Confession of sin – the fruit of the Spirit

Some of you have asked for the words for this confession of sin that we used recently in church. Here it is:

The fruit of the Spirit is love,

But we have loved darkness rather than light,

and loved you too little and ourselves too much.

 

The fruit of the Spirit is joy,

But we have been sour, and bitter,

and the joy of the LORD has been absent.

 

The fruit of the Spirit is peace,

But we have fretted and worried.

We have forgotten the finished work of Christ and doubted your fatherly care.

 

The fruit of the Spirit is patience,

But we have snapped at others, and questioned your wise timing.

 

The fruit of the Spirit is kindness,

But we have been harsh, cutting, and biting,

So unlike our Lord Jesus Christ, who prayed for his persecutors.

 

The fruit of the Spirit is goodness,

But we have often chosen the passing pleasures of sin, over your good laws.

 

The fruit of the Spirit is faithfulness,

But we have been unreliable; we have let others down, and not taken our baptismal vows and marriage vows seriously.

 

The fruit of the Spirit is gentleness,

But we have been unwilling to yield, and stiff-necked

 

The fruit of the Spirit is self-control,

But our wills have been weak, and our own sinful desires have got the better of us.

 

Lord, please show us your mercy.

Lord, have mercy on us

in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Why it’s good to be in a cessationist church

In the Bible, God talks in the following ways:

  • Elijah heard a still small voice (1 K 19:12).
  • Samuel heard a voice calling him (1 Sam 3:4, 6-8, 10).
  • Ezekiel received dramatic visions (Eze 1:4-28; 10:1-22).
  • Balaam heard a donkey talk (Num 22:28).
  • Belshazzar saw a hand write on a wall (Dan 5:5-6, 25-28).
  • Ezekiel’s hearers saw a dramatic enactment (Eze 4:1-17).
  • Daniel received vivid dreams (Dan 7:1)
  • Abraham had a knock at the front door (Gen 18:1)
  • John touched, and saw, and heard God in the flesh (1 John 1:1)
  • Peter was visited by an angel (Acts 12:7)
  • The seven churches of Asia received personal letters from the risen Christ (Rev. 1:19-3:22).
  • The congregation at Corinth heard ecstatic tongues translated (1 Cor 14:5)
  • The Israelites heard God’s booming voice out of the fire at Horeb (Deut 4:15)
  • The high priest used a special device called the Urim and Thummim (Ezra 2:63).

Some churches teach that God still uses this mixture of avenues to speak to us today. These are often called “charismatic” or “continuationist” churches. Presbyterian churches believe that God has stopped revealing himself in these ways, and now only reveals himself to us in the Scriptures. That is what the label “cessationist” means – we believe the former ways of God revealing his will have now ceased. But this position gets misunderstand in a number of ways:

  1. “Cessationist churches believe God has stopped talking”. No, we don’t believe that! We believe God has stopped talking through dreams and visions (etc.), but he continues to talk to us in the Bible, loud and clear and in a living way. Every Sunday at church, the Holy Spirit is speaking to us, not by adding to Scripture, but by applying it to us.
  2. “Cessationist churches believe God doesn’t do miracles anymore”. No, we don’t believe that! Cessationism has got nothing to do with supernaturalism. Is God still the Creator of heaven and earth today? Of course! Is Christ alive and ruling over heaven and earth today? Of course! Is the Holy Spirit at work raising people to new life who were dead in sin? Of course! Without supernaturalism, there’s no gospel. Cessationism isn’t about supernaturalism; it’s about revelation.
  3. “Cessationism is disappointing; God talking to me in a book doesn’t seem as exciting as a dream”. No, cessationism is more exciting. It says that with Jesus Christ and the complete Bible in our possession, everything God wants you to know for your life lies on the pages between those two covers. If you look for new revelation today, it actually means the revelatory content of the Scriptures is incomplete; it means you need more than Scripture. If you think God speaks extra stuff, outside Scripture today, it actually means Scripture is inadequate revelation. So, cessationism is really the flipside of believing in the sufficiency of Scripture. We are cessationists because we believe the Bible is completely sufficient for revealing God’s will to us.

