and its effects. It is a good sign if repentance is caused by a concern about God’s honour. The effects of this concern are that: sin becomes hateful to you, you are humbled in yourself and you value and esteem God’s grace in Christ Jesus so highly that you are in love with it. This is turning, properly understood, and it includes all the essential features of repentance whatever may be the degree of sorrow.
4. Genuine Repentance May be Explicit or Implicit
Repentance is explicit when people know that specific things are sins and that they themselves are guilty of these sins. They then expressly and explicitly acknowledge this and turn from these sins. Other times, repentance is implicit. This is when people are moved with the sense of their sinfulness in general. They may still be guilty of some things which they do not realise are sins, or they do not realise they are guilty of these sins. There are also many matters of fact which people forget, or did not notice, or do not think about. The psalmist prays to be cleansed from secret sins (Psalm 19:12). Implicit repentance is necessary for pardon, but it is not necessary that repentance should be explicit for every particular sin someone is guilty of.
5. Genuine Repentance May be Actual or Implied
Sometimes repentance is actual for particular sins. For example, when Peter repented of his denial, and David repented of his murder. Other times, repentance is implied. Someone may have a heart concern about some particular sin and for the corrupt inclination and body of death which it sprang from. Yet there may be other particular sins which they either do not realise are sin or they are not particularly thinking and repenting about. They do have an implied repentance for these sins. This is because: (a) They repent of all sin in its root and seed. This implies a loathing for all the sins which branch out from this root; (b) The sins they do repent of are repented of due to what is common to all sin–lack of conformity to the law of God. They detest the essence and defining characteristic of sin as such, and in this sense they repent of all sins by implication. It is this principle that is necessary for true repentance.
6. Genuine Repentance May be Passionate or Perceptive
Repentance may be impassioned when the heart experiences a high degree of sorrow. Other times, repentance is perceptive. This is when sin is seen and acknowledged and (although there may not be such intense sorrow) sin is still regarded as something to sorrow for. Indeed the heart is sorry that its sorrow for sin is not deeper and the person realises they are so far under the power of spiritual deadness that they cannot even repent as far as they see they should. This perceptive repentance has the essential effects of repentance (namely, that the person hates sin, is humbled, and loves God’s mercy in Christ). Intense passionate feelings may not always, however, have these effects.
7. Genuine Repentance May be Complete or Confined
Sometimes repentance is all-encompassing, taking up the whole person in their affections and actions. This can be seen in David’s experience in Psalm 51. Other times, repentance is limited to the renewed (regenerate) part of the person. The renewed part may be lamenting sin and the tyranny of the body of death, even while it is kept in bondage by it. This constrained repentance is what Paul shows in Romans 7:15, where he condemned what he did but was overcome by his own sinfulness. Despite this he like Ephraim bemoaning himself (Jeremiah 31:18) was a true penitent.
8. Genuine Repentance May be Obvious or Hidden
Repentance may obvious to everyone or to the person themselves, because they have been clearly recovered from sin. This was the case with the repentance of David, Peter, and Manasseh. Other times, repentance is known only to God. Even when there are no visible evidences to others, or indeed even any change of which the person themselves is conscious, repentance may be genuine. This may be said of Solomon and Asa, their change is not very discernible because the Lord has left them under something of a cloud in His Word. Yet we cannot doubt that they did genuinely repent because they were pardoned.
This has been ordered by the Lord in His deep wisdom: (a) partly to chastise their backsliding; (b) partly to terrify others from their backsliding path and (c) partly to make all men cautious about passing judgement on the state of others despite their condition. For the Lord Himself alone must make the sovereign and infallible decision about whether they are truly penitent and believers or not. He can produce faith and repentance and recover and renew as and when He pleases.
We don’t want to think we have repented while actually just putting our conscience to sleep while we continue in sin. We want a repentance concerned about God’s honour and glory. We want genuine repentance that hates all sin in principle, that humbles us and values God’s grace in Christ above all.
We “have to reconcile two sets of instincts…there are some people who say they are irreconcilable and that it just can’t be done”. Politics is said to be the art of making the impossible, possible. But this week, we heard a political ruler speaking about going beneath the surface of society into the human heart and reconciling potentially irreconcilable instincts. The wisdom of political tradition, he said, could provide “the best insights in how to manage the jostling sets of instincts in the human heart”. There are various created natural instincts such as: self-preservation, natural affection, fostering and preserving society and acknowledging and worshipping God. They ought not to compete with one another but the trouble is that they are warped by sin. So we have to contend with the instincts of sin in the heart which will never compromise. We pray for national leaders and long that they would seek a higher wisdom in their unenviable task. For what politician indeed would dream of declaring war on sin?
The Christian knows all about irreconcilable instincts in the heart; desires that are opposed and contrary to one another. Regeneration sets up a conflict between grace and remaining sin. There are sinful desires that wage war against the soul (1 Peter 2:11) and they are deceitful in their operation (Ephesians 4:22). In the following updated extract in relation to Galatians 5:17, James Fergusson opens up this conflict further. He shows how Paul proves that following the instincts of the renewed part of their heart means keeping under the unrenewed part.
Paul says that the renewed, and unrenewed part, or spirit and flesh incessantly oppose and labour to suppress one another. This is because they are two principles that absolutely contrary to each other (John 3:6). Paul goes on to show how they are both supported and assisted with contrary superior powers in verses 19 and 22. This conflict prevents us from completely and effectually doing either the good or the evil to which the will inclines. The flesh or sinful nature always opposes what we seek to do in accordance with the direction of the Spirit. The spirit likewise opposes the directions of the flesh. This is also implied in verse 16.
1. These Instincts are in a Regenerate Person
The regenerate person has a renewed principle of grace in all the faculties and powers of the soul; it has been produced within them by the Spirit of God. In all those parts of the soul, they also have some remainder of sinful corruption that has not yet been put to death. This means that our whole mind, will and affections are partly spiritual, partly carnal, both flesh and Spirit are in us. The two sets of desires are against one another (Galatians 5:17).
2. These Instincts are Constantly Active
None of those powers or principles in the regenerate person are dead, dull, or merely passive. Both sin and grace are working and active. The flesh lusts and the spirit desires. Both of them influence the whole person to work in a way congruous to the nature of these respective principles; the one to good and the other to evil.
3. These Instincts are Completely Opposed
The operation of these two active principles is in flat opposition, the one to the other. Thus, in one and the same person even while they are engaged in one and the same action, there is a conflict and battle between these two contrary armies (Romans 7:19, 21). The lusts of the flesh are against the spirit, and the spirit’s desires are against the flesh.
4. These Instincts are in Every Action
Both these principles combine in all the powers and faculties of the regenerate person. So there is a mixture of their respective influence and efficacy in every action. Though one may prevail over the other in some actions there is not one action to which both of them do not contribute something. If there is not a causal influence there is some measure of active resistance. Their desires are constantly working against each other.
The actions of the regenerate are not perfect and free from some sinful admixture. But there is still a difference between their worst actions and the same actions as done by the unregenerate. The difference is that in the regenerate the flesh does not sweep along with a full gale in its sails but encounters the contrary tide of resistance from the spirit to some degree. Just as the flesh lusts against the spirit, so the spirit’s desires are against the flesh. This means that we cannot do the things we want to do in relation to both.
5. These Instincts are in Spiritual Combat
Unregenerate people may have something similar to this spiritual combat, they may sometimes experience a conflict between their natural conscience and rebellious desires (Romans 2:1). But they do have not the very same combat spoken of here. This combat is not just one faculty set against the other but every faculty, as it is flesh, is set against itself, as it is spirit. This combat is not in the unregenerate because they are wholly flesh (Genesis 6:5) and not spirit at all. This combat is between flesh and spirit not natural conscience and sinful desires.
