The Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference, Leicester, 26-29 April 2010
Wyn Hughes from Cardiff spoke first on Romans 1:16. Asked to be brief and encouraging, he certainly was. He turned our attention to the gospel itself – our raison d’etre as preachers. As he said, we are Reformed no doubt but is it the gospel that thrills us? In Romans we have a taste of Paul’s preaching as he outlines the panorama of the gospel. Is preaching the gospel what we want to be better and better at?
He addressed the question of what made Paul so enthusiastic about the gospel (which he clearly is – he is using litotes). How was the manna as fresh at this point as when he began? Why was he like this? Wyn suggested 3 reasons:1. It’s about salvation – Believers don’t talk enough about salvation, being saved. Unbelievers speak of salvation in mere earthly terms. We often lack a sense of eternity. Death is a reminder of how short life is. It is an awesome thing to preach. How thrilling to know there is a way to be saved.
2. The power of God – Salvation is not just escaping hell but much more, and yet people are very sceptical. We had a nice illustration at this point from the propitiation tiles (as they are called – they tun away the tremendous heat) on the space shuttle.
3. It’s for everyone who believes – Here we had one or two more illustrations including Spurgeon offering his gold watch to anyone in the orphanage who would take it and one ragamuffin going for it.
May our default position be the gospel. If Christ crucified is at the centre the rest will fall into place.
So a nice gentle start.
Liam Goligher from London announced that he planned to preach on Revelation 4 and 5. He spoke of the church then and now being in much trouble. Revelation starts with the church as it is and ends with the church as it will be. Its purpose is to encourage. He quoted from 1689 Confession Chapter 26 (3)
The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan; nevertheless Christ always hath had, and ever shall have a kingdom in this world, to the end thereof, of such as believe in him, and make profession of his name.
He summed up the book as being the revelation of God about Jesus by the Spirit to John in symbols for churches.
In Chapter 4 John is caught up to heaven to see who is on the throne. By the end we see Christ rules the world for the sake of his church. At the end of Chapter 3 Christ is sitting on his throne offering participation in it. Typically for Revelation the final idea of that previous section is then exploded and expanded in the section that follows. ‘After this’ points to it being the second vision. 3:8 mentions an open door and it is here again in the timeless dimension of God’s holy counsel. ‘In the spirit’ means like the prophets of old. Here we have one vision in two parts – God the Creator and our Redeemer in Christ.
1. Heaven’s throne. The focus is not on God himself but on what is all around him. The Temple idea is in the background. The answer of the throne is that God is sovereign. John uses revealed language to describe what God is like. When we speak about God we must use the language God has revealed about himself. He has given us the very language to use. God is at the very centre. Everything else centres on the throne. We see here God’s glory, his beauty, the unapproachable brightness of his being. The rainbow is a sign of common grace. His justice is signified in the thunder, etc. Ultimately we can only use God-given vocabulary. A book like The Shack is problematic because it replaces scriptural imagery, which we are not free to do.
2. The throng around the throne. These are either angels or symbols of (not God’s people) but those representing God’s people. 24 is symbolic of the OT and NT Church. This is the way into the church. This is what the prophets and apostles preach. These heavenly representatives are ‘keeping our seats warm’. The main emphasis is not on the elders but the four living creatures. The order is church then creation. They represent the cherubim and seraphim and ultimately creation (fallen as it is).
The creatures are doing what all creation should do. When we gather with God’s people we are joining in this heavenly worship. We are involved in covenant renewal before God and we echo this picture. We should begin our worship with worship of God as Creator. God’s holiness is his separateness from us and the fact he is so much higher. His holiness sets him against us by nature. He is infinitely worthy. In the presence of God all worldly plaudits are nothing. Everything else is nothing.
Go to the throne and remind yourself who you are serving. The greatest blessing is to see God. In The Wizard of Oz Dorothy and her friends discover the wizard is a sham. What John sees is so very different. Dr Goligher closed by quoting the hymn ‘I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath’, etc.
We kicked off with Bernard Lewis this morning and a brief overview of the UK scene, Bernard having been in Papua New Guinea for many years. Bernard has visited a hundred churches recently and commented on the great variety he has encountered. He focussed on the cultural diversity. We need to assess and to cross the barriers. Also we need spiritual confidence. If God is for us …
He spoke too of the content of worship and the danger of majoring on minors. With preaching we are told there are certain extras needed but are they? Too often it’s all facts and no fire. He expressed his disappointment over the hymns controversy but was positive about using language that people understand. We must be willing to change. He finished with some challenges including the need for pastoral work, wider work and to remember this is the year of the Lord.