This is why it’s good to be in a cessationist church. Cessationism is about stopping anything that will water down and interfere with the exclusive authority of the Bible in the life of a church. Cessationism protects God’s people from intruders adding to God’s perfect revelation. It means any words spoken by me, as a minister, or by anyone else, have zero authority, unless backed up by chapter and verse. Don’t wish for the old days when God’s will wasn’t completely revealed. Rejoice that with a complete Bible in our hands, God’s will for our lives is sitting there in black and white print; and pray that the Holy Spirit takes that black and white print and writes it on our hearts and the hearts of many more people in Ilford.

Handshakes & church membership

You’re going to be hearing me talk about church membership in the coming months at church, and church membership makes some people run a mile. But it might be helpful to think of church membership as a handshake. Handshaking is something we do all the time. At church I try and shake everyone’s hand. It’s a way of saying: “hello” and expressing appreciation for someone. But some handshakes are particularly important: maybe two boys shake hands after a fight, or businessmen shake hands to seal a deal.

In Gal 2:9, Paul talks about a very special handshake. In fact, it’s so special, he gives it its own name and it’s still stuck in his memory years later:

“They gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me”.

This handshake between the leaders in Jerusalem and Paul and Barnabas is called the right hand of fellowship; it clearly isn’t any old handshake. The leaders in Jerusalem didn’t give this handshake to anyone. Nor was it a handshake that Paul could just ask for or demand. “They gave… [it] to Barnabas and me”. And with this gesture the visible church at Jerusalem formally recognized the Christian fellowship they shared with Paul and Barnabas.

This is how we should think of church membership; it’s the visible church of Christ extending the right hand of fellowship to me. So, church membership isn’t primarily something I give, but something I receive. It’s not about me signing up or volunteering in the church. It’s not what the extra enthusiastic Christian does. It’s the visible church of Christ recognising and embracing me as a believer. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it very helpfully when he said:

Many see church membership as a dignity they confer on the church, instead of the highest privilege anyone can ever know – Life in the Spirit, p. 196.

I hope as we move towards church membership, the privilege of receiving “the right hand of fellowship” will stick in your mind; we should be pinching ourselves in disbelief – “do I get to be recognized as part of the body of Christ?! Wow!”.

Now the flip-side of this, of course, is that if church membership is received not given, it can also be taken away from me. If we’re let in, we can also be let out. If there’s a right hand of fellowship, there’s also a right boot of fellowship. But that’s a post for another day…

Nails or screws?

It wouldn’t surprise me if some of you inwardly groan when we sing a Psalm in our Sunday services. The tunes aren’t always gripping, and I doubt the words resonate quickly. In his great little book, “Singing the Songs of Jesus”, Michael Lefebvre uses a brilliant illustration to explain what’s probably happening when we feel like that:

“Nails are efficiently designed for what they do. With the forceful swing of a hammer, your nail will sink through one board and secure to the board behind.

Screws, likewise, are well designed for their purpose. Although similar to the nail in many ways, the screw has the added feature of spiralled thread running up its shaft, and a notched head. But the screw’s distinct design requires a distinct action. It must be turned into the surface with a screwdriver, not pounded like a nail. (Can you imagine the splintering mess which would result if a builder started hammering screws into two-by-fours?). For the screw to function at its best, it must be used according to its design.

The same is true of the Psalms. The ancient hymns of Israel (the Psalms) are as different from modern hymns as screws are from nails… the Psalms… lead us in a very different ‘method’ of praise than modern church songs…

To be specific: modern hymns are typically designed to prompt praise through declaration…

The Psalms are different, however. Although the Psalms are full of declarations of praise, they also include doubts, contradictions, problems, and expectations of judgment – all of which feel very awkward to sing if we sing the Psalms within the expectations of modern hymnody (rather like the awkwardness of driving screws with a hammer). But this is part of the distinct design of biblical hymns; and, it is a distinct design which calls for a distinct expectation and ‘heart activity’ as we sing them.

… it is my thesis… that in the Psalms, praise is the expected outcome, but meditation is the underlying activity which we undertake in Psalm singing. Unlike modern church songs which are primarily about ‘getting right to the point’ and declaring praise, the Psalms are designed to help people who don’t always feel like praising begin by meditating on the mess the world is in, and only through a full and robust process of meditation, to come out with praise”. (p.95-97).

