Thursday, 29 June 2017

Philanthropy grows best in the Soil of Christianity

Philanthropy is not a casual product; it is not a mere outcome of a zeitgeist, or fashion of the age; its roots are deep in the soil of Christianity; it cannot pick up a living either from Paganism, or Agnosticism, or Secularism, or any other system cut off from the influence of the love of Christ.

This is one of the first paragraphs in William Garden Blaikie’s Leaders in Modern Philanthropy published in 1884.  What follows is a barnstorming tour of all the great Christian philanthropists from John Howard, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry, Andrew Reed, Thomas Chalmers, Thomas Guthrie, David Livingstone, William Burns, John Patterson, Agnes Salt and many others.  The claim that some make that Dr Thomas Guthrie was some kind of lone voice in 19th century Scotland is simply not supported by facts.  Guthrie built on the work of Sheriff Watson in Aberdeen and John Pounds in England.  His work was taken up by many particularly Lord Shaftesbury in England.  He was part of a wider movement that rediscovered evangelical theology and roused a sleeping church to the Biblical mandate of fighting for justice and showing mercy to the marginalised.  Their work sprang from their theology.

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Rev W.G. Blackie
Despite the UK’s departure from its Christian heritage, much of our society remains rooted in the Bible.  The idea that we are all equal in the sight of the law, the idea of education for all, the concept of compassion for the poor are inextricably linked to a Biblical view of humanity.  If you don’t think this is important look closely at other society’s and see the radical difference.  The foundational Christian belief that man is made in the image of God has radical implications for the way we treat our fellow man, particularly those who need special protection and care.  Christianity teaches that everyone has dignity and worth.  It also teaches that anyone can be redeemed from their fallen/sinful state.  Man’s fundamental problem is not poverty, housing or power, it is sin (Matthew 15 v 15-20).  The addict, the wife beater, the thief can all be redeemed and transformed by the grace of God.  Christianity is about grace, hope and most of all love.  It is religion of redemption and second chances.

But much more than personal transformation, Christianity places on the believer ‘a strong dynamic impulse to diffuse the love which had fallen so warmly on themselves’ (Blaikie).  Our Saviour, ‘the friend of publicans and sinners’ is our ultimate example.  Jesus taught repeatedly about the need to love the poor in parables such as the Good Samaritan.  His teaching in Matthew 25 on the sheep and the goats couldn’t be clearer.  He defined true greatness: ‘the servant of all being the greatest of all.’  Remember that Jesus was speaking at a time when the order of the Roman empire masked a barbarous culture. Gladiatorial sports slaughtered tens of thousands for nothing but the amusement of the baying mob.  Slavery was commonplace and women were often used as sexual play things.  Yes, there were occasional spurts of compassion when an amphitheatre collapsed but there was no systematic relief of the poor.  It was a hierarchical society where groups and classes were systematically oppressed and kept down.  A bit like modern Britain.

It was as the New Testament church grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire that Christianity’s counter cultural message of love for the poor began to change societies.  As Blaikie says: ‘In the course of time, barbarous sports disappeared; slavery was abolished or greatly modified; laws that bore hard on the weaker sex were amended; the care of the poor became one of the great lessons of the Church.’  This is not to say that the church did not frequently go wrong.  Often the methods of showing love became exaggerated and distorted.  The alms giving in the mediaeval church became more about the abuse of power than equipping the poor to become self-reliant.   The reformation was a great return to Biblical Christianity and while it was a time of great conflict it also saw a return to Biblical philanthropy and care for the poor.  It encouraged education and saw the start of schools, colleges and universities.  The Bible was not only given to the common man but he was also taught how to read it.  This why William Tyndale became a hunted terrorist.  His English New Testament was a threat because it challenged the power of a corrupt church.

So far so good.  Even the most cynical atheist would surely acknowledge that Christian philanthropy has done great good.  But let’s be honest, there have been many inspiring philanthropists who haven’t had an ounce of love for God.  It is wonderful to read of philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie building libraries, donating ornate organs and building palaces of peace.  My family home in Sutherland has many monuments to the generosity of Carnegie.  We celebrate every effort that is made to relieve the poor and change society for the better whether in Christs name or not.  Nobody can deny that many charities have sprung up with little or no Christian inspiration.  But history shows us that all too often the greatest social reformers have been compelled by a zeal for God that leads to an enduring love for his neighbour.  They inspire followers who, if not always sharing in their theology, agree with their goals and are willing to follow their example.  Often secular philanthropists (such as Carnegie) are blessed with great fortunes and influence but it takes an exceptional love to persevere in championing the poor without wealth or power.  It is one thing for an inspiring political leader to rise up but unless it is underpinned with the theology of Christian compassion, how long will it last?

