Unpopular Christianity

Secular ChristianityJesus was not a popular man. In the 1st century, throughout history, and today people have struggled not just in coming to him but also in going with him. I have written elsewhere on the cost of discipleship, so in this post I want to remind us of just one of Jesus’ stinging statements about following him, and then pick up a few challenging points from John Calvin. If you avoid the slew of secularised ‘Christian’ teaching that promises you your best life now, through pearly white smiles atop expensively tailored suits, you meet an unpopular Jewish rabbi, despised and rejected. Though there are many reasons Jesus was insulted, spat on, and ultimately executed according to the wishes of his own people, we might say that his enemies were threatened by what they did not understand about him, while his followers were offended by what they did. As Samuel Rutherford wrote in one of his letters, “‘Lord’ is a cumbersome word; and to obey him, and to work out our own salvation, and to perfect holiness, is the cumbersome and stormy northside of Christ; and that we eschew and shift.”

Duccion di Buoninsegna - Christ taking leaveOne of Jesus’ most disturbing statements comes in Luke 14, ‘If anyone comes to me does not hate his own life he cannot be my disciple.’ Our immediate reaction is to shrug off the remark and conclude that Jesus was having a frustrating day. But Jesus’ point is that our love of and allegiance to him should dwarf our affections for this life. It is when we grasp this meaning that Jesus’ words really sting, for we love this life and its splendid pleasures. Our sight is constantly drawn from the glory of God to his gifts. But Jesus thought following him was worth more than our entire life and the sum of its contents. It is because we are so enamoured with this life that Jesus’ forceful words insult us. We must be careful not to love our lives so much that we begin to hate Jesus and his call to discipleship.

Golden booklet of the true Christian life - Calvin

The danger in over applying Jesus’ words is that we recoil from God’s good gifts in a mood not dissimilar from ingratitude. Thus the Christian life is poised on a knife-edge. As Calvin says in the fourth chapter of his Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, our love for this world must be broken, and our hope for the new cultivated. The struggle is to learn proper appreciation of all we enjoy now, without those things displacing our affections for Jesus. Everything we enjoy comes from God and is a divine blessing to be gratefully received. But Calvin thought we needed to be constantly reminded that this world is merely a signpost to God’s glorious restoration of all things. We must be weary of vainly clinging to our lives and what is passing, and grateful for the brief and generous hints of what is to come.

I will conclude by returning to something I said above: Jesus’ enemies were threatened by what they did not understand about him, but his disciples were offended by what they did. Those who do no know Jesus cannot comprehend this tension, loving our Lord so affectionately that we appear to hate this world. It is only when we comprehend what Jesus has done for us that our gratitude and love for him will dwarf this life. So Calvin writes, in the Institutes (3.7.1), “We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.”

The Lost Art Of ‘Quiet Times’

Traffic captured on a time lapseLife gets busier. That is the experience few of us evade. But what do we give up when the inescapable fact of busyness presses? Though they are the hardest things to relinquish, I have learnt we are to make our selfish and indulgent activities past times. As Christians we are called to live in community, which is life long service and active love towards others, after God. Jesus’ call to discipleship involves dying to self and therefore to those things directed solely towards self-gratification. That is an arduous call. As our lives become more crowded with responsibilities, we must abandon selfish pursuits. These pursuits are the places we retreat to, zealously protect, and need to survive.

What has always surprised me, observing my own approach in dealing with busyness, is my readiness to abandon prayer and reading the Scriptures, what we might call ‘quiet times’. I can even justify it: ‘I am busy serving the church, loving my neighbour, and glorifying God in my life.’ Action is—after all—greater than contemplation, isn’t it? In fact, I could argue that contemplation is quite selfish; our devotion should seek to actively bless others. Maybe it is these lines of thought which have brought so many Christians to a place that leaves no room for meditation amidst the hum drum of life.

Man on a bench reading his Bible

However, Christians through the centuries have emphasised the vitally important and vitality imbibing discipline of meditating on God’s Word. They saw it as the one activity we should zealously guard, retaining it at any cost. Indeed, Christians have always insisted on practising daily Scripture reading, meditation and prayer. The obvious danger with any spiritual discipline is legalism, but that risk does not justify the failure to spend time in the Scriptures, serious contemplation, and sincere prayer; nor does busyness. Below are a few challenging quotes I have come across in my reading recently.

In one of Samuel Rutherford’s letters he offers some directions for Christian living, a “Christian directory” (this can be found in Letters Of Samuel Rutherford, p70). And in the place of prominence, first on the list, he writes: “That hours of your day, less or more time, for the Word and prayer, be given to God”. For Rutherford, this discipline was not even in question. Only in the second direction does he mention the tangle of “worldly employments”; and that amidst them we should give some thought to sin, judgment, death and eternity, along with a word or two of prayer to God, on top of daily reading. It seems unrealistic or overly pious. But as I read through his letters I was struck by the richness of his relationship with God and how that deep communion overflowed into godly concern and invaluable counsel for the church.

Banner of Truth's Collected Works of John OwenIn his irreplaceable work on mortification, John Owen warns Christians against growing “sermon-proof” (p52, volume 6 of Owen’s collected works, Banner Of Truth). The cause of this, the ability to have our souls and sin addressed through the preaching of God’s Word while remaining unconcerned and hardened, is rooted in the ease with which we “pass over duties, praying, hearing, reading”. Complacency starts at home and extends to the pulpit where are hard hearts are visibly unaffected and sin becomes lighter. Owen continues: “Slight thoughts of grace, of mercy, of the blood of Christ, of the law, heaven, and hell, come all in at the same season.” Our faith involves being good listeners to God’s Word, not merely faithful church-goers. The heart that is not nourished and continually challenged by meditating on the Scriptures in private, is already becoming hardened to it in public.