The first main session of the morning was O Palmer Robertson speaking on Matthew Henry’s little work A Method of Prayer, printed 300 years ago this year. Henry broke off from writing his commentary to write this work and so never finished. In it he sets out a way to use Scripture to pray. It is what Puritans called pleading the promises. If we gave ourselves to it – Professor Robertson suggested – what an impact it might have. Saturation with Scripture could be such a blessing.
Henry is distinctive in who he was as well as what he wrote we were told. He was a great expositor, a Christ-centred biblical and systematic theologian. He was first and foremost a pastor with a love for God’s people. Robertson was given the book by his mother and she had inherited it from her ancestors. He showed us the battered version. He has now updated the language and reprinted it in modern English. We can so easily get into a rut in praying. This book greatly helps us out.
He does not just take the prayers of Scripture but he blends them together. His suggestion of how to pray for ‘our Lord the King’ was omitted in the American edition, as were similar expressions! Henry also used the KJV, of course and his punctuation and other ways of expression are now outdated. The new edition planned seeks to rewrite it in a way that suits today. Robertson has also rearranged it in a more user friendly way. The endless sub-points have been transmuted and there are some additions – e.g. a prayer for the baptism of adult believers as well as babies. Also a prayer for the Jewish people and ancient churches of Asia is supplemented by ones for other parts of the world. At some points Henry’s use of Scripture is not true to the meaning (even he acknowledges it). The revised edition seeks to avoid this. So it is not a simple revision but a reworking. The idea is that the more closely a prayer is framed to the will of the Lord himself the more likely it is to be honoured. The Scriptures are taken in a dynamic rather than a literal way.
We then prayed through the copy before us (a 15 page sample selection). We looked at praise and confession and Professor Robertson prayed some sections. Something like this could be a real help to us.
Iain D Campbell spoke at the second morning session. I had been thinking yesterday that maybe we were not going to get vintage stuff at this conference but this powerful message on the Sabbath was quite something. We began with Genesis 2, Exodus 20 and the Shorter Catechism. Dr Campbell declared that there is a positive perpetual moral commandment binding on all men in Scripture regarding the Sabbath. He noted the huge change in the acceptance of this truth, however, in the last few years. He gave the example of the ESV Study Bible comment on Romans 14:5 saying that the Sabbath command was no longer binding for Paul as it was a ceremonial law – so not perpetual and not moral. Dr Campbell scathingly noted that the author of the note will allow us time to rest and worship however! Such an attitude in fact emasculates, enervates, enfeebles and devitalises not just the fourth command but all the commands. It denies the need to gather for the exposition of this and the other nine.
There is discontinuity, laws that are abolished, etc but not the moral principles that are to characterise the covenant people of God. It is there for the believer ‘in every age of its pilgrimage’ (Vos). He quoted Erskine:
When by the law to grace I’m schooled;
Grace by the law will have me ruled;
Hence, if I don’t the law obey,
I cannot keep the gospel way.
The law and the gospel do sweetly comply.
Having nailed his colours to the mast Dr Campbell announced his intention to use broader brush strokes in this first paper. He suggested that the Sabbath is a principal theme of biblical theology. The eschatology is in the protology. What is there at the beginning finds its flowering in the eternal sabbath. He then gave us a definition of opera – an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text (called a libretto) and musical score, etc.
He then spoke of ‘Sabbath the opera’ – an opera in seven acts. The whole story unfolds like an opera. He called on us to follow the text, hear the music, etc.
1. Before the beginning – The sabbath rest of the Trinity. It is into this glory that God proposes to call men. Sabbath before the sabbath. The rest that belongs to God before it comes to man. Everything is driven by this.
2. This God now builds the opera house in which his great acts will be performed. It is a place in which he is worshipped and that replicates to some extent the heavens. He creates a world to his own glory that will be a place for mission. Man is made in his own image. He works then rests on the seventh day. The last day of creation is the first day of man. The first sunrise was a sabbath one – God’s Day. Man is not simply married and given work but is given a holy day – it is given to man. Adam knew it. A Nigel Lee passage was quoted describing the scene. God sets the boundaries at seven days. So sadly, though, the Sabbath is lost with Paradise itself. The planet itself is cursed.
3. But God has made certain promises about the earth until the new world comes. He is upholding and preserving the opera house. God begins to call a people to himself. He gives them the book of the covenant. Having redeemed them he then gives them the law (note the order) including the provision of rest even in this world of toil. There is a day at the end of the week so they can look forward to rest.
