“Him Who Holds the Helm”
Events in 1732 made Ebenezer Erskine consider the time ‘a day of trouble’. Twenty years had passed since Parliament had reimposed patronage on the Church of Scotland. This meant that the right to nominate a minister for a vacant congregation lay with, normally, a local landowner. Now the 1732 General Assembly had agreed, in the face of considerable opposition, to permit non-Presbyterians to exercise that right – provided they were Protestants.
Erskine was deeply disturbed, and preached before the Synod of Perth and Stirling on the words: ‘The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner’ (Psa. 118:22). He expressed his fear that this act of the Church would
very soon terminate in the overthrow of the Church of Scotland and of a faithful ministry therein, [because] the power of electing ministers is thereby principally lodged in the hands of a set of men that are generally disaffected to the power of godliness and to the doctrine, discipline, worship and government of this Church.1
Erskine’s action was to have very serious consequences for himself, but he preached in the knowledge that God was in total control of his church and of the circumstances of all his children. That was why he could so confidently say, near the end of an earlier sermon, preached on the Sabbath evening of a communion season in his own Stirling congregation:
Keep the eyes of faith fixed on him who holds the helm; and believe, with an assured faith, that ‘the Lord shall reign for ever, even thy God, O Zion, unto all generations. Praise ye the Lord’ (Psa 146:10).2
Storms will, time and again, arise to trouble the church of God and the individual believer. The Saviour told his disciples plainly: ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation’ (John 16:33); trouble is inevitable in a sinful world, where both the church as a whole and every individual member of it are imperfect. Yet we are to realise that, whatever happens and however much everything seems to be out of control, it cannot really be so, for the Lord holds the helm in other words, he has complete control of the ship of providence. Indeed Christ at once went on to tell his disciples: ‘But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world’. It is a message of comfort for all succeeding generations of his followers.
Storms of opposition and persecution may rise against the church, but however difficult the experience, she is ultimately safe; she cannot be destroyed, because the One who holds the helm has unlimited power to protect her. Likewise, even when storms of heresy assail her and threaten to swamp her, she cannot be shipwrecked. This was the assurance that Christ gave to his disciples with reference to the Church: ‘The gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matt. 16:18). Satan, the prince of hell, and those of his angels with whom he takes particular counsel, are allowed to raise serious storms of opposition and persecution against the church in the hope of doing her severe damage – especially in some periods of her history. They may succeed in this, but in the end it will be clearly seen that, because the Lord is in control, Satan and all his forces of evil angels and of human beings who have been led captive by him at his will ” cannot prevail. Equally such powerful forces may do tremendous damage within the church by stirring up storms of false doctrine and practice. But whatever the nature of the storm, the gates of hell will never prevail, because their purposes will in due time be thwarted by the One who holds the helm.
Individuals too must, more or less, experience storms of various kinds. There are storms of temptation, when Satan and those who are doing his work disturb the peace of God’s children by trying to lead them into sin. And, in the course of providence, many another difficulty may disturb their peace – bereavement, for instance, illness, disability, family upset and a vast number of other situations when life does not go smoothly. Yet, in them all, we are to remember the One who holds the helm. William Nixon, a Scottish minister of the nineteenth century, remarks that Christians
are too apt, like unbelievers around them, to separate God from his own world, and especially from their individual concerns, and to feel and act as if, so far at least as regards temporal events, mankind were left uncontrolled, unprovided for, to work out their own destiny for time. Coming too readily and too often under the power of the atheistic spirit which prevails all around them, no wonder that the followers of Christ are so apt to be tossed on a sea of troubles with reference to what they shall eat and what they shall drink and wherewithal they shall be clothed.3
If these words were true well over a hundred years ago, how much more relevant they are today, in a generation which has been very nearly overwhelmed by an atheistic spirit. But there is a God, and that God has, in the Scriptures, revealed himself and his ways including the fact that he has his hand on the helm of providence. Human beings in their natural condition, especially in a generation which no longer shows even outward respect to the God who created them, are glad to put out of their consciousness the slightest thought that God is in control of their affairs ” indeed of all their affairs. But his call is: ‘Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your heart’ (Psa. 95:7, 8). Each individual is to bow in submission before the One who is in control of everything ” in particular, they are to submit to the salvation that he has provided in Christ Jesus. And they are to heed the further call: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things [what to eat and drink, and what to be clothed in] shall be added unto you’ (Matt. 6:33). The One who holds the helm of providence will ensure that those who seek him and find him will be provided for throughout the rest of their lives.
God’s children are themselves influenced by the atheism of a generation such as this. Yet, by God’s grace, they have responded in faith to God’s revelation in Scripture. In particular, they believingly recognise that he is in control of all their providence, and that this control is exercised in his goodness. And they are to go on doing so, ever more trustingly.
One means of becoming more trustful is to meditate further on God’s revelation – pondering the fact, for instance, that he has entered into covenant with those who have trusted in him. An important element in that covenant is his promise to believers that he ‘will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters’ (2 Cor. 6:18). In revealing the terms of this covenant, he is making known the care which he exercises over his children and over their providence. This revelation is intended to stimulate their trustfulness. They are accordingly to believe that he is good – that he is willing to bless and that, in particular, he will be good to them throughout the future. They are, in Erskine’s words to ‘keep the eyes of faith fixed on him who holds the helm’, especially as One who has entered into covenant with them.
Let us conclude with a remarkable example, provided by W. S. Plumer, of one gracious man’s understanding of the sovereignty of him who holds the helm of providence – and a remarkable example of godly submission. Wrote Plumer:
I once stood by the open grave of a lovely child, whose father, a minister of the gospel, was leaning on my arm. The coffin had been lowered and was about to be covered. For a moment there was a pause. I asked him to say a word to the people. He seemed glad of the opportunity, though his words were few: ‘In my prosperity I have hitherto told you that God was good. Now I am sadly bereaved, but my testimony still is that God is good. Yes, he doeth all things well.’4
- Quoted in Thomas M’Crie, The Story of the Scottish Church (Free Presbyterian Publications reprint, 1988), p. 466.
- Ebenezer Erskine, Works, Vol. 2 (Free Presbyterian Publications reprint, 2001), p. 16.
- William Nixon, Christ All and in All (Edinburgh, 1882), pp. 365f.
- W. S. Plumer, Commentary on Hebrews (Baker reprint), p. 516.
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