6. These Instincts are Frustrated in Our Actions
The mutual resistance and opposition of those two opposing parties (flesh and spirit) in the regenerate begins at the very first rise of every action in the understanding, will or affections. It continues and grows ever more fierce as the action progresses towards its full accomplishment by the governing faculties. Not being able to do the things that we would implies that our willing good or evil is more (but not entirely) free from this opposition, compared to our actual doing or accomplishing what we have willed (see Romans 7:18). We cannot do the things we have willed to do.
The better we understand the nature of the warfare within the battlefield of our heart, the better equipped we will be to advance in being Christ-like. Whether or not they are aware of it, the Christian has a constant conflict in every aspect of their inward life and in every action. There are irreconcilable instincts in constant combat (James 4:1-3). One principle cannot prevail unless it is at the expense of the other. There can never be compromise. But the believer has divine help to advance in this warfare. The previous verse (Galatians 5:16) speaks of walking in the Spirit and later we understand that the flesh is a dying enemy (Galatians 5:24). Sin will not have dominion over God’s people (Romans 6:14). In the midst of such unceasing and unremitting conflict there is hope. Who will give deliverance? Paul answers this question, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25).
Empathy is diminishing rapidly in our culture. We’re told that “the average person in 2009 was less empathic than 75 per cent of people in 1979”. Yet 1,500 books available through Amazon apparently have a version of the word empathy in their title. As with other things it seems the more something is talked about, the less there is. Some fear that it is talked up in such a way as to amount to a religion in itself; a belief in the power of “feeling”. Do we just need a little kindness to make everything better? Is that the same as true empathy? How should we think and act biblically about this?
Sympathy is more a sense of pity whereas empathy seeks to put ourselves in the same place as those for whom we have compassion. This kind of compassion is something that Scripture emphasises (1 Peter 3:8). It makes clear that believers ought to be affected by the experience of others as if it were their own. This is loving our neighbour as ourselves (Luke 10:37). In particular, we are to experience the affliction of others of the household of faith as if we were afflicted with them (Hebrews 13:3), as members of the same body (1 Corinthians 12:26). We have the example of Christ who was troubled and wept (John 11:34-35) in empathy for his mourning friends.
Empathy can be directed in a good and a bad way. It has limitations and may stop at feelings without moving to right action. When psychologists commend empathy they have no objective standard of when it is right to be empathetic. Nor do they have anything more than a subjective standard for why we ought to experience such feelings. The gospel of Christ, however, provides this standard. It shows the compassion of Christ moved to action and gives a reason why we ought to show compassion (Ephesians 4:32). Empathy isn’t only compassion, however, it experiences joy together with others as well as sorrow (Romans 12:15).
The Church ought to be the place where true empathy flourishes. But true empathy is now sentimentalism. When the apostle Paul speaks of bearing one another’s burdens in Galatians 6:2 it comes immediately after the instruction to recover those who are overtaken in a fault (Galatians 6:1). Compassion means bearing with the weaknesses of others to help them not indulge them. We are truly loving them when we seek their spiritual good and encourage them affectionately but firmly towards holiness. This fulfils the law of Christ, the mutual love that we ought to have another which is not content to see our brother go on in sin (Leviticus 19:17). True empathy is driven by the gospel and the moral standards of Scripture.
James Fergusson shows how the apostle Paul highlights the need for true empathy in the following updated extract. It focusses on Colossians 3:12 where Paul is speaking of what believers must put on having been emphasising what they must put off and put to death since verse 5. This shows the connection between holiness and true empathy. He emphasises that those who are beloved of God and have received His grace must live in a particular way towards our neighbour. All the graces required in verse 12 are in relation to our neighbour.
1. True Empathy Comes from Grace
There is a necessary connection between the new man or principles of grace in the heart, and the exercise of Christian virtues in the duties we owe to our neighbour. He speaks of their having put on the new man (v10) and therefore urges them to exercise and put on these virtues.
The knowledge of our election leads to holiness not ungodliness. So he reasons from their election (“put on therefore, as the elect of God”) to their exercise of those virtues, speaking to the truly gracious among them.
2. True Empathy Comes from Holiness
Our holiness must be manifest. Paul joins these two together “the elect of God, holy” the latter is the evidence of the former. Having holiness is a strong motive to spur us towards more holiness. He reasons from their being holy to “put on therefore as the elect of God, holy”.
3. True Empathy Comes from God’s Love
The Lord’s love of approval towards us, delighting in those who are truly gracious, approves of His own graces in them (John 14:21). This love should constrain us to love Him again and show our love in the exercise of those graces which He requires in relation to our neighbour. He calls them beloved, i.e. with the Lord’s love of approval and reasons from their being so beloved: “Put on therefore as…beloved”.
4. True Empathy is Merciful
We ought to have the greatest inward feeling of and sympathy with the misery of others. In urging them to put on mercy, he refers to the inward parts of the body being moved by it. The word expresses such an intense motion of the heart and soul, that the very inward parts are moved by it. [The original word in Greek means the inward parts such as heart, liver etc. being the seat of the emotions]
5. True Empathy is Active
Our sympathy with others in their misery ought to be outward and not merely inward. This is done by helping them in their misery according to our ability, which is the “kindness” that they are to put on.
6. True Empathy is Humble
The grace of humility makes someone have a modest esteem of themselves due to a sense of their own weaknesses (Philippians 2:3). It makes them wish that others would esteem them similarly (1 Corinthians 3:5). Humility is essential for obtaining more grace (1 Peter 5:5). They must, therefore, put on humility of mind.
7. True Empathy is Long-suffering
The grace of meekness makes someone amenable and not easily provoked with the folly, weaknesses, and lesser wrongs done to him by others. Long-suffering moderates anger, even under the greatest abuse. Meekness and long-suffering are necessary graces which help us bear with the weaknesses of others to correct them (Galatians 6:1). They keep us from avenging ourselves (Romans 12:18-19) and in our patience make us possess our souls (Luke 21:19). We are to “put on…meekness, long-suffering”.
Reformation is not merely an event in the past; it is a present imperative.
God’s Word constantly challenges us to ever closer harmony with its teaching. Reformation concerns each one of us. It means taking the authority of the Bible seriously in everything. We need to seek still closer obedience. Not only in our personal lives but also in the life of the Church. We need to reflect on where we are in relation to reformation and what still remains to be achieved as individuals, churches and communities. How do our lives, families and congregations match up to God’s requirements in His Word?
One way of reflecting on such priorities is to consider examples of Reformations in Scripture. There are accounts of reforming work under kings such as Josiah, Hezekiah and Jehoshaphat. Donald Cargill gives a helpful exposition of the Reformation described in 2 Chronicles 19. What did it look like?
1. Reforming the People
What does he do to the general body of the people? Verse 4 shows that “he went…through the people…and brought them back unto the LORD God of their fathers”. They were like runaway servants. So he brings them back again to the Lord. See the duty or office of a ruler – to bring back the people of God to God.
What have the rulers done in our nation? They have sought to seduce people away from their obedience to God. And in a word, to deprive God of His authority and introduce and exalt man’s authority. Is this not what all of them have been pursuing? If the commands of men are great with you, the commands of God will be small. They have all been employed in this but never speak a word of the commands of God or His authority.
Yet this is the work Jehoshaphat is employed in. He goes through Jacob and brings the people back again to God. They had been like runaway servants, in fact more like the Levite’s concubine that had left her husband and played the harlot. They had been away, but now this holy king employs all his power to bring them back again to God. He thinks that they are good subjects if they are good saints. But what is obedience to him in comparison with obedience to God? Yet the contrary is said and done by the people of this generation. It is plain from the Word of God and Scripture that a ruler has this responsibility. He who has no regard for this ought to be esteemed a ruler no more but rather a tyrant and an enemy to God.