4. This great drama continues with the bringing of this people into the Promised Land where they find rest. Exodus 30 (cf Ezekiel 20) speaks of God sanctifying them by the Sabbath. Some say, but that is Israel. It is all for our benefit. You keep the day different and I will set you apart. Christ died to set people apart to God. The multiplication of sabbaths in Israel was all about this sanctifying work of setting apart. The jubilee is the height of this. The rest is promised to the redeemed people of God. So much is it part of the biblical drama of redemption that when exile is determined it is in order to give the land its neglected sabbaths. What is the answer to man’s failure?
5. The most magnificent movement in the whole opera is when the Lord himself appears on the stage. The Word made flesh dwells among us. Cf Ruth ‘he will not rest until he secures rest’. The restless Saviour. The Lord himself comes into his own opera house. He is the Lord – and specifically the Lord of the Sabbath. If you confess him as Lord you must confess him as Lord of the Sabbath. Jeremiah asks when the sword will rest – only when Christ comes. The whole of his life is a commentary on the sabbath. He kept the Sabbath. Are we going to say not every day was holy? No, every law finds its fulfilment in him. The God of Sinai is seen in the person of Adam. Forsakenness not in the absence of God but his presence.
6. Even in death he is Lord of the Sabbath – he rests in the grave as his followers observe the Sabbath themselves. But he is going to bring a greater sabbath with him from the grave.
Attempts to distinguish Sabbath and Lord’s Day make no sense. It is the first day of the new creation. Again God has said ‘Let there be light’ and it has shone from the tomb. The pattern of the first day of the week is set from the beginning. Here are God’s people now not looking forward to the rest at the end of the week but living their lives in the light of the rest that began it. Then came the pouring out of the Spirit. Now to the end of the world it is our privilege and our delight to lay aside our work and worship the risen Lord on the first day of the week. The songs of Zion come into their own with the rising of Christ. The law is our delight. There is a contradiction in the life of the believer though – the law of sin in us. Christ alone can deliver us to freedom. It is not just legalism. There is a big difference between legalism and law keeping. We are saved from sin which is to be saved from law breaking. We are saved from sin to follow Christ. There are difficulties. Certainly some sabbaths have been abolished but taking the clear passages to interpret the difficult we see the Sabbath goes on.
7. The curtain is not yet fallen. We await the last part of the performance when the Lord of the Sabbath will return to bring his people into the great sabbath rest. Then we will be perfectly holy and there will be no sunrise and sunset; Christ himself will be its light. We will be forever with the Lord. Let’s labour then to enter into his rest. Let’s keep the Sabbath. What do we gain by not seeking to keep it? So little. The bride misses out if she doesn’t spend special time with the Bridegroom. They are altogether. On the Sabbath we say let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, etc.
In the afternoon we had a reports session mainly mentioning various works and projects in Africa (Sierra Leone, South Africa and Uganda). We heard from Palmer Robertson, Martin Holdt and others.
In the evening Liam Goligher took us on to Revelation 5 where the emphasis shifts to the book at the right hand of God. It draws on Ezekiel 2 and Daniel 12 and Isaiah 29. The book is not the Book of Redemption. It goes beyond redemption and includes judgement. It is comprehensive in its scope. There are no gaps for alternatives. No open mike, open theism, etc. Christ holds history and the destiny of the world in his hand. The Christian then is not a cynic or a romantic but one who sees that in this world that there is both good and bad. No-one can open the book but Christ alone. His descent and conquest are both stressed here, drawing on messianic promises in the OT. The Lion is like his brothers, he is a Lamb. He emerges from the elders (the church). He conquers not by attacking but by losing – by becoming a lamb. He makes an effective ransom leading to a new Israel. There were other good things but it was a basic working through the passage in amillennial fashion.
We began today with a short session where Jonathan Watson of the Banner spoke about a lesser known Free church man called John Milne. A student of Chalmers he was part of that group made up of the Bonars and M’Cheyne, etc. Horatius Bonar wrote a biography [to be reprinted in 2010 by Banner of Truth]. Milne himself served chiefly in Perth (Free St Leonard’s) but also in Calcutta. The focus was on the need for prayer. So for example we had something like this, among other things.