Dr Thomas Guthrie
Men like Thomas Guthrie and William Wilberforce inspired a movement rooted firmly in Micah 6 v 8.  They called the church and nation to love justice, show mercy and walk humbly with the God of the Bible.  They wrote, they spoke, they preached, they persuaded and they campaigned for change to the way the poor were treated.  The work went on long after they were dead.  Their work changed whole communities, changed laws and changed the direction of our nation.  When Guthrie died in 1873 not only was education about to be offered to all, but thanks to Christian social reformers children were finally being offered protection and care instead of exploitation.  Men like Guthrie and Wilberforce were hated and opposed because they challenged the powerful vested interests in the alcohol and slave industry respectively.  But through all the challenges, they had an unquenchable hope in the redeeming gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  A hope that the most visionary and noble secularist can’t offer.  This is why secularism soon turns to pessimism.  As Blaikie says;

Secularism may try to keep up its spirits, it may imagine a happy future, it may revel in a dream of a golden age.  But as it builds its castle in the air, its neighbour, Pessimism, will make short and rude work of the flimsy edifice.  Say what you will, and do what you may, says Pessimism, the ship is drifting inevitably on the rocks.  Your dream that one day selfishness will be overcome, are the phantoms of a misguided imagination; your notion that abundance of light is all that is needed to cure the evils of society, is like the fancy of keeping back the Atlantic with a mop.  If you really understood the problem, you would see that the moral disorder of the world is infinitely too deep for any human remedy to remove it; and, since we know of no other, there is nothing for us but to flounder on from one blunder to another, and from one crime to another, till mankind works out its own extinction; or, happy catastrophe! The globe on which we dwell is shattered by collision with some other planet, or drawn into the furnace of the sin.

It is the Christian gospel that has been the great agent of change in human history.  Has the church at times been corrupt?  Absolutely.  Has it at times disregarded the poor and even abused them.  Unfortunately, it has.  But what has been the fruit of the revival of true Christianity?  It has always been love, particularly for the poor.  The spirit of self-seeking is supplanted by the spirit of service and love.  Vice is replaced by virtue.  When men love God in sincerity, they will love their neighbour, particularly the poor and the outcast.  The church at its best lives by that early ‘mission statement’ in James 1 v 27 ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.’  As Thomas Guthrie said about the kind of Christianity that brings transformation to communities;

We want a religion that, not dressed for Sundays and walking on stilts, descends into common and everyday life; is friendly, not selfish; courteous, not boorish; generous, not miserly; sanctified, not sour; that loves justice more than gain; and fears God more than man; to quote another's words - "a religion that keeps husbands from being spiteful, or wives fretful; that keeps mothers patient, and children pleasant; that bears heavily not only on the 'exceeding sinfulness of sin,' but on the exceeding rascality of lying and stealing; that banishes small measures from counters, sand from sugar, and water from milk-cans - the faith, in short, whose root is in Christ, and whose fruit is works.

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William Wilberforce

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The Eclipse of the Fear of God by Rev J.J.Murray

It is now over sixty years since Professor John Murray, in his 1955 Peyton Lectures, later published in Principles of Conduct (IVP, London, 1957), spoke of the 'eclipse of the fear of God'. It was such he said that 'we have become reluctant to distinguish the earnest and consistent believer as God-fearing'. If that was characteristic of the situation then, how much more so is it true of the present time? Professor Murray was a great admirer of Hugh Martin, the 19th century Scottish divine, who observes in his classic work, The Shadow of Calvary (1875, Banner reprint 1983): 'I have no personal religion save as I fear God sincerely and supremely', claiming that  'Fear is the first principle of all piety.' Perhaps it is time for us to examine again what is the mark of the true people of God.

1 It is the fear of God that is exercised by angels and unfallen man

Professor Murray says of the fear of God: 'It is the reflex in our consciousness of the transcendent majesty and holiness of God. It belongs to all created rational beings and does not take its origin from sin.'  He gives as an example in the adoration of the angelic host in Isaiah's vision (Isa 6.1-8). The seraphim are overwhelmed with awe and reverence before the manifestation of God's transcendent holiness. Unlike the prophet Isaiah, however, there is no shame because of sin. It is true that a fear of incurring the displeasure of the Almighty is a motive in the ministry of angels. It is also a fact that our first parents had the true fear of God before the Fall, for they were created in the image of God (Gen 1.27, 2.9-11). The fear of God was supremely manifested in the perfect humanity of Jesus. His whole life was governed by the fear of the Lord, and it was that fear that controlled his obedience even unto death (Heb 5.7). It was said of Him in prophecy: 'And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord' (Isa 11.2-3).

