Monday, August 31, 2009

Trading and Thriving in Godliness

Trading and Thriving in Godliness: The Piety of George Swinnock,
edited by J Stephen Yuille, published by Reformation Heritage Books,
in their Profiles in Reformed Spirituality series, paperback, 235
pages, £6.95 from the F P Bookroom.

George Swinnock is not a well-known Puritan; indeed little is known
about his life, but his writings speak for themselves in distilling
the essence of the Puritan concern for practical godliness. In a brief
introduction, Yuille notes Swinnock's constant emphasis that the fear
of God is central to the right understanding of godliness. Fifty
judicious selections from Swinnock's writings have been arranged under
seven sections: the foundation of godliness (the character of God),
the door to godliness (regeneration), the value of godliness, the
pursuit of godliness, the nature of godliness, the means to godliness
and the motives to godliness.

In commending the necessity, beauty and primacy of godliness, Swinnock
maintains that it is the business of life. It is the Christian's trade
and they must be as diligent in it as any tradesman. "Every moment
must be devoted to God; and as all seasons, so all actions must be
sacred". He shows how "godliness is profitable unto all things" (1 Tim
4:8), that is, in all conditions, relations, duties and in both
worlds. He also shows what it means to "exercise thyself unto
godliness" (1 Tim 4:7). His application of these things to the home,
the workplace, the conditions of prosperity and adversity are very
appropriate and carry a faithful rebuke.

This Puritan has a facility for vivid illustration and is easily read.
The book makes an excellent introduction to the Puritans, and we would
commend it particularly to the young as an attractive exposition of
the truth that "godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Tim 6:6).
"This indeed is the true life, all other but the shadow of living".

published at

Saturday, August 29, 2009

considering our praise

'The praises of the Lord, being well considered, will yield continually new matter, and fresh delight in the work'

'There is no exercise whereunto we have more need to be stirred up, than to praise; such is our dulness, and such is the excellency and necessity of the work' David Dickson.

Man's chief end is to glorify God. To praise God is to declare His glory; this is the highest activity on earth of which we are capable. The book of Psalms concludes with these words, 'Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord' (Ps. 150:6). The godly Scottish divine John Willison writes: 'God made man the tongue of the creation, to trumpet forth aloud what the rest of the creation do but silently whisper'.

Praise is also the continual exercise of those in heaven where they behold his glory immediately. John Willison writes that praise 'is the eternal work of heaven, the music of saints and angels there, (Rev. 5:9-11; 15:3). And what are church-assemblies here, but the place of our apprenticeship and preparation for heaven? I know nothing in the world that more resembles heaven, than a company of God's people harmoniously singing his praises "with grace in their hearts, making melody to the Lord" for then the soul rejoiceth in divine goodness, meditates on divine promise, extols divine excellencies, and mounts up to God in acts of faith and love. Let us then make conscience of this heavenly duty in the public assemblies, and perform it with heart and tongue; for were it not a proper exercise, God would not honour it to be the only work of heaven, to the exclusion of prayer, repentance, reading, hearing, communicating, etc.'

We can sum these things up in the words of the Puritan Thomas Ford (member of the Westminster Assembly). 'To praise God, and bless his name, is the highest and most excellent service we can do on earth; it comes nearest to the exercise of the saints in heaven, who are always praising God in the admiration of his infinite and incomprehensible glory'. Elsewhere he says, 'I believe that godly men (who are such indeed) have scarcely seen more of God in any exercise than in this. To my thinking, there is not a more lively resemblance of heaven upon earth than a
company of godly Christians singing a psalm together'.

Praise is one of the parts of religious worship, it consists of singing psalms to God with grace in the heart. God is the focus of all our praise: 'whoso offereth praise glorifieth me' (Ps. 50:23; Ps. 109:1). We must not only 'praise him for his mighty acts', done for us but 'praise him according to his excellent greatness', for what He is in Himself, His glory and perfections. God, to whom all praise alone is due commands that we praise Him, 'Praise ye the Lord' (Ps. 147:1). He commands this duty frequently and even four times within one verse. 'God is gone up with a shout; sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises unto our King, sing praises' (Ps. 47:6).

God also prescribes the type of praise that is worthy of His name and how we must engage in it. We are limited to the commandments of the Word of God in the exercise of praise. The Lord Jesus Christ regards that as vain or empty worship which is instructed by the commandments of men, 'in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men' (Matt. 15:9). He has instructed His Church only to teach to observe all things that He has commanded (Matt. 28:20). The Apostle Paul defines 'will worship' as that which is 'after the commandments and doctrines of men' (Col 2:22-23). In the praise of God, we are confined to singing the psalms of the Old Testament which only are commanded in Scripture without the accompaniment of musical instruments (since these are not commanded in the New Testament).

