Author Archives: James Church

Philemon 1: the Gospel changing lives and reconciling believers and transforming communities

This evening we are invited not only to read this letter, but see the way the Gospel was changing lives in the first century. For this personal letter opens up a window on an entire series of relationships. It reveals to us that St Paul led people from all kinds of places to faith in Christ Jesus.

Firstly, it is a letter that is written to a man named Philemon, and Philemon was a significant figure in the Colossian church. In fact we know that the Church met in Philemon’s house. So he is a wealthy man. He’s a man of property. And he’s man known for His faith and love for all the believers.

Secondly, it’s a personal letter of appeal, it’s written on behalf of Onesimus, a slave who had wronged his master, by running away with his possessions. And it’s written to effect reconciliation between the two men.

Thirdly, it is letter that reveals to us how the theology Paul wrote about is worked out through the life of the early church. On a church level Paul has already written to the Colossians and he’s told them that: “God forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness”.

And now he follows this letter up by addressing one particular situation:

Onesimus, left Colossae secretly, he would have taken possessions, to sell on his journey and travelled to Rome, with a dream of freedom. And maybe Onesimus thought he had gotten away with it, maybe he reached Rome under his own steam, or maybe he was arrested and imprisoned.

It doesn’t really matter how he came to be there, but what matters is that he didn’t escape from God’s providential plan. Some 932 miles from home, Onesimus must’ve thought that he was far enough away from Colossae to be safe.

If only he had read Psalm 139: ‘If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. ’

How true those words are, for at the far side of the sea, the Lord brings Onesimus into Paul’s life. One man a slave trying to live as a freeman; the other a freeman living in chains for the sake of the Gospel. And a freeman who has become like a slave for the sake of Jesus Christ, and a man who preaches that the greatest freedom is living under Jesus as Lord and Master.

And though this encounter, the run-away slave chooses to place his faith in Jesus, and enters into fellowship with Paul in Rome. Somewhere, along the way, Onesimus tells Paul his story. You can imagine the conversation.

Oh you’re from Colossae, I know Colossae… You know Philemon, I know Philemon… You what?!?

Let me help you put some of this right. Let’s try to sort this mess out.

So Paul writes this incredibly ingratiating letter, to his friend Philemon, he praises his faith and love for the saints, he tells him of the troubles and the chains he is experiencing, he appeals to his old age, and then he lets Philemon have the truth.

Just as Philemon is bursting with joy and the kind words Paul is sharing. Out comes the truth.

‘Though I could command you’, Paul writes, ‘For loves’ sake I appeal to you. For my child Onesimus.’

Notice that Paul doesn’t side step the issue. He could have kept Onesimus with him. He could of simply paid a slave price to set him free. But Paul doesn’t do that, he knows that this is an opportunity to reveal how the grace of God works in our lives.

It doesn’t bypass the consequences of our actions. Sometimes we have to face up to potentially difficult, even dangerous situations, but in doing so it changes us.

For Onesimus, whose name means useful or beneficial, was actually rather useless, but now by the grace of God he is living up to his name. He has been useful to me. He has ministered to me in your place. And now he is useful, no longer as a slave, but as a brother.

And Paul continues the letter with even more gracious words for Philemon, writing receive him as your would receive me, I know you will do this and even more, and prepare a guest room for me as I trust that by your prayers I will be coming to you.

Then he signs off. Passing on the greetings of all the other believers who will be eagerly watching the example Philemon will set.

And apart from the record of this letter that seems to suggest that Philemon did free Onesimus, we have also the tradition of the early church that credits Onesimus as having a role in collecting and preserving and passing on these letters of Paul and therefore being useful not only to Paul and Philemon but also being useful to us.

And we can see how the Gospel that transforms slaves and makes brothers, also transformed society and continues to transform lives today. As people love and forgive and include and welcome sinners back into relationship today.

But I think the real challenge of this book today is what must we do. Are we like Philemon needing to forgive someone today? Do we need to allow them back into our hearts? To extend love to someone who has hurt us, stolen from us, and insulted our generosity? Is this letter calling on us accept someone in particular back into our family?

Or are we like Onesimus, do we need to retrace our steps, to return may be even as far as 932 miles back to Colossae, to ask for forgiveness? Maybe we thought we could run away from something in our lives, but every time we come to worship, every time we pick up the Bible, we’re reminded that we need to be reconciled!

For this is the challenge of the book of Philemon for us today. To live the theology of the Gospel through reconciled and reconciling lives!


Salvation Song

One of the great joys of my job is the time it affords me to participate in group Bible studies. It is a real privilege to gather on Monday evenings with young adults from several churches across Leamington Spa and the surrounding villages to study God’s Word. It is a joy to meet with several members from both my congregations on a Friday night to worship, pray and study Scripture together.

Each week people bring different reflections and thoughts to our worship, prayer and study. It was my turn to lead worship last Monday and we were thinking about the call of Abraham later in the evening. As I was praying and reflection on the life of Abraham one question kept coming back to me: why did God call Abram?

I mean on the face of it he’s not a courageous leader or great husband, he gives his wife away… twice, he doesn’t trust God to bring about what he has promised and then he abdicates responsibility rather than dealing with the conflict between Hagar and Sarah. Yet, God still chose him. As I wondered about this I suddenly thought why does God choose any of us?

I found the answer in Ephesians: ‘and you were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience… But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness to us in Christ Jesus.’

That brought me to Stuart Townsend’s hymn: Loved before the dawn of time. This beautiful hymn draws us into the captivating grace of God who called us in Christ before the world began. Very few songs or hymns express the wonder of God who has chosen us before the foundation of the world to make known the glory of His grace. Yet, this is at the heart of God’s purpose in our salvation.

So I commend this hymn to you:

Loved before the dawn of time,
Chosen by my Maker,
Hidden in my Saviour,
I am His and He is mine,
Cherished for eternity.

Stars will fade and mountains fall,
Christ will shine forever,
Loves unfading splendour,
Earth and heaven will bow in awe,
Joining in salvation’s song.

Breaking the Idols of Your Heart; How to Navigate the Temptations of Life

I don’t know how you feel about the Ecclesiastes but when I hear my Bible Study group is to spend a term exploring the book my heart sinks. I mean apart from the ‘there is a time for everything’ passage and of course the ‘remember your Creator in the days of your youth’ bit, the rest of it seems a little dark and depressing. I saw the book of Ecclesiastes is essentially nihilistic, denying life’s value, meaning and purpose.

Then I picked up this book by Tremper Longman III and Dan Allender, it appeared to have a really helpful angle on studying, understanding and applying the book of Ecclesiastes to the Christian’s life of discipleship. Now in college I was made to read Tremper’s ‘Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation’ which was worthy if at points a little dull. So I wasn’t expecting ‘Breaking the Idols of Your Heart’ to be quite so engaging, easy to read, and enjoyable as I found it.

It seems that the starting point for their exploration of Ecclesiastes is the idea that the Teacher’s study of this life can serve to disturb our spiritual complacency, shake us from our idolatrous trust in the things ‘under the sun’ and point us towards what is truly worth living for. In seven chapters, the authors’ examine in a fresh way our desire to find meaning in control, relationships, work and money, pleasure, wisdom, even spirituality and immortality.  

Each chapter follows the same pattern. Opening with Dan’s narrative rooting the study of Ecclesiastes in the lives of Noah, Joan, Jack, Marcia, Jessie and Mimi, a fictional church house group, going on to Tremper’s wrestling with the Teacher’s seemingly paradoxical statements about life’s meaning, and ending with a few questions for self-examination.

It is a topical rather than linear study of the book of Ecclesiastes, but I think it would be appropriate for private devotional or small group study (though you would have to pad the questions out a little). I think sometimes the fictional narrative is fits too comfortably with the study as a whole. This raises questions for me about what we do when our lives don’t strike a chord with our beliefs and understanding of Scripture. But on the whole I found this book engaging and uplifting, it helped me to understand Ecclesiastes place within the wider narrative of the Bible. So I happily commend it to you. 

1 Timothy 5:17-25 – Payment and discipline of elders

It is difficult to talk and write about this subject because as a teaching elder to talk about the importance of honouring and supporting our teaching elders may appear conceited. I find that many ministers feel embarrassed and compromised when talking about the honour given to the role and the financial support offered to enable them to carry it out.

In Philippians 2:4 we are told that we should ‘look not to our own interests but to the interests of others’, but I do believe that it is in the interests of the Church to have a well-trained, well-supported and respected group of teaching elders. It is important because the Scripture teaches this in a number of places:

‘And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the labourer deserves his wages.’ Luke 10:7a

‘In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.’ 1 Corinthians 9:14

‘One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches.’ Galatians 6:6

It is also important because our support for local preachers and ministers indicates the value we place upon the teaching of God’s Word. I believe church history has shown that set apart, trained and dedicated teaching elders have strengthened the church (safe guarding it from error and furthering the cause of the gospel).

Note that those who ‘rule well’ are worthy of double honour. It is not simply a matter of wearing the symbols of such an office, but it is rather a matter of carrying out the duties of a teaching elder with diligence (particularly when it comes to the preaching of God’s Word). Elders are not above the discipline of the church, but complaints against elders must be substantiated by the evidence seen by at least two witnesses.

If an elder sins morally against the teaching of the church then they are to be disciplined publicly so that people see and respond by coming under the authority of God’s teaching. If the sin is a criminal matter then ‘let every person be subject to the governing authorities’ (Romans 13:1). If it is a matter of a civil disagreement between believers then you should try to reconcile it within the community of faith (1 Corinthians 6). In cases where an accusation is made it is vital that believers do not prejudge the situation but wait to hear the evidence, but when the evidence is heard show no favouritism to well-loved leaders.

I believe it is helpful to hear the warning in verse 22 we should not be hasty in the laying on of hands. I thank God for our elders who are dedicated to the service of the church but we must be careful not to set people apart simply because they offer to do the task (eldership is about more than willingness). It is about humility (character), commitment to the teaching of the church (integrity), and diligence in service and prayer (reputation).

All of Paul’s teaching in this section on the choosing, supporting and disciplining teaching elders is subject to the truth that some sins are obvious and judged in the present, and some sins are hidden but will be revealed and judged in the end. Just as some good deeds are obvious but all will be made known by Christ Jesus who knows all and sees all.

Music: The Sanctus

In his book, God the Holy Father (c.1897), the great Scottish Congregationalist P.T. Forsyth wrote,

holiness is the root of love, fatherhood, sacrifice, and redemption… The Church of today has gained greatly in its sense of the love of God. There are still greater things waiting when she has moved on as far again, to that holiness whose outward movement is love, which love is but the passion to impart. You can go behind love to holiness, but behind holiness you cannot go.

Surely, what was true of the church of P.T. Forsyth’s day is even more evident in our day of ‘love songs to Jesus’. Don’t get me wrong, I have some sympathy with the provocative and intimate language of love in worship (some of Charles Wesley’s hymns were accused of being too sensual for congregational worship), but there is always a balance to be struck between the intimate and immanent and the mighty and transcendent.

The hymn we will consider now is definitely one that helps to redress the balance and remind those who come to worship that they stand before a holy God. It was written by the Rev. Reginald Heber, an Anglican clergyman and missionary Bishop to Calcutta, in 1826. Sadly, he died quite suddenly, later that year, at the age of 42.

Rev. Reginald Heber entered ministry in Oxford on 24th May 1807. At that time he wrote to his friend John Thornton, ‘Pray for me, my dear friend, that I may have my eyes open to the truth … and if it please God that I persevere in his ministry I may undertake the charge with a quiet mind and a good conscience’. His biographer Arthur Montefiore notes that ‘Heber was a star whose lustre was as steady as it was clear’.

After marrying Amelia Shipley on 9th April 1809, Rev. Heber moved to Hodnet where he devoted himself to the pastoral work of the church and became a strong supporter of overseas missions. In 1814, he refused an appointment as Canon at Durham Cathedral preferring to commit himself to the quiet parish ministry, to his poetry and letters. However, in 1823 Rev. Reginald Heber was persuaded to take up the appointment of Bishop of Calcutta.

Reginald Heber’s two best known hymns are ‘Brightest and best of the sons of the morning’ and this one, ‘Holy, holy, holy!’ The poet laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson called it ‘the world’s greatest hymn’.  It takes its inspiration from Isaiah 6:1-5, where the prophet sees Christ seated on the throne and the hem of his robe filling the temple, then Isaiah cries out: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Today, we sing it in wonder at our thrice holy God who is both merciful and mighty, who in His power and love purifies us so that we can enter His glory. It is a wonderful hymn that addresses God with the grandeur He deserves:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Who was, and is, and evermore shall be.

Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;
Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise Thy Name, in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, holy, holy; merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Reformation Books: Gospel Centred Leadership

Gospel Centred Leadership, Steve Timmis

I had the pleasure of attending one day of the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit recently and it was really good to hear Bill Hybels (talking about the privilege of leadership), Condolezza Rice (on a life of leadership), William Ury (on negotiating conflict), Jim Collins (on being great by choice) and John Ortberg (talking about Jesus’ unimaginable influence). I came away with many brilliant tips on leadership, such as the idea of primarily managing my energy rather than my time, the importance of optimism and perspective, and the significance of separating people and their interests from the problem or the flash point of conflict.

All of these are great tips from a mix of political, religious and business leaders but whilst truth is the same whoever shares it, I did want to deepen my understanding of biblical, gospel-centred leadership. For that reason I picked up Steve Timmis’ book, Gospel Centred Leadership; Becoming the servant God wants you to be. This helped me to examine the cultural lenses through which I view leadership and to set leadership into a broader biblical perspective.

In the opening chapter Steve hit the nail on the head as he analysed our cultures desire for and cynicism towards elected leadership. From there he invites us to explore biblical leadership, looking first at the role of God as the leader both in the fine and precise details of His judgement and His shaping of human history. It is this revelation of God’s leadership that places our own exercise of leadership (as a pastor, bible study leader, elder, church administrator, etc.) into context.

Chapter two explores several (broken) examples of leadership. Adam, Abraham, Joseph, Moses and Nehemiah are all used to highlight the way that God rule is mediated through His servants, but also to point the need for another leader. Chapter three introduces us to Jesus’ leadership, challenges our prideful dependence on self, and encourages us to have a quiet confidence in Jesus’ power to rule through His Word, by His Spirit. Comment is passed about women’s ministry (throughout the New Testament), but also about headship being male. The arguments for or against this are not analysed in the book. Suffice to say Steve believes that if the way headship is exercised reflects the headship of Jesus then many of the objections to leadership in general and male leadership in particular become redundant.

Chapters four to ten explore several distinctive marks of Christian leadership, character, aptitude, wisdom, service, authority, style and leadership. Looking at each of these marks of leadership, Steve explores contemporary leadership quandaries and uses these as a way into looking at the biblical teaching on leadership. In each chapter he provides questions for biblical study and questions for personal reflection.  Warning: do not read this if you are uncomfortable examining yourself and finding your own attitudes and actions challenged.

The final four chapters look at the practicalities of leadership, each chapter looks at a different principle for gospel leadership: decisions are to be made by Spirit-inspired consensus, idealism as the enemy of gospel ministry, leaders exist to serve others intentionally, and the importance of investing in leadership. I found myself cut to the heart by the chapter on idealism which highlighted the danger of despairing in the face of disaster (losing all perspective), echoing what everyone else is saying (entering a state of virtual paralysis), assassinating others who fail and threaten our idealised church (making the perpetrator into an enemy). I pray that God would grant me the strength and wisdom to dwell in and respond out of the resources of the gospel to all manner of crisis and disappointment.

