Ministers’ Conference 2017
The Banner of Truth ministers all found their way to the new venue for their Conference at Yarnfield Park Conference Centre. It is near Stoke in the Potteries and a good central destination for preachers from all over the U.K. Yarnfield is posh, not like the basic students’ residences of yesteryear in Leicester. All the rooms are en suite, with wide beds with thick mattresses, a TV set and wall to wall carpets. The walkways from the dormitories to the Conference hall were under cover, and that was good because we were greeted by a cold snap, maybe the last blow of winter, the wind was cutting and we awoke on Tuesday morning to a thin carpet of snow, beautiful as a backcloth to the trees in the grounds, full of blossom.
Numbers attending were up on last year, but the main conference room had a low ceiling and the lighting was poor, so that the speakers do not stand out. The Leicester central meeting room was quite superior. That was my only minor complaint. The singing was hearty and though we have the option of hymns lovely metrical psalms are still mainly chosen. We had excellent food speedily served with as much offered to us as we can eat. Most important of all, we were presented with a uniformly high standard of helpful messages. I cannot remember such grand consistent ministry for a long time.
Jeff Kingswood from Canada opened the conference with a sermon on Ezra 7 in which he described the ‘Banner-man’ Ezra as a lover of the Bible, a practitioner of the Bible, and a teacher of the Bible. In the second session Iain Murray welcomed us and quoted some striking words of Dr. Lloyd-Jones to the effect that we are too healthy and have replaced deep humility with a vague sentimentality. Then Sinclair Ferguson gave what was to me a five star message from Philippians 3:7-10 examining Paul’s reasons for the end of his self-conscious zeal and knowledge when he’d met and heard Stephen speaking and doing mighty works. Stephen was above and beyond Paul in grace. Paul discovered that something existed outside of himself that he needed to covet. No one came as near to destroying the church as Paul and yet God had mercy on him.
Tuesday morning began with Gary Williams speaking on discovering the Bible as the literary word of God. It was grand, and he gave some examples of history of redemption insights when you read of David and Bathsheba, and again the attempt to erect the tower of Babel. Both wonderfully helpful insights making the Scriptures come alive, restoring one’s faith in the contributions of Geerhardus Vos and his followers.
Then the second morning address was given by a fresh new voice to me and the Conference, the Presbyterian pastor from Bangor, Northern Ireland, David Johnston. He spoke on New Testament preaching that it is grounded in Scripture, centred on Christ, applied to life, empowered by the Spirit and undergirded by prayer. What a basic skeleton hiding lots of spirit and happy emotion, delivered with passion and authority.
At five p.m. Stephen Clark of Bridgend spoke on Christ’s witness to Scripture. It was necessarily familiar but very important. He approached it thus, under three heads: Christ’s personal use of Scripture: Christ’s pastoral use of Scripture: Christ’s public use of Scripture. It was an important basic analysis of the relationship between Christ and the Old Testament. God gives us a Christ who believed in an infallible Bible. For us he can say no wrong.
Sinclair Ferguson’s second study of Philippians 3 was again fine. It was a study of what was communion with Christ. Sinclair found it locked into three things, coming to know Christ, being found in him and being conformed to him especially in His death and resurrection. It was by death and resurrection that God provided a pattern to make his Son fruitful. Then there will be no other pattern that God will use in order also to make us fruitful.
Wednesday morning, after the time of prayer, David Johnston gave his other address on The Word at Work, and he chose Nehemiah 8 as his subject describing the awakening of true religion under God’s servant. All the people were gathered and the Word of God came to them in power. God does in a minute what it would take us 50 years to accomplish. How did they respond to Nehemiah’s word? There was a response of worship. There was a transcendent perforation of the whole gathering and all their lives. There was contrition because of the reality of God with them, They felt guilty, as never before, the word coming to them with experiential potency. Then there was restitution and transformation as in the 1859 revival in Ireland. Today we are modest in our expectations. We need the Book to value the Book, to study and obey it. There can be no awakening without that. As Luther said, “I did nothing. The Word did it all.”
Andy Young of Cheltenham spoke at the next session on the Marks of the Minister’s Ministry, drawing our attention to Luke 4 and Jesus’s ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth. His helpful points were (1) Jesus used the ordinary means of grace: (2) He was filled with the Spirit in his speaking: (3) Christ gave a Christ-centred message: (4) It was an eschatologically climaxed message: (5) It was a gracious mission. So, behold your God! Imitate our Lord in your ministries. Be encouraged because Jesus continues to go about doing good.
Stephen Clark’s second paper sounded a bit more like his fine lecturing to the students of London Seminary. It was on ‘The Witness of the Scriptures to Christ.’ He spoke first on biblical revelation as progressive in nature and so we preach on a passage conscious of what was its meaning then in its historical context and then what it means now, and we look for its fulfillment in Christ. Then secondly, that Christ is presented in different ways conscious of the promise and fulfillment relationship of the two testaments. Stephen commended William Cunningham’s theological magnum opus in a certain four page treatment on the eternal Sonship of Christ – that passage seems worth doing some searching to find. Then thirdly, Christ is presented to the readers of the Bible in his three offices as prophet, priest and king. What relevance he has in all he does to mankind today. They are ignorant of reality and he is the truth. They can feel their real guilt and he is the Lamb of God. They are weak and helpless, daily approaching death, and he is the Shepherd King protecting and keeping his own. A Muslim asked to see a former principal of the London Seminary telling him that he had a box of secrets to show him. “Where?” he asked him. The Muslim patted his chest, “Here,” he said. “Why don’t you go to the mosque and tell your mullah?” he asked the Muslim. “Allah has no heart,” he replied, “the Mullahs also have no heart. But the Christian God has a heart and I must speak to one who has a heart.”
The final address of Sinclair Ferguson from Philippians 3 was on Consolidation in Christ, standing firm in him. The phrase is all rather familiar and unexciting, but as the years go by it is increasingly a minor miracle that we have stood and are still standing. God works in us in a conflict situation and territory that is demon-occupied. Yet we are standing and must yet stand. How? He suggests that there are three ways. By imitation of the apostolic example. How do I live the Christian life? Just watch such and such a person – that is one answer. The Philippians knew Epaphroditus’ genuine concern for them. Keep your eyes on such men. They will stabilize and strengthen you. Secondly, by watching out for those who are enemies of the cross of Christ. When you hear a teacher you inquire as to what is his attitude to Golgotha? That is the litmus test for error and truth. Who is his God? What excites them? What is the drift of their minds? What does he write when he is on Twitter? Thirdly, we stand by our anticipation of what lies before us. We don’t belong here. Our home is heaven where Christ will subject all things to himself and we will be glorified together with Christ. He is our ultimate consolation. All the work of redemption will be fulfilled in Christ and presented to God who will be all in all. Once Sinclair had preached on Jesus walking on the water and inviting Peter to walk towards him, and when the service was over he came down from the pulpit and sat next to one of his sons. He seemed distressed. His eyes were full of tears. “Are you OK?” Sinclair asked. The boy said to his Dad, “I think I have taken my eyes of Jesus.”
The final morning of the Conference was characterized by two strong and fresh messages. Garry Williams spoke on a Functional Doctrine of Scripture, in other words, the Bible as the living word of God. It was a quite a magnificent presentation of how we are to deal with the Scriptures, honouring them in the time and authorship and place of their composition and relating them powerfully to our congregations today. It is the genius of God that the Bible has been perfectly tailored by God for the whole church and every congregation until the end. One book is sufficient for everyone. None of us could write a book to equip all our children for all their futures. But this Book is present to all times and ages. You meet Christ in all the Scriptures. The gulf of time between us and the Word of God is eradicated. Where is Scripture? It is on the lips of the risen Jesus always. It is the ongoing rapport between the Lord and his children. It is God breathing his word to us. The risen Jesus is present where we meet in his name in all the fullness of who he is. When he was on earth he was located to one place and time. If he were in Galilee then he was not in Jerusalem. Now he is everywhere in his saving mercy, simultaneously to all his people all the time, convicting, challenging and promising. Yet where Jesus is then Satan will also be there. The demons cannot keep silent as the word rouses and disturbs them. We are to preach the word as those who reflect its character and speak with the authority of Christ. Do not tame the lion! Do not put it back in its cage! Our gatherings need to reflect the glory of our Lord, and the momentous nature of his presence, God speaking to his people. God has put into our hands exactly what we need and the world needs today. People would greatly profit from listening to the three messages of Sinclair Ferguson and the two messages of Garry Williams if they have to choose to buy, or borrow or hear some. They were especially excellent and helpful and important, though the whole Conference had the most high standard of addresses that I can remember
The Conference ended as usual with a sermon and it was preached to us by Ed Collier of the Wycliffe Independent Church in Sheffield. Our brother spoke on the parable of the Sower and brought out encouraging truths. Our calling is challenging and we can at times question whether our preaching is doing any good. This parable is an excellent means of help. It says: (1) There will be frustrations: (2) There will be fruit. Some seed always falls on good ground. We don’t have the capacity to accurately judge fruitfulness. The speaker himself at 14 was converted through the ministry of an anonymous visiting speaker. Neither of these personages knows the identity of the other. Real fruit may take a long time to grow. The parable is saying very clearly that instant success is not necessarily lasting success. We need to persevere, and the promise of the harvest helps us to keep going on and on. Amen!
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