For several years a few brethren in different parts of the country had been in the habit of observing some day in each month (generally, though not always, the first Monday), as a day of special private prayer, that they might seek help and wisdom in ‘taking heed to themselves and to their ministry.’ The practice was suggested and begun by Robert M’Cheyne; and each of us in turn wrote the monthly letter, reminding the brethren of the day, and noting thoughts and subjects that might seem particularly suitable. It was a happy bond; very pleasant to look back on, though many links are now broken, and nearly one half of the original members have left us to be with the Lord. The following is Mr. Milne’s circular, of date February 29, 1844:
My dear Andrew, – I have been requested by Mr. Smeaton to write the circular for this month, putting the brethren in remembrance of our special season of prayer and fasting, on Tuesday the 5th of March. It is said, ‘When the poor and needy seek water, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear, I the God of Jacob will not forsake them.’ I do not think we have yet been brought to this. Let us therefore next Tuesday meditate on the terribleness of a barren ministry, till our hearts are wrung and broken. See how Jeremiah speaks (Lam. 3:49) of his feelings during the withdrawal of God’s power and favour. ‘Mine eye trickleth down and ceaseth not.’ And again, ‘Mine eye affecteth mine heart.’ Oh, is it not affecting to see the people flocking to ordinances, and waiting so earnestly on the word, and yet so little of the power being present to heal them! I think I feel it beginning to humble me. The apostles gave themselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word, and that continually. Is it so with us? Let us examine if there is anything wanting in our prayers for the blessing. Are we frequent, constant, fervent, importunate, special, believing, humble in prayer? Is there anything defective in our ministry of the word? Do we seek the conversion of souls? Do we seek messages from God? Do we speak with authority, in the name and through the power of God? Do we set forth tremblingly, yet affectionately, the awful condition of unbelieving, unregenerate men? Do we in Christ’s stead beseech them, ‘Be ye reconciled to God’?
When brought face to face with human evil, we feel our helplessness. It is too great for us. Outward remedies do not reach the seat of the disease. Laws restrain it; walls hide it; prisons silence it; civilisation refines it; education teaches it to keep within bounds. But there it is, notwithstanding all these appliances, its real nature untouched by either magistrate or minister. We are helpless before the evil of ‘this present evil world.’ Be it so. We fall back on God. We ask Him to energize the word; to clothe the speaker of it with superhuman power; to do the work which He alone can do, and for the doing of which He will be entreated of us. Sword and spear and armour may have been in vain. We have still the sling and the stone.
In his second session with us Palmer Robertson introduced us to the work of William Hoppe Murray, a 19th century missionary to Malawi (then Nyasaland), born in 1866 in South Africa and the nephew of Andrew Murray. He trained as a doctor in Scotland, was a man of prayer and came to Malawi in 1894. He served there for 43 years. His cousin A C Murray was the first head of the mission but he succeeded him in 1901. Throughout, the challenge was to what we might do in the light of this tremendous example. Some ten specific challenges were drawn from the varied work of this man as:
- Diplomat (knew the art of the possible but did lack theological discernment at times)
- Translator of the Bible 1903-1919
Finally we were challenged by his character – his perseverance, bravery (including rescuing a girl from salve traders), humour (gently teasing new missionaries), prayer and humility.
In Iain Campbell’s second address he chose to focus on the reference to the Lord’s Day in Revelation 1. He spoke of the change John had witnessed, the practice he adopted, the blessing he enjoyed especially on that particular Lord’s Day (with the first resurrection Sabbath it must have been a stand out one for John) and the message John received. It was good to hear the importance of the law, including that of the Sabbath, reaffirmed and it certainly made me want to keep the Sabbath more enthusiastically and carefully.
I appreciated this quotation from Calvin, who is generally thought to be against the Westminster understanding. The quotation is found in Fairbairn’s work on typology and is from an obscure work – Calvin’s Discourse to the people of Geneva on the Ten Commandments (the fifth and sixth deal with the fourth command). In the fifth, after having stated his views regarding the Sabbath as a typical mystery, in which respect he conceived it to be abolished, he comes to show how far it was still binding, and declares, that as an ordinance of government for the worship and service of God, it pertains to us, as well as to the Jews. ‘The Sabbath, then,’ he says
should be to us as a tower whereon we should mount aloft, to contemplate afar the works of God, when we are not occupied nor hindered by anything besides, from stretching forth all our faculties in considering the gifts and graces which He has bestowed on us. And if we properly apply ourselves to do this on the Sabbath, it is certain that we shall be no strangers to it during the rest of our time, and that this meditation shall have so formed our minds, that on Monday, and the other days of the week, we shall abide in the grateful remembrance of our God, etc. . . . It is for us to dedicate ourselves wholly to God, renouncing ourselves, our feelings, and all our affections; and then, since we have this external ordinance, to act as becomes us, that is, to lay aside our earthly affairs and occupations, so that we may be entirely free (vaquions du tout) to meditate the works of God, may exercise ourselves in considering the gifts which He has afforded us, and, above all, may apply ourselves to apprehend the grace which He daily offers us in His Gospel, and may be more and more conformed to it. And when we shall have employed the Sabbath in praising and magnifying the name of God, and meditating His works, we must, through the rest of the week, show how we have profited thereby.