So, if you sigh when we sing the psalms, it could be that you’re trying to hammer a screw, when you should be using a screwdriver. The heart action you need to sing Psalm 71 is different to “In Christ alone”. By calling us to sing the psalms (Eph 5:19), God is reminding us that true worship is much more active than passive; this kind of heart work is hard work. Like different equipment in the gym, God is exercising different spiritual muscles when we sing psalms.  If you want help to meditate on the Psalms properly, the book by Michael Lefebvre really is excellent.

Love your neighbour

This is a lovely, true story. We need to keep telling stories like this.

“Reverend Kees Sybrandi was not, by any stretch, a model example of interfaith awareness and tolerance. When I asked him what he thought about Muslims, he complained that they had created a lot of trouble in the Netherlands. He complained about Muslims poverty, crime, urban blight, terrorism, and government dependency. A very conservative Christian, Pastor Sybrandi firmly insisted that Jesus Christ is the only way, the only truth, and the only life worth having. He insisted that Islam was a false religion and he called Allah a desert demon spirit.

Sybrandi’s attitude about Islam made his response to Theo van Gogh’s murder in 2004 all the more confounding. Across the Netherlands, tensions were running high; mosques and churches were being vandalized and even burned. In a curious response, Sybrandi stood up and walked to his neighbourhood mosque. He knocked firmly on the door and, to the shock of the Muslims huddled inside, he declared that he would stand guard outside the mosque every night until the Dutch attacks ceased. In the days and weeks that followed, the pastor called other churches in the area, and more and more Christian joined him, circling and guarding mosques throughout the region for more than three months.

But why? What possible reason would this conservative Christian give to explain his actions? What could have motivated him, of all people, to do this? Sybrandi showed little awareness of the more peaceful aspects of Islam. He showed no appreciation for Islamic culture, clothing, or food. He recounted no stories of past friendships or dialogues with Muslims. Nor did he profess that as a loyal citizen of the Netherlands it was his patriotic duty to show liberal tolerance towards Islam. He was not inspired by modern dogmas of liberty, equality, or fraternity. Multicultural appeals for a celebration of difference had little pull on his heart. When I pressed him to explain his actions, to give some account for why he would defend a religion he deeply disliked, Sybrandi simply replied, “Jesus. Jesus commanded me to love my neighbour – my enemy too”.

(p. 25-26, Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear, Matthew Kaemingk, emphasis added)

Your most important piece of furniture

People today invest money in their beds, their mattresses, their bathrooms, their TVs, and sound system. But the Christian’s most important piece of furniture is his table. Even Jesus has one (see 1 Cor 10:21)! A table is where we eat with Christian brothers and sisters and with our neighbours. It’s a place where we’re forced to look at each other, listen to each other, and talk to each other. It, therefore, plays a very important part in Christians letting their light shine before others (Matt 5:16).

Rosaria Butterfield’s written a fascinating book on hospitality. Some of it won’t apply so well to life in the UK, and, to be honest, her example is a bit exhausting, but here’s an excerpt:

“I prepare for daily hospitality in our home and at our table. If for some odd reason, we are the only ones there, then I have food to freeze. No big problem. In regular and daily ways, by dinnertime, our house is usually filled with a friend or two from church, a friend or two from the neighbourhood, and a group of children. We have gathered together enough times that as new people join us, we can all make them feel welcome.

In our house, and in the Bible, people take on the roles and responsibilities of both host and guest. Our routine of daily hospitality means that my children have plenty of examples of Christian living – including the important example set by vital, vibrant Christian adults who are single. Our routine means that our children watch adults they respect struggle with big issues before the Lord. This makes their own personal struggles less frightening. In our house it is normal to struggle with sin and to do openly. Repentance is a Christian fruit, not a social shame”.

If we want to break down barriers in church and in Ilford, your table is a key piece of equipment. A good question to think and pray about is: “Who could I invite around my table to show God’s love?”. Or “How can I help someone else in church use their table to show God’s love?”.

Remember:

– Don’t just invite your pals. Luke 14:12-13 – “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”.

– Don’t think you have to serve up something impressive – Matthew 10:42 “even a cup of cold water” or a piece of toast can count!

Let’s put our tables to work in Ilford!

“Test the spirits” (1 John 4:1)

I said on Sunday that I’d say a little bit more about the sermon preached at the Royal Wedding. It was clearly very popular. Ed Milliband tweeted: “Rev Michael Curry could almost make me a believer”. Various headlines said his sermon “stole the show”. He certainly talked lots about “the love of God” in public to an audience of 30 million or so; something we’re not very used to.

