An old stone church

We worshipped in an old stone church while on holidays. I admit that my prejudices were making me apprehensive. Old stone churches, to my mind, often mean churches where human traditions trump the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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But I was very pleased to have my prejudices proved wrong in this case.

The Good News of Jesus was much in the forefront. The reality of human sinfulness and our great need for God’s grace in Christ were made clear from the text of the Bible.

More than this, a Psalm was sung — a real Psalm — not just a snippet pinched from a Psalm and repeated over and over again, nor a piece of a Psalm incorporated into a merely human composition. It was a complete Psalm — in a congregation of the Presbyterian Church of Australia! This is something I have grown NOT to expect from a church whose historic practice was (and whose continuing doctrinal position is) to sing Psalms in the public worship of God. The PCA had become to me almost an anti-Psalm church.

So this unexpected occurrence in a old stone church cheered me considerably.

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The public square

In pluralist democracies, ought Christians use their vote and whatever power of persuasion that they might possess to influence the character of society and its laws? This is an important matter to think about. Some people seem to argue that Christians who really trust Jesus  should let civil society go to (or stay with) the Devil and simply tell our neighbours, friends and enemies about Jesus in private conversation. To do otherwise, we are assured, is to use the force of law to oppress non-Christians.

It seems to me that Christians may engage politically as Christians to influence the direction of secular societies. The word ‘secular’, by the way, has nothing inherently atheistic about it. It simply refers to time and space – the here and now. Of course, the word’s extended use now includes the atheistic connotation, but there was a time when the church recognised ‘secular’ clergy – priests who were not monks attached to a religious order such as the Augustinians. Their job was to influence society rather than to hide from it. Whatever your view of priests and monks might be, our Lord Jesus urged his people to be in the world but not of it. I take this to mean that Christians must be engaged – as fully as our circumstances allow — in all the human activities of this world, and to do so as Christians. This includes attempting to influence public morality for the real good of people.

I suggest that the examples of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra support this view. These missionaries arrived at Lystra and presented the Gospel of Jesus to them. During this presentation, a lame man was healed. The people of Lystra utterly mistook the clear teachings of the apostles and intended to worship them as pagan gods (Acts 14: 11-18). The apostles were quite willing publicly to oppose the pagan worldview and to urge the people of Lystra to change their civic behaviour —  civil and religious behaviour was greatly intertwined in pagan society.

In fact the apostles made great and earnest arguments to prevent the people of Lystra from following their own ideas of worship and the good life. Paul told them directly that their religious behaviour was futile and wrong. He and Barnabas had come to turn them from “vain things”. Paul said that ‘in bygone generations [God] allowed all nations to walk in their own ways’ but now the gospel of Jesus has come. As he said in Acts 17 (after saying similar things about bygone generations), God now calls all people everywhere to repent (to change their thinking) as a day of judgement is coming.

It seems to me that Paul saw both belief and behaviour as things to be earnestly addressed in the public square and he made every effort to turn (by argument) people from the poor choices that they have made. Paganism was very accepting of multiple beliefs. You could believe whatever you wanted as long as you agreed that everyone else should believe whatever they wanted. Christianity cut across that worldview. Christianity asserts truth. Paul’s only weapons were arguments and truth statements about who Jesus is, what he has done, and what that means for us here and now and for the future.

Life in the secular ends with life in eternity. Eternal life will either be very good or very bad. If the Church does not make a clear public statement about human sin and does not identify what sin is in all its forms, then how will anyone see their need of the saviour which the Church is to proclaim? Our Lord Jesus made the sinful behaviour of church people clear as he spoke in synagogues, Paul made the sinful behaviour of pagans clear as he spoke in the streets of Greek cities. They both did this so that the offer of good news in Jesus would make sense. Jesus is the only remedy for our moral and spiritual failures.

(BTW, Paul did not have the vote, but he did have Roman citizenship, the force of which he was quite prepared to use on a number of occasions.)

Honour your father and mother

The religious leaders in Jesus’ day had decided that the moral commandments of God could and should be circumvented. Jesus disagreed. There certainly were some man-made rules that our Lord was indifferent about, such as ceremonial washing before meals, but he not only defended the righteousness of the law of God, but also urged obedience to it.

