Author Archives: Phil Baiden

God of God

This last Sunday, members of Hall Gate URC in Doncaster joined together after their morning service of worship for a meal and discussion. I’ve started a church history course with them that looks at old events to see their contemporary relevance. Sunday’s session was supposed to be on the Fourth Century as a whole touching on men like John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo.

wpid-DSC_0794.JPGWe didn’t get quite that far, though.

All our time was taken up with looking at the Christological and Trinitarian controversies that led to the Councils of Nicea (325AD) and Constantinople (381AD). After a short discussion on whether Constantine was good for the church or not, we began to look at the Arian controversy and the first Nicene creed. It was a great time and led to some really interesting discussion. From the events of 1600 years ago we began to discuss modern worship, tolerance, evangelism and everything else you can think of. Christology and Trinitarianism became more than just dusty words in Systematic Theology books and became living realities.

I hope that our discussion will lead people to understand the second verse of O Come All Ye Faithful a little more. The composer of the hymn, John Francis Wade and its translator Frederick Oakley were both Roman Catholics. Wade was a Jacobite who fled to France. Oakley was a Tractarian in the Church of England before following the logic of their position and joining the Roman Church. I’m sure I’d have some “pleasant theological discussions” with both men but there’s no doubting the orthodoxy of the second verse of this hymn.

With words taken from the Nicene Creed we sing:

God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God,
Begotten, not created:

The third line is an interesting translation of gestant puellæ viscera meaning “carried in a virgin’s womb”. But the rest is fabulous stuff. Jesus, who we adore, is fully God. There was no time when he wasn’t. He always was and always will be the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity. O come, let us adore him this Christmas for who he is. God in flesh. God with us. Immanuel.

Book Review: Calvin on the Songs of the Nativity

When thinking about the work of John Calvin our minds may take us to the Institutes of the Christian Religion or to the many volumes of commentaries on books of the Bible. Some of us may think of his fabulous treatises On the Necessity of Reforming the Church and An Inventory of Relics. All these works are worthy of reading and studying and will be rich sources of edification to any believer.

songsofthenativityBut if we restrict ourselves to these works we miss a vital part of Calvin’s output. We will miss out on what Calvin thought was the most important part of his life and ministry. We will miss out on his preaching.

Calvin was, first and foremost, a preacher. He ascended the steps of St Peter’s pulpit almost every day to preach the Word of God to the people under his care. And in the pulpit we hear the voice of a man who used his considerable intellect and learning to bring that Word to the lowliest child in the faith.

Calvin preached without notes and only with the original Greek or Hebrew text in front of him. But from very early on in his time at Geneva a stenographer was found to record the sermons. These records have long been extant but only a few volumes have ever been translated into English.

The Banner of Truth Trust, however, has published many volumes of Calvin’s sermons in English. One of their most recent volumes makes fabulous reading over the Christmas period. In Songs of the Nativity Calvin expounds the songs found in the first two chapters of Luke. The songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels and Simeon are here opened up to the reader in a way that directs our thoughts to the glory of God and the riches of Christ.

If you’ve never read Calvin before you will find him to be more readable than Karl Barth or Rowan Williams. He will have better applications than Rick Warren or Tim Keller, despite the gap of time between him and us. Calvin’s sermons were preached to people like you. Pick up this volume (or any volume of his sermons) and delight yourself in the Christ who has saved you.