We had a useful question time before tea, and then for his final message to us Liam Goligher, having expounded Revelation 4 and 5, stood back a little from the text and sought to make a more general application. His three points were
- Know God as the Creator and Redeemer
- Worship God as the Creator and Redeemer,and
- Serve God as the Creator and Redeemer.
He began by speaking on God’s general and special revelation and at the end was very helpful on the subject of common grace and the importance of understanding it. On the way we were taught that worship should centre on God as Creator as well as Redeemer. We should see worship as the task of giving expression to the worship of creation. Of course, worship is only possible through a mediator and that is Christ (that is his role in these chapters). This Mediator is worshipped as God throughout Revelation.
There were other good things too including a quotation from Luther’s Large Catechism saying that if your heart
cleaves to anything else, of which it expects more good and help than of God, and does not take refuge in Him, but in adversity flees from Him, then you have an idol, another god.
Our final morning was an excellent one. Palmer Robertson took us to Matthew 24:14 and in a fairly wide-ranging message considered the mystery of the gospel, which is not something secret, but something once hidden but now revealed. The mysterious element is its spread (as spoken of in Ezekiel and Daniel and by Christ when he speaks of a tree growing by itself). The mystery is not simply the inclusion of the Gentiles but the spread of the gospel and the fact that the Gentiles are equal participants with the Jews in every way in the promises of the gospel. Because it is by grace alone through faith alone even wild Scots can be grafted in. It is grace not race. He suggested that Paul was chosen over Peter to be the one to go to the Gentiles because he was the one who knew the OT promises best. He spoke too of undulation as the gospel spreads from one group to another.
The practical implications of this are that every promise to Abraham the believer is also to all Gentiles who believe. There are always things to be learned from other Christians. He then spoke of the promised blessing, seed (in a rather Presbyterian way) and land as including the whole world (including some strong comments against anti-Palestinian evangelicals).
His final point was that this gospel is spread by preaching (‘shall be preached’).
Already well blessed it was delight then to hear the closing sermon on John 21:15ff from Ted Donnelly. As full of humour and warmth as ever he spoke of his mixed emotions at such a conference – so much to be thankful for (family, church, etc) yet with many regrets – over sins, failure in duties, and above all the lack of prayer. We are such mixtures. Wise/stupid, selfless/egocentric, kind/cruel, spiritual/disgustingly worldly, etc.
Peter was the same and he says to Jesus – ‘Lord you know everything, you know I love you’. And so we looked at the public restoration of Peter and considered three things.
1. The Lord is dealing with the past
It was like an echo chamber – gathered round a fire! He had boasted that he loved Jesus more than the others. The three times motif is there again (there is an eastern tradition of repeating a thing three times to solemnise). He is reliving his sins in the light of his wretchedness. Here is the Lord who turned and looked at him – Jesus. Peter had cried not because it was a look of anger or disappointment but of love. Each time he had to answer Jesus some of the pain leached away from his soul.
Many things are best forgotten but it is good to say to God, you know everything. We can’t be pious phonies. There’s got to be total openness between us and Jesus. Rather then picking at the scab of our sins we must bring them to Christ. He quoted Question 60 from the Heidelberg Catechism.
Q. How art thou righteous before God?
A. Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.
2. The Lord is clarifying the present
Different words are used for love – whether this is significant or not is not entirely clear (cf. Hendriksen against Morris and Carson). We are far too afraid of emotion sometimes. He used a wonderful illustration of an ugly piece of plaster at home – a present from his daughter when young – not great but loved for her sake. Our work is the same to God. He knows. 1 John 3:19, 20: ‘This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.’
3. The Lord is commissioning for the future
Pastoral ministry is continuing the work of Christ. Loving sheep can be a difficult task. Our love for Christ enables us to love people. We had several quotes from Matthew Henry and a good one from Calvin near the end, then these to close:
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything,
To do it as for Thee.
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told. (George Herbert)
‘Lovest thou me?’ is, in reality, a very searching question. We may know much, and do much, and talk much, and give much, and go through much, and make much show in our religion, and yet be dead before God for want of love, and at last go down to the Pit. Do we love Christ? That is the great question. Without this there is no vitality about our Christianity. We are no better than painted wax-figures: there is no life where there is no love. (J C Ryle)
the charge to Peter was feed my sheep; not try experiments on my rats, or even teach my performing dogs new tricks. (C S Lewis)
Some were in tears at the end of such preaching. All I am sure were revitalised and ready to try again in this vital work of feeding the sheep.
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