However, if we’re going to grow as Christians, one very important area to grow in is discernment. In 1 John 4:1, the apostle John writes this:

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world”.

In that verse, John isn’t describing the false teaching of other religions; he’s describing things said in the name of Christ. John tells us that we can’t believe everything that comes from a pulpit; not everything said in the name of Christianity is true. This verse tells us to test what we hear, at the bar of truth (v.2-3) and the apostle’s teaching (v.6). I want to suggest that what the preacher said was really quite devious (you can read the transcript here). He used a bunch of Christian words to say something that strikes at the heart of the gospel. It was “the spirit or error” talking in the Chapel at Windsor not the “Spirit of truth” (v.6).

The tell-tell line was this one: “Oh, there’s power, power in love. Not just in its romantic forms, but any form, any shape of love”. You can be sure that was no throw-away line or slip of the tongue. That was deliberate. And in that line, he gave the game away. His message was about a shape-less, form-less love. It was a squishy love. The love that was preached at Windsor Chapel cannot squeeze or force anybody into a specific course of action. It cannot say “no!”. It was not a love that can call anyone to repentance, or pull them back from hell. Yet, that is precisely what the real love of God does. God’s love has a specific shape and a form. It’s revealed in Jesus Christ. It can be written about in human language. And its specific shape exposes our sinful loves. Sadly what was talked about on Saturday was a counterfeit of God’s love, not the real thing.

The point of this post isn’t simply to criticise a sermon that was popular. It’s to encourage you to take 1 John 4:1 seriously. If we’re going to grow in discernment as Christians, we have to listen very carefully when we people talk about the love of God, and ask: “what do they mean?“. If we’re going to share Christ clearly with this world, we’ll have to distinguish the false and true versions people hear. So, if people tell you how much they liked the sermon, I’d encourage you to ask what the person liked about it, and be ready to speak about the love of God that loves us too much to leave us loving the darkness (John 3:16 & 19). Remember, it is never loving to misrepresent the love of God.

If you’d like to read a bit more on this, here are two helpful pieces:

A Letter to Harry and Meghan: on human love and God’s love

https://ashenden.org/2018/05/19/michael-curry-the-royal-wedding-a-star-turn-offers-the-world-christianity-lite/    (His comments are mixed with some politics, which can confuse the issue, but the overall analysis is good).

Help me read my Bible

Philip asked [the Ethiopian eunuch]… ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’

And he said, ‘How can I unless someone guides me?’  (Acts 8:30-31)

Every Christian I know finds it challenging to read the Bible at times. One of the biggest challenges for many Christians is simply not understanding what the passage of Scripture they’re reading is about and how it relates to them. Now, God knows we won’t be able to read the Bible on our own, and he’s never intended us to try; that’s why he’s given us two guides to help us read our Bibles:

  1. The first guide is the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). Jesus promises that “the Spirit of truth… will guide you into all the truth”. The Holy Spirit is essential for reading our Bibles properly. Without him we will get hopelessly lost, trying to understand Scripture. That’s why it’s so important to pray as we read our Bibles; we need the Holy Spirit to inwardly reveal its meaning to us.
  2. The second guide God gives is teachers, like Philip in Acts 8:31 or the “shepherds and teachers” in Eph 4:11. The Spirit guides us inwardly; these teachers guide us outwardly. Like the Holy Spirit, they are very important for reading our Bibles properly. These two guides work together. The Spirit doesn’t guide us to a different meaning to that of the teachers. God doesn’t intend us to just pick one of them as guides; but to use them both.

One very practical way to access the guidance of teachers is to pick up a commentary. These are books written by teachers explaining the meaning of the Bible. There are many commentaries to choose from on both the whole Bible, and individual books. Some are very technical and quote Hebrew and Greek, some are much simpler. Here are some I would recommend which aren’t too difficult.

– Here is a one commentary for each book of the Bible

https://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/bible-study/the-commentary-list/commentary/

– the Banner of Truth Let’s Study series

https://banneroftruth.org/uk/store/series/lets-study/

– Welwyn Commentary Series:

http://epbooks.org/product-category/welwyn-commentary-series-wcs/

Commentaries on the whole Bible:

– IVP New Bible Commentary – https://www.amazon.co.uk/New-Bible-Commentary-21st-Century/dp/085110648X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1525787400&sr=1-1&keywords=ivp+bible+commentary

– Matthew Henry’s Commentary. This is an old one; you can find it online. It’s not so strong at explaining the meaning of the passage, but is very good with application.