On how not to be a schismatic – 1 Timothy 6:3-4

Think about what we hear in many URC circles about the evangelical position. It’s divisive, contentious, looking for arguments over unimportant issues, uneducated, simple.
That’s what I thought, anyway. Surely progressive Christianity was the way forward? Unfortunately, the Bible gave no encouragement in that belief. In fact, quite the opposite. Scripture teaches that Christianity is ultimately a conservative religion, concerned with handing on a message from one generation to the next and that those who seek to change that message are the real schismatics.
Paul couldn’t be clearer in this passage. “If anyone teaches a different doctrine…he is puffed up and understands nothing.”
This passage teaches us that there is a pattern of teaching which must be preached and adhered to. This passage teaches that this doctrine is linked to the Lord Jesus. This passage teaches us that there is a teaching that corresponds to godliness.
The question we must ask then is: Are we teaching that pattern of sound words? Or do we think we know better?
Think of how things have gone in the 20th century. Was that a century of clinging to old doctrine? Or was it, on the whole, a century when words like atonement, salvation, Gospel, were redefined to suit modern sensibilities?
If you’ve ever attempted to show how clever you are by questioning the message of Paul then he has some news for you. You’re the one dividing the church. You’re the disillusioned one. You’re the one who is using the church to make a name for yourself.
There’s still time to change. There’s still time to repent and come back to sound doctrine. God did this for me, he can do it for you too.
You don’t want to be a schismatic do you?

The God who keeps Israel: Psalm 121

Regular readers here will already know my penchant for singing Psalms in public worship. I hope that’s made a few of you think as to how to incorporate them into your services. My practice is to have at least one Psalm in every act of worship. This takes place in a section of the service where we listen to God’s Word read, we then sing God’s Word in a Psalm and then God’s Word is preached from the pulpit. My aim is to let the Word of God sink into the ears and hearts of God’s people. And there are very few better ways to get people to remember things than to sing them.

As I’ve gone on in my ministry a few Psalms have become firm favourites. Psalm 121 is one of those. You can find it at number 726 in Rejoice and Sing. It’s sung to the tune Dundee (French) which, in my opinion, fits the words beautifully.

I to the hills will lift mine eyes;
From whence doth come mine aid?
My safety cometh from the Lord,
who heaven and earth hath made.

Thy foot he’ll not let slide, nor will
he slumber that thee keeps.
Behold, he that keeps Israel,
he slumbers not nor sleeps.

The Lord thee keeps; the Lord thy shade
on thy right side doth stay.
The moon by night thee shall not smite
Nor yet the sun by day.

The Lord shall keep thy soul; he shall
preserve thee from all ill;
henceforth thy going out and in
God keep forever will.

We live in a time of great uncertainty for the church in this country. The old denominations (like ours) are dying. Government seems to be going out of its way to annoy people of Christian conviction for no good reason. The rock of Biblical authority has been chipped away at by those without and within the church. What might the future hold for my daughter as we seek to bring her up in the faith?

These things are nothing new. Every generation of the church will have had faithful people crying out for help and guidance from God. Thankfully, God has given us this Psalm to remind us of where our eyes should be looking and where our hope should rest.

This Psalm reminds us that God is a faithful God who has great power – he created all things! He is also a God who is always there – he’ll never be asleep on the job! When it comes to the safety and security of God’s people we can trust the covenant promises of God despite outward appearances.

I commend the singing of this Psalm to you. Try it without accompaniment like these folks:

Per Crucem ad Lucem

This is an adapted post from my personal blog:

forsyth

Through the cross to light. That’s the title of a little biography by A.M. Hunter about a Scottish congregationalist called P.T. Forsyth, a minister and theologian at the turn of the last century. My interest in Forsyth came about after my return from Madagascar. That trip had clarified the importance of a vital trust in Christ, the beauty of Reformed worship and the great responsibility laid on me as a future minister of the Gospel. I also came to see that it was not upon the heads of ministers to run social services or to turn churches into community outreach centres but to proclaim the saving work of God in his Son Jesus Christ. I’d finished the journey from liberal to conservative.

I now saw that human sin was a terrible reality that needed to be taken seriously. I saw that God was sovereign and holy. I believed the cross was God’s solution to this problem. I saw that our Reformed forebears consistently taught this and should be studied and listened to. But this meant I felt out of place in a denomination where these truths were not central and many evangelicals were far from the Reformed practices I held dear.

I began searching the Internet for information about this Gospel I had to preach but much of it came from America. Was there a British theologian who could speak to the situation this country and my denomination found itself in? And then I stumbled on this quote:

“There was a time when I was interested in the first degree with purely scientific criticism. Bred among the academic scholarship of the classics and philosophy, I carried these habits  to the Bible … [but] it also pleased God by the revelation of His  holiness and grace, which the great theologians taught me to find in  the Bible, to bring home to me my sin in a way that submerged all the school questions in weight, urgency and poignancy. I was turned  from a Christian to a believer, from lover of love to an object of  grace.”

