May 5, 2010

We are apt to think, if we had but such a minister among us-how much good would be done!

The design of God in all his works of creation, providence, and grace—is to advance and secure the glory of his own name; and, therefore, though he makes use of secondary causes as the instruments of his operations, yet their efficacy depends upon his superintending influence. It is his hand that sustains the great chain of causes and effects, and his agency pervades and animates the worlds of nature and of grace.

The agency of his Holy Spirit is as necessary to fructify the Word, and make it the seed of conversion, as the influences of heaven are to fructify the earth and promote vegetation! A zealous Paul may plant the Word, and an eloquent Apollos may water it; one may attempt to convert sinners to Christianity, and the other to build them up in faith—but they are both nothing, as to the success of their labors—unless God gives the increase! That is, unless he affords the influence of his grace to render their attempts successful in begetting and nourishing living religion in the hearts of men.

We are apt to think, if we had but such a minister among us—how much good would be done! It is true, that faithful and accomplished ministers are singular blessings to the places where they labor, because it is by their instrumentality that the Lord is accustomed to work: but still let us remember, that even a Paul or an Apollos are nothing, unless the Lord gives the increase.

One text of Scripture, one verse, will do more execution, when enforced by divine energy, than all the labors of the ablest ministers upon earth without it! For this divine energy therefore let us look; for this let us cry, "Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the LORD!"

When we depend upon the instruments, we provoke the Spirit of God to leave us! If we are fond of taking ministers in his stead, we shall make the trial, until both they and we wither away for lack of divine influences. This provokes the blessed Spirit to blast the gifts of his ministers, to allow them to fall into sin, or to remove them out of the way—when they are set up as his rivals—that their idolaters may see they are but men. This provokes him to leave the hearers fruitless under the best cultivations, until experience sadly convinces them that they can do nothing without him! Therefore let not ministers trust in their own abilities—nor people in their labors; but all must trust only in the Lord.

That we should ascribe all the success of the gospel to God alone, and not sacrilegiously divide the honor of it between him and the instruments of it, or between him and ourselves, the ministers of Christ are ready to answer you, in the language of Peter. "If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed!" Acts 4:9, 10. Why do you look so earnestly upon us—as if by our own power or holiness we have done this? chapter 3:12. It was a very shocking compliment to them—to be accounted the authors of your faith.

Good ministers love to be humble, to be in their proper sphere, and would have God to have all the glory, as the great efficient cause; and when we ascribe the work of God to the instrument, we provoke him to withdraw his influence, that we may be convinced of the mistake.

Let us also take care that we do not assume the honor of the work to ourselves. Alas! we had no hand in it—but opposed it with all our might; and, therefore, "Not to us, O LORD, not to us—but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness!" Psalm 115:1. The Lord has done great things for us in this place, for which we are glad. One can name one person, and another another person, as his spiritual father, or the helper of his faith; but still remember, these only planted or watered; but it was God who gave the increase; and therefore to him alone ascribe the praise for his own work!

To read the entire sermon click HERE

The Success of the Ministry of the Gospel, Owing to a Divine Influence
Samuel Davies, November 19, 1757

May 4, 2010

On Apostasy

Dr. David P. Murray, Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan writes:

What would you say to a church where two of its most promising young “Christians” had not only left the faith but had turned against it with mockery and hostility? That’s the very real scenario I was asked to address recently at a small gathering of pastors and elders. It is undoubtedly one of the most agonizing and disturbing experiences in the Christian life when a dear friend or family member, abandons his/her profession of faith. I’ve known this very personally and painfully, both among my relations and in my pastoral ministry.

I was asked to give some guidance to these pastors and elders on how to deal with such situations in their own congregations. I assumed that every attempt had been made to recover the lost “sheep,” and that the members had been excommunicated. So my advice was really limited to how to minister to the hurting and puzzled sheep who remain. Leaning heavily on John Owen’s epic work on apostasy, I suggested a series of sermons on the following themes (the same subjects should also be emphasized in pastoral visitation).

1. The perseverance of the saints

Some Christians will be shaken by the apostasy of another professing Christian. “If he can fall then what hope is there for me?” So, preach God’s great promises of eternal security to His true people (John 6:39, 40; 10:28, 29).