Finally, I suspect many leaders in the U.R.C. will struggle to get past Steve’s view of women in positions of leadership. However, there is plenty apart from this that would be of value to us. I have to say that despite being just 125 pages, it was not an easy or quick read. It forced me to analyse my own leadership decisions over and over again, and to confess my own inadequacy, even as it led me to Jesus’ grace.

1 Timothy 4:6-10 – Words of wisdom and encouragement

If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.
– 1 Timothy 4:6-10 ESV

I love this passage because it shows us Paul the man and Paul the mentor. The apostle Paul doesn’t only diagnose the heresy within the Ephesian Church and instruct Timothy to oppose it. He offers Timothy words of personal encouragement and support. I need to read this over and over again because it reminds me of my responsibility within the church: To set words of faith and good doctrine before the brethren as a servant of Jesus Christ. For those who oppose the teaching of Scripture are not fighting against me or rejecting my words, but they are fighting against and rejecting Jesus Christ.

In telling Timothy to ‘have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths’, Paul gives us a useful strategy for addressing false teaching: reject it! This might seem obvious to some, but so often we miss this. Not wanting to appear intolerant we enter into polite discussion and so allow those who are propagating false teaching to set the agenda. It seems that Paul is clear that our response to heresy is not to enter into ‘constructive’ dialogue but to reject it and continue to set before the brethren words of faith and good doctrine.

It is also important that we, as Christian leaders, guard our own hearts and train ourselves for godliness. There is a danger that we can get so caught up in responding to our critics prattle that we neglect our own rigorous pursuit of godliness. Comparing the pursuit of the holy to bodily exercise, Paul encourages Timothy to continue his spiritual exercises. Victor Pfitzner notes that this concept of spiritual exercise ‘is not restricted to a negative physical asceticism… but rather implies a positive developing of his strength nourished above all “by the words of faith”‘.

This analogy is really helpful to remember because we tend to expect our spiritual exercise to be of immediate benefit to us and then we are disappointed (or even give up) when it doesn’t result in an instant transformation of our lives and circumstances. This is like beginning a diet or setting up a daily exercise regime and giving up the next day because it hasn’t made a difference! Paul urges us, even as he urges Timothy, to commit ourselves to regular training in godliness that leads to growth in our faith and knowledge of God. For this training holds promise not only for the present life but also for the life to come.

To encourage this pursuit of godliness Paul shares with Timothy a third of three trustworthy sayings in the 1 Timothy (the first being 1 Tim. 1:15 and the second being 1 Tim. 3:1 ). This third saying (1 Tim. 3:10) urges Timothy to keep pursuing godliness,  ‘For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.’ It should remind us that the godliness we pursue is not a self-centred ascetic struggle for moral and religious perfection but a pursuit of God’s stated desire that ‘all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2:4).

God is the only living God. He is the only Saviour of all people (that is people from every tribe and tongue). He is the Saviour of those who believe. In the context of Ephesus many ancient inscriptions have been found honouring dead men as gods and saviours. Paul’s trustworthy saying reminds us that God is the only Saviour and that whilst in His common grace He saves all people from the worst excesses of depravity. He is the special Saviour of all who believe in Him for eternal life. For this reason we are to pursue godliness and keep setting before people the words of faith and good doctrine. I pray that God would give grace to us all in this pursuit.

Reformation Books: The Busy Christian’s Guide to Busyness

I’ve had a number of conversations recently with friends who are just too busy. I know that often they are busy doing the very best things, giving their time to their church, to their neighbours and to their friends, but at some point this busyness has taken over their lives. It is as if they are trapped on a treadmill and it won’t slow down enough to let them hop off.

So I’m going to dedicate this review to my busy friends, safe in the knowledge that they will be far too busy to ever read it.

The Busy Christian’s Guide to Busyness opens with a succinct summary of the problem. We can be busy at work or busy at play, but the result is always the same we become too busy to be healthy, too busy to think, too busy for relationships and too busy for Jesus.