Here it was. Someone who had taken the same path that I had. From the liberal academy to an object of grace. This was Forsyth writing in 1907 in the book “Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind”. I bought the book. I devoured it. I broke a lifetime’s practice and underlined passages in biro. Here was a theologian from my own denominational heritage talking of sin, grace, the holiness of God and the cross as being absolutely essential.

This book also reminds the preacher that he is not to read the newspapers and adapt his messages accordingly. The preacher is a herald, an ambassador with a message from a holy God to a sinful people. That message will always be relevant whereas the man that follows the press will be pulled from pillar to post.

Forsyth was a great reader of his times. Many of the things he warned about have come to fruition. 100 years on, his writings are still vital. Start reading – it’s worth it.

1 Timothy 4:11-16

The four authors of this group blog are all under-40 which in the context of the URC is a rare thing. One of the things that I’ve had to deal with in my ministry is the constant reference to my relative youth. It doesn’t matter how many times I reference the fact that I’m now around the age that Jesus was when he was crucified, or when John Calvin had written the first edition of the Institutes, or when George Whitefield was preaching to thousands, I’m still seen by some as a young lad.

I think Timothy must have experienced something of this. The qualifications for elders given in chapter three seem to indicate that being an older man is one of the pre-requisites for eldership. How can the church know if a man can manage his household, if he doesn’t have a household? And the church needs to have seen his life and example for some years to make the judgement as to whether he is qualified to lead God’s church. The very word “Elder” suggests someone who has a few grey hairs.

Yet, there were clearly exceptions, and Timothy is one. Paul tells him to “let no one despise your youth” (v.12). But how was he to do that?

One of the ways might have been to show his professional aptitude. He could have created a few new programmes for the church and organised them in a fantastic new way. He could have made a big fuss to the outside world to show how hip and trendy he was. But the advice that Paul gives is similar to what we hear time and time again in the New Testament. Keep your head down, carry on the essentials, persevere in the faith.

Timothy is to “set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (v.12). Rather than listen to the gripes about his age he is to continue walking in a godly manner. Everything that Timothy does must be conducted in love, faith and purity – not so easy to do when facing opposition.

He must also devote himself to “the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching” (v.13). This goes against the grain today as it did back in Timothy’s day. Christian worship is simple worship. There should be no fancy gimmicks. No focus on the praise band/organ/bagpipes. No stupid sketches, mime or liturgical dance. No staring at a stone until a candle burns to the end. No.

Have a minister read the scriptures, and then get him to preach on them.

There’s plenty of places to get the other stuff but nowhere where you’ll hear God’s Word unless ministers are doing their real job.

And Timothy is to persevere in the faith. He is to pay close attention to himself, ensuring that he is continuing to put his trust in Christ and no other. And we pray that we here at ReformationURC and other ministers wherever they are found, are not despised because of their youth but would be found faithful in the things which have been entrusted to us. The salvation of ourselves and others depends on it.

Book reviews: Children’s Bibles

In 2011 I became a father. And from the very earliest days of my daughter’s life we began to read Bible stories to her. When she was very little my wife and I would read quite lengthy passages but now she’s 18 months old it’s become a bit more of an interactive experience. She’ll now request “Jesus”, “God” or “Bible” stories, and can recognise the pictures of John the Baptist, and name the first four disciples called by Jesus. (She’s also pretty good at singing Zacchaeus was a very little man.)

But this isn’t a parental bragging session. It’s a chance to give you my thoughts on what’s out there to read to your own children/grandchildren/Sunday Schoolers/toddler group.