I will close with some striking words from the 1547 Book Of Homilies. The collection was deftly edited by Thomas Cranmer. While it is widely accepted he contributed just three homilies – on salvation, faith and good works – Ronald Bond thinks the style and theology of the sermon on Scripture is clearly the work of Cranmer’s pen. So Cranmer writes: ‘What excuse shall we therefore make, at the last day before Christ, that delight to read or hear men’s fantasies and inventions, more than his most Holy Gospel? And will find no time to do that which chiefly above all things we should do; and will rather read other things? Let us, therefore, apply ourselves, as far forth as we can have time and leisure, to know God’s Word by diligent hearing and reading thereof, as many profess God and have faith and trust in him.’

Samuel Rutherford on Divine Providence

Rutherford Tomb Stone“When the Lord’s blessed will bloweth across your desires, it is best, in humility, to strike sail to him, and to be willing to be led any way our Lord pleaseth” (p78).

If you were hoping for a precise systematic exposition of the often confusing, sometimes unnerving and always difficult doctrine of God’s providence then you are in the wrong place. For my devotional reading I have been working through Samuel Rutherford’s Letters (Banner of Truth, 1973) and as I have made my way through them it has become apparent that Rutherford was more than qualified to speak about God’s providence and wrestling with it. At the age of 27, recently armed with an MA in divinity, Rutherford settled in Anwoth, a small rural town in the south of Scotland, and for the next 9 years he served as a devoted pastor in that dispersed community. Rutherford was, before anything else, a wonderfully gifted and genuinely committed pastor who loved God’s people, or kirk. The energy he poured into the people of Anwoth did not go unnoticed; there stands to this day a massive obelisk which was erected in his honour in the 19th century. However Rutherford’s road was not a smooth one as he was forcibly relocated to Aberdeen in 1636 as a result of his Calvinistic theology and non-conformity with the Arminian theology, which was becoming increasingly prevalent. Despite Charles I claiming Protestant allegiance, his interest was lacking at local level; religious turmoil, which frequently stung the Puritans, reigned alongside the monarch. The long and short of it is that Rutherford was torn from his sheep in Anwoth. The agony of being away from those with whom he had shared rich Christian fellowship is evident in the letters he wrote from Aberdeen, almost all of which were penned to provide pastoral guidance and Christian counsel. But another thing that is hard to ignore is Rutherford’s grappling with God’s providence. Why had he been sent to Aberdeen? Why did God allow the Arminians to drive him from his local parish in Anwoth, abandoning his congregation to the proverbial wolves?

Rutherford’s grief at having his ministry in Anwoth derailed came as a probing challenge to his faith in Christ. His struggles drove him back to Christ and were most probably the cause for one of his favourite expressions, ‘the sweet cross of Christ’. Suffering did not cause him to question God’s love but rather to query God’s plan. And so in a letter, addressed to Marion M’Naught (p16), who was Rutherford’s most contacted correspondent, he challenged her, “employ all of your endeavours for establishing an honest ministry in your town, now when you have so few to speak a good word for you.” Marion had written to Rutherford out of desperation at her situation, being one of very few Christians in the town she called home. Rutherford’s response was simply that she was to make use of her trying circumstances and difficulties in witnessing to Christ, glorifying him in her life and trusting him that she was there because God intended her to be. This view undergirds much of Rutherford’s correspondence. So providence for Rutherford was not the cold, calculated doctrine that says God is in control and moving us around like chess pieces but the warm, faith-enriching truth that God is at work guiding us back to him and forcing us to look around at where we find ourselves and ask how we might glorify God in the situation he has placed us.

Samuel RutherfordThe above understanding that Rutherford presents is nowhere as clearly evinced, in my own reading so far, as in his letter to John Stuart (p76). John Stuart had run into serious difficulties with business and was delayed from getting to New England. Rutherford assured him that the events were not some strange “dumb Providence” (p77). Stuart’s business had suffered significantly and he was despondent but Rutherford pointed him to God’s loving kindness and its immense depth. Rutherford goes on, “I hope that you have been asking what the Lord meaneth, and what further may be his will, in reference to your return”. Rutherford encouraged Stuart that despite the dark side of providence God had a better side which he will show to those who are courageous. When Rutherford utilises Romans 8:28, too often quoted without much sensitivity to those in turmoil, we can agree that God does work for the good of those who love him. “Hence, I infer that losses, disappointments, ill-tongues, loss of friends, houses or country, are God’s workmen” set to work for the believer’s good (p78). Despite the hardships that befall us, Rutherford reminds us that in what seems like unfatherly hardship God is not being unpleasant towards us. God brings us to the place where we must deny ourselves, to be as if we had no will at all, and sell ourselves over to God’s sovereign work in the world, his providence, in free disposition of our wants and longings. Rutherford concluded this point in his letter to John Stuart exhorting the reader to makes use of God’s will, which Rutherford believed was “true holiness, and your ease and peace”.

Why does any of this matter; where does it intersect with us and our own lives? The point to emphasise is this: we are not called to trust glibly in God’s providence, affirming his control over all matters blindly; from Rutherford’s experienced pen we learn that God’s providence invites us to put aside our desires and hopes, and allow ourselves to be swept along with God, dedicating ourselves in faith to his desires for this world.