Friday, August 21, 2009

the Lord's Supper in Scottish Presbyterianism

This book review is posted at
The Lord's Supper
Malcolm Maclean

272pp paperback
Isbn 13: 9781845504281 £10.99, 2009 Christian Focus Publications Mentor

This book has definite value in its thorough treatment of the theology and practice of the Lord's Supper in Scottish Presbyterianism. This part of the book begins with a good treatment of the Reformed understanding of the Lord's Supper. There follows an account of the way that Communion seasons developed in the Lowlands from the time of the Reformation. The theology of the Lord's Supper in the Lowlands is outlined using the Scots Confession and Westminster Confession and a range of authors such as James Durham, Robert Bruce, Thomas Boston, John Willison and John Brown of Haddington. Several other less well known authors are introduced. This is a very helpful section which traces common emphases and notes practical instruction. The practice of the Lord's Supper in the Highlands is then taken up. There is undoubtedly a distinctiveness to Highland communion seasons but in reality the elements were all present in Lowland communion seasons also. Even the fellowship meeting is only a more formalised version of Lowland precedent. Rather than a chapter on the Highland theology of the Lord's Supper as one might expect, the chapter that follows is called Features of Highland Communion seasons. This is disappointing because there is sufficient material in John Kennedy of Dingwall's writing to follow this out. We believe that there was a distinctive theological contribution to the understanding of the sacraments in the
way that Kennedy explains the different nature, purpose and meaning of the two sacraments.

While certain features of the Highland practice are commended as positive, this section is more critical than the chapter on the Lowlands of various aspects. The substance of this is the lack of assurance found among Highland Christians. He focuses upon Kennedy's discussion of this in the Days of the Fathers in Rosshire and notes that Kennedy's doctrine of assurance is entirely the same as that of the Westminster Confession. Kennedy connected the issue of assurance to the fact that in the Lowlands the same requirements applied to those receiving either sacrament whilst there was a difference in the Highlands. We do not feel that this section is conclusive in dealing with this complex subject. Maclean says that Kennedy does not acknowledge that both views might be wrong but it is not quite clear what other views are possible in the context of the Westminster doctrine of the sacraments. Maclean then notes the decline in the communion season in the Highlands which is really the same as marking the decline in Highland presbyterianism. He seems to feel that the loss is not significant and that such seasons cannot be sustained due to changes in society. He then wishes to contextualise rather than preserve certain aspects of the Highland communion season.

We have focussed on the substance of the book in order to commend it. There is, however, some other material surrounding it. An introductory section gives a brief overview of the passages that deal with the Lord's Supper in the New Testament. The chapters which follow the historical study deal with miscellaneous practical and theological aspects of the Lord's Supper today such as pastoral and personal preparation, liturgy, the role of the Holy Spirit and the Lord's Supper and children (where a fuller rebuttal of paedocommunion would have been helpful). Some of these sections are rather brief to do the subject justice. The historical treatment accounts for 70% of the substance of the book and we wonder whether it would have been better to focus upon this alone which might have avoided a little unevenness. More space could then have been given to the historical study and appropriate observations.

Malcolm Maclean is very candid about the views and experience that he brings to the writing of this book. 'This book is an expression of my search for my spiritual roots'. He refers to his upbringing in Inverness Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. 'I can still recall the sense of reverence for God and the awareness of his presence that characterised the occasions when the Lord's Supper was held in the congregation that my parents attended when I was young'. He describes the fact that the way these occasions were conducted 'was in line with the traditional practices associated with Scottish Highland communion seasons'. He was converted, however, through the witness of the Brethren and became a member in their Assembly. This brought an entirely different practice of the Lord's Supper. Maclean feels that there is a tendency to shift the focus from Christ to the believer in our approach to the Supper. This of course must never happen. There is a danger, however, that those who perceive a distraction from Christ in thorough, genuine and scriptural self-examination may, in seeking to redress this, undermine true communion with Christ. As the Song of Solomon shows, the communion between Christ and His Church consists in and depends upon seeking the exercise of grace in the means of grace through Christ and His Spirit.

While these observations are necessary, the book is extremely valuable in the diligent historical review it presents, especially in bringing new sources and material into view. It is vital that we have the right understanding and approach to the Lord's Supper and, in highlighting the theology and practice of Scottish Presbyterianism, this book helps us toward that.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

meditation and prayer

The Puritans wrote much on both meditation and prayer separately, but they always emphasised that both are mutually indispensible.

What is meditation?
Meditation is “a holy exercise of the mind whereby we bring the truths of God to remembrance, and do seriously ponder upon them and apply them to ourselves.” - Thomas Watson

How are meditation and prayer joined to each other?"There is a meditation that is holy and godly, and that is when we meditate upon things that are holy and heavenly; and of this nature was the meditation of Isaac, he went out into the field to meditate on the works of God, and of the blessings and mercies of God; to meditate upon the Heavenly Canaan, and upon his sins; and this appears, because the Hebrew word that is here used for meditation, that is here translated meditation, doth also signifie to pray; and therefore it is in your margent, And Isaac went out to pray at eventide. It was a Religious work that Isaac went out about; and you must know that Prayer and Meditation are very well joined together; Meditation is a preparation to Prayer, and Prayer is a fit close for Meditation; and Isaac went out to meditate, to pray and to meditate, and to meditate and pray." - Edmund Calamy

How are they mutually indispensible?
“Meditation is the best beginning of prayer, and prayer is the best conclusion of meditation,” - George Swinnock.