At Hannah’s baptism the church gave us the God Loves Me Bible. My initial reaction to things that say God Loves You is to reject it out of hand and then enter into a theological treatise on whether we’re talking about God’s common grace or his electing love that is only for his adopted in Christ. But I was pleasantly surprised by this one. There are 66 Bible characters that God showed his love for and each retelling of the story is short enough for wriggly toddlers without being too shallow. I appreciated the story of Gideon which begins: “Gideon was weak.” The accent is on God’s grace not on these “Heroes” works. 3/5

When Hannah was a small baby we could read to her all night if we wanted to. She would lie in our arms and would have no choice but to listen. As she’s grown we’ve found her to get more wriggly so we needed to find a book with short stories that would keep her attention. Time for Bed Bible Stories fitted this bill perfectly. The stories are 5 or 6 lines over 3 pages with bright illustrations. This is the book where Hannah can name the disciples. However, there are a couple of issues with this one. The Lost Sheep tells how a shepherd seeks the lost sheep but the moral of the story is “God is happy too when anyone comes to him.” My wife and I adapt this line to reflect the parable – that it’s God who seeks and finds the lost. Also, as one who takes the second commandment as being still in force today, the crucifixion picture may be the most blasphemous thing I’ve ever seen. (But that may be because I’ve not seen the kids’ Bible with the cloth characters yet.) 3/5

The best children’s Bible is the Jesus Storybook Bible. This has become the standard go-to children’s Bible for conservative evangelical parents because it puts the whole Bible into the framework of God’s redemption in Christ. It teaches us how everything in the Old Testament points to Christ and how the New Testament is the fulfilment of God’s promises. The only bad thing is that there is a lot of text so toddlers will find it difficult to sit through the reading of the stories without tearing the pages they want to turn. But for babies and then four-years and up this is amazing. You’ll learn a lot as well and praise God for his great love for his people. 5/5

Of course all of these are deficient in that they’re not the Bible. But as an introduction they’re a good stepping stone. Now, excuse me I have to go and catechise my daughter: “Hannah, what’s the chief end of man?”

Get rid of the organ! And guitar! And everything else!

If you want to start a fight in cyberspace, I find the best way is to call attention to the previous practice of Reformed churches and show how far we’ve fallen from that. The most interesting feedback I’ve had on my personal blog and on Twitter is when I’ve made posts about unaccompanied Psalm singing.

I even had someone try to instigate a conversation on Facebook on this matter after my last piece on the necessity of singing Psalms in worship. I didn’t bite then so I will now.

The Reformed view of worship established at the Reformation and never repudiated – but confirmed – by later councils was that the best way of praising God in the worship of the covenant people was to sing God’s word back to him without accompaniment.

There is no evidence of the apostolic church using instruments in their worship. There is no command to use instruments in the New Testament. There is in the Old Testament but the Reformers and their direct followers saw those stipulations as being part of the ceremonial law of Israel. That law was fulfilled in the perfect sacrifice of Christ, what need did God’s people have for these instruments anymore? As Calvin writes in his comments on Psalm 149:2: “The musical instruments he mentions were peculiar to this infancy of the Church [i.e. before Christ], nor should we foolishly imitate a practice which was intended only for God’s ancient people.”

What changed? And why?

The truth may be that we were more concerned with the ways of the world than with the command of God.

Look at the instruments that have been used – the organ and then the praise band. These are instruments that are ideally suited to the popular culture of the time. Our use of instruments may have been an attempt to look acceptable to the outside world. It’ll attract the kids! The organ was the original seeker-sensitive innovation.

Whenever we have seen instruments introduced to the worship of God we have seen unfortunate consequences. The organist can become the tyrant that makes the Lord’s Day his excuse for a personal recital. The praise band can be more concerned with their own sound and tastes than truly helping the people of God to worship.

Reformed worship should be simple. The singing should be edifying for those in the congregation. It should also be different to the outside world. If the URC wants an identity how about this: “The URC? Oh, they’re the crazy ones that sing without instruments.”

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. This has the benefit of being a Psalm of lament. How many of those have you sung recently?

This post is deliberately provocative. I’m being highly hypocritical in writing it as I serve in churches where I choose hymns aplenty and they’re accompanied by organ and piano. 