2. Reforming the State
A second aspect of reformation is in the state. What does he do there? He sets judges in every city of Judah etc. Now undoubtedly as he was a holy man himself, so he set holy and good judges in every city. Every ruler chooses those judges that are like himself. The officers and judges in a country will tell you the nature of the rulers. A holy ruler wants holy judges that will give justice to all.
He gives holy judges, and gives them a particular exhortation when he puts them in their office (verse 6). It is remarkable. Anybody would have thought he would have said “ensure that my prerogatives and privileges are not harmed. Do not let the taxes be decreased. See that the crown rights are not diminished in any way”. It is things similar to this that rulers ordinarily recommend at first. But what does he say? He said to the judges, to take heed because they were not judging for man but for God the Lord. God is with you in judgment. Remember, I commit judgment to you, but the judgment is not mine, it is the Lord’s. Remember that what you do, is for God. Do it as if God Himself would do it. Do it as if He were sitting there.
Now where are there any judges that operate in this way? Where is there a ruler that desires them to do their work in this way? Rulers often say: “judge for me, you have your office from men and therefore judge for me”. But Jehoshaphat says, “I give you authority to judge but remember you must answer to God for your judgment, for God is with you in judgment. That is to say, He is present with you to help you if you do right and to be displeased with you if you judge wrong. He is present to protect you if you do right. But He will be a witness against you and punish you, if you do wrong. He exhorts them to let the fear of God be on them and prevail with them.
God will not approve any unjust counsel. God reviews all of their judgments and sees how they have judged and He judges them. There is no partiality with God and neither should there be with judges. Nobody rules without being liable to failings in ruling. If all the faults of rulers were precisely scrutinised there would be none who could rule to the end of one day without some faults being found in them. But it is one thing to fail in weakness and another thing to be in a constant course of wickedness and enmity against God. The first may be spared, but not the second.
3. Reforming the Church
“He appointed levites and priests in every city, and the chief of the fathers for the judgment of the Lord and for controversies” (2 Chronicles 19:8). He charged them to do this faithfully in the fear of the Lord (2 Chronicles 19:9). This was the great court in the land where they judged together in the Lord’s matters (i.e. religious matters). It involved priest, levites and elders. The matters of the Lord belonged to them, and the king’s matters belonged to the others. But all was to be judged according to the Word of God. The levites judge in the matters of the Lord and in controversies. There was a great court at Jerusalem and all the difficult matters came there to be decided. There were courts throughout the land with judges of hundreds and of thousands. But all hard matters were brought to Jerusalem. He appoints judges to receive these hard matters that they could not judge among themselves, and they gave judgment in these matters.
4. A Challenge
He challenges the king for helping the ungodly and loving those that hate the Lord. Would anybody think that a prophet should speak to a king like this? We must be faithful in reproving kings as well as others. To hold back in this is ruin to rulers. Silence in this is not a virtue but a vice. It is unfaithfulness to God and man. The prophet was not afraid to make Jehoshaphat sad for sin.
Helping the ungodly and loving those that hate the Lord: how does this apply to our time? Whoever helps the ungodly is at fault. If any help the ungodly, they are to be reproved, they are on the wrong side. What will the ungodly do when you have helped them? They will use that help to set up wickedness. There are two sides: the Lord and the godly and on the other side the ungodly. Will you help the ungodly?
Jehoshaphat accepts the reproof because he goes on to engage in the work of reformation. It is a general principle that wherever there is an association with wicked men, reformation is forgotten until the association is broken. Jehoshaphat forgot the work of reformation until the association with Ahab was broken, but then he goes on to reformation. Sinful association has made us forget the work of reformation and shut the door so that none go forward in a national reformation. Until this association is abandoned neither ministers nor people will ever set forward in reformation again.
This brief overview of the reformation under Jehoshaphat is certainly illuminating and also searching. For instance, reformation in the church meant ensuring that God’s Word was being applied in an organised way. Those who had responsibility in relation to the things of God were to be thoroughly instructed in the Word. People were to be held to account in relation to God’s requirements. This was implemented in a united way. In effect, this reformation includes the whole nation: church and state and all within the nation. A complete reformation is extensive, it goes very far in implementing the authority of the Word of God. We can’t just be concerned about getting back to biblical values in the nation, we also need to be concerned about personal and church reformation.
How Does Faith Help Love?
Matthew Vogan is the General Manager at Reformation Scotland Trust. He has written various books including volumes about Samuel Rutherford and Alexander Shields.
Perhaps it’s a question that never exactly occurred to you. But it matters a lot; especially if your love has grown colder. There may be some distance in your relationship with Christ and a sense of absence or sorrow. Faith works by love (Galatians 5:6) but how does love work by faith? To love God is to know and trust Him. As Augustine put it, “neither hope nor love are without faith”. How does deepening our faith influence the strength of love?
Faith and love are uniting graces; they are a bond of union with Christ. The Christian loves someone they have not seen (1 Peter 1:5). This may seem mysterious and strange to others but (as Andrew Gray observes) not to those who have embraced Christ with the two arms of faith and love. He also says that those who have truly seen Christ with the eye of faith cannot but love Him. Neither faith nor love are blind, they know the person trusted and loved.
This is why the Christians of the Early Church were ready to die and suffer for professing a crucified Christ. Though they could not see Christ, no imaginable torments could break the precious cords of love and faith intertwined together by an unseen Christ. They have spent nearly two thousand years in a blessed contemplation of He whom they loved although they did not see while they were here on this earth. But now they both see him and love Him.
Gray notes how Peter commends these two graces of faith and love. He shows how they made these Christians “rejoice with joy unspeakable, and full of glory”. They had a joy that could not be put into language, not even by the most eloquent person. It is a “joy full of glory”, in other words there is a constant joy that flows from exercising faith and love in the one not seen. Permanent joy and unspeakable delight are sweet flowers that come from the root of faith and love. They shall remain eternally green throughout all the ages of long eternity. What will be the joy of saints that are now made perfect if there is such joy here?
1. Faith Reveals the Object of Love
Faith comes first, before love is produced in the heart. It goes out to discover the invisible things of God. Love sits down and comforts itself in the discoveries of faith. Faith reveals the object of love. Faith discerns, comprehends and receives most in relation to God; it reveals the invisible things of God to the Christian. Love is then stirred up by the enlarged spiritual discoveries that faith makes.
2. Faith Helps Love to Trust
When we meet with some sad trials that make us anxious, love begins to call the reality of Christ’s good will into question. It does not know how to reconcile together His good will and His dealings in providence. Faith helps love here. It can read the thoughts of Christ’s heart and can behold His face behind a veil. It can see that though He seems to frown, He still loves. It is not easy to discern this in such sad trials, only faith can understand it.
3. Faith Feeds on the Promises
Faith also helps love in opening up to the Christian the most precious promises that they have received and how they are being fulfilled. This stirs up the Christian to a pre-eminent love for Christ, who has given them such precious promises. If Christians could see how all these promises given to them in Scripture are being fulfilled, their souls would be longing after Christ. They would be constrained to love Him who has thus loved them.
If Christians could see how all these promises given to them in Scripture are being fulfilled, their souls would be longing after Christ.
4. Faith Draws Strength from Christ
Faith helps love in that it goes to Jesus Christ in whom all of our strength is found. It draws strength from Him to exercise all the graces of the Spirit. Love of course, helps faith too (Galatians 5:6). It is impossible for the Christian to be truly exercising faith without exercising love. When love is in exercise, faith increases with the increase of God. When love languishes, it makes faith groan within us with the groanings of a mortally wounded man. Keep love exercised and you will keep faith exercised also. Keep faith exercised and you will likewise keep the grace of love in exercise.
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We live in a look-at-me culture where image is everything. Many are encouraged to be obsessed with how they appear to others. Thinking less of ourselves in these ways is not humility but another symptom of self-obsession. Our culture generally celebrates pride as though it was a virtue. There are many ways in which we need to resist these pressures but we need to begin within. The Bible tells us that all Christians need to be concerned about how we clothe our minds, our words and our behaviour. There is something that should be worn by every Christian in this sense. That garment is humility.