Let’s take the honouring of parents as an example. Some religious leaders had decided that this commandment was too burdensome so they had created an argument to allow people to avoid honouring their aged parents. If someone’s parents were in need of financial assistance, the children might dedicate  to the temple that portion of their money that might have been used to help their parents. The money then was regarded as off limits to the parents, and the money saved might one day get to the temple.

Jesus saw this for what it was. Setting aside the law of God. The religious leaders preferred their own rules in order to benefit those who were determined not to honour their parents. They had framed their outrage against God’s law in pious language, but Jesus saw it for what it was — unbelieving disobedience.

Our Lord quoted Isaiah the prophet against these religious leaders: ‘You honour me with your lips, but your heart is far from me.’ They would not honour God by teaching — and calling people to obey — the commandments of God. The message of Jesus was a gracious message of forgiveness on the basis of his own life, death and resurrection. His call to all people was, ‘Repent and believe the gospel.’ Repentance involves the conviction of sin. Sin is lawlessness.

The apostle Paul makes the same point in Romans 1. Those who are disobedient to parents are under the condemnation of God. So are those who encourage those who dishonour their parents. It is no use to say that we are born that way (the evidence seems to be that all except Jesus failed this one), or to say that disobedience to parents is natural and normal. God’s law condemns it and only Christ can rescue us from the just condemnation that is due to it.

Paul went further. He said that those who will not care for or honour their own parents (and, by implication, those who encourage people not to honour their parents) have denied the faith are are worse than unbelievers.

The good news is that God’s love in Christ brings real forgiveness to bad people. However, bad people like us must realise our badness before we can recognise that the news of the gospel is extraordinarily good. To set aside that moral law of God is to dishonour God and to disable the gospel of grace.

May God give repentance to religious leaders of our day who minimised the moral law of God. The moral law is a means that God uses to work conviction of sin in the hearts of sinners. May the reality of God’s just judgement on sin cause many to turn to Jesus Christ as our only hope of mercy.

1 John 2:9-11

The one who keeps saying that he is in the light yet keeps hating his brother is in darkness until now. The one who keeps loving his brother remains in the light and there is no offence in him. The one who keeps hating his brother is in darkness, and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

There are practical things that flow from trusting Jesus. One important thing is that we love our fellow Christians.

This is good indication that we are in the light. If we are Christians, we will love our fellow Christian.

Why is this a good indicator?

If anyone is regarded as a brother, that person says they trust Jesus Christ.

If someone trusts Jesus, that person has been

  • reconciled to God by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
  • loved by God with an everlasting love.
  • brought into the true light, and the work of Christ is true in him.

To be a Christian is to be in the light. To be in the light is to be in Christ.

Christians have fellowship with the Father and the Son simply because of God’s mercy to them.

If we keep on hating a person who has received the very same love from God as we claim, how can we really be in the light ourselves? How can people keep saying that they are Christians and still keep hating someone whom God loves for Jesus sake?

John says that if anyone hates his brother — fellow Christian — they are in darkness until now.

This means that such a person is not really a Christian and has all the basic motivations of a non-Christian. Such a person needs to be changed by God’s love in Christ. Such a person can be changed, and this is implied by the words “until now” or “up to this point in time”.

Haters of Christians are in darkness until now, but they might yet be brought to repentance and truly trust Jesus alone for salvation.

Remember what the risen Lord Jesus said to Saul as he travelled to Damascus? “Why are you persecuting me?”

Saul thought he was serving God, but he hated those whom God loved. He was in darkness. He thought that he was better than they, but God showed him his sin, converted him and brought him to trust Jesus Christ.

If one hates those whom God loves, such a person can be said to hate God. If any hate God, they are still in darkness. They are still in their sins and lost. They do not know where they are going.

John says a little later in this letter, (1 John 4:20) “If we do not love our brother whom we can see, how can we love God whom we cannot see?”

A sign that we are in Christ, that we are really Christians, is that we love Christians.

Our love for our brother ought not be in words only but also in the things we do. Such an attitude is free of offence.

This is where the 10 Commandments flow out from the gospel.

The 10 commandment show us love in action:

  • respecting the person and authority of people
  • preserving and seeking to improve the lives of people
  • maintaining the boundaries of marriage
  • promoting the prosperity of others
  • respecting the reputation of others
  • being happy for others who have good things that we don’t have.

Why should we do these things? Because God in Christ has done everything for sinners like us. In him alone can we have redemption and the forgiveness of sins.

To put it another way, as Jesus replied to Paul. “My grace is sufficient for you.”

God’s mercy to us in Christ is the reason why we are to love our fellow Christian.

Christ loved unlovely people like us, not only in words but in actions.

By his good life, his death in our place and his rising from the dead, he has saved sinners from condemnation. We also should love our brother in words and deeds

Are you in the light? Are you in Christ by faith, or do you still demonstrate your hatred of God by hating his children?

If you find that you have been walking in darkness until now, the gospel of Jesus Christ offers forgiveness.

Repent and come to the light. Understand that it is Christ alone who makes anyone acceptable to God.

If anyone is acceptable to God — loved by God — that person should be acceptable to and be loved by every other Christian:

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 2:7-8

John emphasised the written word. “I write to you.” In fact, John writes “I write to you,” twice in verses 7-11, and six times in verses 12-14.

This emphasis is throughout the Bible.

Christians are essentially people of a book, or a collection of books. It is from the Bible alone that we now receive the Gospel. John, Peter, Matthew, Paul and the others are in the presence of their Lord. We know truth about Jesus because of the things that they have written down.

The teachings of the early apostles and prophets come to us only in their writings. We are not to rely for information about Jesus on voices that we might hear in our heads. We are not to rely on oral traditions that are not already written down for us in the Bible. We are not to receive anything from people claiming to be new apostles with new revelations of the Spirit. We are not to submit blindly to mere human authority of any kind. We have God’s word written. This alone is our standard of faith and practice — from it alone do we learn what we are to believe and do as God’s people.

These thoughts prepare us to consider verses 7-8, where we are given something to believe.

“Brothers, I do not write to you a new commandment, but an old one, which you have possessed from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard from the beginning. Again, I do write to you a new commandment which (neuter) is true in him and in you.”

The commandment that John seeks to enforce here is not the 10 commandments. John had been referring to the 10 commandments in the previous verses, but now he is writing about something else.

An old commandment and a new commandment are one commandment. The commandment is the Gospel message. This is the word or message that John says Christians have heard from the beginning. 1 John 1:1-3 and John:12:50 — his commandment is eternal life.

Gospel is an imperative — a command. It reveals God’s will for our salvation in Christ Jesus.  In another place, Peter said:

“There is salvation in no other, neither is there any other name under heaven that is given to people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

The gospel is a command to repent — to stop resisting God and to trust Christ.

  • Mark 1:14 — The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel.
  • Acts 2:38 — Repent and be baptised
  • Acts 16:30-31 — Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved
  • Acts 17:30 — Now God commands all people everywhere to repent (and believe gospel)

The gospel is old, in so far as it is not new to these people. They have heard it from the beginning. It is old in so far as it did not originate with them, but had long been declared to the world since Genesis 3:15.

  • Gen 3:15 – one will be born to put right what Adam made wrong
  • Gen 12 – one will be born who will bless every nation
  • Ps 32 – the blessing will be the forgiveness of sins
  • Isa 53 – the death of the one who is born to bless will bring forgiveness into effect. He will die for others.
  • Ps 16 – the one who died for our sins will rise again from the dead
  • Jer 31:33 – the forgiveness will be applied to sinners by a new birth

It is new, in so far as it can never go out of date, and must never be thought of as yesterday’s news. It must always be refreshed in our thinking and affections

  • 1 Cor. 15:1-4
  • 2 Peter 1:12-15
  • 1 John 1 and 2

Jesus Christ is the true light. This light shines in the Gospel message. “He is the true light” John 1:9 “The darkness is passing and the true light already shines”. 1 John 2:8.

This Gospel is true in him.

