The Church

The Prayer Meeting as a Gauge of the Spiritual Life of the Church

Elder DicksonPerhaps the only thing rarer in the church these days than the Sunday evening worship service is the prayer meeting. And even when there is a regular prayer meeting, it is surely often one of the most sparsely-attended gatherings of the church.

Why is this the case? Did our Lord Jesus not say (quoting Isaiah 56:7) that “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Matt. 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46)? The church, then, should be characterized by (among other things) prayer.

Now, it is certainly possible that a church can be a praying church without necessarily having a weekly prayer meeting. But it sure helps, doesn’t it? If your church has a regular prayer meeting, even if  it is not well-attended, take heart. Don’t give up on it. Great things often come from small beginnings.

In his book, The Elder and His Work, David Dickson (1821-1885) makes the following observation:

“In a country village of which we know, there has been a prayer meeting conducted now for more than a hundred years. That place has been blessed three or four times with a revival of religion – shall we not say in answer to these prayers? This interesting fact was also told us: that when the tide of blessing was about to come in, the numbers began unaccountably to increase till the place was too strait for them; even outside the door there were many earnest attenders. The people knew that the tide was far out when the number fell to five or six. Then they began to pray again for a turning of the tide, and a spring tide came. Alas! in many of our congregations the tide is far out, if we are to judge by attendance at prayer meetings, which are a kind of gauge of spiritual life; yet let those who attend them continue to pray on.” (p.79)

That observation may be somewhat anecdotal, but it certainly strikes me as true. I have long been convinced that we will know that something really special is happening in the life of our church when our weekly prayer meetings start being strongly-attended.

Is the “tide” far out at your church? Maybe so. But who knows what the Lord may do (or when) if His people just continue to pray on together. If attendance at prayer meetings is a “gauge” of the spiritual life of the church, and if that gauge shows that our churches are in need of revitalization and revival, let us continue to pray together for a turning of the tide. Let us watch and pray for the spring tide to roll in.

David Dickson on the Importance of the Office of Elder

Elder DicksonIn his book, The Elder and His Work, David Dickson (1821-1885) starts with a chapter called “The Importance of the Eldership.” There he briefly makes his case that the biblical office of elder “is absolutely necessary for a healthy and useful church” (p.26). He writes,

“We need no new machinery in the Christian church. It is all provided ready to our hand in the Presbyterian system. What we need is more motive-power to set it going and keep it going. We need the baptism of the Spirit to fill us elders with love and zeal, that we may labor in our office and that the work of our hands may be established.” (p.26)

How often do we in the church look for “new machinery” (i.e. new programs, gimmicks, etc.) to increase our influence and outreach, while neglecting or overlooking the gifts that Christ has given to His church in the offices which He has ordained (both elder and deacon)?

It is not without reason that one of the primary things that the Apostle Paul tasked Titus with doing in the churches in Crete was to appoint elders. In Titus 1:3 he writes,

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (ESV).

Titus was to put things in order in the churches in Crete. And what was the first thing that came to Paul’s mind when he thought of a church being in good order? Elders. More precisely, a plurality of elders (i.e. more than one elder). It is not too much to say that in Paul’s mind, guided as he was by the Spirit of Christ, a church without elders was not properly in order, biblically-speaking.

Do we think that highly of the office of elder? Do we think of elders as being utterly essential to the life, health, and usefulness of the church? If not, it is a sure indicator that we need to recover the biblical view of the nature, qualifications, and work of the office of elder. If we were to do that, the church would almost certainly be in a much healthier condition, and would be far more useful to the Lord.

FORGIVING OUR DEBTORS (THE LORD’S PRAYER – PART VIII)

Praying HandsThe fifth request found in the Lord’s Prayer is “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, KJV). It is all too easy to focus our attention on the first part of that request (i.e. “forgive us our debts”), while giving little or no thought to what follows (“as we forgive our debtors”). We looked at the first part in our previous post, and so it is the latter part of this request that we will consider together here.

The Bible repeatedly reminds us of the need to forgive one another. There must be a reason for that! And so this part of the Lord’s Prayer serves as a reminder that forgiveness will be necessary. And it will be necessary because we all still sin against each other. Sometimes we will be the one sinned against; sometimes the shoe will be on the other foot and we will be the offending party. (Frankly, each of us probably fits the latter description more often than we might care to admit.)

This holds true in marriage. One of my favorite books on marriage is titled, When Sinners Say “I Do”, by Dave Harvey. The title alone speaks volumes, and is instructive. Even the most godly marriage imaginable is still a marriage between two sinners (even if forgiven, redeemed sinners). And so forgiveness will often be necessary. Harvey repeats one statement a number of times throughout the book: “Forgiven sinners forgive sin.” In some ways that is a good summary of this part of the Lord’s Prayer.