This is especially emphasised in 1 Peter 5:5, “all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility”. It is striking that when Peter points out the responsibilities of Christians, he speaks of submitting to and serving one another. He shows how congregations should display humility in relation to the authority that Christ has established in the Church. He even singles out the younger members of the flock who may be more tempted to show disrespect.
Christians all ought to think about themselves less. They should adorn themselves with this humility. The word “clothe” in Greek literally refers to an item of clothing that was specific to slaves and this emphasises the aspect of mutual service. God opposes pride but has a special regard for those who take a lower place. Humility is so important and such a hard lesson to learn that Peter continues to press this point home in the next verse (1 Peter 5:6). In this updated extract Alexander Nisbet shows what it means to clothe ourselves with humility.
1. Humility Must Be Worn in All Our Interactions with Other Christians
Every one of the Lord’s people owe mutual subjection to one another. This involves giving and accepting loving reproof for faults (Leviticus 19:17; Psalm 141:5). It also includes instructing and admonishing one another in relation to our duty (Colossians 3:16). They must humbles themselves to carry out all the duties of love they owe to one another (Galatians 5:13). All this is included in the requirement given to the members of the church in relation to their fellow-members: “all of you be subject one to another”.
The lost may glory greatly in their pride and violence as something that adorns them (Psalm 73:6,18-19). The grace of humility gives a Christian a lower esteem of themselves as a result of the sense of their own sinfulness (1 Corinthians 15:9) and the undeserved goodness of God (2 Samuel 7:18,20). As a result, the Christian is inclined to honour others before themselves (Romans 12:10). They do not seek more esteem from others than God allows them to have (1 Corinthians 3:5 and 4:6). The Christian also accepts all God’s chastisements as less than what they deserve (Ezra 9:13). Humility is the thing that adorns Christian most. They should tie it around them and delight to wear it (as the word here literally means). They should be just as ashamed to appear before others without it as they would be ashamed to appear without their clothing.
2. Humility Must Be Worn in Everything a Christian Does
No duty that the Lord’s people owe to anyone can be properly discharged without receiving this humble spirit from God. The exhortation to be clothed with humility is clearly to be understood as a means for carrying out the things previously required as duties for Christians.
3. Humility Must Be Worn to Please God
The Lord may permit proud sinners to prosper in their sins for a time (Psalm 73:4-5) but He still declares war on them. He stands against them in battle array (as the word translated “to resist” literally means). He will take the most suitable opportunity to bring down all who live in the sin of pride. This sin is most obvious in neglecting to pursue reconciliation with God through Christ (Psalm 10:4). It is also obvious in when things that are clearly urged and required by the Word are left undone (Nehemiah 9:16-17,29). Unthankfulness to God for His mercies is another notable kind of rebellious pride against God. (2 Chronicles 32:25-26).
When we consider the way that God opposes pride it should make the pursuit of humility lovely to us. It should make pride hateful to the Lord’s people since they do not want God for their enemy. For this reason, he urges humility, because God resists the proud. Every humble sinner may expect evidence of God’s favour and the increase of the graces of His Spirit. This should commend the grace of humility to them and make them strive to exercise it. The fact that God gives grace to the humble is an encouragement to adorn ourselves with it.
In our digital world, relationships have also become digital. Sometimes this brings the benefit of making those who are far away near but it can also have the disbenefit of making those who are near, far away. Sometimes we see people in the same physical space but they are in their own digital worlds. It can also be easier to use electronic forms of communication when personal interaction would be possible. Why meet up with one friend when you can chat to multiple friends by simultaneous text conversations? But we miss tone, expression, body language, touch and presence. Some studies have concluded that technology has had a negative effect on both the quality and quantity of face-to-face communication. But it’s more than a social problem, because we’re speaking about a biblical priority.
The Bible gives considerable emphasis to face-to-face communication. It speaks of open and unhindered interaction. In two short letters the apostle John shows the superiority of face-to-face meeting over “paper and ink” (2 John 12; 3 John 13). It is rather startling when we pause to think deeply about who was writing and what he was writing. Writing was useful in the mean time but it was not the best means. It was limited not in mere terms of efficiency but in communicating their love in Christ. Being able to “speak face to face” would make their joy full.
He could write his teaching about the faith but there was no substitute for being able to come to them. Then he could instruct them more fully in a way that would make their spiritual joy full. It reminds us also that audio as well as written sermons are ultimately no substitute for being present at a sermon. No internet preacher can replace the personal concern, awareness and prayers of a pastor who looks into your eyes and situation when he declares God’s Word. When God’s people meet together it also encourages one another (Hebrews 10:24-27). Live sharing and live-streaming a service are not the same thing.
Face-to-face interaction is also an emphasis in the letters of Paul. Twice in the same letter he expresses his desire to “see” the “face” of the Thessalonian Christians (1 Thessalonians 2:17). He didn’t just desire it, he did everything he could do to make it happen. It was something that was so important to him that he was praying night and day it might happen (1 Thessalonians 3:10). His earnest desire and intention to see them is clear. He even uses the language of bereavement (“being taken from you”) to express his grief. Why did he want to be present with them? Because there was something lacking that needed to be made up through preaching to them and conversing with them personally. There were things he still needed to teach them. James Fergusson reflects on these expressions in this updated extract.
1. Christ’s People Need Each Other’s Presence
There is special delight and benefit in the company, presence, and mutual fellowship of the Lords people among themselves. The presence and fellowship of the flock is a special delight to a pastor whose work among them has been blessed by the Lord. Paul’s labours were blessed to the Thessalonians; his absence from them was therefore a great grief to him. For this reason also, he greatly desired their presence.
2. Satan Tries to Keep Christ’s People Apart
It is therefore no small part of Satan’s work and business to mar the comfort of any such fellowship. One way of doing this is by sowing strife, division and prejudice among them while they are together (Acts 15:39). Another method is through some way or other scattering them into various places. This means they cannot enjoy the mutual fellowship they would gladly have. Paul says that he was taken from them for a short and the following verse (1 Thessalonians 2:18) shows that this was Satan’s work.
The godly are separated through Satan’s craftiness or malice; this may be in their affections and opinions or in their location. When he has achieved this he does everything to hinder their re-uniting and meeting together again as one. This is how great an enemy he is to the rich benefits that may be had from the communion of saints. Paul says in verse 18 they he would have come to them but Satan hindered it.
3. A Pastor’s Presence is Unique
Through the Lord’s blessing, there is a unique power in a minister’s presence and preaching. It is used to begin, strengthen or carry on the work of grace in hearers. This goes beyond what there is in his writings, while he is absent. Preaching has a more explicit promise of this type of blessing (Romans 10:17). Whether behaviour, gesture, or expression, there is almost nothing in the preacher that God has sent to win souls which the Lord does not use to edify one way or another (1 Corinthians 9:22). This is why Paul, not content with writing to them, desires to see their face so much. It is so that he may complete that which was lacking in their faith.
4. A Pastor and People Need Each Other’s Presence
A godly pastor delights to be among his flock so much that even necessary absence from them (due to persecution or otherwise) will be grievous to him. It was so with Paul, whose necessary departure from the Thessalonians was no less grievous than a father’s separation from his destitute orphans. This is what the word “being taken from you” literally means.
5. Make Use of a Pastor’s Company While You Have it
The Lord’s people have a duty to be wise in making good use of the company and labours of godly and faithful ministers. They may be deprived of them unexpectedly, in a moment and twinkling of an eye. Paul was taken from them for a short time (or in a short time, instantly–as it literally means).