  • The Lord Jesus Christ made the gospel of forgiveness of sins true by bringing it into effect. By his good life and his death in our place he has himself made propitiation for our sins.
  • He has dealt decisively with our darkness — our rebellion, our lawlessness, our ignorance, our selfishness. By his death on the cross and by his resurrection, he has defeated sin, death and Satan.
  • He who is truth guarantees the truth of the good news of forgiveness and our reconciliation with God.

The Gospel is true in us

  • if we are born again by the holy spirit, that is
  • If we have turned from the darkness of our sinful rebellion and have come to the light (john 3:19-21), that is,
  • if we trust Jesus Christ as he is offered in the gospel, and
  • if we remain in him — persevere in the faith. If we keep on trusting in spite of circumstances.

This, in brief, is what we are to believe. We are to trust ourselves to this gospel and rely on Jesus Christ. This is walking in the light, as Jesus himself said (John 12:35-36).

1 John 2:3-6

Having identified all people as sinners, and having shown us that Jesus alone is the hope of sinners, John now presses home a self-test to help us see whether we are really trusting Jesus.

“By this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. The one who says that he knows him but does not keep his commandments is a liar and the truth is not in him. But if one keeps his word, truly the love of God is completed in him.”

To know Jesus is to be a Christian. What should the Christian’s response be to Christ? They keep the Law of God.

This passage is not intended to send Christians into a dead panic. It is meant to give Christians — those who really do trust Jesus and him alone for salvation — good reason for assurance.

John has given us a way to test our attitude to God and his law. Are we still at war with God, or do we now trust him. Do we see the law of God as good, holy, just and spiritual, or do we still hate it? This test of attitude assures Christians that they really do know God.

The word translated in our bible as ‘keep’ has a variety of uses in God’s word.

It can mean to watch closely in a positive or negative sense. In John’s gospel (15:20), Jesus warned his disciples that, just as the religious leaders had watched closely, or kept (a record of), Jesus’ words in order to accuse him, these religious leaders would do the same to them.

The word ‘keep’ has been used in reference to guarding, such was the shepherds who kept their watch on the night Jesus was born, or the guards who were appointed to keep watch over Peter when Herod arrested him.

Again Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’

Now, the word ‘keep’ in itself does not imply perfect success in keeping anything. For example, the guards’ best efforts at keeping Peter in prison failed. But it does imply a purposeful attempt to keep the charge given.

More than this, it speak to the natural consequence of being a Christian.

  • shepherds keep sheep
  • prison guards keep prisoners
  • religious leaders keep words
  • Christians keep God’s law

By virtue of who they were, they all intended to keep their trust.

Both John and Jesus link this “keeping” to a right attitude toward God and his law.

John clearly indicates that Christians will fail in their purposeful efforts to keep the commandments of God. But, John and Jesus see the desire and the endeavour to keep God’s law as an indication that a person is a Christian.

Such a person will not have a relaxed attitude toward their sin. When people are brought to faith in Jesus Christ, they will aim to do what God requires. They will do this, not to be saved but because they already have been saved (Exodus 20:1).

They now love God and his son, Jesus Christ. The love of God was completed in them when they trusted Jesus (Jer. 31:33). These people will aim to keep God’s commandments because they know him and his law is written in their hearts.  David said to God, “Oh how I love your law.”

If a person has a bad attitude toward God’s law, if that person thinks it an unnecessary imposition upon personal freedom, if a person is untroubled by failure to keep God’s law, there is a real danger that this person does not really trust Jesus Christ for salvation.

If a person with such a bad attitude were to say that “I know Jesus”, John says such a person is a liar.

The good news of Jesus is to bring people back to God. Jesus did this by his own good life, his death as our substitute, and his rising again from the dead.

When the Holy Spirit effectively applies this work of Christ to anyone, that person is justified before God. That person is also given new attitudes toward God and his law. Christians want to obey the one whom they love and trust. They will follow in his footsteps.

They are grieved when they fail, but they do not despair or give up. Why?

Because they “have an advocate with the Father, even Jesus Christ the righteous, who is himself the propitiation of our sin, and not only of ours but of the whole world.”