2. Apostasy is to be expected

This should really be preached before apostasy occurs, to prevent people being taken by surprise when it does happen. The whole Old Testament is a story of Israel’s apostasy. In the New Testament, we have individual apostates such as Judas and Demas. Some in Corinth denied the resurrection, and some in Galatia went back to the law as a way of salvation. No wonder the Apostles urged the churches to expect apostasy (Acts 20:29-30; 1 Cor. 11:19; 1 Tim. 4:1; 5:8; Jude; 1 John 2:19).

3. The danger areas of apostasy

John Owen highlighted three areas in which apostasy usually begins: doctrine, lifestyle, and worship.

Owen traced doctrinal apostasy to a lack of Christian experience. He said that when someone has no experience of personal need, no sense of God’s righteousness, no spiritual sight of Christ’s glory, no submission to the sovereignty of God, and no trembling at God’s Word, then doctrinal apostasy is just around the corner.

Owen actually regarded an unholy lifestyle as more likely to produce apostasy than abandoning some Christian doctrines. He saw both legalism and lawlessness as leading eventually to apostasy.

Owen also argued that if we neglect, refuse to observe, or add to God’s instructions for worship, apostasy will not be far behind.
Pastors should highlight these three danger areas of doctrine, lifestyle, and worship, and urge watchfulness upon the flock.

4. The causes of apostasy

Owen went on to list particular causes of apostasy, so that pastors and their congregations will “watch and pray.”

-Deeply-rooted and unremoved enmity in the minds of many against spiritual things

-Pride and vanity of the mind which refuses to bow before the authority of Scripture

-Sloth and negligence

-False assurance and groundless self-confidence

-False sense of security due to neglect of the Spirit’s warnings about apostasy

-Love of the world and its passing pleasures (Demas in 2 Tim. 4:10)

As the first “apostate” Satan draws many into apostasy and forces others to apostatize through persecution

-Persons in high positions in the church leading evil lives (Jer. 23:15; 1 Sam. 2:12-17)

-Unrepented national sins that influence the people

-Divisions in the church

-The uselessness of many Christians

5. The distinction between a stumble (Peter) and a fall (Judas)Pastors need to skillfully distinguish between a Christian’s stumble and an apostate’s fall. Every Christian errs in doctrine, falls into sin, and offers faulty worship from time to time. That does not make them an apostate. Owen defined apostasy as “continued persistent rebellion and disobedience to God and his word,” or “total and final and public renunciation of all the chief principles and doctrines of Christianity.”

6. The abomination of apostasy

Hebrews 6 describes apostasy as “crucifying again the Son of God and putting him to an open shame.” By declaring they have tried Christ and His Gospel and found no truth or goodness in them, apostates do exactly what the Jews did. In fact, Owen says Christian apostasy is worse because the Jews did it in “ignorance.”

7. God’s judgment on apostasy

In addition to reminding the professing Christians in the congregation of how abominable apostasy is in God’s sight, they also need to be shown from Scripture the temporal, spiritual, and eternal judgments that fall on apostates. God uses His descriptions of how he abominates and judges apostasy as a means of grace to keep people from apostasy.

8. The need for perseverance

God’s great promises of the perseverance of the saints are given to those who persevere in the means of preservation that God has provided. Christians need to be reminded of the incalculable need and value of the Church, the Word, the sacraments, and fellowship.

9. How to avoid apostasy

John Owen wanted Christians to know that apostasy could be avoided by heart-cure and heart-care (Prov. 4:23). Keep the Gospel at the very center of our hearts; love its truth and experience its power there. Keep sin out of our hearts, especially the highly-dangerous sins of spiritual pride and a censorious, judgmental spirit.

Conclusion

When apostasy occurs in a congregation, it is often tempting to ignore it and put up the “business as usual” sign. However, this does not address the deep needs of Christians and non-Christians who are hurt and perplexed by such events. It also misses the opportunity to prepare the church for future disappointments. So, I would encourage pastors and elders to focus on these nine themes, both in public and in private.