6. Christ’s People Have a Bond of Affection Even in Absence
Affection is no small comfort to the Lord’s people in their saddest scattering. Although they cannot enjoy one another’s bodily presence, they may be present with one another in heart and affection. They do this by remembering and thinking about one another’s situation (2 Corinthians 7:3). They should be suitably affected by it (Hebrews 13:3). They should not only pray to God but also by all lawful means to do good to each other (Colossians 4:12). Although Paul was taken from them in presence, he was not taken from them in heart.
When you look around you see so many different strands of Christianity and churches. You might have asked the question–”why?” It’s not just because of historical factors–ultimately it’s because there are different answers to the question of authority. What does God require from all Churches and Christians? What has God’s authority as opposed to the authority of mere human beings?
This is of course a huge question but let’s explore it in the most straightforward way we can. The Bible specifically tells us that we will be able to discern what the good and acceptable and perfect will of God is (Romans 12:2). Something has divine authority if it is commanded by any law of God or something that is equivalent to a divine law. Some of the London ministers at the time of the Westminster Assembly produced a book (Jus Divinum or The Divine Right of Church Government) which deals with this question. The following is an updated summary of various chapters in that book. There are five different levels of divine authority; they go from a lower level to the highest level.
1. Natural Knowledge
Before the Fall the natural knowledge man possessed was perfect in corresponding with the divine law of God’s image within (Genesis 1:26-27). Even after the Fall with the effects of sin in our nature we do have some sense naturally in our conscience and understanding of what God wants. He has put that knowledge there or it is evident from what He has created around us. The heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1-2). Food and weather declare the goodness and the wisdom of God (Acts 14:17). Paul makes it clear to the Athenians that God has been made known to them (Acts 17:27-28). Paul speaks about how this revelation of God’s “invisible Godhead” and attributes leaves people “without excuse” (Romans 1:18-21). They “knew God” but did not act in accordance with this knowledge. The law was also written in their hearts in some measure (Romans 2:12, 14-15). Sometimes Paul even makes an appeal to what nature teaches us when he is speaking to Christians (1 Corinthians 5:1; 11:13-15; 14:7-11, 34-35). In inspiring Scripture the Holy Spirit therefore condemns or commends certain things in relation to natural knowledge. Anything contradictory to natural knowledge in matters of religion is therefore condemned by divine authority and vice versa.
2. Bible Examples
There are obligatory examples in Scripture which God’s people are required to follow and imitate. The Holy Spirit has recorded and affirmed such examples for believers to imitate. This is clearer and more specific than natural knowledge. There are many examples in Scripture that we are not obliged to imitate. They are recorded for another purpose. We can conclude that Christ anything to be done that He makes known to His Church and people through an obligatory Bible example.
Christ’s humility in washing the disciples’ feet is intentionally affirmed as an obligatory example. It binds both the disciples and us to do the very meanest service to one another in love and humility (John 13:4ff, 13-15). Christ’s suffering innocently and patiently is an example for all Christians to imitate (1 Peter 2:21-23). Christians are to be generous as Christ was even if it makes them poorer (2 Corinthians 8:9). There are also others ways we follow Christ (Ephesians 5:1-2; 4:32; 1 John 2:6).
The examples of others are for us to follow (1 Corinthians 10:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; Hebrews 6:12; 13:7; James 5:10). The book of Acts for instance is a whole book of examples meant to guide us in relation to the Church. The apostles are frequently said to be those we are to imitate (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; 1 Corinthians 4:6-7; 11:1; Philippians 4:9). Certain examples are clearly commanded (3 John 11). These commands clearly prove that many Bible examples are obligatory for us to imitate. When God condemns or commends anything it is virtually the same as requiring or forbidding it.
We have to think through what is essential to the action and what are the circumstances surrounding it. We have to look at what was unique and what is of a moral and abiding nature. In general we can say that if the example of those who are godly and approved in Scripture does not go against the principles and commands of Scripture we should follow it. Here are some principles to guide us:
(a) if an example is commanded or approved we must follow it;
(b) if an example is of a moral nature we must follow it;
(c) if an example is said to be a pattern for us or is the common practice in Scripture we must follow it;
(d) if an example is done by someone in their capacity as a believer (as opposed to fulfilling a particular function) we must follow it; and
(e) if an example is related to extraordinary gifts and calling we must only follow it if we have the same extraordinary gifts and calling.
3. God’s Approval
When God approves something it is equivalent to Him commanding it. God cannot approve of something that is against His will. And vice versa, He forbids things by disapproving of them, showing that they are against His will and unlawful. God approves or forbids things in different ways.
(a) Commending or Condemning. God commended Josiah for his zeal in Reformation (1 Kings 23:25). The Angel of the Church of Ephesus is commended for not bearing with those who are evil and hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:2-6). Christ approved the Angel of the Church in Pergamus for not denying the faith when faced with danger and persecution (Revelation 2:13). That becomes a rule for all pastors and churches. God commending is divine commanding. The same churches are also reproved for their failings (Revelation 2:4, 14-15,20; 3:15). The Church of Corinth are condemned for their division and disorder (1 Corinthians 11:17).
(b) Promising or Warning. Christ makes promises to His people (Mark 10:29-30; Matthew 16:19;18-18-20; 20;23; 28:18-20 and John 20:23). He also warns and threatens His people for leaving their first love, tolerating false teaching and lukewarmness (Revelation 2:4-5, 14-15, 20-23; 3:15-16). These teach us what to do and what to avoid.
(c) Rewarding or Chastising. God rewards faithfulness (Exodus 1:17-21; 1 Timothy 5:17). He chastises disobedience (1 Samuel 13:12-14; 2 Samuel 6:6-7; 2 Chronicles 26:16). The Corinthians were chastised for abusing the Lord’s Supper as a divine warning to all Churches in the future to avoid partaking of communion unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:30).
4. God’s Actions
Anything God has done in or for the Church of God is of divine authority. For instance, God rested on the seventh day and sanctified and blessed it (Genesis 2:2-3). That action is taken to be significant in instituting the sabbath. The Lord’s Day under the New Testament was instituted by Christ (changing the seventh day to the first day). Christ rose on the first day of the week, He appeared to the disciples on that day and sent the Holy Spirit on that day. These actions (together with the practice of the apostles: Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2) have authority in setting apart that day. Likewise the whole ceremonial law is fulfilled by Christ’s death when He cried “It is finished” (John 19:30; Colossians 2:14; Ephesians 2:14-15).
5. God’s Commands
Whatever is commanded or forbidden by God in His Word is either a duty or a sin. We can divide these commands into explicit and implicit.
Some of these are obvious such as the Ten Commandments or commandments of Christ (e.g. Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-24). Commands that God gives through the inspired apostles are also of authority (1 Corinthians 7:12,25,40; 14:37). Whatever is explicitly commanded by God in plain and evident terms is of divine authority without any controversy. But we do have to consider the nature of the thing commanded and the Lord’s purpose in commanding. Some commands are moral and abiding e.g. honouring father and mother. Other commands are temporary like the ceremonial and civil law for Israel under the Old Testament. Likewise there are things commanded that have a special temporary relevance but can still be binding on us in terms of their principle. Acts 15 forbids the Gentiles from stumbling fellow believers who were Jewish in relation to certain practices. There may be aspects of this that were temporary but the principle of not stumbling others certainly remains. Others are unique to particular situations, like the Israelites “borrowing” gold from the Egyptians (Exodus 11:2).
Even the Ten Commandments imply more than the words in themselves state. The commandments that forbid sin also require us to do opposite duties and vice versa. Christ explains the sixth commandment in this way (Matthew 5:21-27,43). It is not only outward actions that are forbidden but also inward actions (Matthew 5:21-22). The same is true in relation to adultery, lustful looks and thoughts are forbidden (Matthew 5:27-30). Everything implied in a commandment has divine authority.