Summer Refreshment: Luther, Calvin and Whitefield

The last weekend has seen the four of us occupied with denominational events. The other three men were in Scarborough for the General Assembly making brave stands for Biblical Christianity. Meanwhile, this correspondent was wandering around outdoor shops looking at family tents. However, I was getting regular text messages and sneakily following the debates through Twitter and Facebook.

For many of us, last week’s Assembly was a reminder that the United Reformed Church is a difficult place to be for traditional, evangelical, orthodox ministers. But it was ever thus.

In times like this one of the best things we can do is to revisit the lives of the saints that have gone before us and take inspiration from their example. It is a good practice to see how our heroes coped with opposition, good times and the bits in between. And we’ll also see that there is not that much exceptional about them – except that God showed his grace and accomplished his purposes through them.

The first biography I want to draw your attention to is Here I Stand by Roland Bainton. This is a popular level book detailing the life of Martin Luther. From his promise to become a monk in the midst of a thunderstorm, through his early battles with the Roman church to the end of his life this book takes a lively look at the German Reformer.

Bainton writes in an accessible way and the volume is packed full of illustrations. The fact that it’s a small paperback is another bonus. Read this and be thrilled.

The second is a recent biography of John Calvin titled Pilgrim and Pastor. Written by W. Robert Godfrey, president of Westminster Seminary California, this book looks at Calvin’s life before and after his permanent settling in Geneva. Although the book details many biographical details its great value is seeing how Calvin’s teaching played out in practice in the Swiss city.

I lent this book to one of my elders who lapped it up. It makes an excellent introduction to Calvin’s thought.

The last book I want to recommend is Arnold Dallimore’s two volume biography of George Whitefield. This book may not win too many prizes for historical writing and it strays into hagiography at times but it makes a thrilling story. Delight as young George comes to faith after almost starving himself to death! Marvel at the tales of the crowds that came to hear him preach! Be amazed at how he responds to the man who showed Whitefield his backside whilst he was preaching in London!

All these books will lift any gloom you may be feeling and remind you of our gracious, awesome God who gives us “this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” 2 Corinthians 4:7

Pray for everyone: 1 Timothy 2:1-4

In our last section Paul was urging Timothy to fight the good fight of faith with a good conscience. Timothy’s ministry must be grounded in solid doctrine so that he does not make a shipwreck of his faith as others had done.

There’s a misconception that those who hold tight to Biblical doctrine are unloving, hard-edged people. If only these people would relax and agree to disagree on certain issues. But the New Testament doesn’t allow us that option. Even John, the apostle of love says that if someone doesn’t hold the faith of the Apostles then “do not receive [them] into the house or welcome [them]” 2 John 10.

But that doesn’t make Paul – always urging the churches to ensure pure teaching – a hard, unfeeling man. No, his letters are full of his soft-hearted appeals. And here, to Timothy, he shows that side once again.

For the first thing he urges Timothy to do in the congregation is that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone. Timothy’s ministry should be a prayerful ministry, coming before the living God to plead for the souls of all. There is not much real difference between the types of prayer mentioned here. Paul is using these four words to really hammer home the lesson: Pray for people.

How many of us have this as the first thing? How many of us can be quick to judge others yet slow to pray for them? How many of us plead with God that he would change the hearts of our family, friends, enemies and politicians?

Paul singles out kings and all who are in high positions as those who especially need our prayers. Remember, this was being written in a time when the church was meeting opposition in every quarter. And persecution at the hands of the Roman authorities was beginning to be a daily reality. Timothy was to pray for Caesar and his governors, so that Christians would lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.

Similar days may be upon us. The Book of Common Prayer and the Directory for Public Worship made provisions that the Royal Family was to included in the public prayer of the church. We, too, must be praying for our leaders. We must pray that they would come to the knowledge of the truth, as well as to defend the freedom of the Christian to worship in a godly way.

Salvation is not just for current Christians. Neither is it just for the poor. Salvation is for everyone who believes regardless of their social background. This week let us pray for the government because to do so is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour.