Saturday 20 January 2024

God is God and You are You: Book Review

Right from the outset of this short book, Rev Thomas Davis, Minister of Carloway Free Church, acknowledges that most of us find evangelism really difficult. That is often because we have come to believe that evangelism is about being skilled in clever techniques and having the right experience. While experience is undoubtably helpful, and no doubt skills can be honed, Thomas Davis helpfully helps us to see that as we step out to witness to others there is ‘a tidal wave of incredible theology backing you up every step pf the way.’ The book then very helpfully helps us to see who God is and who we are so we can become better and brighter witnesses.

In the first half of the book, Thomas Davis helpfully reminds us of who God is. He uses the encounter between God and Moses in Exodus 3 to remind us that God is sovereign, that God takes the initiative, that God is powerful, and that God is compassionate. He helps us to see that when we come to understand these truths and rest in them, evangelism does not become easy, but we lose our fear and these truths change our perspective. Understanding more of who God is gives us gospel confidence, a sense of utter dependence on God, an encouragement to obey the great commission and a belief that we should never give up. The book then helpfully shows us the central place that truth plays in evangelism before reminding us of the glory and beauty of the gospel message. The first section closes with helpful chapters on grace and eternity. How we share the gospel is just as important as the truth we share. The gospel must never be shared through gritted teeth. As Davis says ‘…the message of grace must be communicated with grace.’

The second half of the book looks at who we are. We can be tempted to believe that if we were somebody else, if we were in a different location or if we had extraordinary skills, we could then be effective evangelists. Davis reminds us that God can use us in all our sinfulness and frailty. I found the chapter on witnessing particularly helpful. We are reminded that we are not called to be the judge (casting verdicts on people), we are not called to be the defence (confronting people every time we feel our faith is threatened), nor are we called to be the press (talking about people and their sins rather than talking to them about the gospel). We are called to be witnesses – to testify about Jesus Christ. So often we end up talking to people about the church, church services, the state of society but we are called to talk about Him, in all his glory and beauty. The remaining three chapters are a helpful reminder of the nature of evil, the nature of humanity and a final chapter on the theology and nature of the church. We live in a society where evil is acceptable, entertaining and, as Davis points out, useful to many people. A Biblical understanding of evil, people and the church are all important as we seek to understand evangelism.

This book is excellent for three reasons. Firstly, it is readable. Rev Davis writes clearly, directly and pastorally. Secondly it is short. It is ideal for young people and new Christians who are not used to reading lengthy books on the theology of evangelism. Lastly, this book is encouraging. It reminds us of the kindness and compassion of God who loves sinners and who uses frail vessels to carry the great news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Saturday 30 December 2023

Book Review - Ministers of the Free North 1843-1974

For those of us who enjoy Highland history and church history in particular, this book is a very welcome addition. The late Rev Hugh Ferrier was a much-loved minister in the Free Church and is particularly remembered as the minister of the Free North from 1975-1990. He was warm, godly, principled and greatly appreciated as a preacher who was Christ centred and deeply doctrinal. I remember as a boy growing up in the Free Church in the 1970’s and 80’s being greatly impacted by his visits to our manse in Oban.  He was gentle, kind and approachable.

Rev Ferrier’s ‘Echoes of Grace’ published by the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), in 2006, is an excellent survey of how the Lord richly blessed the Free Church in the 19th century and expertly charts her downfall through the higher criticism controversy and the union with the United Presbyterian Church. Scholarship was placed above piety and the consequences were devastating. It is a solemn reminder how quickly pragmatism and error can erode confessional Christianity in a church.

The late Rev Ferrier’s little book on Ministers of the Free Church builds on this work and gives us a rich survey of ministers of the Free North from Rev Archibald Cook (1843 – 1844) right up to Rev Ferrier’s predecessor Rev James Fraser (1968 – 1974). Far from being a dry biographical account, this survey gives is a rich insight into the life of the Free North while giving us glimpses into key moments of church history in Scotland. The seven ministers covered in the book are Archibald Cook, George Mackay, Murdo Mackenzie, John Macleod, Kenneth Cameron, Donald Campbell, and James Fraser. The book shows the impact that one faithful, vibrant congregation can have not just on a Highland community but on the wider work for the church. 

It is fascinating to read about the preparations of the 1888 Free Church General Assembly hosted in Inverness and chaired by Dr Gustavus Aird of Creich. Local office bearers and ministers were involved in a committee that eventually build a structure that could seat 3000 built on ground in Ardross Terrace. The chapter on Principal John Macleod is a wonderful reminder of the calibre of men the Free Church produced and who filled the Free North pulpit. There is much that could be said of the book but perhaps four observations will suffice.

Firstly, much is rightly made of made of ministers, but the book highlights the critical importance of godly office bearers and loyal members and how this leads to stability and consistency in a congregation. As Prof Collins recalled the verdict of a Free Church student on placement at the Free North during John Macleod’s ministry (1913-30) ‘The Free North of those days was a model congregation. Organisation could hardly be improved upon; attendances were excellent, and the loyalty of the people was manifested in their hearty support of the schemes of the church. The Kirk Session was representative of some of the leading business concerns in the town as well as of the humbler occupations.’

Secondly, the Free Church in the Highlands and the Free North in particular, far from being parochial and inward looking, had a big gospel vision. Murdo Mackenzie, Minister of the Free North from 1887-1912 had a deep interest in foreign missions. During his very fruitful ministry in Kilmallie prior to bring called to Inverness he was preaching on Amos 1 when he stopped and asked if anyone was willing to consecrate themselves to the mission field. An elder’s son, Dr James Stewart, offered himself and he trained as a medical missionary in the China Inland Mission. Mackenzie was gifted and inspiring yearly donations of clothes and money for the mission field. Prof T.M. Lindsay said; ‘…if we had a Murdo Mackenzie in every parish, there would be no fear of the Foreign Missions collection.’

The third thing that strikes the reader is that the pastors of the Free North were not ivory tower pastors. They were faithful pastors and regular visitors. They were also engaged and involved in their communities. The Rev John Macleod while pastoring the Free North also accepted the Chair of the old Inverness-shire Education Authority. The Director of Education at the time said of Macleod; ‘…he was unremittingly attentive and suggestive of every point in the discussion and exercised a minimum of interference as long as members kept to the subject before them.’ As with their disruption forefathers, these pastors had a love and concern for their local community which took them out of their studies and pulpits to engage with local people and local issues. They loved reformed theology, but their ministries were grounded in the communities they served.

Fourthly, what shines through these ministries is the commitment to confessional Christianity. Murdo Mackenzie (Free North minister from 1887-1912) stood firm with the constitutional group in 1900 and suffered the ignominy of having the Free North North declared vacant by the United Free Presbytery despite being filled to the door!  Perhaps the most well known minister of the Free North who stood unwavering for reformed, confessional principles was John Macleod who went on to became Principal of the Free Church College.  He had lived through the declension of the latter half of the 19th century and was bold in warning a new generation of the dangers of 'conscience clauses'.  In his Moderators Address in 1920 entitled ‘The Outlook in Regard to the Maintenance of the Reformed Faith’ he said; ‘Holding to the historic faith and worship of Scotland’s Reformed Church, she is content in a day of reproach to share the reproach of a despised Evangel, and look for her vindication not only to the day when the Church’s reproach will be forever removed; she also cherishes the hope that with a glorious revival of true godliness the people of the land of covenants and martyr’s will yet retrace the steps of which they strayed from the good way and that will be a vindication of her contendings.’  

When he was inducted as Principal of the Free Church College in 1927 he gave an address entitled 'Our Work as a Theological College'. During his address he said 'The issue is between the historic reformed faith of Evangelical Christendom and another religion altogether.  There is but one gospel, and another gospel is a rival to it.  It is vain to make room in the Christian nest for the alien intruder, and at the same time to think that the legitimate and natural inmates of that nest shall be left safe in their own home.  Admit the alien, make room for the intruder, and you doom the home born to extrusion and to banishment.'  His lectures 'Scottish Theology in Relation to Church History' delivered at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1939 have remained in print and blessed generations of students who love the doctrines of grace.

Ministers of the Free North Church 1843-1974 is a surprisingly enjoyable and uplifting read. The late Rev Hugh Ferrier tells the story of these ministries gracefully and warmly and gently leads us through over 100 years of the congregational life of the Free North. It is an encouragement and inspiration to us in Scotland today to build strong churches, support faithful ministries and shine the bright light of the gospel into a dark world.

Thursday 21 September 2023

Bringing Hope - Friendship in a Fractured World

This is a conference talk given by Andy Murray at a Christian befriending conference on 23rd September 2023 organised by Edinburgh City Mission and Bethany Christian Trust at Craiglockhart Parish Church, Edinburgh.  Andy Murray is the Programme Director for Safe Families in Scotland.  Safe Families seek to bring hope and belonging to families who are isolated and struggling.  

In the film ‘Castaway’ which hit our screens in 2000 we see a real-life example of what chronic long-term loneliness can do to one person.

Chuck Noland played by Tom Hanks is washed up on a desert island with 100’s of FedEx parcels.

His only friend is a volleyball called Wilson and the only hope he clings to for 4 years is delivering a FedEx parcel with angel’s wings on it.

During the film we see how devastating the effects of isolation are.

There is that famous line when Tom Hanks makes a raft and starts his bid for freedom with Wilson and says ‘Don't worry Wilson, I'll do all the paddling. You just hang on.’

Chuck Noland had to invent a person to avoid complete madness.

Recently I was up in Peterhead and I took the opportunity to visit the prison museum.

It is haunting walking around the halls where the famous riot took place in 1987.

What is even more eery is the isolation block and in particular one cell where the most problematic prisoners were kept.

It was so isolated that no matter how hard the prisoner banged – not a single sound could be heard from inside the cell, and the prisoner couldn’t hear anything from outside his cell.  The prisoner was cut off from every sound, smell and contact with humanity – the ultimate punishment.

As Drew Hunter says, ‘God had made us in such a way that solitude and sanity cannot co-exist for long. We will eventually only keep one or the other.’ 
Made for Friendship, p 43.

As humans we are made for connection and community.

But the reality is that we live in an increasingly dislocated, alienated and lonely society.

When David Bowie died of liver cancer in January 2016, he had a ‘direct funeral’.

No friends, no family, no fuss. David Bowie was pretty popular so maybe just the odd choice of an eccentric rock star?  Maybe not.

As The Sunday Post recently reported, Co-op Funeral Care launched direct cremations in 2018 and over the last 5 years they have seen a 350% rise in demand.

12% of all Co-op funerals in the UK now don’t have anyone there.  People are dispatched ‘directly’.

Other funeral directors report that between 15-20% of all cremations are now ‘unattended’ direct cremations.

While no doubt there is an element of cost cutting in the current cost of living crisis, direct unattended funerals are the logical conclusion to our increasingly lonely society.

When Teressa May launched her ‘loneliness strategy’ in October 2018, which included the appointment of Tracey Crouch, Minister for Loneliness, the launch statement said:

‘Three quarters of GPs surveyed have said they are seeing between one and five people a day suffering with loneliness, which is linked to a range of damaging health impacts, like heart disease, strokes and Alzheimer’s disease. Around 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.’

In the wake of the COVID epidemic, another epidemic has gripped our Western World – loneliness - what Mother Teressa called ‘the leprosy of the West.’

During COVID-19 the proportion of people saying they ‘often or always feel lonely’ increased from 1 in 20 to 1 in 14 (The Best of Friends, Phil Knox, p 19).

1. Defining Friendship

So, what is friendship and why do we all long for better, richer and deeper friendships?

Friendship is the sharing of joy or sorrow with people we love and trust.

Drew Hunter in ‘Made for Friendship’ defines friendship in this way:

‘Friendship is an affectionate bond forged between two people as they journey through life with openness and trust.’

Brian Croft in his book ‘Pastoral Friendship’ defines friendship as ‘an intimate relationship of love, trust and loyalty.’

As Christians we believe that we are inescapably communal.  Friendship isn’t a luxury it is a necessity.

As the 19th century Anglican JC Ryle says:

‘This world is full of sorrow because it is full of sin. It is a dark place. It is a lonely place. It is a disappointing place. The brightest sunbeam in it is a friend. Friendships halves our troubles and doubles our joys.’

Proverbs 18 v 1 says, ‘whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgement.’ 

Wisdom is not to be found in contemplative isolation (although there is a time and a place for that) the wise man, according to the Bible, grows and develops rich friendships.

In 2009, Bronnie Ware wrote an online article called ‘Regrets of the Dying’ which were her reflections of nursing terminally ill patients as a palliative nurse.

The article was viewed by millions of people worldwide and Bronnie went on to write a best-selling book ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying’.

Along with:

• I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

• I wish I had lived a life true to myself, not the life others expect of me.

• I wish I had allowed myself to be happy.

• I wish I had the courage to express my feelings…

Bronnie found that one of the top five dyeing wishes of her patients was that they had stayed in touch with their friends.

We long for friendship and yet, if many of us are honest, we don’t invest a lot of time in cultivating those friendships.

So we’ve seen how important friendship is but where does this yearning for friendship come from?

2. The Edenic Ache

Well as Christians we believe in a God who dwells in perfect, eternal community.

In Genesis we read that God said, ‘let us make man’.

Mankind was not made from a solitary cosmic being but a loving Trinity.

Our designer is relational and that is why we have connection in our DNA.

As Drew Hunter says, '…the Trinity shows us that the ultimate reality is not eternal nothingness. It is not eternal matter. It is not an eternal force. Ultimate reality is personal, relational, and exuberantly joyful. Before there was anything, there was love. There was, in a sense, friendship.’  
Made for Friendship, p 123.

This triune God created man with an inbuilt ‘with-ness.’

God created everything good and very good. Seven times in Genesis 1 God comments on his handiwork.  But even before the fall, even before sin came into the world, God said it was not good for man to be alone.

As Drew Hunter says:

‘Every soul reverberates with the Edenic ache for friendship. It’s an ancient and primal longing. We are inescapably communal.’ Made for Friendship, p 43.

The desire for connection is not the result of sin but the result of a Triune God building friendship and community into our DNA.

As Tim Keller said, ‘Adam was not lonely because he was imperfect, but because he was perfect. The ache for friends is the one ache that is not the result of sin…This is one ache that is part of his perfection…God made us in such a way that we cannot enjoy paradise without friends.’  
Sermon on Spiritual Friendship in Redeemer Presbyterian Church, March 1, 1998.

We live in a fractured, alienated, and lonely society.  But we trust in a Triune God who has created us for connection and community.

Into this broken and sinful world came the Lord Jesus Christ with the mission to reconcile us back to God so like Abraham and Enoch we could be called the friends of God.

The night before his crucifixion Jesus said, ‘No longer do I call you servants…I have called you friends.’ John 15 v 15.  Jesus came to lay down his life for His people so that we could become His friend and grasp what true friendship really is.

Christ said ‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.’ John 15 v 13.

Christianity is a faith that celebrates friendship.  History tells the drama of friendship created, lost, and then restored in Christ.

As Tim Keller says, ‘the entire history of redemption – in a sense – is a giant act of friendship.’

3. Barriers to Friendship

Before we go in to look at the marks of friendship – what aspects of modern life have compounded our capacity to build deep and lasting friendships?

a) Busyness

When was the last time we sent a letter or wrote a card?

When was the last time we befriended someone, visited someone who lives alone?

When was the last time we visited our wider family?

We are too busy.

Over 1 billion people and 42% of the entire workforce of Britain are now knowledge workers where they use their brain to work.

This work has no start and end – often people are logging on to meetings with colleagues in America or the Far East at all hours of the day and night.

Work can reach us anywhere, at any time. There is no rest – we are never ‘not at work’.

Busyness crowds out deep connection and friendships.

Friendships are not developed in a vacuum – they need time.

As Phil Knox says, ‘Time is the oxygen of friendship. Spend enough time in someone’s presence, with no agenda and enough conversation, and the magic of relationship begins to take effect.’ The Best of Friends, p 22.

b) Technology

Email, texting and social media have literally transformed how we interact.

They can often complement our relationships.

But unfortunately, as Drew Hunter say ‘we often trade deep communion for digital communication’.

Stephen Marche in his 2012 article ‘Is Facebook Making Us Lonely’ says:

‘We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead, we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.’


· depersonalises communication,

· disengages us from real relationships,

· disembodies real conversation.

· creates dependence on impersonal ways of addressing difficult issues.

Netflix now acknowledges that its greatest rival is not another streaming service – its greatest rival is sleep (quoted in Best of Friends, Phil Knox, p 26).

Social media has allowed us to have more connections but fewer real friendships.

As Drew Hunter says:

‘Friendship should be more like a submarine, holding few and going deep. But we’ve made it more like a cruise ship, filled with lots of nice people whom we don’t know well at all.’ Made for Friendship p 26.

c) Mobility

My grandparents stayed on the same croft just outside Dornoch for their whole lives.

They knew everyone in their community, relatives lived nearby, and their roots were deep in that community. They were committed to the local Free Church in a way that is almost unrecognisable to us today.

Relationships take time, they need deep soil. But we live in a transient society.

Mobility can stop us from putting down deep roots and investing in lasting relationships.

Interestingly greater mobility influences whether people volunteer or not.

As Jon Yates says, ‘People who plan to leave somewhere in the next 5 years are 20-25% less likely to get involved in voluntary activities, attend religious activities, join a club. Transience changes too the behaviour of those who stay put. They too are less likely to get involved in voluntary activities.’ 
Jon Yates, quoted in Best of Friends, Phil Knox, p 24.

4. So how does the Bible define friendship?

I don’t know what your best memory of friendship is.

For me, it was weekends spent in a place called Kylerhea, Skye with 2-3 friends.

The old glass coffee pot bubbled away on the old stove, we played chess for hours and rowed the boat across to Glenelg.

When I think back, I feel a warmth, a comfort and a safety.

In his book The Four Loves – C.S. Lewis called these moments an ‘Affection’.

‘Those are the golden sessions…when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk…at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life – natural life – has no better gift to give.’

So, what are the marks of great friendship?

a) Affection

A friend is someone who holds us in high esteem – one who loves us.

This affection is often displayed by our presence.

When Jonathan went to David at Horeh in the wilderness of Ziph, David must have been at one of the lowest points in his life.

Jonathan didn’t send a messenger, he didn’t send a letter, he showed up (1 Sam 23 v 15-18).

It says, ‘he helped him to find strength in God.’

Sometimes we are crushed, sometimes we are overwhelmed and we just need somebody else to show up in the darkness and hold a candle for us.

We may not have all the answers, but we underestimate the power of presence.

David and Jonathan give us an example of love and affection.

b) Constancy

The Biblical teaching on friendship is covenantal rather than consumerist.

Friends don’t desert us in our darkest hour.

‘A friend loves at all times and a brother is born for adversity’ Proverbs 17 v 17.

We see this again with David and Jonathan in 1 Sam 20 v 8.

‘Deal kindly with your servant, for you have brought your servant into a covenant of the Lord with you.’

This word ‘deal kindly’ is the Hebrew word for steadfast covenant love.

David and Jonathan were covenant friends bound to each other for life.

We see this level of friendship in the book for Ruth between Ruth and Naomi. It is more than family loyalty it is covenant love.

c) Transparency

Most of us would agree that relationships need honesty but it’s possible to be honest without being open.

Real friends often know us better than we know ourselves.

True friends walk in the light together – there is no deceit or underhandedness.

John says, ‘If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ (1 John 1 v 7).

Walking in the light isn’t just about obedience, its about coming out of hiding.

True friends help us to come out of hiding and live in integrity.

When we confess our sins to God and each other, then we find real forgiveness and friendship.

d) Candor or honesty

True friendship involves speaking the truth in love.

As Proverbs 27 v 5-6 remind us; ‘Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.’

If we see a friend who is about to commit and act of foolishness, true friendship requires us to gently and lovingly speak up.

As the Puritan Thomas Goodwin once said;

‘Simplicity and plain heartedness…is the truest and rarest jewel of friendship.’ Thomas Goodwin

e) Empathy

Another mark of true friendship, according to the Bible, is empathy.

Friends weep with those who weep.

We enter into the emotional state of our friend, we sit with them, we walk with them in their brokenness.

Brene Brown says: “Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It's simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of 'you're not alone. '”

When my sister was dying in 2018/19, two friends phoned me almost every week.

Often there wasn’t much to say but their call meant a lot to me.

One of them flew up all the way from London just to be at her funeral in October 2019.

d) Trust

Have you ever been betrayed by a friend?

Perhaps you shared something in confidence, and it was betrayed.

The book of Proverbs is full of advice about friendship, but is also has a lot to say about ‘the whisperer.’

‘Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates friends.’ Prov 17 v 9.

Isn’t this rife in Christian circles?

How much gossip is repackaged as ‘concern’ or ‘for prayer’.

If friendship isn’t built on the sure foundation of trust, we need to fix it quick or move out fast.


At the end of Castaway, Chuck Noland is picked up by a cargo ship and returns home. 

He delivers the FedEx package with the angel’s wings and leaves a note that the package had saved his life. 

The man who lived his live solving productivity problems found that life had little meaning or purpose without love, friendship and connection. 

We as Christians have the opportunity to offer this beautiful gift of friendship to our lonely, alienated and fractured world.

Friendship can be costly but Christ has given us the greatest example of what He was willing to do for his friends. 

As Hugh Black says ‘we have few friendships, because we are not willing to pay the price of friendship…The secret of friendship is the secret of all spiritual blessing.  The way to get is to give.’  Made for Friendship, p 97.  

Recommended Reading.

‘Made for Friendship’, Drew Hunter, Crossway, 2018

‘The Best of Friends’, Phil Knox, IVP, 2023

‘Pastoral Friendship’ Haykin, Croft and Carroll, CFP, 2022

Why don't you think of volunteering with one of these charities who connect with isolated and vulnerable individuals and families?

Monday 22 November 2021


Where do you feel that you belong? Its not an easy question to answer.  Belonging is a little like identity, it is something you feel but it is not easy to put into words.  I feel like I belong in the Highlands, with my family, with my team at work and with certain friends.  Why do I belong in some places and not others?  What does it mean to belong?  Here are a few elements I think are part of belonging.

A Shared Journey.  When we think of communities and groups where we belong there is some sense of shared journey or history.  When Solomon prayed at the dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8 the Children of Israel had been on a long and very hard journey.  They had been slaves in Egypt for over 400 years and then another 500 years wandering in the wilderness and conquering their homeland.  Finally they have a place to call home, a king, a capital city and a permanent temple.  It must have been an incredible feeling to see the glory of God filling the beautiful and glorious temple.  Finally there was a sense of belonging.  

Very often we have a sense of belonging because we have a sense of shared journey and frequently shared suffering.  That sense of shared suffering and shared vulnerability often leads to greater connection and a sense of belonging.  Many of us have experienced this in our families.  We have been through huge adversity together and it has brought us closer.  

Safety and Security.  It is hard to feel that we belong if we don't feel safe.  When I come home to my family I feel a sense of safety and protection.  I know that they want my best so if I've had a bad day I know that home will be a safe place.  

In the Bible the story of Ruth is a story of two women seeking safety in a patriarchal society.  Ruth and Naomi have no power, no protector, no safety net and little hope.  They are at the mercy of their covenant community which Naomi had walked away from when she went to Moab.  But when they enter Bethlehem, they find safety and security under the Levitical Law and their 'Kinsman Redeemer', Boaz.  Ruth isn't just given food but is enabled under Biblical law to glean in the fields so she has the dignity of work.

It is hard to think of belonging without a sense of safety and security.  We have a sense of belonging when people have our back, are willing to defend us and welcome us in when we need help.  The Biblical imperative is that this needs to be offered to the widow, the orphan and the stranger.

Trust - As it think about the places where I belong there is a sense of trust both in others and with others in me.  When I think of family, I trust my family and they trust me.  I've spent most of my career working with families where that has broken down and often led to people being part of their families but not really feeling like they belong.  

When we think of Joseph in the Old Testament he was rejected by his brothers but ultimately accepted by the people of Egypt.  They trusted him with great power and responsibility after his brothers had tried to kill but eventually sold him in to slavery.  The reconciliation that took place is one of the most beautiful stories of redemption and forgiveness in the Bible and points forward to an even greater leader and mediator to come in the Lord Jesus Christ.  

Trust has to be the foundation for any community of belonging.  Great teams are built on trust, great organisations are built on trust and any thriving family is a place of trust and acceptance.  

Love - Can you belong in a place where you are not loved?  I guess it depends how we define love.  We might feel that we belong in a football club or at the squash club but I think that is more about enjoyment and shared interest rather than love.  I think to truly belong somewhere we need to feel loved and accepted.  In the parable of the Prodigal Son the son comes back to the father to plead for mercy but instead is showered with unconditional love.  He is received, accepted and then celebrated.  His elder brother, who has never left home, has no sense of belonging because he works for his father, not out of love, but out of duty.  The prodigal son was loved therefore he has a sense of belonging.  

We so often think that the way to help families belong is through 'support'.  This is undoubtedly part of the solution but belonging starts with love and compassion.  This is why the professional model of social care has had such a limited impact on families over the last 30-40 years. Families are not just a collection of their problems.  People in crisis need connection, compassion and love. This takes time, commitment and perseverance.  

Hospitality, Generosity and Celebration - I think belonging often comes from shared hospitality and generosity.  When we think back to the Old Testament and all the festivals ordained by God, they created a sense of belonging amongst the Israelites. The Passover reminded them of God's redeeming love, the Festival of Tabernacles or Shelters reminded them of their wilderness journey and God's protective care, and then the Day of Atonement reminded them of how God could forgive their sins through the shedding of blood.  These festivals were celebrated regularly and corporately to remind the Israelites of certain events and truths.  It must have been so exciting for Israelite children to go to a festival every year and make temporary shelters.  That is the kind if Sunday School every kid dreams of!

Most communities that inspire belonging have shared festivals, hospitality or meals.  Many of us have great memories of Sunday lunches with our families, Christmas meals and, for those of us in Scotland, steak pie on New Years Day.  These moments of shared hospitality, generosity and celebration create a sense of belonging.

Shared Values - Reflecting on belonging, I think there has to be some shared values for us to feel like we belong.  Many communities and families never work these out explicitly but every group has written or unwritten values.  

Organisations with clear core values, lived out consistently by a committed leadership team, are nearly always organisations that create a healthy culture where trust is paramount and power and politics are reduced to a minimum.  We see this in Christs ministry as he gathers a rag tag group of disciples and teaches what it means to lead.  His radical version of leadership involved service and sacrifice not power and politics.  It was subversive, shocking and revolutionary.  Many years ago I heard a preacher in Glasgow talking about his fragility.  He said 'never trust a leader without a limp'.  Great leadership is when we have an acute awareness of our own fragility and we love to see others grow and develop. Most great leaders are values driven and imbed this in their sphere of influence.

For the last 2000 years Christians have been showing love and compassion to the poor and marginalised.  Sometimes we have been very focussed on peoples physical needs and have neglected the more fundamental spiritual and emotional needs that people have.  But there are many great examples of Christians who have provided a sense of hope and belonging as they have reached out in love to those who are in crisis.

We can think of Amy Carmichael (1867-1951) who rescued hundreds of little boys and girls from ritualised sexual exploitation in Hindu temples in the early part of the 20th century.   The practice of devadasis was unthinkable to the middle class sensibilities of Victorian Britain, but Amy Carmichael was tireless it giving children who ran away a safe refuge and campaigning against the evils of the practice.  It took 46 years of campaigning before the Madras Government made the practice illegal in 1947.  Carmichael received the Kaiser-i-Hind medal for her service to the people of India.  Amy Carmichael not only rescued children, she educated them, she loved them and she advocated for them.  They went from being treated like objects so having a sense of belonging and love because one women, compelled by the love of Christ, did something about their injustice.

Another example is Titus Salt (1803-1876) who was a mill owner in Bradford.  In 1853 Salt opened the Victoria Mill beside the river Aire.  He transformed the working conditions of the 3,500 workers with large windows and reduced noise.  He created a workers village beside the mill called Saltaire which housed 4,500 people in 850 houses.  He provided 45 almhouses for the elderly, a hospital, a library and an Institute for concerts and public lectures and a gym.  There was a large dining hall providing a good balanced meal for 2pence.  A 14 acre park was added in 1871.  The only thing missing was a pub.  Salt believed that at the root of most vice was lust and drunkenness and Saltaire was a dry village. Right in the centre of the village was a large Congregational Church with capacity for a Sunday School of 800 children. Salt, along with many Christian philanthropists, not only cared for his workers health, but also cared for their souls and gave his workforce a real sense of dignity and belonging.  

Christians have a rich history of compassion to the poor.  The challenges of the 2st century are different from the past.  We face an epidemic of loneliness and isolation in our society and people are desperate to belong.  The church has a great opportunity to rise to this challenge and reach out with love and compassion to a broken and sinful world with love of Christ.  As Dr Guthrie once said: 'Religion does not consist in doctrinal or prophetical speculations; nor lie like a corpse entombed in old dusty confessions.  She lives in action, and walks abroad among mankind - calling us to leave our books to shut our Bibles, to rise from our knees and go forth with hearts full of love and hands full of charities.'

Saturday 6 November 2021

'Uncle Willie'

We were greatly saddened to hear of the passing of our uncle Willie Murray last Monday (1st November 2021) in Raigmore hospital where he had been for several weeks. Willie was born on 3rd January 1936 to Alexander and Johan Murray, and was the last surviving and youngest of three brothers, Alexander and my father John. Willie never married but was a much loved uncle to Alex's boys Sandy, Iain and Craig and to me and my late sisters. Willie spent almost his whole life on the family croft in Lonemore, Dornoch, only moving in the last two years to Golspie. He struggled with heart problems, diabetes and became increasingly frail. I saw him in hospital a few weeks ago and while there was some confusion, he had his usual concern for my boys and a desire for any visitors to read the Scriptures and pray.

We all have lots of abiding memories of Lonemore when we visited on holiday. It was quite a challenge for a family of five squeezing in to a two bedroomed croft house, sleeping on antique beds, using, for many years, an outside toilet, and playing in the wrecks of rusty cars and disused tractors. The croft house was full of family heirlooms, rare books and memories stretching back to the late 19th century. Huge piles of cassettes were stacked precariously everywhere and when you were sent to get the Bibles for worship there was often a 'Jenga type' crashing of cassettes. Willie had a low carbon footprint well before it became trendy. He cycled everywhere, burnt almost everything and used very little electricity. Shirts were soaked in the bath and dried on the garden fence. If Willie had an iron, it certainly never connected with a shirt. He had almost no sense of self and was not interested in image.

Willie wasn't keen on passing on any knowledge of farming with 'the boys', but loved discussing animal husbandry with my sister Anna (an agricultural graduate) and my cousin Craig's wife Ishbel who came from farming stock. The exceptions were feeding pet lambs, working in a 'support role' when the sheep went off to market and any rounding up of either sheep or cattle for marking or jagging by the vet.

One of my abiding memories of Lonemore is driving a wrecked Datsun Cherry along the beach with Willie on the bonnet looking for a lost sheep. He would bang on the roof, jump off, run into the field and then hop back on to resume the search. Space was tight but boiled beef, the best potatoes (literally just lifted) and the biggest array of pineapple cakes and empire biscuits from the bakery in Dornoch always made for great meal times. Mealtimes were punctuated with full family worship, and listening to Willie's prayers was, looking back, a great privilege. Latterly when I would visit with just Dad and I, presenting a Psalm with two completely tone deaf brothers was amongst one of my greatest achievements. Kilmarnock would often morph into Colshill and take a detour through the choppy waters of St Kilda!

Willie was an elder in Dornoch Free Church for several decades. His minister for many years, Rev John Macpherson, recently emailed me about Willie and said this: 'I greatly valued Willie as a friend, a brother in Christ and a fellow elder. Though he was a very shy man, I greatly admired the way he fulfilled the pastoral responsibilities of being an elder. I'm sure the number of visits he paid to the sick, the bereaved and those in any kind of trouble must have run into several hundreds. He carried with him "the savour of Christ", so that even those who didn't share his Christian faith greatly appreciated his compassionate concern.'  Willie became associated with the Free Church (Continuing) just shortly after the division of 2000. He greatly appreciated the ministry of Rev Alan Murray who he greatly missed after his death. Willie also appreciated the ministry of Rev Thomas Buchanan who has been a faithful pastor to Willie in his illness and a great help in many practical ways. Willie was greatly helped by his neighbours in Lonemore, Mable Lobban and Katherine De Jonckheere who faithfully transported him to church and looked after him in all sorts of ways. Thank you, your kindness has not gone on unnoticed.

Willie knew what was important in life. He was God fearing, Christ centred and pleaded for the power of the Holy Spirit in his own life and on the church. His great prayer was for the church to resist the gimmicks and shallowness of modern evangelicalism and for the power of the Holy Spirit to fall on the church in reforming an reviving power. Willie loved and respected the Lords Day and was grieved as the modern church abandoned it for pragmatism and acceptability. He surrounded himself with the Reformers, the Covenanters and the Puritans and was a veracious reader. Willie must have been one of the last men in Scotland to still listen to tapes of which he had 100's and never failed to find a great sermon if it came up in conversation. Every niece and nephew received the tape series of 'Al Martin on the Fear of God' for their 21st birthday present. His knowledge of Christian news and events was encyclopaedic due to the fact that he received every reformed periodical in circulation. These magazines would be recycled as he visited the elderly in the care homes around Sutherland for most of his life.

Willie was content, humble, slightly shy but was known for his godliness and a deep and reverential fear of God. He never really entered the modern world and was very at home in a simpler, pre internet world where books remained central. Willie will be remembered as a faithful man of God, who held his convictions humbly. His quietness and meekness led to him being taken advantage of by certain people who claimed to be friends. They will have to give an account to a higher court with a judge who sees and knows all things. For his immediate family he will always remain 'uncle Willie', a gentleman, a faithful Christian and much missed uncle.

The funeral will take place in Dornoch Free Church on Thursday 11th November at 12 noon followed by the burial at Dornoch East Cemetery.

Sunday 16 May 2021

Book Review 'All Things are Ready'

‘If we fail to appreciate what the free offer of the gospel is, and if we fail to present this free offer with freedom and spontaneity, with passion and urgency, then we are not only doing dishonour to Christ and his glory, but we are also choking those who are the candidates of saving faith. It is only in reference to the full and free overture of Christ in the gospel that a true conception of faith in Christ can be entertained.’ Prof John Murray (1898 – 1975).

What is the gospel? Who is the gospel for? How should the gospel be preached? What kind of people should implore men and women to come to Christ? These and many other questions are covered in Donald John Maclean’s first book ‘All Things are Ready’. Uniquely qualified, having completed a PhD in James Durham (1622-1658), Donald John takes us an a ‘tour de force’ of Biblical teaching and reformed theology. Warmly and succinctly, Maclean makes a compelling case that the ‘free offer of the gospel’ flows from the mainstream of biblical theology and reformed history.

Church history is cyclical and in almost every generation there is a move towards legalism and ‘Hyper-Calvinism’. In the 18th century Thomas Boston and the Erskines fought against it during the ‘Marrow Controversy’. Spurgeon fought against the Hyper-Calvinists in England in the 19th century and there have been skirmishes in the 20th century as churches have sought to reconcile the apparent Biblical paradox of divine command and human responsibility in the call of the gospel.

In this book Donald John Maclean beautifully takes us to the heart of the gospel. He reminds us of all the different ways the gospel is offered in the Bible: an entreaty, a sale, a command, a promise, a warning, standing and knocking and the gospel as an entreaty. The gospel call is much more that a sharing of information, it is a pleading, an entreaty a call. As Samuel Rutherford says, ‘It is ordinary for man to beg from God, for we are but His beggars; but it is a miracle to see God beg at man. Yet here is the Potter begging from the clay; the Saviour seeking from sinners.’

But to whom is the gospel offered? Is it only to the spiritually burdened, to the thirsty, the repentant, or is the gospel offer open to all? How do we reconcile limited atonement and passages such as Isaiah 45 v 22, Acts 17 v 30 and Luke 2 v 10? Well, the answer is we do not. As Maclean says: ‘Our limitations mean the one will of God may appear manifold from our perspective.’ We preach Christ to all without distinction while believing that God is ultimately calling a people to Himself. As Calvin says: ‘He invites the whole world to the hope of salvation.’

Many have wrestled with the will of God and the doctrine of election but Maclean helpfully takes us on a Biblical study of God’s revealed will in the Old and New Testament and particularly in the Gospels and the Epistles. He leaves no stone unturned in seeking to prove from Scripture that we have a God and Saviour who wants us to accept ‘so great a salvation’. As Thomas Boston says ‘Christ is willing to come into every heart. Why else does he demand open doors, but because he is willing to enter?’

Prof John Murray

The book ends with a helpful chapter on objections to the free offer such as, ‘If I am dead in sin why invite me to believe?’ ‘If God has chosen me to believe why invite me to believe?’ These are helpfully and pastorally answered with biblical answers and the best of James Durham and Prof John Murray.

‘All Things are Ready’ is a beautiful reminder to us of the glorious overtures of a loving God towards hell deserving sinners. Maclean reminds us that the Puritans and the Reformers were not cold, stoic academics, but warm-hearted preachers and pastors who pleaded with men and women to be reconciled to a loving God and a tender Saviour. The free offer of the gospel is not some departure from Biblical theology and reformed history but rather the outflowing of a true understanding of the gospel and how to communicate that to sinners. If you want to have your heart warmed and once again see the glory of the gospel of Christ, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you read this book.

If you would like to hear more about this subject, there is a Ragged Theology Podcast with Donald John Maclean available here.  He has also written further on the free offer here.  Please order the book via Free Church books here.


Sunday 9 May 2021

What does it mean to be Reformed?

Just over a year ago my father, Rev John J Murray, died.  Eight months later I needed to pack up his study as my my mum moved through to Edinburgh.  Looking through over 60 years of papers (13 years in reformed publishing, 24 years in the pastoral ministry and then a very fruitful 18 years in retirement), it has been fascinating to read articles and correspondence relating to the reformed recovery in the UK from the 1950's.  Much of the background to this is covered in my fathers book by EP 'Catch the Vision'.  The recovery was closely connected with the ministry of Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones at Westminster Chapel and the establishment of the Banner of Truth trust in 1957.  My father was involved in the very early days of the Banner of Truth Trust, joining them 3 years after the Banner was formed.  Reformed books that had been out of print for decades were once again printed.  A conference was organised in Leicester in 1962 with 40 ministers which continues to the present day.

The key challenge in the 1960's was the lack of reformed churches in the UK.  Scotland had several reformed denominations like the Free Church of Scotland but the situation in England and Wales was very patchy.  England lacked a truly reformed denomination.  There were many independent churches and my father was corresponding with some who maintained a Reformed witness in the Church of England.  

To seek to address this, my father and others were instrumental in establishing the English Reformed Fellowship which had its inaugural meeting in Westminster Chapel on Tuesday 15th December 1970.  As well as the document reproduced below my father prepared a discussion paper as to why such a fellowship like the ERF was necessary.  Here are some of the reasons:

  • Because of the misuse of the word 'Reformed'.  My Dad was seeking to address the error of those who call themselves reformed while not embracing the 'whole system of truth contained in the historic confessions'.
  • Because of the great ignorance of the whole system of Reformed truth which is found amongst members and leaders of the church today.
  • Because of the preferences for minimal statements of faith and the division of the faith between 'essentials' and 'non essentials'.
  • Polarised opinions - the only alternatives being seen as a national, territorial mixed church or an independent, separated gathered church.
  • 'Because the time has come to encourage some individuals and churches further along the road of reformation, to foster fellowship between Reformed people throughout the county and because there is not existing organisation in a position to do this.'