In the second chapter, the author Tim Chester warns us against either ‘a work centred’ or ‘a leisure centred’ life ethic. He calls us to ‘a God centred’ ethic. This doesn’t mean keeping busy working for God, this means learning to both work and rest to the glory of God.

It is certainly true that the Bible commends hard work (‘Go to the ant you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food in harvest. How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep?’ Proverbs 6:6-9) but the Bible also commends rest (‘Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day’ Deuteronomy 5:15).

Tim points out that we should not live to work nor should we view work simply as a necessary evil. Our aim isn’t even to find the right balance between work and rest. No our goal is that we enjoy and glorify God in work and in rest. God wants to redeem both work and rest enabling us to know and enjoy him through these times of grace.

So that’s the theory but how does it work in practice. Tim gives us a four step process to the practice:

1. Use time efficiently
2. Sort out your priorities
3. Glorify God all the time
4. Identify the desires of your heart that make you do more than God is calling you to.

Step one involves many time management tips that you could pick up in any secular book (and to be fair Tim acknowledges and agrees with this). It covers planning, paperwork, managing people, and your home.

Step two involves setting kingdom priorities beginning with ministry and church and then looking towards our homes, jobs and lifestyles. I generally agree with this but I wouldn’t be as rigid as this. I am not sure busying ourselves with ministry and church should necessarily come before these other spheres of service. I am persuaded by the Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper that ‘There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry “Mine!”‘. Consequently, I don’t think ministry or working for the church should assume priority over mothering or working as a nurse or lifestyle evangelism. I think working out your priorities should depend much more on discerning the Holy Spirit’s leading and God’s will for your life.

Step three talks about how we can glorify God in all of life and gives some really encouraging pointers on how we can redeem our work life.

Finally, we reach step four which takes up the majority of the book. I do not have the space to do this justice here, but this is where Tim really excels in helping us analyse our own desires (to prove ourselves, to live up to other people’s expectations, to keep on top of things, to work better under pressure, to gain more money, to make the most of life ). In each of the following chapters, Tim explores a single motivation, the way it appears in our lives, and then places it in the context of God’s liberating truth. I thoroughly recommend reading these.

All in all accepting my concerns over step two I think this is a really great biblically grounded book. In fact I’m going to give it to some of my busy friends now!

Honesty in worship

I was struck by this quote recently by A.W. Tozer: ‘Christians’, he writes, ‘do not tell lies, they just go to church and sing them’. On one hand it made me feel uneasy, yet on the other it provoked me to think more deeply about worship. It is not that Tozer doubted the truth of the gospel, the objective reality of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection or ascension. He believed, as I do, in Jesus’ virgin birth, sin bearing death, victory over the grave, and ascension into heaven. It wasn’t the objective reality of the gospel that he was questioning, but the subjective response.

Last week we were singing the song:

‘As the deer pants for the water,
So my soul longs after You.
You alone are my heart’s desire
And I long to worship You.’

I found myself praying that God would make this true in my life. For it is no light thing to declare that God is our only desire. Sometimes our singing betrays the truth in our hearts. Please do not misread me here. I am not saying that we should never declare our longing or desire for God nor am I criticising Martin Nystrom’s song, but I do want us to acknowledge that an exclamation of devotion is often times more aspirational than an honest reflection of our own hearts.

Though I enjoy singing, ‘As the deer pants for the water’. I often find I am singing words that I believe, but long to experience deeper, the truth of:

‘I want You more than gold or silver,
Only You can satisfy.
You alone are the real joy-giver
And the apple of my eye.’

God certainly is the only One who will truly satisfy the longing of my heart, He certainly is the real joy-giver, and I have experienced satisfaction and joy in Him, but sometimes these words of worship are sung with little appreciation of their meaning or emotional connection. I believe God is worthy of both our minds and our hearts in worship. We must be careful in the way we worship God for we do not want Him to say of us, ‘these people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ (Isaiah 29:13).