This also holds true in churches. Do you expect to find a perfect church? A church that is without sin? Good luck with that. In fact, the church this side of heaven is made up entirely of sinners. In this life every believer in Christ is a forgiven sinner, even a sanctified sinner (!), but still a sinner nonetheless. Put enough of those sinners in close proximity for long enough, and some sparks are bound to fly! And so we pray together as the Lord Jesus taught us, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).

So when (not if!) we are sinned against, we must learn to forgive. And we must forgive as Christ has forgiven us (Colossians 3:13). Likewise when we sin against someone else, we must be quick to repent, and seek out forgiveness and reconciliation with them.

If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, may the joy of being freely forgiven of all of your sins, lead you more and more to freely forgive others as well.

The Westminster Standards on Preaching

Directory_for_Public_WorshipThe Directory for the Publick [sic] Worship of God (circa 1644) is a very helpful (even if much neglected) part of the Westminster Standards. It gives us clear instructions on nearly every aspect of the public worship of God in the church, including such things as how the Scriptures are to be read (and by whom!), the right manner of corporate prayer both before and after the sermon, the proper way to administer the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as many other things.

Not surprisingly, it also contains a brief section outlining the right manner of preaching the word of God. These directions are as helpful as they are simple, and it would no doubt be of great benefit to the church to get back to these basics of biblical preaching.

In the Directory the Westminster divines note that the preacher ought to have three (3) primary concerns in his preaching:

First, the preacher must ensure that the matter be the truth of God. In other words, is what the preacher says truly biblical? Not just the truth, but specifically the truth of God. That is to say that the matter of the sermon must be found in the Word of God. Many things might be true enough in and of themselves, but are not really the subject matter of Scripture. A sermon simply must be true and biblical.

If what is being said in the pulpit is not the truth of God, then it really isn’t a sermon (at least not a Christian one) at all. It may be truly rousing oratory; it may be a very informative lecture; it may even be a fine motivational speech; but it is not a sermon in any meaningful sense of the word.

Second, the preacher must see to it that the truth that he preaches is contained or grounded in the specific text of Scripture that he is preaching. Sometimes preachers preach the right doctrine (see #1 above), but do so from the wrong text. In other words, the matter of the sermon must actually be the matter of the text itself. If not, how will the hearers understand how the preacher arrived at the points or conclusions that he is seeking to impress upon them?

You could say that every time a minister preaches a sermon (if he is doing so according to what the Westminster divines say here), he is not just teaching the flock what the Word of God says, but is also implicitly teaching them how to study the Word of God for themselves! What a blessing and added benefit that would be for any church!

Third, the preacher must primarily emphasize what the text itself primarily emphasizes. In other words, the preacher’s main point(s) ought to be so derived from the main point(s) of the Scripture text, that they are one and the same. And in this way the hearers are to be best edified. The central message of the sermon should be the central message of the text of Scripture. If not, can it really be said that the text itself was properly preached?

May the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of His church, grant that His ministers would preach His Word faithfully. And may they preach according to these simple rules found in the Directory – that their preaching might be biblical, that it might be based upon the text of Scripture itself, and that it might emphasize what the text itself emphasizes.

The Manifold Helps to Holiness in the Church

Gospel Mystery

In his book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Puritan author Walter Marshall (1628-1680) gives us no less than six (6) ways in which the fellowship of the saints in the local church is conducive toward growth in holiness and sanctification (p.211-212):

1.  The Word and Sacraments (i.e. the means of grace in public worship), as well as the ministry of pastors and elders in overseeing and caring for our souls (Hebrews 13:17) are a great help to believers in striving to grow in holiness. But how rarely do we consider the ministry of the local church in public worship or in pastoral oversight when it comes to our desire to grow in holiness? Marshall points out that none of these helps unto holiness can be enjoyed outside of the fellowship of believers in the church. If you desire to grow in grace and holiness, do not overlook the importance of the local church.

2.  Mutual Prayer – How great a blessing it is when believers not only pray, or even pray for one another, but also pray with one another? What a support and encouragement that can be! And how much greater when the whole church gathers to pray together!

3.  Mutual Admonition, Instruction, and Consolation – It is not without reason that Scripture so often tells us of the importance of “one another” ministry among believers in the church. We are to let the Word of Christ dwell among us richly, which includes “teaching and admonishing one another” (Colossians 3:16). And one of the reasons that the writer of the book of Hebrews tells us not to neglect to meet together is that we might “stir up one another to love and good works” (10:24-25). Marshall writes,

“In church fellowship there are many helpers, many to watch. Soldiers have their security in company [i.e. numbers]; and the church is compared to an army with banners (Song vi. 4, 10). So, for quickening affections, Iron sharpeneth iron (Prov. xxvii. 17)” (p.212).

So it is not just the pastors and elders who are of great assistance to us in our growth in godliness, but the entire church! We are each to be bother helper and helped!

4.  External Supports – When suffering afflictions, how greatly it helps us to have shoulders to lean upon or cry upon. Simply put, we bear each others burdens in the church.