Looking through much of the correspondence at the time there was a lively debate about the constitution of the ERF.  This centred on a question which has been debated down through the years: 'what does it mean to be reformed?'  

In order to answer this question my father prepared a paper for a meeting on 11th March 1971 to help answer the question that was causing some tension.  I reproduce the article below:

Subject - the difference between holding to the Five Points of Calvinism and being Reformed.

1.  The Difference Viewed Historically

When the adjective 'Reformed' is written with a capital 'R' it commonly is equivalent to 'Calvinistic', i.e. it refers to the theology, creeds, churches etc. of that branch of Protestantism which accepted the interpretation of Christianity formulated by the reformer John Calvin (J.G. Vos).  

Calvinism is defined by B.B. Warfield as:

'...the entire body of conceptions, theological, ethical, philosophical, social, political, which under the influence of the master mind of John Calvin, raised itself to dominance in the protestant lands of the Post-Reformation age, and has left a permanent mark not only on the thought of mankind, but upon the life history of men, the social order of civilised people, and even the political organisations of states.'

[My father then goes on to talk about the history of the Five Points of Calvinism and to list what they are.]

B.B. Warfield

2.  The Difference Viewed Analytically

We could leave the matter here but the difference will become more marked as we seek to show what Calvinism is.  

Calvinism is an all embracing life system inspired by a well defined life system.  It is a life system, on the back of which there is a theological system, on the back of which there is a deep religious consciousness.  

It has been expressed as follows by Abraham Kuyper, one of the great interpreters of Calvin:

'Calvinism is rooted in a form of religion which was peculiarly its own, and from this specific religious consciousness there was developed first a peculiar theology, then a specific church order, an then a given form of political and social life, for the interpretation of the moral world-order, for the relation between nature and grace, between Christianity and the world, between church and state, and finally for art and science; and amid all the life-utterances it remained always the self-same Calvinism, in so far as simultaneously and spontaneously all these developments sprang from its life principle.'

The key verse as far as the life principle of Calvinism is concerned is Romans 11 v 36 - 'For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever and ever, Amen.'  

Calvin placed the self glorification of God at the centre.  It is not God who exists for the sake of His creation: the creation exists for the sake of God.  The primary principle of Calvinism therefore is the direct and absolute sovereignty of the triune God over the whole cosmos. 

The formative principle of Calvinism has been well defined by B.B Warfield:

'It is the vision of God and His majesty which lies at he foundation of the entirety  of the Calvinistic thinking.'

'Calvinism begins, it centres, it ends with the vision of God in His glory and it sets itself, before all things, to render God his right in sphere of life-activity.' 

'The Calvinist is the man who has seen God, and who, having seen God in His glory, is filled on the one hand, with a sense of his own unworthiness to stand in God's sight as a creature, and much more as a sinner, and on the other hand, with adoring wonder that nevertheless this God is a God who receives sinners.  He who believes in God without reserve and is determined that God shall be God to him, in all his thinking, feeling, willing - in the entire compass of his life activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual - throughout all his individual, social, religious, relations - is, by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist.'

'Calvinism is:

  • Theism come to its rights
  • Religion at the height of its conception
  • Evangelicalism in its purest and most stable expression.'

Calvinism says Abraham Kuyper, meets the demands of a life system by providing the principles for the three fundamental relations of all human life:

  • Our relation to God.  The recognition that God enters into immediate fellowship with the creature...the whole of a man's life is to lived as in the Divine Presence.
  • Our relation to man.  The recognition in each person of human worth and equality of all men before God and His magistrate.
  • Our relation to the world.  The recognition that in the whole world the curse is restrained by grace and that we must, in every domain, discover the treasures and develop the potencies hidden by God in nature and in human life.

'The special trait of Calvinism is that it placed the believer before the face of God, not only in the Church, but also in his personal, family, social and political life.  The majesty of God, and the authority of God press upon the Calvinist in the whole of his human existence.' 

Abraham Kuyper
3. Some Observations

i) The five points of Calvinism, historically at least, were only a Calvinistic response to 'the five points of Arminianism'.  (Warfield, J.G. Vos).

ii) Their main reference is soteriological (the doctrine of salvation). (John de Witt)

iii) While they are not synonymous with Calvinism or the Reformed Faith yet they are an integral part of it and the centre of attacks on the truth. (Warfield, de Witt)

iv) It is quite possible for a person to be a doctrinal Calvinist in respect of the five points and yet at the same time be an Anabaptist in respect of religious experience and an Arminian in his thinking.

v) The vital importance of the life principle and the religious nature of this.

vi) Calvinism emerges as nothing more or less than the hope of the world.


At the end of 1972 the Banner of Truth moved to Edinburgh and my fathers connection with the ERF became a lot more distant.  Clearly it was not all plain sailing as a letter in 1973 announces the resignation of two members of the ERF who went on to set up the Christian Reformed Fellowship.  A vote was taken on 22nd September 1973 as to whether the doctrinal scope of the fellowship should exclude Independency and Episcopalianism.  The vote was to include these branches of the Christian church within the ERF and it clearly caused some fall out.  

Perhaps we can see in the embers of the ERF the start of wider reformed co-operation in England and the start, in 1986, of the Presbyterian Church of England and Wales.  The question of 'what does it mean to be reformed' continues to be debated but my father never swerved from his belief that 'Reformed' meant a wholehearted commitment to the 'whole system of truth contained in the historic confessions'.