It is worth remembering here that the ‘chief end of man is to worship God and enjoy Him forever’. Worship is not a means to some other end, but end in itself. It is the Spirit-led response to the revelation of God’s truth.

For this reason I agree with Paul Robinson when he writes, ‘When we choose subjective lyrics it is important that we are singing these words in response to a message, word or working of the Spirit in worship and not just by themselves’. There should be an honesty and a depth to our expression of devotion.

Surely, as Phil Baiden has said, we see this supremely in the Psalms. Where ‘As the deer pants for the water, so my soul pants for you, my God’ (Psalm 42) continues not with simple expression of love or devotion to God but with a heart felt cry:

‘My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long:
Where is your God?’

In this we see an earthy worship that connects with believers lived experience whilst at the same time appealing to God to meet with us, to do more in our lives, to deepen our experience of His grace. So let us pray:

Lord, may our worship be a true reflection of what You are doing in our hearts and our lives at this time. Guide those who lead worship in our churches so that they might choose words and music that connect with our hearts and minds. Forgive the times when our worship pays little more than lip service to You. Help us to worship You in Spirit and in truth. In the name of Jesus and to His glory we ask it. Amen

Reformation Books: The Bruised Reed

I had reason recently to return to this little book full of pastoral wisdom, gentle correction and spiritual encouragement. It is written by the Puritan Richard Sibbes who ministered in London and Cambridge in the seventeenth century. Then he was known as ‘The Heavenly Doctor Sibbes’ on account of his powerful application of God’s Word to the cure of souls.

Richard Sibbes wrote The Bruised Reed in 1630 as an exposition and application of Isaiah 42:1-3 and Matthew 12:18-21. In the book he outlines the calling of Christ to his office and the manner in which he carries it out. He emphasises the Father’s love for us who are included in Christ Jesus through our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins.

Often times the tendency in Christians, after being saved, is to turn back to their own actions as evidence of salvation and for assurance of God’s love for them. For ministers we may look to the strength or health of our churches as a sign of God’s approval, consequently we may become discouraged and disheartened when we do not see our expectations fulfilled.  Many in our congregations doubt God’s call upon their lives because they do not see their lives bearing the fruit they anticipated. In response to this Sibbes reminds us that God has always likened his church to ‘weak things’ and that ‘God’s children are bruised reeds before conversion and oftentimes after.’

From there Sibbes guides us through the good effects of bruising (leading to salvation, purging us of pride, evoking free confession, conforming us to Christ who was bruised for us) to Christ’s response towards bruised reeds (which is grace pure and simple both in mercy, not giving us what our sins deserve, and in blessing, giving us that which we do not deserve).

Throughout the book there are gems that cannot help but encourage disheartened believers:

‘Let us not therefore be discouraged at the small beginnings of grace, but look on ourselves as elect to be ‘holy and without blame’ (Eph 1:4)… Christ values us by what we shall be, and by what we are elected unto.’

‘Christ refuses none for the weakness of parts, that none should be discouraged, but accepts none for greatness, that none should be lifted up with that which is of so little reckoning with God.’

‘We must not judge of ourselves always according to present feeling, for in temptations we shall see nothing but smoke of distrustful thoughts.’

‘In time of temptation, believe Christ rather than the devil. Believe truth from truth itself. Hearken not to a liar, an enemy and a murderer.’

Sibbes pastoral experience shines through the book as he reminds preachers:

‘That spirit of mercy that was in Christ should move his servants to be content to abase themselves for the good of the meanest.’

‘Some think it strength of grace to endure nothing in the weaker, whereas the strongest are readiest to bear with the infirmities of the weak.’

‘Love is the best entertainer of truth; and when it is not entertained in the love of it (2 Thess. 2:10), lovely though it is, it leaves the heart and will stay no longer.’

In many similar words Sibbes encourages ministers to keep preaching with knowledge and affection the grace of God to our congregations. For our victory in Christ is certain, as Sibbes says, ‘The victory lies not with us, but with Christ, who has taken on him both to conquer for us and to conquer in us.’