5.  Excommunication (!) – Yes, you read that correctly. Excommunication is a benefit of being a part of a local church? So what difference is there between that and just not getting involved in the church in the first place? As Marshall explains,

This ordinance is appointed for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved (1 Cor. v. 5). Better and more hopeful it is, to be cast out by the church, for a person’s amendment [i.e. repentance and restoration], than to be wholly without the church at all times; and better to be a lost sheep than a goat or swine . . . ” (p.212).

6.  The Lively Examples of the Saints – How helpful it is to have godly examples set before our eyes throughout our days. And how often is this very thing actually neglected by those churches who seem to undervalue the elderly in our churches, all in the name of the supposed importance of youth. Both are important to be sure (as saints of all ages are), but how much more do the younger need to learn from the older! The dear senior saints who have walked with the Lord Jesus Christ for a great many years have much to teach the younger believers, who are often just taking baby steps in the faith.

Marshall has a lot more to say about the way of sanctification, and I highly recommend this book to you. But I hope that this small sample of what he has to say about it gives you a renewed appreciation for the importance of the church in the Christian life.

The Unimpressive Church

MH900409495As the old saying goes, you can’t always judge a book by its cover. The same can be said of churches. In fact, sometimes it is the downright unimpressive-looking church where God is really at work.

We often tend to look for the bells and whistles, the programs and amenities (basically what does a church have to offer me and my family?). And there is nothing wrong with those things in & of themselves. But we also need to look deeper than that. Frankly, sometimes we can be impressed by all of the wrong things.

Beautiful church building? Nothing wrong with that at all, of course. (Who doesn’t want a nice building for their church?) Youth programs for the kids? Catchy music? A lot of activities going on throughout the week? Those can be good things. But those things alone are not the right basis for judging a church.

J.C. Ryle offers us some godly wisdom – a different way to look at the outwardly unimpressive church:

“There are many assemblies of Christian worshippers [sic] on earth at this very day in which there is literally nothing to attract the natural man. They meet in miserable dirty chapels, so-called, or in wretched upper rooms and cellars. They sing unmusically. They hear feeble prayers, and more feeble sermons. And yet the Holy Ghost is often in the midst of them! Sinners are often converted in them and the kingdom of God prospers far more than in any Roman Catholic Cathedral, or in many gorgeous Protestant churches. How is this? How can it be explained? The cause is simply this, that in these humble assemblies heart-religion is taught and held. Heart work is aimed at. Heart work is honored. And the consequence is that God is pleased and grants his blessing.” (J.C. Ryle, Practical Religion, p.256)

So if you are a member of just such an unimpressive church (or even one of its ministers!) – take heart! Just as God doesn’t look at the outward appearance, but at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7), even so He is often very much at work in the church whose outward appearance is nothing to write home about.

Unimpressive music? Feeble prayers? Even more feeble sermons? (How many pastors want to lay claim to that one?)  But better to be at home in a dull, unimpressive church like that where God is truly at work than anywhere else!

Messy Church?

watercolor-box-174549_1280We are sinners, every last one of us. And the church, if it is growing as it should, will at times be a rather messy place. Just like a growing family can have a messy home and can require a watchful eye and busy parents (and older siblings), even so the church is a place where sinners can come to faith in Christ and repentance unto life in Him, and begin with the baby steps of following Christ all of their days.

Rome was not built in a day, and neither are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Not a single one of us are finished products yet, not even close.

As the saying goes, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. And if we are reaching out with the gospel of Jesus Christ the way we should, the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ, who is even now ruling over all things for the sake of His church, will be sovereignly lavishing His saving grace on all kinds of sinners! Listen to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11,

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Look at the kinds of sinners who were saved, washed, and sanctified by God’s grace in Christ there in Corinth – real, actual sinners! The sexually immoral, adulterers, homosexuals, drunkards and thieves!

Wait – you mean that Jesus saves those kinds of people too?!? Of course He does! Or do we think that the arm of the Lord is too shortened to reach and save the lost? Is He only able or willing to save people like us who only sinned in the more respectable or socially-acceptable ways? No, he came into the world to save sinners, among whom Paul saw himself as the chief – the worst of the bunch (1 Timothy 1:15)! “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), not merely just to help those who help themselves.

Do we mentally exclude people from our witness because they are too far gone? Do we think that those with serious sin issues are beyond the reach of the grace of Christ? Remember that Jesus is a friend of sinners. He spent a lot of time around real, live sinners! Matthew 11:19 says,

“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

Do we require people to clean themselves up first before they can come to Jesus (or before they can come to our church)? Or do we share the gospel with them, confident that (as Paul says in Romans 1:16) it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”? We might read 1 Corinthians and shake our heads, but that church, despite all of her obvious (and serious) problems, was still a church where the Lord was at work in saving and transforming sinners.  It was a messy church, but it was messy for the right reason – because God was at work.

Certainly in the church “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40, ESV), but decently and in good order does not necessarily mean that everything must be neat and tidy, does it? May your church and mine become a little messier because God is at work in our midst saving all kinds of sinners.