"For as Mr. Greenham saith well, Reading without Meditation, is unfruitful; Meditation without Reading, is hurtful; To meditate and to read without prayer upon both, is without blessing.

If you do read and not meditate, then you will want good affections. If you meditate, and not read or hear, you will want good Judgement, and be apt to fall into some ill Opinions.

If you do read, or hear, or meditate, and not pray, you will want the blessing of the Lord upon both: Read, or hear first; then meditate; and then pray upon both. I speak of settled meditation, and let one be proportioned unto another. There must be a proportion between the one and the other, in a settled meditation; and therefore if that you would meditate rightly, I say in all your meditations, begin with reading, go on with meditation, and end with prayer". - William Bridge

How does meditation relate to both prayer and reading?
“Meditation is a middle sort of duty between the word and prayer, and hath respect to
both. The word feedeth meditation , and meditation feedeth prayer; we must hear that we be not erroneous, and meditate that we be not barren. These duties must always go hand in hand; meditation must follow hearing and precede prayer.” - Thomas Manton

How do prayer and meditation differ?
"They are often confounded in name, but inseparably linked in nature going hand and hand together; and can no more be severed, than two twins, who live and die together; only in prayer we confer and commune more directly with God by petition and thanksgiving; in meditation we talk and confer more directly and properly with ourselves and our own souls". - John Ball

What happens if we neglect meditation?
"Take away Meditation, and the duties of religion lose their life and vigor; prayer
is cold, reading unprofitable; think daily with thy self what great honor it is to be the son of God, what unspeakable joy to possess assurance that our sins are pardoned, how unvaluable a prerogative to lay open thy cares into the bosom of the Lord; persuade thyself of his readiness to hear, mercies to forgive, and compassions to relieve them that ask in his Son’s name. These things will stir up intention fervency in prayer; with what sighs and groans will he confess and bewail his iniquity who with a single eye doth behold the filthiness of sin and look into his own estate? But lay aside Meditation, and all is turned into form, comes to be of little use. For the appetite will decay if it be not sharpened; desire will cool if it be not quickened." - John Ball

Can meditation and prayer help us against temptation?
"we cannot be ignorant of this, that the old subtle fowler lets his snares and nets so thick in our way, that we have no shift but to fall into them, and light upon them, except with wings of meditation and prayer we mount up on high above them, and fly over them" - John Ball

How does meditation become the subject of prayer?
“Pray over your meditations. Prayer sanctifies every thing; without prayer they are but unhallowed meditations; prayer fastens meditation upon the soul; prayer is a tying a knot at the end of meditation that it doth not slip; pray that God will keep those holy meditations in your mind for ever, that the savour of them may abide
upon your hearts.” - Thomas Watson

"Never pray but let Meditation track thy prayer: this passage was right,that passage was amiss". - William Fenner

What sort of petitions can we use to help meditation by prayer?
"The matter or form of our prayer must be this, or such like, Oh Lord, it hath pleased thee to give me a mind ready, and desirous to perform this holy duty (for which I humbly thank thy heavenly majesty) I beseech thee by thy Holy Spirit to assist me therein, that I may bring the same to a profit and comfortable issue. Thou hast charged me, Oh Lord, to seek thy face, that is, thy blessed and holy presence.
Let my soul answer and say with thy faithful servant, Lord, I will seek thy face; Oh cause the light of thy face to shine upon me, enlighten my understanding, strengthen my memory, and sanctify my will and affections; withhold my ranging and truant-like heart, from all trifling fantasties, deceitful dreams, vain hopes, carnal fears, and worldly cares, wherewith it is naturally and customarily entangled, keep it unto thyself, and unto thy laws, that it may wholly delight and solace itself in thee, and grant that this point that I now go about to think upon, may be so settled in my memory, and rooted in my heart, that I may reap the fruit thereof all my life long, to thy glory, and upon my own comfort, and salvation, through Jesus Christ". - John Ball

Monday, August 03, 2009

Did Samson commit suicide?

Unfortunately one comes across those who foolishly assert that Samson committed suicide. This is impossible since Hebrews 11:34 tells us that he did this action in faith "out of weakness were made strong". This cannot be a reference to any other than Samson since he is also mentioned by name. Did God answer a prayer of one who desired to commit suicide? He could not have done this without a superhuman action. Samson was a type of Christ, eminently in his death. His death slew his enemies. No mere man in his own strength without divine upholding could have endured what Christ endured. Samson bowed himself in his full strength and gave up the ghost - this is what Christ did also. Thomas Ridgeley answers this in the following