I haven’t read each commentary listed, so I can’t guarantee it will be really helpful, but they’re all written by people who take the Bible seriously. I’d particularly recommend commentaries by Derek Thomas, Sinclair Ferguson, Dale Ralph Davis, John Stott, and Dick Lucas.

Why not buy one to help you read your Bible?

Asking Advice

I pointed out in a sermon on 1 Thessalonians 2 last week that for many people their relationship to their minister is about as deep as their relationship to their hairdresser! You wouldn’t ask your hairdresser for advice if you were thinking about moving away or a career change (unless it was hairdressing); so why would you ask your minister for advice about these things?! But we saw Paul describe his relationship to the church in Thessalonica as “like a nursing mother, taking care of her own children” (1 Thess 2:7) and “like a father with his children” (v.11). God hasn’t designed ministers to be professionals, who provide a service to you, like a haircut. No, ministers “are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will give an account” (Heb 13:17).

So, I thought it might be helpful to give examples of things you can ask my advice on. While you’re welcome to ask my advice about what car to buy, or what colour to paint your walls, it probably wouldn’t be very valuable – I don’t have a clue about cars! But here are some things as a minister I am qualified to help you with:

  • what to do in a conflict situation.
  • big decisions, like getting married, moving house, changing jobs…
  • marriage questions e.g. how husbands and wives should relate.
  • parenting, how to teach your children in the faith.
  • sins you struggle with.
  • what to commit your time to.
  • how to get more out of church.

There’s a lot of bad advice out there; Psalm 1 calls it: “the counsel of the wicked”. But the Bible says: “the unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130). I’m not pretending to be an expert in the areas above in and of myself. But I do know that the Bible applies to these areas of life.  So, please be assured: I’m here to help you unfold God’s words into the details of your life and love to do it.

The Benefit of Frequent Communion

Human nature is funny. Sometimes the more frequently we do something, the less “special” it feels. We can enjoy “one-offs” much more than weekly routines. For example, if we celebrated birthdays every week, we probably wouldn’t enjoy them as much as we do when they come round once a year!

That fact can make us think the same with some of God’s ordinances. Maybe if we did them less often, they’d become more special. The Lord’s Supper is a good example. Some churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, some every month, but some just once a year, when they make much more of it. Maybe in your own experience, you’ve found that the more frequently you take the Lord’s Supper the “less” it means to you, so you sometimes switch off from it. But it would be funny if we took the same attitude to preaching, wouldn’t it? It’s probably true that if I preached just once a month or once a year, you’d listen better, but we can probably all tell that that’s not a good idea! That’s because the point of God’s ordinances isn’t only that they feel special; they’re doing other things to us that we can’t always quantify; just like ordinary week-night meals won’t always taste special, but they still feed me. It’s the same with the Lord’s Supper. Our experiences at the Lord’s Table will vary; sometimes there will be wonderful moments of communion with Jesus, at other times they will be more ordinary. The value of the Lord’s Supper is in giving you spiritual nutrition, not just spiritual excitement.

If you find yourself switching off at the Lord’s Table, let me encourage you to deliberately switch back on. And let me encourage you to eat and drink Christ! It’s possible to eat and drink the bread and wine with your mouth, while not eating or drinking Jesus by faith. Without chewing and digesting its contents by faith, the Lord’s Table will do us no good.

Here are 5 groups of people who’ll particularly benefit from frequent communion (stolen from this book by J. W. Alexander!):

  1. Doubting Disciples, who can’t have the certainty of God’s grace held out to them too often.
  2. Persons of Legal Views, who are prone to think they’ve earned God’s love. This mistake is best corrected by going frequently to Calvary.
  3. Backsliders, who are awakened by the call to self-examination, and melted when Jesus turns and looks on them, as he did to Peter (Luke 22:61)
  4. Lonely Ones, who need the cheering sense of fellowship, produced by this feast of brotherhood.
  5. Those in Trouble, who ten thousand times have forgotten their earthly sorrows in the joys of Christ’s presence.

At various points this year, I expect we’ll fit in to all of those categories. Praise Jesus who doesn’t let his body go hungry (Eph 5:29)!