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Professor John Murray  (14 October 1898 – 8 May 1975), Westminster Theological Seminary

2 It is the fear of God that will make us flee to Jesus Christ

The God-consciousness produced in the fallen human heart can only, in the first instance, lead us to be afraid of God and His punitive judgments. We can see this in the reaction of the prophet Isaiah, compared to that of the seraphim. The sinner had to cry: 'Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts' (Isa 6.5). After the Fall, we find that 'Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden'. The impulse was to hide from the 'face' of God, which they had previously beheld. We are told in the Book of Revelation that there is a day coming when the mighty ones of the earth will call on the mountains and rocks to fall on them to hide them from 'the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb' (Rev 6.15-17). In contrast with this when the redeemed are gathered home 'they shall see his face'. (Rev 22.4).

In the case of Adam his newly acquired dread of the presence of God was the reaction of his consciousness to the rupture which sin had effected in the relationship. Murray asks: 'Is it proper to be afraid of God? And answers: 'The only proper answer is that it is the essence of impeity not to be afraid of God when there is reason to be afraid'.  Wherever this consciousness is awakened in a sinner at any time he is constrained to cry out, What must I do? How can I stand before a holy God? How can God's anger be quenched?  From the time that God intervened to give the first Gospel promise of 'the Seed of the Woman' (Gen 3.15), the only acceptable way for sinners to approach God was through a God-appointed sacrifice. We see it in Abel's offering being accepted by God and therefore his person, while Cain was rejected  (Gen 4.3-5). A propitiation has been graciously provided and when received by faith there is reconciliation and restored fellowship with God. 'There is forgiveness with thee that thou mayest be feared' (Psalm 130.4)

3 It is the fear of God that will make us seek purity of life

Scripture leaves us in no doubt that the beginning of  knowledge and of wisdom comes from the fear of God. (Prov 1.7, Prov 9.10, Psa 111.10). In that true knowledge of God we are delivered from the fear of terror but retain the fear of reverence and obedience. The Psalmist could say: 'My flesh trembleth for fear of thee'  (Ps 119.120). Many professing Christians today think that such fear belongs to Old Testament times and that the New Testament rises above that which was represented   before the coming of Christ. Nothing could be further from the truth. To quote Murray again: 'The church walks in the fear of the Lord because the Spirit of Christ indwells, fills, directs and rests upon the church and the Spirit of Christ is the Spirit of the fear of the Lord'. (Principles of Conduct, p 230).

The saint of God is not free from sin. He knows that his sin is displeasing to God and is sensitive to the demands of holiness. He takes heed to the words of Paul: 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.' (Phil 2.12-13). He is ready to pass the time of his sojourning here in fear. (I Pet 1.17). The highest reaches of sanctification are realised only in the fear of God (2 Cor 7.1).  Says John Calvin, 'The fear of God is the root and origin of all righteousness'. 'The fear of the Lord is clean enduring for ever'  (Psa 19.9). The most practical of mundane duties derive their inspiration and impetus from the fear of God, as we find in Ephesians 5.21 and 6.5, Colossians 3.22 and 1 Peter 2.18.

4 It is the fear of God that will help us overcome other fears

In the early stages of the Christian life there is often a battle to overcome slavish fear and nurture filial fear. John Bunyan points to the devil as the author of servile fear. The word servile comes from the Latin servus which means  'slave', while filial is from filius, meaning 'son'.  We are to have the loving fear of an adopted son to His Father. (Rom 8.15). 'The filial fear of God is most prevalent when the heart is impressed with a lively sense of the love of God manifested in Christ'  (A Treatise on the Fear of God, Bunyan Works, vol 1,  p 483). 'Perfect love casts out fear ', that is, the fear of terror (1 John 4.18). 'The fear of the Lord was a lovely grace in the perfect humanity of Jesus. Let it be the test of our "predestination to be conformed to his image".' (Sinclair Ferguson).

It will also helps us overcome the fear of man. 'We fear men so much because we fear God so little,'  said William Gurnall. 'The fear of man bringeth a snare' (Prov 29.25). There are so many encouragements given us to overcome that fear. God called on Joshua to  'Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed; for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest' (Josh1.9).  'Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God (Isa 41.10). Alex Motyer says: 'The command to abjure fear is based on the divine presence ..and divine personal commitment.' Jesus assures his followers: 'Fear not, little flock: for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.' (Luke 12.32). Hugh Martin exhorts:  'Beware of ungodly fears. The fear of man bringeth a snare.   Full half of the lies that are uttered in the earth are dictated by ungodly fear; and full half of the deeds of unrighteousness are prompted by some ungodly fear. Men will not fear God, and therefore they must frequently be at the mercy of ungodly fear'. (Shadow of Calvary, 219).

'Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man' (Eccl 12.13).

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Christ is King

This is a guest blog from Catriona Murray the excellent blogger of Post Tenebras Lux.

The Wee Frees have a reputation for schism. Put two Wee Frees in a room and they will splinter into three new denominations. We’ve heard all the wisecracks and, as you might expect, we’re not laughing. No, not because we are dour, joyless Calvinists, but because it is not a completely fair representation.  True, there have been unedifying, pointless spats among the brethren which do little to show the world a good example of Christians dwelling in unity. We might all do well to think about that. There is little point in being a light set on a hill if we’re going to flicker on and off, sending as much shadow over the countryside as we do light.

However, the Disruption of 1843 has to be viewed in an entirely different context. Like all great historical events, it has much to teach us and enjoys a resurgence in relevance every now and then. For the members of the Free Church, it should be a touchstone anyway – where have we come from, what are we about, what are we? The Disruption was not really schism at all: it was a protest against the Kirk’s continued departure from the Establishment Principle. In creating a new denomination, the Evangelicals who walked out of the Kirk were actually doing the only thing they could in order to maintain that Principle, which states that both the church and state are under God’s jurisdiction and must have mutual respect.

Creating a new national church was probably the only thing they could have done. Thomas Chalmers was quite clear about the motive:  

‘We quit a vitiated Establishment but would rejoice in returning to a pure one. We are advocates for a national recognition of religion . . .’

So, responsible Wee Frees have to give some consideration to this foundational principle. It is getting increasingly difficult in a country which seems to grow more secular with each passing day. Even in Lewis, still labelled by some as ‘the last stronghold of the pure gospel’, the right of the church – or even individual Christians – to have a voice in the affairs of state is constantly challenged by a self-styled ‘silent majority’ of secularists. The fact that they are far from silent and not remotely in the majority need not interfere with a good line. Many of those who were opposed to their campaign simply said, ‘it’s not what they’re wanting, it’s the way they’re going about getting it’.

Negative campaigning does not go down well in a society like ours. I am the veteran of many parliamentary campaigns in the Western Isles and saw the Labour Party fall victim to that mistake repeatedly. No one wants to hear what you’re against – tell them instead what you are for.

Although I am a member of the SNP, I find it hard to reconcile some of what the party advocates at a national level with my faith. I think the party has taken the country down unbiblical routes and I have struggled with this in terms of my support. There are some Christians I know who cannot stand to hear the SNP mentioned. This is understandable, but I think that it’s also worth noting that a lot of liberalisation of policy was inevitable under a government of any hue. After all, which party has taken a stand against the steady erosion of traditional values?

Another objection to the SNP that I have heard from many Christians is that an independent Scotland would be a wholly secular state. That might very well be the case, but it is not much of an argument against independence - -after all, we are already living in a secular Britain. Oh yes, we are. There may be a vicar’s daughter in number 10, but that hasn’t stopped the political arena from being utterly hostile to Christianity. Tim Farron has been hounded and harassed for his views on sin (by a media pack that thinks sin is a myth on behalf of an audience which largely agrees) to the point where he can no longer continue as leader of his party.

There are countries in the world where Christians are persecuted and killed for their faith; this is not yet one of them. However, let’s not fool ourselves that there is freedom of speech either, or freedom of conscience: certainly not for Christians. If a bakery refuses to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, they are labelled ‘bigots’, despite the fact that they are being asked to go against their beliefs. Where is the freedom in that, or the parity?

Wee Frees like myself, by virtue of living in Scotland, are called upon to make frequent trips to the ballot box, so we’d better get a grip on our political consciences and reconcile them to our Christianity. We can do no better than head back to our roots, and our first Moderator. Although he was a political economist, Thomas Chalmers did not see government as the seat of all wisdom on how a country should be run. For the moral compass, he believed that the direction should come from the people themselves, and from their church.

Chalmers’ church had Christ as its head; He rules there still and no election can unseat Him. If we take our concerns to Him, praying for those we elect and praying for wisdom before voting, then who is to say that we will not yet see a halt called to the march of secularism in our land? Decline is not inevitable as long as revival is possible – and revival is possible as long as Christ is King. 

The Disruption painting.