Implicit commands also include the many things that are clearly deduced from explicit commands. Do ministers have an explicit command to baptise? No, but it is deduced from the command to the apostles and the promise that Christ will be with them always to the end of the world (Matthew 28:19-20). So we have to draw out the logical consequences of what is commanded in Scripture. No one says that just because we do not have any examples or commands for women to receive the Lord’s Supper they cannot. We infer from the example of whole families engaging in the Passover (Exodus 14) and the fact that male and female are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Paul proves that minsters are to have financial support from the command concerning the ox treading corn and the support for priests (1 Corinthians 9:14; 1 Timothy 5:17-18).
This survey of establishing what God commands gives us the tools we need. God’s complete will concerning all things that are necessary for his own glory, our salvation, faith and life, is either explicitly stated in Scripture or can be derived from it in a valid way. There are differences within applying this. The Bible limits us to deriving our doctrine and worship from itself alone. If it’s not commanded it’s forbidden. On the other hand there are many commandments and principles in the Bible that teach us God’s will for our lives that are to be applied in the detail of everyday life. By it’s very nature this is much more expansive and requires much wisdom.
We are not to be unwise or foolish but to “understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17). We have a natural tendency not to want to do the hard work of searching out God’s will in Scripture. We also have a sinful tendency to want to limit God’s authority on our lives and activities – even in the life of the Church. The reality is that we are able to experience liberty when we seek God’s commandments (Psalm 119:145).
We have (properly) expressed our deep gratitude for the courage and sacrifice of D-Day. It was one of the greatest battles for freedom this world has ever known. There has been little recognition in recent days of the debt we owe to God. President Trump repeated part of President Roosevelt’s prayer from the time of D-Day. Not indeed though, the close of that prayer which was “thy will be done”. Many prayers were offered 75 years ago for this deliverance and in God’s great kindness they were answered. Yet we have to ask ourselves how our nations have made use of this deliverance. Did we use the freedom to honour or dishonour God? Have we been thankful to God? What is true thankfulness?
We ought also to reflect on the many other reasons we have personally and corporately for being thankful to God. How has it left an abiding impact on our lives and hearts? Thomas Case speaks movingly in describing what he calls the “pure, holy, spiritual, active grace and duty of thankfulness”. Truth thankfulness to God does not “put him off with a few empty, formal compliments instead of the real, spiritual, and vital duty which he expects and deserves” from us. True spiritual thankfulness is a grace which comes down from heaven and ascends back to heaven.
1. True Thankfulness Exalts God
We exalt God (Psalm 30:1) and calls on others to help (Psalm 34:3). True spiritual thankfulness wants God to be more exalted and man less.
2. True Thankfulness is Prayerful
Truth thankfulness rises towards heaven and God in holy prayer (Psalm 116:13 and 17). We do not give up praying when God has put an end to our troubles (Job 27:10). With the truly thankful prayer leads deliverance and deliverance leads to prayer. It is love not mere necessity that makes him pray. Love to prayer and love to the God of prayer.
3. True Thankfulness Shows Love to God
Love draws the heart out in great love to God (Psalm 18:1). This was David’s song in the day that the Lord had delivered him from the hands of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. The saints express this love in these three ways:
(a) Seeking to know God more (Exodus 33:18). Moses had seen much of the wonders of God. Now his love is fired with desire to see and know the God of these wonders.
(b) Seeking to enjoy God more (Psalm 86:10-11). The Psalmist seeks to know the way to God to enjoy more communion with God. A thankful heart will only be content with God Himself, not merely the things of God.
(c) Seeking to glory in God more (Psalm 48:3-7, 12-13). The Church concludes that Psalm of rejoicing for victory with this as the greatest triumph “This God is our God for ever and ever (Psalm 48:14). The God that has done all these wonders is my God. She does not glory so much in the victories God had given her, as in belonging to the God of those victories.
4. Truth Thankfulness Requires Self-denial
Self-denial for God’s sake (Ezra 9:13-14). There is more thankfulness in one act of self-denial than in twenty days of thanksgiving.
5. True Thankfulness Fulfils our Vows
“What shall I render?” David says (Psalm 116:12). “I will pay my vows” (Psalm 116:14 and 18). This is as right a response as any for all the mercies of God to His people, whether national or personal, whether victories or supplies. All of these are God making good His covenant to them. We must pay our vows to God (Psalm 56:12).
6. True Thankfulness Trusts God
If God delivers a thankful heart it will trust Him another time (Exodus 14:31). A people or person cannot honour God more than by trusting Him. Abraham was strong in faith giving glory to God (Romans 4:20).
7. True Thankfulness is Life Changing
Thankfulness makes us order our life to God’s glory (Psalm 50:23). The main work of thanksgiving is the ordering of our lives (literally in Hebrew, disposing our way aright). Thankful lips do well, but thankful lives do better. A day of thanksgiving is something, but a life of thanksgiving is everything.
8. True Thankfulness Desires Others to Praise God
A thankful heart is filled with enlarged desires that others, that all would be thankful. The holy psalmist cries out to all that receive mercies, that they would respond with praise to God (Psalm 107:31). He observes how much people receive from God and how little they give back to God. He is troubled by this. He cries out like someone in pain and grief. He is not willing that God should lose anything by any of the wonders He does. Surely this a high expression of thankfulness, when the heart labours with holy desires for the whole world to give glory to God (see the whole of Psalm 148). A gracious heart does not think it enough to praise God alone; even though it would praise God supposing were there none in heaven or earth to keep it company.
9. True Thankfulness Speaks of God’s Works
A thankful heart delights to speak of the wonderful works of God (Psalm 145:5, 10-12). The Church praises God’s great goodness, mercies and the multitude of His lovingkindnesses (Isaiah 63:7). The saints not only stir up one another to speak of His praises but seek to preserve the memory of His wonderful works to all generations (Psalm 145:4-7; Psalm 78:2-5).
10. True Thankfulness Longs for Heaven
Since gracious spirits adorned with thankfulness can only live a short while to praise God on earth, and since their generations will not continue forever to do this work–they long for heaven. There in the presence of God their praises will be perfected. Here they are feeble, weary, full of natural and sinful weakness There they will be vigourous, active, pure and perfect without change or end to all eternity (Revelation 8:4). Thankfulness is a pure flame of a restless motion, always mounting upward until it comes to heaven. There it will sing everlasting hallelujahs to Him that sits on the throne and to the Lamb. There it will observe a day of thanksgiving that will never have an evening.
Happiness research and the science of happiness has apparent growing influence. Behavioral scientist Paul Dolan hit the headlines with controversial pronouncements on whether family and happiness go together. He defines and measures happiness in terms of “experiences of pleasure and purpose over time”. He says this is “the final arbiter of the rightness of what you do” not “moral judgements based on ill-conceived ideas about what is right and wrong”. It’s no great surprise since in a fallen world feeling good is frequently divorced from doing good. Temptation seeks to maximise “the pleasures of sin” which last only for “a season” (Hebrews 11:25). But true happiness is both objective and moral because it is God-centred. This is what makes it so hard to find; we look for it in the wrong place and in the wrong way.
Everyone seeks happiness. But true and objective happiness can only be found in God not subjective pleasure divorced from God. Our purpose is to glorify God in all things and He is also to be our highest enjoyment. Older writers thought a lot about this subject. Thomas Watson says, “It is not every good that makes man blessed, but it must be the supreme good, and that is God”. William Ames also sums up the objective and moral nature of happiness particularly well. “What chiefly and finally ought to be striven for is not happiness which has to do with our own pleasure, but goodness which looks to God’s glory”.
This is obvious when we consider the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 He pronounces many conditions to be happy which are not connected with the sort of pleasure and purpose most people seek. Those 8 rules of happiness go entirely against the grain. In John 13:15-17 Christ is explaining the example He has given in washing the disciples feet. He teaches them about true humility and love in serving one another. The very succinct promise contained in John 13:17 makes obedience fundamental to true happiness. He makes it clear that He is not content with a bare speculative knowledge about humble obedience. We must “know these things” or be sufficiently informed of our duty in relation to them. But we are only blessed and “happy” if we “do them”. True happiness is hard to find because we look for it in the wrong way. Humbling ourselves and putting what we know into practice is hard. George Hutcheson draws out the implications of John 13:17 in the following updated extract.
1. Ignorance is Not Bliss
Christ does not approve of blind ignorance in His people, whatever their practice or life may be. He requires them to base their practice on sound and solid knowledge of His will. He requires that they know these things, and then do them. People can remain very slow to understand when much effort has been taken to instill knowledge of our duty. This may be through weakness or carelessness or being influenced by sinful inclination and earthly mindedness.
Christ’s emphasis on “if” you know these things, presupposes that knowledge must go before practice. But it may also imply some doubt as to whether they were capable of understanding this teaching. They were so carried away with earthly dreams of the Messiah’s kingdom that they could not understand clear predictions of His sufferings (Luke 18:31-34). It would be no wonder if their sinful rivalry also hid this teaching (about humility and mutual service) from themselves.
2. Knowledge Alone Will Not Lead to Happiness
The Lord does not approves of those who are content with mere knowledge and speculation in matters of religion. It is His will that when we know our duty, we put it into practice. Our practice then proves the sincerity and soundness of our knowledge. If we know these things and do them then we prove that we really do know them (see James 1:22-25).
In particular, the Lord requires the practice of humility. This is the test of whether we are genuine. It is not what mere knowledge we have of this teaching–though it may be appealing to contemplate it. The test is how we put it into practice in particular demanding situations. This is because it is more distasteful and trying to do this compared with merely contemplating the truth. Christ requires that practice follows on from knowledge in this particular matter.
This teaching about humility and mutual accommodation is very comprehensive. It contains many duties in itself which are required in a variety of situations and demanding circumstances.· Therefore Christ speak of what is understood by washing one anothers feet (John 13:14) as things (plural). We must know these things, and do them.
3. Obedience and Humility Contain Happiness
Although our obedience and practice deserves nothing, it still contains a blessing in itself. It is the way to such rich blessedness, that it compensate for all loss and disadvantage. This is Christ’s encouragement, we are happy if we do these things.
Although the humble person who accommodates themselves to serve others might seem to lose much in the world by doing so; blessedness makes up any loss. Attaining the practice of humility is blessedness in itself. It hides a person from many storms and much discontentment that sweep others away. It is said that we are happy if we do these things.
4. Lack of Obedience Leads to Misery
Proud people are so far from blessedness, that they are under a curse; especially if they know their duty and will not do it. This statement necessarily implies the opposite reality. If you know these things and do not do them, you are not blessed but cursed because it is a sinful omission (see James 4:17; Psalm 119:21).
The Lord Jesus Christ turns many of our ideas about happiness upside down. Happiness lies more in seeking to please God and others than in pursuing moments of pleasure for ourselves. There is a simplicity in His teaching; it is not so much hard to grasp as hard to practice. The great challenge to us is whether we are prepared to humble and deny ourselves to follow His counsel.
In an age of polarising politics and toxic political conversation it’s easy to be influenced by the way of the world. We’re likely to go along with anything which echoes something of our own views. There’s no shortage of cynical comment, media hounding, social media posts or biting political satire that mocks those in power. It’s frequently thought that those in the public eye are fair game for such attacks. It’s part of a wider contempt for authority within our culture. Political comment fuelled by frustration, anger or ridicule is likely to go far and wide these days. We may agree with some of our rulers and deeply disagree with others. We are unlikely to agree with all of them all of the time. We may be frustrated by them or irritated by their words, actions or decisions. But how should we respond?
One may feel such a sense of opposition to a ruler and their policies that it can inspire a feeling of loathing. Cruel nicknames, ridicule and contemptuous language can abound. Things may be passed on that are not absolutely established as fact but we might almost feel that we want them to be true because of our deep opposition. People may get carried away with emotion rather than stopping to reflect on their responsibilities. We need to stop and think.
We need to think a little more carefully perhaps about the position that rulers in society have. The Bible makes it clear that they deserve our respect and prayers (Romans 13:6-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-2). Are we as ready to pray for our rulers as we are to complain about them? There are a lot of duties that we owe to our rulers. The Larger Catechism shows how this issue is bound up with the fifth commandment. To some that is surprising because they only think of the fifth commandment as relating to our duty to our parents (Exodus 20:12). But the Larger Catechism goes further (Q124). It means not only our “natural parents” but all those who “by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority”.
This relates to the authority that God has placed in the Church. For instance Paul often speaks of himself in the role of a father to congregations (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12; 1 Corinthians 4:14-15; Galatians 4:19). God’s servants in the Old Testament were often honoured in this way too (2 Kings 2:12; 2 Kings 13:14). But rulers of nations and societies are also spoken of as parents (Isaiah 49:23). Authority is a great blessing ordained by God for society as well as the family (which is itself the foundation of society). Of course in one case it is natural and lifelong and the other case it is social and temporary. The degree of loyalty and support that a child owes to its parents is not however identical to that which a person owes to the state. The parental understanding of authority is helpful though because it explains that all relationships of authority ought to be marked by mutual respect and love within the context of their obligations.
We are in no way suggesting that rulers must never be criticised or opposed. Rather we are exploring what the Bible has to say on our overall attitude to rulers and how and when we must express our dissent and opposition.
1. How Should we Treat our Rulers?
We should treat them with proper respect. Those who have authority over us are to be honoured (Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:17). This honour is to be in thought (Ecclesiastes 10:20), word (2 Peter 2:10) and action (Ecclesiastes 8:2; 1 Peter 2:13-14; Romans 13:1,6). This includes giving obedience to whatever they require which is lawful according to God’s Word (Matthew 22:21). Honouring them also includes praying for them and expressing thanksgiving for their role (Nehemiah 2:3; 1 Timothy 2:1-2). We may also be required to protect them in certain circumstances (1 Samuel 26:15-16; Esther 6:2).
2. How Should We Not Treat our Rulers?
We should avoid displaying an attitude of envy (Numbers 16:1-3), unjustified rebellion (2 Samuel 15:1-12) or contempt (1 Samuel 8:7; 1 Samuel 10:27). We should avoid speaking evil of them (Titus 3:1-2).
There is justified rebellion but this is not at the least abuse of power or matter with which they are displeased. People should suffer long before they take the step of revolution in self-defence and use all lawful and non-violent means of redress in the meantime. When they resist they do not resist the office but the person who occupies the office who has exceeded the limits of the power of that office.
3. Should We Obey Anything Contrary to God’s Law?
It is never our duty to obey any commands that are contrary to the law of God (Acts 4:19; Daniel 6:13). Rather they must be resisted and disobeyed (Acts 5:28-29; Exodus 1:17; Jeremiah 1:16-18; 1 Samuel 22:17). No command contrary to God’s law has any authority. When any ruler requires something contrary to God’s law they are exceeding the bounds of their authority. Such laws do not derive their authority from God but are devised by “the throne of iniquity” (Psalm 94:20). Where we resist, however, it should be done with meekness and humility as far as possible (1 Peter 3:15). We should not be afraid of wicked rulers and wicked commands (Hebrews 11:23 and 27). Sometimes preserving our life from tyrannical rulers is necessary (1 Samuel 21:10; 1 Kings 19:3). But we need discernment as to how to act in situations where we may feel threatened (Ecclesiastes 10:4).
4. What Do We Do When we Disagree with Them?
It can be hard to respect some politicians. Sometimes indeed rulers cannot have our respect (2 Kings 3:14; 1 Samuel 15:35) and it must be withheld from them. But this should not be done hastily and in a fit of passion (Ecclesiastes 8:3). We must acknowledge the weighty responsibility and difficulty of their role. Patience and forbearance may be required at some times. It is easy for people in such circumstances to make mistakes and say things that are ill-judged. Sometimes we must give the benefit of the doubt and be charitable, other times we cannot. We read of some misgovernment more cautiously described as “an error” (Ecclesiastes 10:5). There may be certain weaknesses or “infirmities” (as the Larger Catechism describes them) with which we must be patient. We ought to be cautious too in our language in moderating how we express disapproval and dissent out of respect for the office of the ruler. When we protest against them or challenge them we ought to do so in a respectful way. It requires great wisdom for there is a time to speak and a time to be silent. Perhaps there are times when we must mourn and pray in secret (Amos 5:13).
5. What Do We Do About their Sins?
The Larger Catechism gives a very full summary of the duties required of rulers which are commonly neglected (Q128). Also covered are the sins that are only too familiar in those that exercise power (Q129). There may be sin and abuse of power in rulers and we are not to turn a blind eye to that (Ecclesiastes 10:5-6). We are not to excuse their faults any more than others (Mark 6:18). Sin and folly must be pointed out (Acts 4:8-10; Isaiah 5:23). It is often necessary to withstand a ruler in this (2 Samuel 24:3; 2 Chronicles 26:28; 2 Samuel 19:5; 1 Samuel 14:2). Their sin may often need to be rebuked publicly due to their position of influence (1 Timothy 5:20). The prophets were often required to do this. The sinful actions and decisions of rulers can have long last consequences for a nation (1 Kings 14:16). It is a great plague for a nation to have rulers who are wicked (Psalm 12:8). We can pray and speak against their sins and we can pray that they would be brought to repentance. But we must be careful that we are not tempted to have a sinful spirit ourselves towards them (Ecclesiastes 10:20). Vengeance belongs to the Lord (Romans 12:19).
We cannot hope to answer all the difficult situations that may arise in various contexts in such a short article. None of this is intended to give approval to any actions of specific rulers. But there should be enough here to make us reflect further on our attitude. We should not take our cue from the world in terms of our engagement with politics and with our rulers. Being salt and light means showing an attitude of grace in these matters. We should certainly care about how our nation is governed and express an opinion but that should not be coloured by the vitriol that commonly marks political conversation. It is very challenging. How do you pray for rulers that you believe are contributing to the moral destruction of your country? How do you express some measure of thanksgiving for them? It is very complex and requires a wisdom that we do not have in ourselves. We must seek it from God.
Christians know that it is important to believe in Christ’s death on the cross. But some find it difficult to explain how it benefits us. They know that salvation depends on it but perhaps struggle to explain how it is central to the Christian life. Christ taught that it must be crucial in how we live (Matthew 16:24). Paul said that it was the controlling principle of his life (Galatians 2:20). How can we make it central to our life?
This is a very large theme and we can only consider one aspect of it. In this updated extract, Andrew Gray helpfully outlines some of the advantages that Christians experience from Christ’s death. Enjoying these benefits enables us to see how the cross influences the Christian life.
1. Enjoying Justification
Christ’s death is the evidence of our justification, the cause of our sanctification and the pledge of our glorification. It is the hope of our eternal and complete victory and the door of hope that will make you sing and triumph over death (1 Corinthians 15:55). We are brought to paradise by four streams: (a) His justification by which He justifies us; (b) His sanctification by which we that lay among the pots are made white as a dove; (c) His wisdom by which we are conducted to heaven; and (d) His redemption by His complete victory.
Is it not clear that Christ’s death was an evidence of our justification? “Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood, he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Hebrews 9:12) He has “put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). By the solid faith of Christ’s death we may answer all objections. If you could multiply objections throughout eternity, you could have no answer but this: Christ has died and is risen again. His resurrection is a great pillar of justifying faith; “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).
All objections are answered in this, Christ has died and, risen again (Romans 8:34). “For while we were enemies, we were reconciled by his death” (Romans 5:10). The great pillar on which faith is founded is Christ’s resurrection. Is the death of Christ not the cause of our glorification? “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who, through the eternal Spirit, offered himself witlìout spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:14). Paul, speaking of the cross of Christ says, “By whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Galatians 6:14). You were redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:19). Christ died that “they which live should not live unto themselves, hut unto God” (2 Corinthians 5:15).
Is Christ’s death not the pledge of your glorification? Did Christ not wear a crown of thorns so that you might wear a crown of immortal glory? Did He not wear a purple robe, that you might wear that robe of His righteousness? If Christ ascended up, then He will certainly draw all the members of His body after Him.
You have Christ’s death as the door of hope to overcome your sins. Christ’s victory is that He has in His person overcome principalities and powers and has made an open show of them. He has likewise overcome death and the grave. That is evidence of your victory and overcoming; for there is a great similarity between the head and the members of the body.
2. Enjoying Communion with Christ
Christ’s death may be a strong argument to embrace and welcome Christ. It may stir us up to that duty, “Open to me, my sister, my spouse, for my head is filled with the dew, and my locks with the drops of the night” (Song 5:2). If Christ has died and is now risen again, will not that persuade you to love Him? O what arguments will work with you? Do the five wounds of His blessed body not preach this doctrine to you: to love Him?
3. Enjoying Christ’s Love
If you believed the sufferings of Christ in the right way it would be a comprehensive way to bring your souls under the constraining power of His love (2 Corinthians 5:14). There is a sweet constraint in His love that it lays hold on the understanding and the affections. Christ’s love constrains a Christian’s understanding so that they think Christ alone to be excellent. It constrains their affections and makes them burn within out of love to enjoy the person they love.
4. Enjoying Eternal Life
The way to heaven is now made manifest through the sufferings of Christ. “I will make a new covenant with them, not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers” (Hebrews 8:8-9). Believe this, it was more difficult for Christians to go to heaven under the Old Testament than under the New. Christ is now clearly revealed as crucified before your eyes. We do not need to exercise faith in Christ as being yet to come, but as already come. Sins against the gospel will certainly therefore be of greater guilt than under the law.
5. Enjoying Assurance
If you truly believed that Christ died for sinners your unbelief would be at an end. “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”. Paul then adds, “of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). If you believe that Christ came over that infinite distance that was between Himself and man, how easily, will He come over the infinite distance between you and Him? Christ’s love is that which will bring your souls to see the necessity of this love. It will bring you to a felt sense of the preciousness of Christ, who has perfected the work of your redemption.
6. Enjoying Holiness
Christ’s death is an excellent way for a Christian to bring their soul to a God-given holy hatred of sin, “we should not live unto ourselves” (2 Corinthians 5:15). Since Christ has “suffered for us, let us arm ourselves with the same mind, to cease from sin” (1 Peter 4:1). There are these two things in Christ’s death to make sin most hateful to you.
(a) consider the burden of sin. Do you not think that it was a heavy burden that made Him cry out that he was troubled and “exceeding sorrowful” (Mark 14:34)? And was it not an infinite weight that made Him say, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39)?
(b) consider that these sufferings were because of sin. Might you not conclude that the justice of God was highly offended? “Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him” (Isaiah 53:10).
7. Three Questions
(a) Were you ever through considering Christ’s death, constrained to sit down in speechless humility and put your mouth in the dust (Lamentations 3:29)?
(2) Were you ever through considering Christ’s death, constrained to love him, and cry out, “His love to us has been wonderfully great!”
(3) Were you ever through considering Christ’s death, constrained to wonder at that union between Him and us? Was the death of Christ ever an effectual means to unite you to Christ by the two chains of faith and love?
When we speak of the cross this also includes Christ’s resurrection. As Calvin emphasised we can’t think of them in isolation even when only one of them is mentioned. All that the cross and resurrection means should be central to our lives. The Christian life is a dying life; dying to sin (Colossians 1:22; Galatians 5:24). But it is also a life in the power of Christ’s resurrection (Philippians 3:10).The cross must have an overwhelming influence on how Christians should live and the motives for their life. They walk in loving obedience, a love that is derived from Christ’s dying love (Ephesians 5:2).